Three questions for: Raul Malo

In defense of adult contemporary.

Published July 20, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

Whether notching country hits with the Mavericks, singing in Spanish with Los Super Seven or tackling Hank Williams tunes, Raul Malo has proved capable of adapting his glorious, Orbison-esque voice to a variety of styles. "You're Only Lonely," Malo's latest adult contemporary album, finds the Nashville, Tenn., resident performing songs by songwriters such as Randy Newman, the Bee Gees and Willie Nelson to musical accompaniment reminiscent of Frank Sinatra's classic late-night albums (think "In the Wee Small Hours") as well as the lush, string-laden Countrypolitan sound of classic George Jones. On the phone from an audio shop in Nashville, Malo spoke about the problems of genre specificity, the unpredictability of the music biz and the give-and-take between commerce and art.

Why do you think that adult contemporary music isn't thought of as being as "serious" as rock, pop or country?

Because people are idiots? I don't know. There's plenty of great music to be heard in all genres. There's plenty of schmaltzy stuff in country. There's plenty of schmaltzy stuff in pop. I've been fighting this my whole life. I don't listen to music because of its genre. I just don't hold it to that. If people don't want to listen to something because it says adult contemporary, that's their loss. I just think that's a close-minded way to look at things. I listen to each piece of work on its own merit -- not by its genre. It's a difficult thing to resolve.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that difficulty. Your popular success was at its greatest when you were with the Mavericks. That's also when your music was most easily identifiable as belonging to a particular genre.

Even back then, there were people who thought the Mavericks weren't country. And even then we had a lot of rock 'n' roll fans. To me, you just keep doing what you do and, hopefully, if you're smart enough, you'll survive and figure out a way to make a living. It's a weird ride. "Dance the Night Away" (from the band's 1998 album "Trampoline"), which was a huge hit in England, had nothing to do with country radio -- that was a full-on pop hit. "Trampoline" was pretty much dead in the water here, and then all of a sudden "Dance the Night Away" was getting airplay on the BBC. Before you knew it, it was a smash pop hit and we were touring all over the world. You could make the argument that that really wasn't a country music song, yet there were people line-dancing to it.

I just throw my hands up in the air. I can't figure any of it out. You just keep doing what you do and try to do the best you can. I think that was part of the reason [the Mavericks] parted ways with Universal. I think they would have loved to have us keep writing [1994's top-10 country classic] "What a Crying Shame" all over again. I can't blame them for that. Certainly you want to milk the cash cow as much as you can. But when it comes to being an artist and growing as a musician and trying different things, that's when it starts to go awry and you've gotta find a way to survive it and move on.

As someone who released an album where half the songs were sung in Spanish, is the give-and-take between being eclectic and your place in the market something that you think about?

Yeah. You know, the record label that we made "Today" [Malo's heavily Latin-influenced 2001 album] for, they said, "Yeah, put some Spanish songs on it." I went, "Oh yeah? OK, I have some Spanish songs; we'll put them on there." I think what ended up happening was the label started to go out of business -- that's the luck of the draw that I have -- so we had a record that was a bit confused.

I learned a lot, but looking back on it, I probably would have done more English stuff because, unfortunately, it's one of those things where it wasn't a Latin record; it was kind of stuck in between and it just confused the issue. It did become an issue later on when it became time to market the record. But that's stuff you don't think about as an artist. You just go on the pleasure of making the music and what feels good at the time. You don't really think about marketing the album. And I still don't, but I think the next time I do a Spanish record it'll be a full-on Spanish record.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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