Raul Malo – Drama’s in My Psyche, It’s in My Voice
It’s always been a pretty rare and potent talent for a popular singer — being able to see where the heart of a lyric lies, what the force and structure of a song leads to most naturally, where it might carry us. Rarer still is being able to unfold those rises and falls and finishes, delivering that “right” singing level, from almost spoken to outright operatic boom, and take us along where the song needs to go.
Raul Malo has been doing these things as well as anybody for the past fifteen years, from the edge of country to the middle of a mambo, on his own and as leader of the Mavericks. The Miami-born band has been obscure, gone platinum, gone away and come back again, defying categories, always leaving fans guessing where their next left turn will take them. Their most recent release, a self-titled disc issued last fall, finds room for pointed social commentary, a duet with Willie Nelson, and a memorable turn on the old Hollies hit “The Air That I Breathe”.
A resident of Nashville today, Malo has written songs with everyone from Music City hero Kostas to “Nashville Rash” basher Dale Watson. In the past year, in addition to the Mavericks reunion disc, he produced a fascinating, forward-leap CD for mainstream country artist Rick Trevino, and participated in a collaborative project called The Nashville Acoustic Sessions, due in stores this month on CMH Records. Backed by ace pickers Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy, Malo takes on, quietly, everything from Hank to Dylan to “Moon River”.
Above all of this, finally, is that voice — an instrument of extraordinary power, with few comparisons to be found around the alt-country universe — and a matching talent for drawing audiences into some very varied musical dramas.
I. THE LESS THE SPLASH, THE BETTER THE DIVE
NO DEPRESSION: Your entire professional career, with all the varieties of music you’ve taken on, has taken place during what’s been, for a number of reasons, not the most optimum time in American pop singing history for a vocalist with such a sense of drama, and such a range of levels to sing in.
RAUL MALO: That’s the story of my life!
ND: For one thing, there’s a sort of cult of smallness among many the punk-grunge-indie rock generation out there; they’re very suspicious of dramatic gestures of any kind, hate Broadway pop and, say, the semi-operatic side of Springsteen, and call all such sounds “bombastic” semi-automatically. Did you have to deal with that when the Mavericks started out in 1980s rock clubs?
RM: Well, I think we provided an alternative to the “alternative.” It worked for us that we were different. Starting out in Miami, of all places, when we came on, you knew it. It was like “Holy shit! What is this?” We did several gigs with Marilyn Manson. All of their fans would be out there with the little lunchboxes and make-up and crap.
ND: Although I guess there’s a sort of theatricality there! In any case, you were doing something very different from “stare at your shoes” indie bands.
RM: God, yes — and it was great. Sure, early on that was a bit rough, but we got amazing local press, because people were flabbergasted; the band always had this sort of cachet with the critics, even then. When you’re playing weekends, and everywhere you go there’s a crowd, you’re the hottest band in town — well, it was working for us!
ND: And in 2004 we’re in this diva-matic, over-singing era, with every contestant on American Idol milking every moment, calling attention to their own singing without regard to the song at hand. Does the audience for that get what you do, with its levels, and stories, and subtleties? Are there pressures, maybe, to just give them overwrought and florid?
RM: You know, in Olympic high diving, the less the splash, the better the dive.
ND: A very Miami metaphor. If you hit it right, nobody gets wet!
RM: And you get the gold. Only everybody now is doing a cannonball! And I think it’s ridiculous; it’s anti-dramatic. When I hear that stuff, I want to take it off. They’ve obviously never heard an Ella Fitzgerald record, or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee; we hear bad Mariah Carey impersonations. Mariah can do all of that stuff blindfolded; the trick is to not do it at all — even though there are a lot of people out there who would prefer it.
ND: Back when the Mavericks entered what turned out to be the country music market in 1992, was there any reason to think that there was an appetite for your vocal size and range there?
RM: MCA’s Tony Brown came down and saw us — and he had already signed Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, all these artists that we felt a kinship to. And I think he did that because he knew we were good — and different. I still don’t know what he expected, or if we exceeded their expectations.
ND: Maybe for the guy who famously signed that lineup of varied acts, there wasn’t one set expectation of what a country act would sound like.
RM: That’s what appealed to us — that these artists could make records for this guy and still maintain, somewhat, an identity.
II: THAT MUSIC WAS ALWAYS A PART OF ME
ND: The powerful voice you’ve got remains the first thing listeners notice about you. When did you first notice it — and start to use it?
RM: Shoot — I was in a band when I was 12 years old. It was terrible — a garage band called Devastation! But it was great. You’re kids, and you play at the local parties. Obviously, back then I didn’t have that voice. I was really kind of a late bloomer; I didn’t realize that I could sing that way until my early 20s.
ND: So did your well-known love for the large, dramatic vocals from Elvis or Roy Orbison spike your interest in tackling that kind of singing, or did you find you had this sort of voice and start to look for some examples of how to let it loose?
RM: In a way, I was drawn to them because I thought I could do that — but also, of course, because I just liked it. When I was 18 or 19, we lived in this apartment building that had this little banquet hall concert room. The guard would let me in, and I’d take my amp down there, my tape recorder, and my guitar, and I would be in there till three in the morning, playing and learning songs — Roy Orbison songs, Elvis songs, Patsy Cline songs.