Juan Wauters' creative approach changed almost completely about four years ago. Until then he'd been a somewhat solitary artist, recording sweet-sounding, Beatles-indebted, mostly English language pop music, first as a member of the New York City based rock band, The Beets, and then under his own name.
But in 2017, seeking fresh inspiration, he packed his studio equipment and suitcases, left his home in Queens, New York, and went on a journey around Latin America. He recorded with local musicians as he snaked across Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, where he was born and had been brought up until his family left for Queens when Wauters was 17. The resulting albums, La Onda de Juan Pablo and Introducing Juan Pablo, were brilliant departures, kaleidoscopic records to introduce the curious singer-songwriter, finally ready to leap into the unknown.
His new album, Real Life Situations, is another exercise in collaboration. Mac DeMarco, Peter Homeshake, Nick Hakim, Cola Boyy, and El David Aguilar all contribute. And it's more diverse than anything he's released before. Recorded either side of lockdown, the album reflects what is his love for the radio, which he listens to almost constantly. Hip-hop, folk, R&B, and indie rock drift in and out of the mix.
But Wauters remains present, sometimes so much so that he'll directly address the listener in a spoken word interlude. Around the album's release, I called Wauters at his apartment in Montevideo, where he was working on another one of the jigsaw puzzles that have kept him going through quarantine, to talk about the importance of radio, the need for collaboration in lockdown and the unconventional process behind real life situations.
The Fader: So congratulations on the album.
Wauters: Thank you.
You mentioned in the middle of the record that you were taking a one-way flight to Uruguay. Are you back in New York now?
So are you in Montevideo now?
I am, yeah.
How's it been down there during lockdown?
COVID actually hit here hard for the first time in January. Up until January, it was quite low, the number of cases and deaths. But from January till now it's actually spiked a lot. It's went up drastically and people are dying. And the population here is quite low. There's only 3 million and a half people living in the country. So if like 60 people are dying in a day's a pretty big number. Actually, I haven't seen many people. It's strange. I wanted to be here to experience my hometown. I left quite young, and I've never had a chance to spend a decent amount of time here, but it's a weird way to experience it, knowing the situation, right?
Yeah. You have family in Montevideo.
Yeah. My, my father's brother, my uncle and my mom's sister, my aunt and cousins. And I have lifelong friends.
So you can't really see them.
Not so much, not so much. At the beginning, like I said, yes, I came here and it was like there was no COVID up until the New Year. I have some people that I see, but it's not the same. You know how it is, every time you see someone you're a little bit worried about getting the virus or passing it on, quite an experience living these days.
The whole album, inevitably, it can't help but being a response to the situation in the world. I know that you recorded and wrote a lot of it before the first lockdown. I'm curious about what happened in March of last year. You had a lot of the album written and then you took basically two months away from the music after the lockdown. Why did you do that?
I don't know how you felt right when COVID hit, but I didn't feel inspired at all. My mind was fixated in all the information we're getting about this virus. And I was in New York because as soon as it hit, I wanted to be home, close to my parents and close to what I know as for having a place to go to a hospital. I happened to be working in Mexico at the time. And I was thinking if I have to go to a hospital in Mexico, I have no idea how it is. I don't have people to take care of me here if there's an emergency.
So I went back home to New York and New York, it was hit right at the beginning and there were a lot of deaths. I couldn't help but to be worried about the global situation, and I put aside everything that had to do with my personal activity. I don't know, I thought it'd be important to do something for the world. I did some volunteer work in my community, but I was not interested in working in music at the time.
So after two months of volunteering and stepping away, what was it that made you realize that you could go back to the music?
I didn't think of it at the time but now that you ask, slowly the weather started getting better. Spring started coming along. I have a basement in my house where I live. I set up a studio setting in the basement. I had it in a different part of the house, but for some reason I wanted to be half outside, half inside, because I have a backyard and a basement.
So I thought if I put the studio in the basement, I could be hanging out outside and pop in and out of the studio quickly, kind of like a garage. I started mostly just, I was building puzzles at the time and I was listening to a lot of music, really loud. And I was making loops, sort of like beats. I have some people in New York that I make beats for. So sometimes I make beats with a keyboard I have, and I would just keep them going on a loop. And that was how slowly, I got back into enjoying music-making and enjoying and listening to music.
There were a lot of collaborations that you've done with other musicians around the world before it. Did you feel when you went back to it, did you feel comfortable with the fact that you had enough of that already? Or did you feel frustrated that maybe you wanted to have more collaborators and go to more places and see more people to get them on the album?
Well, initially the idea was to collaborate on every track. I had such a great experience collaborating with people on my previous album. I had a lot of instrumentalists come along and play on my songs. Up until then I would record all the albums by myself. So I had such a great experience having other people playing in my albums that I said okay, this time around, let's collaborate in the songwriting.
So that was the original idea, but once we hit COVID, I had to put it aside, like I said. So then I started listening to the songs back and slowly, they started making sense together as a whole. But not at any moment, I felt frustrated because like I said, I was more frustrated with the moment who we're living in. Not frustrated, but more concerned about life than my album.
So then once I started listening to the songs together and among other music I was making at the time, started making sense together, and I was able to compile a new album different from what I originally thought. But it makes sense, because the world, we had a drastic change then, so that drastic change also affected all of our lives, and in that way affected the outcome of this album.
It's interesting to listen to now because there are those moments when you're collaborating with friends and bringing people into the experience like with Mac [DeMarco] and with Nick Hakim, and then there are moments like "Locura," which it's a very lonely song.
Does it feel strange hearing that now? There are these almost these two worlds on the record, where there's songs like "Locura," which seemed lonely and then other songs which feel very collaborative and almost celebrating the time before COVID.
Yeah. Good point. I hadn't thought of it that way actually. Yeah, it's true that those two worlds coexist in the album. I hadn't thought of it that way. And now that I heard you said all those things, it's strange to think the couple of months before, it was going to be such a communal album and then half of it, or maybe it's a little bit less than half of it, ended up being the opposite of communal, more like loneliness, someone in a room trying to figure it out what to do alone.
You mentioned that on La Onda de Juan Pablo, there was a very collaborative album and it takes in different geographical locations. So it's all based in different cities in South America and different places in South America and as you experience them and let them in. This album as well does, you said Toronto, Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, and London. Do you feel that each of the songs here in the same way as your last record, that there's a real sense of a geographical place, that these songs sound different and somehow represent the cities they were made in?
Not so much as the other album I would say, because the La Onda de Juan Pablo, I wanted to try to focus on was to bring out the folklore, traditional folklore of each place. Whereas in this album, though I worked with local artists, let's say, well, Peter Homeshake, he's Canadian. I went to Canada. I don't know if he plays Canadian music, you know? Well, he's Canadian. So therefore he makes Canadian music, you know. I don't know. I don't know what Canadian music is. Mac, he's Canadian, but he's in LA, so ...
Well the song is quite kind of LA, but also very Mac. Mac is a Canadian dude. It's not so much influenced by location, I would say, as the other. But definitely I've learned from doing this, going to another place to work on an album or work on a particular song, it does affect the outcome of the song because you're exposed to a new reality by traveling and you're out of your comfort zone, so other things will emerge from that.
But it doesn't have the specific sound of a specific location as the other one does, I think. Well, the sound presentation that we did with Nick Hakim and Benamin. Benamin is a New Yorker and we really wanted to hit some kind of like a cliche of a New York vibe we wanted to have having that song. And I think us New Yorkers, who kind of hit it in a way.
What does New York sound like to you?
Oh, I don't know. It could be like a jazz or like Gershwin. It could be salsa music. It could be hip-hop, disco music, punk rock. There's a lot of songs in New York that emerged from there, but exactly what it is that comes out to New York, I think is giving yourself the freedom to break through styles and show your personality.
Sometimes when I travel, I see this difference in New York. You could wear a crazy outfit and people say, "Hey, yeah, good." You know, they say, "Hey good." They cheer you up. Other places they look at you like you're crazy. In music, it's the same. You go, you do you. You do the music that you like. You do whatever comes out of you. And if you keep true, if you're not a poser, people cheer you up in New York. In other places, they might bring you down. They say, "Why you act so weird?" So in a way I think that's New York music, it's an empowering thing, bringing that out, whatever makes you you or whatever persona you want to make of you, bring that up.
You've been in Queens for such a long time, and it's such a big part of who you are and the music that you've made. On "Real" with Mac, you sing about traveling as a reflex and wondering when you'll feel at home. Do you feel truly settled? Is there the sense that you're constantly still searching for home?
I still am, look where I am. But also with Mac, when we first sat down to do the song, we didn't have anything planned out. His ideas were coming from a different angle. Me, I would bring up lyrics and stuff like that, whereas for him, it was a more production that he brought up to the table. But anyways, but what we wanted to celebrate in the making of the song was that him and I have been doing music for a long time. We've been traveling the world for a long time. We've been doing what we love for a long time and we still doing it.
So we wanted to celebrate that, how we still go and do it. And so then we touch on topics like, why do we leave home so much? Why do we have this urgency to leave our hometown in search of something else? We would talk about that and in some way it got brought up on the song. Because Mac is from a small town in Canada that he left behind also. I never left New York because I'm not from a small town. I'm from New York. It's such a cool place. Like, where am I going to go? I still live in New York all the time.
But you can always come back.
Exactly. That's home. I'm going back to see my parents in a couple of weeks, you know.
There is sadness to this as well. At the end of the album, you talk about New York is a dream of a city, almost a place that doesn't exist, like it's just a place in your mind. Is there a sadness about things in New York that have maybe changed over in your lifetime, in your adulthood? Or is it just a sense that maybe the New York that you love and that a lot of people love, maybe didn't ever exist?
Well, New York is known to be the ever-changing place. You know, you have to love it for that, being that it's gone through up and downs throughout history. I'm a such a fan of the story of New York, the city of a dream, how they say, a dream of a city, in everyone a dream. I don't know. That's a poem I wrote.
Well, mostly I think it's we were reflecting a lot without my New York friends at the time, and we're ... Not to hate on people that have money, but sometimes when it comes down to it, everybody that had money left the city. So you're only a New Yorker when it's convenient to you in some way.
So we were like, come on, man. Why are you guys leaving to your homes outside the city? When it gets hard here, you should stay on and help each other out, you know? So we started commenting on that and also how New York is a dream, but sometimes the dream could be a nightmare. So we're thinking about that. And I wrote that poem. But yeah, I think sometimes of the New York I first got to, when people would sit on the stoop and there was much more lively and there wasn't much of a police state like it is now. But then at the same time, I have no option but to accept it because we also participate in the way we can in local politics, and in whichever way you can. I participate, but there's always more to do, you know?
And the system is so strong in New York. It's the capital of capitalism, worldwide in some ways. So there's also all that, but at the same time, and like I said, bottom line, I accept it, because the city is going to change. And if it always stayed the same, you wouldn't be in New York. Some people come and they live there for 10 years then they leave. Some people, I have people on my block that they never left their block. They don't even go outside the block. They live their whole life on the same street.
So much of your music historically is I think lyrically, you've always tended to think about other people and write other people's stories. I think your lyrics can be very, in the truest sense, observant, like you observe other people's lives and sometimes you fill in the blanks and make fiction of them, but it's not always about yourself, it can be about others. But this past year must have made that, you were saying about being in Montevideo and you can't really see anyone. How difficult has it been to write your lyrics and to think about other people's worlds while you're locked inside?
Oh, I still go outside and I still relate to other people's lives in my own way. You never have the truth, but it's impossible not to pay attention to everyone who's going through a hard time these days financially, and to put yourself in their feet. A lot of people have fallen into a drug abuse over this past year worldwide. It's been quite tense, I think about that a lot. But also, you know how I was saying perhaps out there they're kind of judgmental towards people that left the city because they had an option, because they had money, they were able to go upstate or whatever. But at the same time, it probably is probably quite nice to have the access to that stuff. And I wonder how it feels to them.
So I think I don't put down people. I'm not jealous or envious of people that have a better standard of life or vice versa. I'm not judgemental towards people that live on the street. I've been thinking about all this while locked down, but I haven't been writing music so much. I did some writing back in November and I will be writing as soon as I get back to New York now. But we have a small operation at the Juan Wauters headquarters. It's just me and my friend who take care of all the business.
And I've had to do a lot of work regarding the release of my album. So I haven't had much time to work on music the way I would like to. Because when I work on music, I like to dive into that world and put everything aside and kind of concentrate obsessively over music making. I feel like from that type of thinking pattern, I excel the most, I think. I can't just put something aside and do it for two hours and come back. It's more of a day-long kind of activity.
I think this is reflected in the way that this album is built and structured, where it feels like you're listening to the radio, like you're flipping through radio stations. This isn't the first time that you've done this. Introducing Juan Pablo, you had this ephemeral sound like things that you would just picking up and hearing that everything can be music. I think there's an interesting line on this record where you say, "it's not music, it's not poetry, it's not art, it's the expression of a feeling," which says something about this album. Why would you want to create this impression of the listener is listening to the radio?
I love listening to radio. I love Luke Wilson on the radio. Listen to ... It's not the same as YouTube, that you can choose what to listen to. It's more of a feeling of letting go and like, okay, whatever is happening on the radio, listen to it. And I think I've learned to enjoy music genres. I've learned to listen to people with different opinions than mine. There's something about listening to radio I really like. I think it comes from traveling, because all the traveling I do, the radio, even though it's kind of an obsolete way of listening to something, like not many people listen to radio, it's the only way I have to feel present in the area. Because if I go to, let's say ... where are you located now?
I'm in Toronto.
Okay. Let's say I go to Toronto. I love, what is it called, the Canada radio CC ... CC, what is it called?
CBC, let's say. I spent a lot of time in Toronto, actually I did. And in Toronto they have this law that they have to play a certain percentage of Canadian music. So that's the only way I get to experience Canada, because if I open my computer, I opened my YouTube, my Spotify, my Apple music, whatever, it will show me what I want, what I just heard in New York. So I found that boring. I was like okay, I'm not really traveling. So by turning on the radio, it makes me feel like I'm present at the place. I get to listen to whatever the DJ wants to play here, whatever social commentary they have.
I listen to whatever issues are going through in that town. Maybe I think I wanted that sort of feeling to happen on the radio. I also really like something about movies. I'm not a movie guy, because I don't really watch many movies, but I like the sound of a movie. Sometimes as I build my puzzles or work on things, I listen to movies and in some way I feel like this album, I wanted to have that type of sound. Like if it's a movie throughout, it goes through places, it develops, it has an intro, it has a closure.
And as I develop, I feel like the tracks go along well together. There's different spaces in between songs that help glue them together. I wanted to step away a little bit from the classic. I've been doing it for the past, but the more I do it, the better I get at it, I guess. To make a sound throughout, I had to compromise a little bit because I was advised by the label that the songs should end sharply and should start sharply, to have it clear for when someone wants to play it away from the album. I compromise sometimes a little bit because I'm part of a team. I don't want to be so closed up.
It's interesting hearing you talk about puzzles because it sounds like your process is quite similar to putting together a large puzzle.
Also music making is very much like the ... In this album, we have a lot of that. Let's say the song we did with Mac, we have one song at the beginning and one song at the end that we put them together with a little clip that we found. He has a Italian heritage and there's a neighborhood close by that we would go to sometimes called Howard Beach, where Gotti's from, you know Gotti, the famous Mafia guy. I said something about Howard Beach and said, "Yeah, let's put that in there."
And then a second part starts. I came into music, making through math, and math is also, you have different things that you're dealing with and you solve a problem. Same here. We have all these pieces and we have to solve the big problem, which is putting it together. Same with music, you have a chorus, a verse, a solo. You have to make it work in a structure that works together, to you.
Well, Juan, that is a perfect place to finish. Thank you so much for talking to me.
Thanks, Alex. It's truly a really nice interview. Thanks for taking the time, too.
Good luck coming back to New York.