A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Juanes (ne Juan Esteban Aristizabal Vasquez) as Colombia's Bono? "He's a peacemaker," says Grammy-winning producer Steve Lillywhite, who just recorded an album due out later this year with the Medellin native. "Steve didn't know a word of Spanish. … He asked me why I sang 'corazon' in every song," adds Juanes.
The 41-year-old rocker earned a best Latin album Grammy last year and performed a bilingual version of Elton John's "Your Song" on the telecast that delighted his 15 million followers on Facebook and Twitter.
"I am very thankful for this country and the opportunity music has given me," says Juanes, who lives half the year with his wife and three kids in Miami. "I love performing in front of people, no matter where they come from or what language they speak." Although he says succeeding in the U.S. isn't his ultimate goal, an English-language album is on the horizon.
Speaking with THR for the 2014 music issue, Juanes elaborates on defining success, tackling a music career and fatherhood in two languages, and being compared to an iconic frontman.
Steve Lillywhite produced your new album. He's known for his work with U2, The Killers and 30 Seconds to Mars, among others. What was your collaboration like?
It was such a great experience for me as a musician. We started work almost a year ago, when he went to my hometown of Medellin to see two of my concerts. I guess he knew my name but he didn’t know really my music, so it was very kind of him to come to Colombia because he understood 100 percent of who I am as a musician. And then we became very, very good friends. I had the best time recording with him. It was fun because Steve didn't know a word of Spanish; he asked me why I sang "corazon" in every song. Now, he can sing the whole album phonetically. And even if he doesn’t know the language, he got the feeling, the mood of each song.
What did he bring to the table in terms of your own growth and maturation as an artist?
The coolest thing about this experience was that Steve saw me during the MTV Unplugged tour, when I was playing the acoustic guitar. So when I was about to fly to Los Angeles to do the album, he told me not to bring my electric guitar, just my acoustic. We did the album just with acoustic guitars, drums, bass and keyboards, which is fresh and different for me. The acoustic guitar gives more space for the vocal and recording the songs live was great. We played all together, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life as a musician, just to record like that.
He’s compared your activism in social issues with U2's Bono.
When we were in the studio, he would give examples of situations that he had with U2 or with some other bands he worked with. I grew up in Colombia and I do have a social sensibility, and I do care for things that happen, so maybe he can compare us in that way, but definitely we are different people.
How important is it for you to succeed in America with your music?
I guess success means happiness to me. You know I remember the first time I came to the United States in 1996, I didn’t speak a word of English at the beginning. I am very thankful for this country and the opportunity music has given me. ... My three kids were born here in Miami; they speak Spanish at home, but English with all their friends. I’m trying to mix some Español and Ingles to see what happens, but it’s hard because people who don’t speak Spanish, don’t get the Spanish part and it’s the opposite way with English.
With all the traveling that you do, how do you safeguard your instruments?
I always travel with my guitar. I take it myself -- with me in my hand. I don’t like to send it by cargo because it’s dangerous. There is no way I would do that.
With the Internet's influence, do you see the global pop world becoming one big melting pot?
Social media and music in general have been changing so fast. You can go on Twitter and go from one artist to another. What I really like about it is the opportunity to communicate directly with your fans. Now it’s immediate; you can see what they think about your music or the concert you just did and you can send a message directly back to them. It’s incredible.
Does it frustrate you to be so popular within your world, while the mainstream music business is just discovering you?
No, not at all. For example, now, after we’ve worked together, Steve knows exactly who I am as a musician. I’m just feeling thankful for life and just continuing to keep working and working. I love music and want to do this to the last day of my life. There are always new opportunities and new ways to reach people. Music is magical, and I want to enjoy this moment in my life because you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. For now, I’m happy doing what I really love to do.
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- Steve Lillywhite