By Rebecca Bulnes
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By Chuck Strouse
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By Hans Morgenstern
The title of singer-songwriter carries with it a certain weight, artistic mystique, and creative clout. It's a badge of honor for those who pen their own material, an uncommon talent revered with awe by music lovers.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Latin realm, where superstars over the years have largely been products of collaborative efforts. Charisma, magnetism, stage presence, and film-worthy good looks may be necessary ingredients that make a global pop star, but you can't fake a gifted live voice. Even with all the tinkering and polishing of advanced studio recording software, the truth always emerges onstage.
For his part, Uruguayan-born musician Jorge Drexler has a solid singing voice. And his songwriting skills may be even better. Both an artist and composer, Drexler's work has earned him gold and platinum records, numerous Grammy nominations, and even an Oscar for the original song "Al Otro Lado del Rio (On the Other Side of the River)" from Walter Salles's 2004 film Motorcycle Diaries.
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"It was very unexpected," he says. After all, the track was written in two hours and recorded during another two while on vacation at an acquaintance's home. "Nobody thought that was going to happen with that song. It didn't change much. The song and the guitar that you hear in the movie were recorded in that friend's living room."
But make no mistake: For all his humility, Drexler is a singer-songwriter in the purest sense of the term. The man is a gifted craftsman whose work is simultaneously arresting and alluring, beautifully complex, and organic in the extreme. Listening to him expound on his writing style, one gets the unshakable sense that making music is a very intricate process. And yet, according to him, it couldn't be simpler.
"I write about the things I feel, the things I see, with the hope that other people will relate to what I do," says the 47-year-old. "Luckily, that happens. And it makes me really happy."
Drexler doesn't outwardly pro-
ject reverence for his subject matter, or for his own talents. As he sees it, he just strings together words, only to be surprised by what he's done later.
"Writing, for me, is kind of a subconscious affinity," he explains. "I don't think very much about what I write in the moment I'm doing it. I actually read the songs later, and I see what I was talking about."
He continues: "I actually don't write with themes. I write with words. The theme comes afterward. I just start putting words together, one after another, and I pursue whatever the song is talking about. But I don't sit down and say, 'Well, I'm going to write a song about Madrid,' for example. I'll realize after that [it's] the direction of the song."
Yet the way Drexler perceives his craft betrays a much deeper respect for the written word. He pontificates with the passion of a man in love with language.
"Somehow, it's like you hear about something that talks to you beyond structures, beyond what the language is. If you like, it goes further than simply exposing the words. And I think that's the definition of poetry. Something that happens that makes words and melodies have a bigger meaning than the sum of its parts."
In fact, that's the very essence of his latest album, Amar la Trama (Love the Plot), a shining 13-track example of this songwriter's many skills.
"Amar La Trama comes from amar la trama mas que el desenlace," Drexler explains, "love the plot more than the development. Like those films in French cinema where nothing happens. I just love those kinds of static situations." And he elaborates: "It's actually a metaphor for the present. Enjoy the present. It's the only thing that you have."
Beyond that, the title is just as much a word game as it is a metaphor. "Everybody is always so focused on the content of the phrase. But it's also about the vessel that contains it. It's a play on words."
But the album is not only a metaphor and a word game, but the next step in an already brilliant career. It's also a return to certain root principles. For Amar la Trama, Drexler eschewed modern-day recording practices and took an old-school approach.
"I've been working with computers for a long time," he says. "And after four records done that way, I wanted to remember what it was like to actually play."
Instead of tracking instrument after instrument in a booth and running a seemingly unending stack of tracks into ProTools, he converted a television set into a recording studio, brought in an audience, and gathered all his musicians to play the songs live.
"The record has that phrase of Ani DiFranco's," he says, quoting the folk-rock hero. " 'People used to make records, as in a record of an event — the event of people making music in a room.' "
He continues: "I wanted to do that. I wanted to make music in a room and actually record that interaction, rather than collecting different sounds and making a digital collage by cutting and pasting."