Raul Midón plays well with others on new album of guitar duets
Singer and guitarist Raul Midón seemed to burst upon the jazz and music scene with his debut album State of Mind on Blue Note Records in 2005. However, he had been working as a studio musician and background vocalist on numerous Latin music recordings, as well as touring in pop star Shakira’s band. His singular combination of vocals and guitar quickly established him as headliner at clubs, theaters and festivals all over the world. He went on to release 10 more albums with Blue Note and other labels. His 12th album, Eclectic Adventurist, was recently released on his own ReKondite label, and features Midón performing duets with a dozen other guitarists: Dean Parks, Mike Stern, Alex Cuba, Lionel Loueke, Julia Bailin, Stephane Wrembel, Lindsey Blair, Marvin Sewell, Romero Lubambo and Jonathan Kreisberg. Recorded during the pandemic, the project is his first all-instrumental recording.
Midón talked with WBGO’s Sheila Anderson about the genesis of the recording and about his creative process as a songwriter.
Listen to their conversation, above.
Sheila Anderson: I've been a fan of yours for many years, so I'm so happy to talk to you today about your recording Eclectic Adventurist. It's your 12th release and you recorded during the pandemic. Tell us why you decided to make this record now and what is so magnificent about it from your point of view.
Raul Midón: I've always been very serious about playing the guitar and, even though I'm known as a songwriter and singer, for many years I wanted to make an album of just guitar. I never found the time to do it, so obviously when the pandemic came along it was like, okay, now's the time to do it. I just started calling people and everybody now has a remote setup where they can record at home. We basically just sent files back and forth. I composed all the tunes, except for “Nautical,” specifically for the players. I would get on the treadmill or whatever and listen to each guitarist, even though I was familiar with most of them, for many hours, just to get in my ear what they sounded like and what their thing was. My instructions were always, “This tune is sort of a template, but I want you to do your thing. I want you to play the way you play.” That's kind of the way it worked.
Some of them are very specific in the way that they play. Like Stephane Wrembel, for example, who does a gypsy jazz thing. I wanted to write something that would go along with that. The only one that sort of wasn't that way was a song on there called “Waiting Game”, which I sent to Dean Parks and it's kind of a complicated piece of music. It's in nine. I know Dean is a legend in the studios. Unless you're in the industry, you might not know who he is. But he played on thousands of records, including Thriller and Steely Dan records. He’s been in the LA session scene since the ‘70s. In that case I sent it to him knowing that he might be able to approach something as complicated as that. And he totally hit it out of the park.
Tell us who the other artists are. And with the one tune that you didn't write, can you talk about the musician who wrote it and how you two came to work together.
The album also has Romero Lubambo, Jonathan Kreisberg, Marvin Sewell, Mike Stern, Lionel Loueke, Alex Cuba and Lindsay Blair, a guitar player that I knew from school. And, as I mentioned, the great guitar player, Dean Parks. Julia Bailin is in a pretty successful family singing group called Bailin. I've known the two brothers, Daniel and David, for quite a while. We've written some songs together. Then I heard Julia, their sister, and I couldn't believe how good a guitar player she was. My wife actually suggested, “Why don't you use Julia Bailin?” What was cool about that is Julia is not in any way a jazz musician. They are a singing group, who do folk pop or whatever you call it. The beautiful thing about it was that she tuned down a whole step. So it gives it a very unique sound. I talked to Julia and she said, “Well, I have a tune that I play to warm up with.” She sent it to me and I thought, “Wow, this is a beautiful song.” We came up with some parts and put it on the record. That's the one that I didn't write, “Nautical.”
Every single tune is just lovely and has its own feel. You close with a solo piece “Touching Water,” that you over dubbed. How did you do it? Because it sounds like a whole orchestra is there as well, like this.
I over dubbed guitar and actually I played bass on it too. That one was done way before the pandemic. Most of the tunes were written specifically for the musicians during the pandemic. But this one I had done before. I record all the time in the studio, so sometimes I just come up with something, I record it, and I don't know what it's going to be for, or if it's going to be for anything. It's not necessarily that I only record when I want to make an album. Sometimes I just record for the fun of it. This tune was kind of floating around and I thought this would really fit with the records I put it on there.
Talk about your recording studio. You're basically the engineer and everything, right?
Yes, I got familiar a few years ago with a program called Sonar Cakewalk. And some scripts written to help blind users to navigate recording equipment. I was in the studios for many years in South Florida as a session singer. I was always interested in what kind of mics they were using and how they were micing things. “What is your compression ratio?” All that stuff. I've got a setup here using that program, as well as a new program now called Samplitude and it basically allows me to do the things that you do as an engineer—check levels, all kinds of plugins, compressors, reverbs and effects, and to edit audio so I can comp things together. As long as I get a file, I can then put it into the studio. All the tracking and the putting together of the stuff I did myself. I then go to Michael O'Reilly, who I've been working with for years and who’s done thousands of records, including a lot of Dianne Reeves’ records and other people’s. I get him to help me mix it. But other than that, I do everything myself.
You did this during the pandemic, so did everyone send in their parts and then you mixed it together?
Yes, we talked on the phone sometimes and we went back and forth about what we wanted. But basically I would write a tune and I would say, “Okay, here's the tune…I'm going to play the melody.” I sent them just a file so they could replace what I played with what they were going to do. We would just send files back and forth. It’s really incredible. Technology is amazing that way, but it's also a testament to the great musicianship of these people that I called. They're very sensitive to making something sound musical and then a little bit of jiggery poker from a technology standpoint. You know, if it's good in, it's good out and vice versa.
Watch the video about the making of the album here:
Let's go back to the beginning. When did you realize that you could write songs?
I went to the University of Miami and I was more of a musician. I was sort of into BBO? and other things. I wasn't really into songwriting, but then after college I started to think, “Well, what do I want to do with this education? I don't want to play club dates. I don't want to sort of kick around.” A friend of mine was my songwriting partner. At the beginning, we just started to write songs. We put a band together. I had a real ear opening experience going to the music library and listening to Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Paul Simon. Those are the people that really inspired me. I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s earlier stuff and then I heard Mingus and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, these records with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] on them. I thought that's just amazing.
I'm always curious what comes first—the lyrics or the music. How does it come together?
I’m always fascinated by the writing process of songwriting, but it tends to be music for me. A good melody inspires lyrics for me. Maybe an interesting chord sequence or something like that. I do journaling, so sometimes I'll write something and I'm like, “Oh, that's a good idea for a song.” Or I'll hear somebody say something and say, “Wow, that's a great idea.” That can happen as well where you have some idea or some little snippet of something and you say, “Wow, I can turn that into a song.” But it tends to be music first.
Talk about when you came to New York. Was it a challenge?
Absolutely. A lot of people say you have to come to New York. There were things about New York that I never got used to. I think it could be a little different now. I think the value of a place like New York becomes less with all of the internet technology and the ability to communicate. I came to New York specifically because I wanted to make a career as an artist as opposed to being a hired musician, which is kind of what I was doing when I lived in Florida. My intention was to come to New York and see where I stood in the scheme of things. It's not an easy thing to do. I was aided by some luck. I met Arif Mardin, the producer who produced my first album State of Mind, who was an incredible producer and who had worked with all kinds of people from pop to jazz to everything else. But as far as New York, you come there and you realize not only that there’s so many musicians, but you also realize what your identity is, which is the most important thing if you're going to go to a place like New York, because you're not going to be the best guitar player in New York, or the best singer, or the best songwriter. There will be somebody that does things better than you, but there's nobody that can be you. So if you figure what that is, then you've got something.
I wanted to ask you about your recording with all of these other guitarists. How did you have to adjust your playing to theirs?
The thing about this recording was that it's just guitar. When you're singing and playing, you're essentially accompanying yourself, which is a slightly different skill. When I decided that I wanted to do this album, I definitely said, “Okay, I'm going to put a few more hours into shedding and making sure that I can hang with these other guitarists. Because I'm playing with these amazing, crazy skilled guitarists like Mike Stern and Romero Lubambo. I wanted to make sure that I could hang, but it was really just about saying, “Okay, I'm going to feature the guitar.”
You started on drums, is that correct?
I started playing drums and percussion as a kid. We had a kind of a ‘70s hippie household, I guess. We had bongos and stuff around. So I started banging on those things. But we had a little guitar in the house as well. The first thing was just playing rhythm on whatever I could find. I'm very into rhythm and time and all of that. I was very influenced by Argentine folk music and African music. Ralph MacDonald’s album The Path was a big one that I used to listen to all the time when I was a kid.
I read that Stevie Wonder was on your first recording on one tune. Did he give you any writing tips?
No. That happened because Arif Mardin, the great producer who had worked with Stevie Wonder on many occasions, including “I Feel for You,” the Chaka Khan tune that was a hit. Stevie plays harmonica on that. He basically called him [Stevie] and said, “Hey, I want you to listen to this guy.” And Stevie said, “Oh, I love it. Let's do it.” That’s how it happened. The initiator of that was Arif Mardin, because Stevie didn’t know me.
What about Bill Withers?
He came to see me when I was playing at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood. His daughter brought him to see me. I think maybe she had seen me on David Letterman or something like that. We sort of hit it off. We started to talk on the phone and stuff. He called me one night really late. I was in Europe, and he called and said, “I want to write a song with you.” There's a documentary called Still Bill, which actually shows us writing together.
How did you connect with Spike Lee for She Hate Me?
There was a producer by the name of Danny Kapilian who put me together with Spike. I was playing at Joe's Pub and he said, “I want to get you on this show about the movie music of Spike Lee,” which they were doing back in the early 2000s. There was an orchestra and then they'd show different clips. It was kind of a multimedia show. Danny got me on the show and I was the nobody in the show at the time. It was Cassandra Wilson and Bruce Hornsby and other people.
Spike Lee heard me and said, “Man, I want to work with you.” We worked on She Hate Me. It was a pretty interesting thing because he would call me on the phone at any time of the day or night and say, “I got an idea, Raul.” I remember he called me one time, he said, “Money is love and love is money.” Click, he hung up. That's the kind of call I would get from Spike Lee.
We're talking about your latest CD, Eclectic Adventurist. Can you tell us how the title came to be?
First of all, it's because everything is different. I've always been the kind of musician that doesn't really fit into a box, thus eclectic. Somebody said that about me in The New York Times a long time ago. We just loved the term eclectic adventurist. So we decided to use that for the album.
What do you want people to take away from the recording?
I think it's an album you can put on and just have it on. It doesn't have lyrics, so there's something cool about that. It's also timeless. It doesn't have a date on it. It doesn't sound like something that was recorded in the ‘80s. I just hope people put it on and enjoy it and have it as one of the things that they put on when they want to relax. And when they want to have something on that's still stimulates the brain, but doesn’t require necessarily a ton of attention all the time. I love instrumental music. I always have, even though I'm a singer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.