Raul Midón is a rare breed: a true original with prominent connections.  Bill Withers, Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller all have him on speed dial, requesting to lend his unique musicianship and his supple vocals to their recordings.  He’s created what he’s dubbed a “slap attack” guitar technique, allowing him to simultaneously play melody, harmony, bass and percussion, all while singing with dynamic, prodigious power. His 2005 album State of Mind, co-produced by the legendary Arif Mardin, is a crowning achievement of universally expressive songwriting in the young 21st century.  Its follow ups, 2007’s A World Within A World and 2010’s Synthesis, are testaments that he’s only getting better, following in a pathway dented by the footsteps of legends like Stevie Wonder and George Benson. So why haven’t you heard of him? Despite amassing an adoring, planet-spanning fan base, Midón remains in relative obscurity; an untouchable in the image-oriented caste system of the music industry.

Your father was an Argentinean dancer. Music must have been a sizeable presence in your home early in your life.

My first record was Santana (Abrarax).  When I was five years old, it was inside the cassette recorder that I got for Christmas. Santana and Jose Feliciano were the first two pieces of music I owned. Although, in our house, it was really more classical and jazz rather than popular music. I think I’m like most people; my dad is not a big pop music fan, so we didn’t have a whole bunch on Beatles records, tons of Stones records, tons of Steve Winwood records; it was all classical and jazz.  And then later, through the radio and other things, of course I got exposed to all that music.

At what age were you when you started to learn to play guitar?

I was about six. I was studying with a Flamenco teacher. I studied again formally until I was, about maybe 10 or 11, but I learned a lot from a lot of different people. I was pretty involved with the guitar even then, already. It was an everyday part of my life, from one extend or another.

How intricate were Santana and Feliciano’s guitar techniques in influencing your own playing?

Not that intricate. I think for me, I was more about Flamenco later, even though Santana is obviously a guitarist, and so is Jose Feliciano. I don’t remember it being that important. I was about the music more, and Santana’s combining of Latin and rock; that kind of fascinated me more than anything.

Your voice is a real throwback to the versatile soul singers of the 1970s. When did you first find your voice?

It’s hard to say. It happened so gradually, and I think it’s still happening. You start to incorporate the things that you love in music and I realized that, for me, I’ve always been interesting in improvisation. I was doing pop tunes but some more of what can be consideration jazz style improvising on them. That was the whole development of the kind of music I wanted to make. I grew up with Steely Dan, who went very, very far into the jazz idiom and yet they were rock and roll, yet it was very sophisticated rock and roll. I was very attracted to that because it was really good songwriting and also really interesting musically. That’s what led to me to the kind of things that I sing and the interest in improvisation, the interest in saying something meaningful, and yet having it be ‘pop,’ which I don’t know what that means anymore. I’m not interested in being a purely instrumental or purely jazz musician in the sense that they think of it in America.  I am interested in writing songs.

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You attended the University of Miami to study jazz. What were your career aspirations once you graduated?

I was initially just trying to make a living in the music business. I ended up doing a lot of vocal sessions. The focus was really singing at that point, even though I was playing guitar. What I thought was the cooler thing was singing background sessions for all this big artists, like Julio Iglesias and Shakira, Enrique; there’s got to be hundreds of credits of me doing background vocals between 1991 and 2001. I was constantly in the studio doing that, as well as commercials.  In the meantime, I was playing guitar almost every night in different gig situations. But unlike New York, in South Florida, you get a gig at a restaurant, and you’re background music. There isn’t this whole scene where you’re playing original music and people are going to see that. I would get a gig playing cover tunes and slowly I would sneak in some original tunes. Basically I got bored. It seemed like we were doing the same thing on every record.

Your guitar playing is unlike anything I’ve heard before. You use an unorthodox variation of upward strums and fret tapping, which you’ve called “slap attack.” How and why did you develop it?

It started before I was conscious of it. It started with Flamenco, once again. I had a lot of training – classical training, Flamenco training and jazz training. I never really put it together in the way that I play now until I moved to New York. I mean, I was well into my 30’s before I played guitar the way you see me play guitar now. I was a guitar player, I played well. I played in all types of situations; I played in rock bands, but I was not one of those who developed my technique when I was 21, not at all. I started to have a lot of situations where I played solo and I wanted to try to command attention. There are a lot of guitar players in New York. What could I do to set myself apart? There was a conscious element to it. These were things I had been working with, but I hadn’t put them together until I, sort of, had to.

Tell me more about the New York experience and how it affected you as a musician.

I came there for a very specific reason: to move my career forward. When you realize that you’re in a veritable ocean of talent, you realized how monumental of a task it is when you go there.You’re not gonna be the faster guitar playing in the world, you’re not gonna be the cleanest. It’s a real perspective inducer. Then you say, ‘what am I?’ For me, Moving to New York was my solidification of my identity as a guitar player and as an artist. It forced me to put together the things that I had been working on, and before I knew it, I had this style of playing that was unlike what anybody else was doing. It was influenced by a lot of people, too.  Tuck Anders was a big influence, but that was really the culmination of it.

You have this astonishing ability to mimic a trumpet with your voice almost perfectly.  How did that become a part of your arsenal?

As I said, I’ve always been interested in improvisation. There was a particular trumpet player in South Florida, and he had this really warm tone, and I really tried to do it. His name was Pete Minger. I think he was in Count Basie’s band.  I never thought to it as a way to mesmerize the audience. That was not part of my thinking at that time. I realized it had that affect later, but it was a completely musical choice that I made; to use the voice as an independent instrument – independent of the guitar – and to explore vocal improvisation in the same way as I was exploring it instrumentally, which I think not a lot of singers actually do that. With scat [singers], maybe they’ll sing the blues, but to actually sit down and go over improvisation the way an instrumentalist does, to do scales and do patterns and actually negotiate changes, that’s something not a lot of singers do, and that’s something I’ve always been interested in.

You once rapped on a song “Get Together,” featured on a live EP. You rhymed with remarkable flow and command, before seamlessly moving back to singing! Was that another example of you exploring vocal improvisation?

Yeah, and I really haven’t done much of that, to tell you the truth, since then.  I was a real fan of the early hip-hop music. I’m talking Grandmaster Flash; I was a big fan of that. I just hate it now, mostly. I really enjoyed the journey that they took me on and I felt like what they were saying was real, they were really talking about stuff they did. When NWA and Dr. Dre and all that came along, that just seemed like such bullshit to me. But Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, I was into that, and that was right before rap. So I always thought that could be a part of improvisation. I haven’t explored it to the same extent that I’ve explore musical improvisation – the freestyle idea of it – but it’s pretty fascinating and I love listening to it.

You’ve created this kind of music in which it sounds like there’re many people playing when it’s just you. Are consciously trying to give that feeling to your audience?

The importance of it for me is that I can create a sound vision of what I want people to hear, even the sense of using the guitar as an orchestra and using the guitar to create the illusion – well, it’s not really an illusion – using the guitar to play bass and chords at the same time. It’s not really some much of a technical feat. It is, but it’s more of a conceptual feat. Once you think of it, you can do it technically. Classical guitarists, in a sense, do it all the time because they play polyphonic music, so it’s a question of saying I’d like to take a reggae song and play the bass and play the chords at the same time. It’s very possible to do it, if you’re interested in putting in that kind of time to do it.  It really is about practice and repeating it so many times that you can do it in your sleep, so you can divide your brain into doing more than one thing. You don’t wanna be playing something and singing and phrasing exactly in the same way in order that you can play, which happens to singer/songwriters a lot; you’re doing a lot of things at once. You wanna get the different elements of it so automatic that when I sing over it, I can sing freely.

The role of the rhythm section when you’re accompanying a singer is to hold the groove down. So you don’t wanna have tons of variation in the rhythm section. I personally, as a singer, value the freedom and rhythmic freedom. It’s one of the things that I like about jazz. So I don’t want to sing it exactly the same way every night and in order to do that I really have to have the rhythm part of it down to the point where I don’t have to think about it.  “Bonnie’s Song,” from the last record, it’s in 11/8. There’re very few players in the world that can play and sing in 11/8 and do it in a way that’s free. It’s only because they don’t practice it; it’s not like it’s impossible to do.

One of the most beloved songs amongst your fans is the title track to State of Mind. What’s the history behind that song?

I was in New York and I was feeling pretty desperate, and wondering whether I should move. It was the classic how-am-I-gonna-pay-the-fucking-rent, that whole thing. Originally it was ‘Peace of Mind’ it was like “Man, I wanna be rich, so I can pay this fuckin’ rent.”  And then it evolved into what it became. What does that mean? I certainly did retain that whole thing; when I say “I wanna be rich,” I’m saying I want money, but I’m also saying, obviously, it’s a state of mind. Most of us live in relative luxury compare to most of the world. So, rich is relative. That song was almost a mantra or a power play, like if I say this in a song – and I think it sort of happened. I really believe that if you’re clear about what you want you can get it. It’s being clear that’s hard.  So I said “I wanna be rich/I wanna be happy.” Interestingly enough, that song almost didn’t get put on the record, because there were people at the record company that were reacting to that;  maybe that wasn’t the right message, just stupid shit you wouldn’t even believe. I can’t imagine State of Mind without “State of Mind” on it, but that almost happened. The only reason it didn’t happen was because Arif [Mardin] was so adamant and had such pull, he said not only is this going on the record, it’s going to be the first song on the record and fuck all of you. And Arif could say that and make it so.

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You wrote a song on State of Mind, “Sitting in the Middle,” as a dedication to Donny Hathaway. What has he meant to you?

Donny Hathaway is, to me, a singular voice as a soul singer. It’s just so strong and more deep. Stevie Wonder had ten times the song success that Donny Hathaway had, a hundred times, and you can’t deny Stevie’s power, but just as a voice, as a singer, there’s something deep and strong about Donny Hathaway that I’ve never heard ever again in any other voice. It’s hard to describe, really. There’s something about the way he sang, and when it was put together right – like in “A Song For You,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” or even “He Ain’t Heavy” – there’s songs that he sings where the message is there and the voice is there and the arrangements are, and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. To me, he is the essential soul singer. There’s some inexhaustible depth to his voice.

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I’ve seen footage of you playing bongos and guitar simultaneously during “Sunshine,” another standout track from State of Mind. When did you start doing that?

It’s a pretty recent thing. I started playing [percussion] on the body of guitar and thought maybe I could do that on the bongos. I have bongos here in my studio standing up, so I just started to do it. It’s taken a while to get it to where I’m really comfortable doing it. It’s like anything, you know, but it’s really gotten to be very comfortable now where I’m literally playing the bongos, the bass line on the guitar and then singing the song. A couple of years ago, I was touring and I lost my voice, which is a terrible position to be in when you’re on the stage solo.  So it was one of those things where I had to do something for the public. It kind of started from that, as well.

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State of Mind’s strength lies from it just being you alone on most of the songs. In the following album, A World Within a World, musicians are layered in more. How do you think it turned out?

I frankly think that’s one the most underappreciated records. There’s no accounting what happens with records, but I really love that record. I think it was an evolution from a musical standpoint, and it was also a record that had a much bigger arc musically on it. You had songs like “All Because of You,” very R&B, to a song like “Tembererana” which is very based on Argentinean folk rhythms. There was a huge arc on that record.

Your latest album, Synthesis, utilizes a full band of session players like Dean Parks and Paulinho De Costa. How do you think it compares sonically with State of Mind?

I think from a pure writing standpoint, Synthesis is the best overall written album that I’ve done. I think my songwriting has gotten better; that’s my perception.  From an artistic, musical point of view, we may have gone a little into making the record that you make with those musicians as opposed to a record that is my particular artistic perception in terms of the sound of it. If I had to do Synthesis over, there are some things I’d do different in terms of the sound of it, because it goes a bit into the generic, because you have all these musicians and they play what they play. Even though my guitar playing is on it, it’s buried. I’d say for my next recordings, as far as the sound of it, it’s going to sound more like State of Mind than Synthesis, because that’s my sound, that’s my brand that I’ve created and that’s the sound that’ll get people prepared for what they’re going to hear on stage. With Synthesis, I’d never tour with a band like that. It was fun to make Synthesis and the mastering is really great, but I’m most proud of the songwriting.

After seeing how Synthesis turned out, is it safe to say that the story or the message of the song penetrates better when it’s just you and your guitar?

I think it tends to, only because of the limitations of sound and musicianship of musicians. A lot of times, musicians play too damn loud and you can’t hear; a lot of times the sound’s not properly balanced. With the guitar as the only instrument, those problems tend to go away. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it tends to be that way. Actually, playing with other musicians can even enhance what you’re saying, if they’re the right musicians.

Well, whether with a full band or all by yourself, most your songs have very memorable choruses. Is that an important element in your songwriting process?

I love good pop hooks. I love them. I think there’s a genius in it. There’s an art to it. That’s something that I love in the challenge of writing; taking an idea and putting it into a little package of power.

You don’t produce your own albums like many other one-man bands. Do you prefer having someone else producing you rather than yourself?

I think it’s very, very tricky, because producing really encompasses everything; what the lyrics are, to what the record sounds like, to what musicians are on it, to what stays and what goes, and if you have the right producer, it’s ideal, because it’s difficult to have a good perspective on your own music. It’s good to have that second person. Sometimes they hear something that you didn’t even hear. I’ll give you an example: When I was doing the Herbie Hancock Possibilities record, we were doing “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I was singing it like a slow version of Stevie Wonder singing it. I just thought of it as a happy song, yet this version of it wasn’t really a happy song, and Joe [Mardin] was there and Joe said to me at one point, “Raul, this is ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You,’ and the girl’s not home.”  And I thought, “oh, shit!”  It complete changed the way I sang that song and that’s what you hear on the record.

You’ve worked with big names, you’ve performed on David Letterman, and you have great material, yet crossover success still seems to elude you. Do you think enough has been done to expose you to the public at large?

I think the marketing of me has been dismal, to tell you the truth. I think that the music industry is in such a shaken up state that most people in the music industry don’t think there’s any room in it for people like me because it’s too difficult. They’re looking for plug-in, take-out, American Idol, Sing-Off, all these fucking shows, and I think that’s what the mainstream music industry has become. What saves somebody like me is there’re a lot people who still want to hear real music and there’s lot of people who are willing to pay for it and thank God for the rest of the world, other than the United State of America. I am not certainly giving up, by any stretch of the imagination. I think there’s so much of an audience for what I do, and it’s across the board; it’s old people, it’s young people, it’s people who like R&B, it’s people who like jazz, it’s people who like songwriting. But it’s a bit of a challenge because I don’t fit neatly into a genre. I wish that I had more exposure, because I think more people would be fans if they knew I existed, but ultimately, if I’m going to get to super mainstream success, it’s going to be because of a song, not because I can play bongos and trumpet and guitar at the same time.

There are a great many other talented artists – like Aloe Blacc, José James or Sharon Jones – who also aren’t in the mainstream.  Do you think they’re experiencing the same struggle as you?

When something isn’t successful, the business blames the artist, always.  The song wasn’t good enough, whatever.  There’s so much great shit that never gets heard because the music business is full of mediocrity; of mediocre managers, mediocre agents, mediocre record labels.  If you can get through all of that somehow and be successful…some people just do it, some people are just lucky.

Raul Midón Online

Interview by Matthew Allen

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