By ANGIE ROMERO
It’s been a busy month for Juanes. On October 3rd he performed in Geneva as part of the Nansen Refugee Awards in Switzerland. Then on October 14, Juanes opened the Pan American Games in Mexico for an audience that included President Felipe Calderón. Less than 24 hours later, Juanes joined Lady Gaga and Bono for Bill Clinton’s birthday celebration in Los Angeles — which also marked the tenth anniversary of the William J. Clinton Foundation.
In the last year, there have been many key changes in the 39-year-old rock star’s career, the biggest being the end of his business relationship with longtime manager Fernan Martínez in May, after which he took a break to spend quality time at home in Miami with his wife, Karen, and children Luna, Paloma, and Dante. Despite false rumors that he was retiring — which Juanes took to Twitter to dispel — he is readying new music that will differ greatly from his last album, 2010’s Yerbatero. He has once again taken control of his career, assembling a trusted team that’s more of a collaborative effort than any one person in charge.
In one of the first major interviews he’s done since he embarked on this new path (and over his favorite snack, a ham and cheese sandwich) we caught up with Juanes in L.A., the city that was his home back when few knew his name.
What did it mean to you to be invited to perform at the Clinton concert?
It was really an unforgettable experience because it’s just another one of those instances where music and art converge with philanthropy. To be part of a concert that pushes for our conscience [as a society] to be awakened, it’s really special.
How was the energy at the concert?
To be honest, I was a bit nervous. I’m there playing with these [mainstream] artists [like Lady Gaga, Usher, Stevie Wonder, and Bono], people whose music everybody knows, and here I come singing in Spanish — I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen. But when we played that first guitar chord, it was magic. It’s the sort of thing that’s either there or it’s not, and it happened from the start. People got up and started dancing. I couldn’t believe it. It was beautiful.
What have you learned from Clinton in the area of philanthropy that you’ve applied to your own foundation, Mi Sangre?
Philanthropy isn’t just about raising money and giving it to a cause; it’s about changing the way we live our lives. And I think the first thing you need to do is understand that it’s about working as a team; it can’t be an ego thing. Two years ago, I heard him speak in New York at his Clinton Global Initiative, and he was brilliant. His ideas are so clear, the way he communicates, the way he forms his phrases — it’s a talent. Not everyone can do it. He reminds me of Obama in that sense — they both have something that makes them special.
How do you see Obama’s chances of getting reelected?
Well, I see a country that is totally polarized, sadly. It’s the same thing that always happens with politics or ideologies; they create imaginary barriers between us. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but I hope it’s the best thing for the United States so this country can get back on its feet. There are so many good people here, millions of immigrants among them, so something needs to happen.
What do you think about the Occupy Wall Street movement?
I’m really impressed by the whole thing. And I don’t think it’s going to stop. That’s the power of our society — the more information we get, the more our conscience is awakened and the more we question what’s happening before our eyes. There are many things that have been done in a certain way for so long, and there are so many more things that they haven’t told us, that we don’t know about. It’s not just governments and institutions, it’s also us, as citizens; we need to question things. We’ve lacked the ability to stand united and express ourselves in a way that is truly impactful, but it’s starting to happen, with the Arab Spring and now Occupy Wall Street. I feel it’s going to spread everywhere — Greece, Spain, now Chile.
What was your impression of Angelina Jolie, whom you met recently in Geneva during a United Nations event honoring her work over the last ten years as a goodwill ambassador?
I left with a very positive impression of her. Obviously she’s a huge star, but she’s demonstrated over time that she really cares about refugees. I’m not sure how she got to that point but she’s done very important things for that cause. She struck me as very sweet and genuine. I talked to her about the situation in Colombia, because there are so many people who have been displaced there, and she told me that she had actually been to Ecuador’s border with Colombia, so it would be great for her to come back one day and help bring some more visibility to the problem. People like her know what’s happening around the world. One time I had the chance to sit down and talk to Bono about Colombia and Venezuela and the FARC and I couldn’t believe how much this guy knew. I’ve heard of people who do this kind of work for the wrong reasons — and there probably are situations like that — but these guys do it from the heart. And there are so many people who aren’t famous who do so much great work. They devote themselves entirely to it.
In terms of your own foundation, are you satisfied with the work you’ve done so far?
I’m always talking to the director of the foundation to measure how far our work has come. The only thing we know is that we have had a positive impact on the people we’ve worked with [children and youths affected by the armed conflict in Colombia, for which the foundation provides counseling and education] and those people have families, and those families live in a community, and those communities are part of a larger society. When you think about the size of the problem in Colombia, you could simply shoot yourself. It’s a country with a lot of history of conflict, with many fronts, and you want to fix everything overnight and since you can’t, it can be frustrating, but I think things have changed so much already. As long as we can keep doing something good for one person, we’re going to keep doing it. Art in general has a really important role in that.
Let’s talk about the time you spent here in Los Angeles in the late nineties. What do you remember?
I came here the first time when I was with [my band] Ekhymosis in ’96 and then I left and came back on my own to try and launch my solo career. I lived here for almost three years and I met my producer, Gustavo [Santaolalla] here. My contract with Universal started in 1999, so we started recording Fijate Bien in 2000, and that’s how it all started. Things were rough for me at one point, I came here alone, without many friends, and if it weren’t for those couple of people who helped me out, let me crash on their couches, I wouldn’t be here. This city opened so many doors for me—still does.
What was the biggest lesson you learned here?
We have to talk about your look. Are you growing your hair back to where it once was, circa Mi Sangre?
One of the things I want to do is break the old chains, and hair holds a lot of energy. When I had long hair and I shaved it all off, I got physically sick. I got a fever and ended up in the hospital. It was here in L.A. I’m probably never going to let it grow as long as it once was, but I’m liking my hair the way it is and the beard.
How are you feeling about your career these days?
Ironically, I feel like I’m in the best part of my life. When you’re going through an unfamiliar place, it can be scary. But sometimes you have to make certain decisions and face certain things to purify your soul and find answers. I’m happy about the decisions that I made, especially the one to spend time at home with my children and put them first, without having someone to tell me what I have to do and when. There was a very strong voice in my heart that said, “Stop, just stop.” It wasn’t anything personal with anybody; it was something in me. I had to ask myself, “Who am I and where am I going?” because there are times when you don’t even know you who you are anymore and you veer far away from your core. There’s a phrase I like: madurar hacia la infancia. I feel we have to remember who we once were when we were children, when we were a clean slate. I try to remember that always.
What can you tell us about the new music?
It’s going to be pure energy, rock. At first I’m going to come out with a live album in the next year, which is something I’ve never done, so I’m excited about that. It will have one or two new songs and then down the road I’ll record the new studio album, probably toward the end of next year; not exactly sure. In the mean time, I want to go everywhere and play because that’s where my heart is. I want to go back to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela — everywhere. I’m ready.