Eager Pupil

It would be tempting to lump Spanish singer Malú in with the Britneys, the Mandys, and the Jessicas. At first glance Malú seems eligible for the post-Mickey-Mouse-Club-on-the-road-to-stardom world: She's another pretty nineteen-year-old who lives with mom, has no discernible vocal technique, and sings about love and heartbreak in the adolescent-cum-adulthood never-neverland of angst and sighs.

Except that Malú (her name is María Lucía Sánchez) is more like 19 going on 40; she's no slave to anybody; and she has no plans to slither onstage with a snake. Or without one, for that matter.

"I like the way I am, and I am not interested at all in changing my look or my style with any weird things," asserts the Madrid-born singer, whose Castilian accent was somewhat diluted by her stay in Miami last year to record her third album, Esta Vez (This Time).

With pop powerhouse producers/songwriters Estéfano (Chayanne, Paulina Rubio, Shakira) and René Toledo (Gloria Estefan, José Luis Perales) behind it, Sony Discos hopes Esta Vez will be Malú's breakthrough album in the United States. Eight of the songs on the album, a mix of up-tempo tracks and ballads, were recorded at the Hit Factory/Criteria studios, and four at Estéfano's own Miami studio, Midnight Blue. The label has yet to schedule a date for a U.S. release, and there's talk of including two bonus tracks on the album.

Malú drinks coffee and smokes feverishly in the lobby of South Beach's Cardozo Hotel; her long, auburn hair and thin, angular face evoke a prettier and better-kept version of Aterciopelados's Andrea Echeverri. Sony has hinted at a makeover, although nothing as drastic as the transformation of Shakira the poet of the Colombian people into Shakira the goldilocks-Pepsi siren of the world. The singer's not pleased. She says she was blonde once and hated dyeing her hair.

Her upbringing in the formal atmosphere of Madrid gave Malú a rational, well-behaved European manner. Her heart, however, is in Seville, in the Andalusian region of southern Spain. Her family hails from the land of gypsies and duende, or the spirit of exuberance and sorrow. The clichés are inevitable: the cradle of flamenco, castanets, red dresses, hand-clapping, and feet-stomping. Although this is Malú's past, it is not her present or her future.

She is the niece of legendary guitarist Paco de Lucía, and both her parents, Pepe and Pepa, dabbled in flamenco music. While she was respectful of that tradition, Malú knew that it was not for her. "My father always went along with my uncle singing with him on his tours," recalls Malú. "My parents would both travel. And they knew I loved music, but not that I wanted to sing. The first time they heard me do it seriously was the first time I got up on a stage, at age sixteen."

Malú had honed her skills singing and dancing flamenco at soirées at her parents' home in Madrid. "We used to have these parties, and everybody would contribute with some dancing and singing. I did flamenco but ... I've always been told that I sing flamenco in a “cute' way. I would ask, “Don't I do it well?' And I'd be told, “It's cute.' Ahh, I see," recalls Malú, laughing, briefly switching to a strong southern Spain accent.

A producer by the name of Jesús Yanes heard her at one of these parties and was smitten by her talent. He proposed that she do a demo, and off she went to a recording studio "with just one song, Alejandro Sanz's 'Aprendiz' (Apprentice)." Yanes took the demo to Pepe Barroso, owner of Spanish indie label Pep's Records, and the next day Malú was signing a contract.

"So I called my mother, not knowing what to do about school, and her reaction was, “You can only do one thing and do it right, so if you are going to sing, then sing it is.' I thought, “Awesome, I won't go back to school for the next 40 years!'" she remembers, laughing.

It was no joking matter, however, when the album came out and sold over half a million units. "I wasn't scared of the work, but of the people that now knew who I was, that stared at me. “Mom, I am no artist. I have to confess something. I recorded this album just to cut class. I don't know what to do now,' I said to her."

Her mother told her to stop if she wanted, "but then I realized that I truly loved doing it, that I couldn't stop. So what did I do? Adapt. Adapt and grow."

She became, she says, her own therapist, talking herself into going ahead. Malú didn't finish school, but she's not ashamed. On the contrary she feels better prepared for life than most people her age. "With my traveling, with the people I've met, I've learned so much more," says the singer, who will be busy until the fall touring all over Spain. "I bet some people my age may know Spanish history much better than I, but they can't carry on an intelligent conversation about anything else. Don't talk to me about your boyfriend or your friend's boyfriend. I may be nineteen, but I have such responsibilities. I really haven't had a child's life, and maybe I miss that a bit, but not too much. Maybe that's why I don't get into trouble. Because I work, eat, and sleep."

Following the success of her debut Aprendiz (Apprentice) and a second CD, Cambiarás (You Will Change) -- and a contribution to the Spanish soundtrack of Disney's Mulan -- Malú opted to record Esta Vez in Miami for a simple reason: She wanted to get away from the homeland. "Had I recorded this album in Spain, there would've been so many more people involved in it," says Malú, rolling her eyes. "And that's exactly what I did not want, all those influences. I just wanted my producers and my mother there with me."

Wowed by Malú's voice and disposition, Estéfano claims there was not much he could contribute. "There are tips and things you can say to make the recording sound better," says the Colombian hitmaker, who is currently working on Thalia's new pop album. "But in the end it was all to Malú's credit. She has one of those voices where you can record the song once and that's it."

"I'm very serious about my music," the teen explains. "This time, however, I felt like doing something a bit more daring." Maybe that's why one of her favorite songs on Esta Vez is "Ven a Pervertirme" (Come Pervert Me).

But don't get worked up; Malú is not vying for a Lolita crown, and the song is not even in the same league with Madonna's "Erotica." In Malú's voice lines such as "I promise to be docile and obedient" come off more suggestive than titillating.

"There's a place for that kind of track as long as it is done in an elegant and subtle way, and I really liked the lyrics," the singer rationalizes. "This is an album done with a lot of sensitivity. It is not the typical album of a cute girl who releases a record just to sell."

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Juan Carlos Perez-Duthie