The Drexler Diaries

Singer/songwriter Jorge Drexler was virtually unknown in the U.S. before an Oscar win in 2005, for his song "Al otro lado del río," from Walter Salles's film The Motorcycle Diaries. And what viewers saw of him on Oscar night might have been misleading.

Those who saw the telecast remember that Drexler walked onstage after his name was called, sang the tune's chorus (after a dubious rendition by Antonio Banderas and Santana), said "thank you," and walked offstage.

Most viewers probably suspected he was speechless at that moment. Not so, Drexler says, during a phone interview from his home in Madrid. "That was the most significant speech to give, as I had a disagreement with the show's producers — they didn't talk to me about who was supposed to sing."

According to Drexler, the producers felt he wasn't enough of a "name" to perform his own song, so they tried to recruit someone more famous. Pop singer Enrique Iglesias was the initial choice, but the song wound up in the hands of the Spanish actor Banderas. "I told them, öWhy didn't you consult me and choose someone that would be [culturally] connected to the song?'" recalls the 42-year-old native of Uruguay.

He adds that Banderas graciously called to let him know that the producers had given him the song. It could have been worse, Drexler concedes: His song could have been given to Beyoncé, who performed three of the nominated tunes that night.

Winning the award — the first in its category ever given for a Spanish-language song — did give Drexler a higher profile, which he believes came at the right moment. "[The Oscar] was a big boost to my career in the U.S. and in other places," he says. "But I'm lucky this didn't come out of nothing — if this had been my first record, this kind of media exposure would have been scary."

Indeed, long before Oscar came along, Drexler was a well-known voice in Europe, where he's released eight albums in the past fifteen years. His music is an inimitable combination of traditional Uruguayan forms, such as candombe, murga, and milonga, with better-known forms such as jazz, pop, bossa nova, and even electronica.

His compositions have been recorded by several singers from Spain and Brazil, such as Celso Fonseca and Maria Rita, the latter who included his "Mal intento" on her 2006 Latin Grammy-winning disc, Segundo.

"I had a radio career and an audience which I never intended to be massive," Drexler says. "I had gold records, and was enjoying playing in Latin America and Spain."

For now, his focus is on his new album, 12 segundos de oscuridad ("12 Seconds of Darkness"), which he calls "an artistic statement from someone in the middle of a media storm — it's a very introspective record, which is not looking for a big crossover."

The lyrics to the title song were inspired by the rhythm of a maritime lighthouse in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. "It was in front of that light that I began to think of the meaning of the rhythm produced by the light. That allegorical image guided the songs in the album," he explains. "The lyrics to the title song look at the darkness as a dark period in someone's life — the same way a sailor learns from a lighthouse's twelve-second interval, you can learn from uncertainty and doubt. It's a crisis moment and how to grow from it through doubt and confusion."

The disc also includes two covers, of Radiohead's "High and Dry," and "Disneylandia," an early tune by the Brazilian Arnaldo Antunes, of the group Os Tribalistas. "I wanted to advance my interpreter side," Drexler explains. "I found two songs I like a lot, and took them from their original place."

In the case of "High and Dry," he took an ambient piece of British rock and made it into a milonga, a song in the syncopated musical form that served as a forerunner to the tango. This adaptation, Drexler says, "is something that was inspired by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who have the ability to take someone else's work and make it their own."

For his second American tour — Drexler played the States last year, following his first U.S. release, the Grammy-nominated Eco — he is playing solo, with the help of a sound engineer, who will provide various backing tracks and sound effects. "I'm still at a point in my career where it's easier for me to travel alone and gauge where the audience is going," Drexler says.

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Ernest Barteldes