Many kids grow up dreaming of pop stardom, and in Miami it's no different. But for some, the route to the business leads them straight into our region's fertile Latin music scene, where young aspiring pop singers are groomed from childhood to become the future stars of the Spanish-speaking world.
For Coral Gables-based singer/songwriter Daniel René, this was exactly his goal from an early age. "Some people may think of my music genre as bubblegum, but Spanish pop is the best way for me to release whatever I need to say. I love the passion of the language," says René. "In Spanish there are millions of different ways to say the words I love you. And of course, Miami is the best city in the world for the Latino market."
He should know. At age 25, he is already a veteran of the ultra-competitive world of Latin pop. In 1998 he joined legendary boy band Menudo as lead singer, scoring international hits like "No Puedo Olvidarme de Ti" and "Háblame de Amor" for the teen group's MDO comeback album.
His recent duet with teen chanteuse Sherry, "El Amor," is the number one single in Guatemala. And René just released his sophomore album, Adicto, a multigenre record that finds him covering everything from high-energy pop to romantic ballads to reggaeton. Also he recently landed a coveted role as a supporting character in Telemundo's new hit soap opera Pecados Ajenos.
Even so, the road to Latin pop celebrity has not been an entirely smooth one for Réne. In an industry well known for manufacturing teen idols — where songs are commonly commissioned to professional writers — René has labored to find his own voice and identity. "I tried out the Menudo stuff and I gave it 110 percent," he says. "And although I was happy doing it at the time, I just can't imagine myself singing that type of music for the rest of my life."
It's a cool and breezy recent November night. René is spirited as he sits at the outdoor café of Books & Books in Coral Gables. Wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and a black vest, René still holds on to the looks of a young idol. "Finally I'm happy with what I get to sing everyday," he says, taking a sip of red wine.
Born in Houston and raised from age one in Miami, René took his first steps in show biz as a child model, posing for Macy's, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ray Ban advertising campaigns. "Modeling was an easy way to get in front of the cameras and learn how to be comfortable meeting new people," he says. Although he was successful at it, he was fascinated by musical artists like Mexican pop star Luis Miguel. It wasn't long before the young hopeful began to take singing lessons and was accepted at Miami's celebrated New World School of the Arts.
Around that time, the perennial Latin boy band Menudo was recruiting new members for a revamped version, called MDO. So René auditioned. Impressed by his talent, the group's founder, Edgardo Diaz, offered him a position on the spot.
"Me and my family didn't know about the controversies surrounding Menudo," says René, referring to a sex scandal concerning Diaz and the arrest of two group members at Miami International Airport for marijuana possession.
What René did know was that Menudo served as the catalyst for the careers of Robby Rosa and Ricky Martin. "For me, Menudo was a stepping stone; in the end, it's an incredible opportunity for a young artist," says René. "I'll never forget my first performance with the group. It was in Lima, Peru, in a stadium in front of thousands. I couldn't see the end of the field. It was crazy."
Fuelled by the dance single "No Puedo Olvidarme de Ti," the MDO album propelled the group back to the top of the charts across Latin America. Even so, René left the band on good terms in 1999, after just one album.
But breaking into the Latin music business can be a daunting task for a solo artist. Record companies, producers, and songwriters tightly control most of the industry, which resembles the Brill Building era of music-making, with its highly calibrated star development. René had a plan, though. "When I was 11 years old, I was doing voice-overs for radio commercials, and by chance, [producer] Emilo Estefan happened to be there in the studio," he recalls. "I took the opportunity to sing for him, and he told me to call him when I was older and ready."
After more than five months of calling Estefan, René secured an audition at the producer's famed Crescent Studios. Although he was incredibly nervous, he remembers, once again he was offered a recording contract on the spot.
Joining the Emilio Estefan roster was no small feat. At the time René was signed, Estefan was in the process of recording Shakira's English-language debut, Laundry Service. And of course, Estefan's magic touch had catapulted the careers of his wife, Gloria, as well as that of Jon Secada, into the stratosphere. All was set, and arrangements for René's debut album were made. But after three years of choosing and recording songs with many of the industry's top songwriters, René had a change of heart.
"When I was working with Emilio, he wanted me to make an [English-language] American album," he says. "An album should be something that comes from somewhere special. It felt manufactured, and I felt that I was too young and I wasn't sure of who I was."
René did know, however, he wanted to sing only in Spanish. So in 2002 he left the Estefan camp and took his first break from the music industry. "I didn't know if I wanted to be a singer or go back to school," admits René, who took a yearlong hiatus. "And just then my attorney called me, telling me Univision was starting a record label and they where looking for a male singer. By then I felt I had a better idea of what I wanted to do in my songs."
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His efforts resulted in the album Daniel René, produced by Rudy Pérez, an in-demand songwriter and producer who has worked with Beyoncé, Luis Miguel, and Luis Fonsi. The all-Spanish record was nominated for two Premios Lo Nuestro and earned René a radio hit, "No Me Tortures," a romantic ballad with a mainstream pop vibe.
By 2007, René was ready to release his sophomore effort, Adicto. But again came more change. He left Univision. "I decided it wasn't a good idea to stick with the same formula," he says. "For the new album, I co-wrote many of the songs, like 'Para Ti Para Mi,' and sang about the things that are close to my heart — my addictions: women, love, music, and God."
Now, after more than a decade in music, René seems content with his position in the business. "Anyone who wants to hear their music on the radio is a pop artist," he says. "If you want the fame, the fans, and the autographs, you have to sacrifice.... Still, I'm finally happy with what I get to sing every day. The songs are me, and it's a piece of my heart."