There is one thing Marc Anthony is not: complacent. As Anthony himself stated after receiving the prestigious ASCAP Founders Award at the 2012 ASCAP Latin Awards, "I'm only 43. I have so much left to do." And he's walking the walk: the day before the Latin Awards, Anthony was in Las Vegas, promoting his new TV show Q'Viva! The Chosen; early the morning after the Awards he flew to Miami, home of the Miami Dolphins football team, which he co-owns; all of this occurred while Anthony prepared his first English album in 11 years, and right before the launch of a new clothing and accessories line at Kohl's. Oh, and he was in the middle a nearly 100-city world tour (no biggie).
Anthony spoke with Playback about his journey from background vocalist to international superstar, and how he manages to fulfill his role as global ambassador of Latin culture with such grace. Where he found the time to talk to us, we have no idea, but we sure are glad that he did.
You were born in America but steeped in Latino culture from the beginning. Did you identify more with one part of your heritage or the other back then?
You know, I was born and raised in New York City, and there was no escaping, no denying that you were Puerto Rican, because it was a Puerto Rican neighborhood. So there was music blaring out the windows and the music that your parents would listen to, and every window was playing something different.
But I'll be honest, Spanish music of any kind was just like "old people music" to me growing up. I was more into Motown. I was more into the Marvin Gayes, the Luther [Vandross], the R&B – themore hip stuff that was out, the funky stuff. But it was a real vibrantmusical time in the 70's and 80's, being raised in New York. So I would have never thought that I would end up singing in Spanish – ever – back then.
I worked with Little Louie Vega, Todd Terry, Kenny Dope, The Latin Rascals and [record executive] Sal Abbatiello. I did hundreds of records for these guys as vocal producer, background vocalist. And I sang on a lot of those records as a ghost vocalist. So I had a lot of experience by the time my time came around.
What was that freestyle and house music world like, and how did it impact the music you would make later?
I remember it as a very vibrant time. It was a platform. It gave all us dreamers in the inner city a way to sort of cut our teeth. And you know, there were so many labels that were looking for talent. And it was ours. We made it, we created it. We were singing it. We were doing it. And that doesn't come around too often. So that was almost like capturing lightning in a bottle. You know? There was so much work, and I happened to be in the inner sanctum of the power players. I'd go to the studio with Todd Terry and Sal Abbatiello and Andy Panda and these guys – I was just a permanent fixture. I'd do demos and I was just always in the studio with them.
I was raised with very complicated music, the Latin stuff thatmy parents used to listen to. Even the ballads, they were poetically complicated andmelodically complicated. And so I had a sensitivity to it. I knew it, I got it. It wasn't foreign tome. But I learned how to simplify it, in writing. Because the freestyle part of it was just simpler. It wasmore like candy, you know what I mean? The simpler, the better. Get your point across. And so I think it was the combination of those two worlds that gavememy sensitivity to melody, tomake it simple enough to be consumed by themasses. I think that that period had a huge effect onmy style and what I gravitated to when it came to presentingmy ideas.
Right after you put out When the Night Is Over with Little Louie Vega, you completely shifted direction. What led you to overhaul the style of music you were making and perform what you call "old people music?"
It was a fluke. I was on my way to see Louie, and his sister gaveme a ride.We're in the car, and we're stuck in traffic right around Madison Square Garden. It was on 33rd and 8th Avenue, something like that. And she goes "I really want you to hear this song." So she pops in the cassette – remember when cars played cassettes? – and she plays this song by Juan Gabriel, "Hasta Que Te ConocÍ." And I heard it, and I swear to God, I saw just light. I had never heard anything like it. And I sat there and I was just absolutely overwhelmed. It was like an epiphany. I said, "Can you put it on again?" She put it on again and I couldn't breathe. The subjectmatter was complicated, but presented in a simple way. Themelody was unbelievable. The voice I was listening to, and the arrangement...
I didn't know what I was gonna do with that information, so I literally jumped out of the car, went to a pay phone – do you remember pay phones? I called my manager, and I said "I just finished listening to this song. I need to record this song. I don't care what anybody says." He goes "But it's in Spanish." I was like "I don't care. I don't know what's going on but I need to record this song." And he goes "Well, you'd have to do it in salsa or something like that." I was like, "I don't care!" Then, he said, "Well then I could probably get you a deal."
Two weeks later I was in a studio, singing this foreign music with Sergio George. We had no idea what the album was gonna be like. We just went in. And here we are, just looking at each other. All I knew is that I had this one song that I needed to sing. And we figured it out right there. And we produced it together and came up with this unique sound. Because he had an R&B background and [with] my background, I guess that's what lent itself to this whole new sound, because it was born from a different place.
I never thought in a million years I'd do salsa, so it sounded different. I was a product of the inner city, so it looked like them, sounded like them. They knew me from the work that I had done, and all of a sudden – by sort of a fluke – they just gravitated towards it, and it became theirs. And they owned it, you know? That's how it started – just this one song I heard. And, we wrapped the whole album around it, without knowing what the hell we were doing.
There's that part in the bridge of "Hasta Que Te ConocÍ," it's the climax of the song but you're not even singing an actual word. You just keep going higher and higher. And it sounds so abundant with passion. Was that section in the original version by Juan Gabriel?
Yes, in the original there is a version where he soars like that, so I wouldn't take credit for that. I didn't stray too far. I just made it my own. It was a true, true tribute to him, and what happened that night. And that's just the sheer power of music. He had no idea that he would have something to do with launching someone's career. And so that's why I take it seriously. Every concert I do, I'm like "Hey man, the next me is out there." You know what I mean? He might be 14 right now, and he might be 10 – but it's a responsibility. So every time I'm in the studio I'm like, "Who's gonna hear this?"
You've recorded so many phenomenal songs written by other people, but there are a couple of names that keep popping up. Juan Gabriel's one of them. And Omar Alfanno was responsible for some of your biggest hits on your early records. How do you find the writers and songs that fit your style?
I have a new song from Omar Alfanno that I'm considering doing on my salsa album that I'm about to cut. So he's back! These writers that I've been able to work with over the years – it's really interesting, because what I've heard over the years is that they write melodies that they would love to hear in my voice. There is a group of guys who really just understand my strengths and my weaknesses, and they play to my strengths. They just get it.
I gravitate towards the simple, complicated songs. Just the melody, you could sing the phone book to it, and it'll make you cry. The chord progression just absolutely milks the intention of the melody. And then the words – these guys are true poets, and it's just that level. And then you throw in a well put together production, and then my interpretation of it…I feel like I have a strong base when those five elements are included.
When I choose songs, they're always in ballad form. Do not send me a salsa arrangement of a demo. I won't even listen to it. I can't. I don't know why that is, but I'd rather [have] a guy at a piano or a guitar, and I imagine the arrangement that I would do to it.
That's so interesting, because so much of the industry is exactly the opposite these days. They want to hear a song that's fully produced like it would sound on the radio.
Oh, no, no, no, no. I'd rather [it] be a cappella. Just nothing, bare bones. It's like a canvas. ‘Cause a part of the process is whether I could paint on that canvas. But I don't need anything distracting. Once I start imagining what the arrangement's gonna be like and I'mexcited about it, that's the first step of approval. It's like "Wow, just put that on the left side ofmy desk right there, with the yeses, because it'smaking me itch." Itmight not be the greatest song – the chordsmight be strong but the verses are weak – but every time that chorus comes on, I imagine this horn line, the ‘bones doin' this, the rhythmbeing a caballo, or a six-eight, and once that's activated, I delve in deeper and then it's about whether I could live with the song.
It's fascinating to me that your 1999 album Marc Anthony was your first solo album in English, and it was also the first one where you devoted yourself to songwriting on almost all the tracks. Was that purely a coincidence, or are you more comfortable writing in English?
I'm definitely more comfortable writing in English. Though I've written in Spanish, there are just guys who do it better than I do. And everybody should eat. I don't want to do everything, be everything. I never wanted that. I was always of the mentality [that you should] surround yourself with the brightest and the smartest and the most passionate, and don't ever think that you're the smartest one in the room. That combination has worked well for me.
On your Marc Anthony and Libre and Mended albums, you co-wrote and co-produced with so many phenomenal writers and producers. Can you tell me about the process for that? Were you usually in the room with them, working through ideas?
I'm always in the room. I'm big on retreats. I'm like "Let's take two weeks and go to the middle of nowhere, with no distractions." Mended, we sat up in my cabin, upstate New York for two weeks, Kara [DioGuardi], Cory [Rooney] and I – we just locked ourselves up and wrote the majority of what we wrote up there in the cabin. I just finished a writing retreat with RedOne and his team and my team in the Dominican Republic where, in two weeks, we wrote the whole album – almost two albums.
Having RedOne and his team, I'll write a melody on the piano and then I'll be like "Alright man, do something with this." And his teamwill just take it andmodernize it. And then I'll go and then earth it up withmymusicians, with live guitar and live drums. And it's just like this combination of "Holy s**t!" And it's a song that I would sing for the rest ofmy life, that I'll stand by. That's the fun part of the process.
And I've never written relaxed. There was always some kind of timeline. Something is happening now. Every artist will tell you – well, many of them will say that "I wrote some of the best stuff when I was tormented, and in pain. Breakups are great for songwriting." And I always thought that there was something to that, but writing this album, I think [I was] the happiest I've ever been. It's really changed my whole outlook on that belief. You could write great stuff being happy, as well. And we had a great time. I'm so excited to finish the album.
What would you say is the most difficult thing about the creative process for you? And what do you do to overcome that difficulty?
I think lately, it's been trusting my instincts. You have these young cats come in, the RedOnes of the world who are just dominating the charts, and just know this new style of capturing people's imaginations musically. And you sit in a room, and you're like "Man, do I still got it?" That's about the toughest thing. But then, that sort of goes away when you write something and it's like "My God, that's what I'm talkin' about!" They're like, "That's what was missing," and they sort of work on your self-esteem.
Being out of that game and playing the radio game for so many years, I think that that's been the hardest part. But at the end of the day, there's no game to play, I realized. There's no radio game, there's no nothing. You should just always put out material that represents you – I don't care if it's an acoustic album with a quartet, whatever it is. Not "Oh my God, if it doesn't have a synth it's not gonna get played on radio!" Who gives a s**t? And that really alleviates a lot of the pressure.
I wonder how that idea ties into your worldwide success beginning in 1999, when you crossed over to the Anglo market with two English language albums. Do you feel that that material represents you just as well as anything else?
Oh, absolutely, no question. Both those albums still representme. I thinkmore than any other piece of work. Because it's so personal. It was me spreadingmy wings. It wasme gettingmassive amounts of confidence. It just solidified my belief in belief, and the importance of it.
How did their success impact your career and your audience?
I already had a big core Latino base, right? And recording in English – it just really expanded it. The misconception is that Latinos are just Latinos and they speak one language, and – no.
The majority of Latinos in the United States are bilingual. And it just made me unafraid of many things.
The biggest challenge that it did pose was, here I amcoming off of "You Sang to Me" and "I Need to Know," and I'mon tour, and the majority ofmy show is Spanish, and what do I sing?What is a set list? Is itmostly English?
How did you solve that problem?
I did Spanish versions of "I Need to Know" and "You Sang to Me." [Laughs]
And your Spanish audience reacted just as strongly as your English audience?
You've expanded far beyond your music career to focus on so many things – acting, fashion, entrepreneurship, philanthropy. Were you always this ambitious?
I wouldn't say that I was always this ambitious. How I would put it is, I never saw that the impact I could make would be impossible. There was some building – I was extremely fortunate to have this strong foundation. Being raised in the music business by the Ruben Blades of the world, Tito Puentes, Celia Cruzes and the Paul Simons, you know, all legends, just made me look at things differently. I saw how they did it.
And that's not the modern way to do it, but it's the right way to do it, as far as I'm concerned. All the thousands of hours of conversations that we've had over the years, I was fortunate enough to have them as my masters. Nothing ever seemed impossible. It's that simple.
I see it in a macro sense, having traveled the world for the past, what, 28 years. I see the world more than I see my home. I could look at a country from a bird's eye view. Same with opportunities, you know. But the trick is what you say "no" to, ‘cause when you finally say "yes," it has an impact.
Do all of your endeavors stem from the same creative drive as your music?
No question. I've had amazing opportunities that they've offered, and I'm like "Well, I don't drink that beer. You can't pay me enough to say I do." I've said no to more things because the passion base is not there. With anything that I am involved in, the first part of the criteria is: do I have a seat at the table? If I'm gonna wake up and make these meetings, drive this brand, spearhead this endeavor, can I live with that? Or is this just one of those things where they throw money at you and you're like "God, why did I say yes to this?"
So absolutely every single one of those endeavors that are a part of my life now has passed all that. Even the Miami Dolphins. When I make the Board meetings, I go prepared and I have something to say, I give my two cents and my thoughts and I argue. It wasn't just an opportunity, you know? So I would say yes.
What do you think of as your greatest legacy to the world, musical or otherwise?
I think my greatest legacy at this point is that I did it my way. I fought the status quo the whole way, [but] not simply to fight it – how will you ever exercise change, witness change if you don't just take on that fight? I took it on from day one. Not that I'm a crusader in any way, shape or form. I just saw it differently. You know, my taking on what the salsa industry was in the beginning, turned it on its head, [so] it became where the musicians got paid triple and they had health insurance, and my musicians had workers' compensation insurance. I saw it differently, that you could do it your way, do it responsibly.
I never flinched when it came to taking on the status quo – with a smile and with respect, of course, right? And that I wanted to be responsible, to take this responsibility and not squander it. I gave it a lot of respect. I gave the industry a lot of respect. I gave just music a lot of respect, all the respect that it deserved. And I never phoned it in.
As one of the best-known Latino celebrities in the world, do you feel pressure to act as an ambassador of Latin culture?
I don't feel the pressure. I was born to. And it's a responsibility that I accept completely. Hence Q'Viva. Q'Viva is now a platform that, through a lot of hard work, adversity and challenges that we faced, we did it. And we did it in the name of celebrating culture. We didn't do it for money. Jennifer [Lopez] and I pushed through a lot of personal challenges to get this done, which is a testament to our dedication to it.
So me as an ambassador of culture and music, I accept that fully, freely, exclusively. If you could have been a fly on the wall in a lot of those production meetings, [you would have seen] the way I fought tooth and nail to ensure the Q'Viva brand DNA was not gonna be any of the producers exploiting the clichés. I was like "No, you'll see that these countries are not two-second sound bites - ten more dead, an earthquake, a mining accident, no. There's a lot more to them." I've lived in those countries for many years. I've served them for many years. They've served me for many, many years. And Q'Viva is a product of the respect that I have for each and every one of those cultures.
So yeah, ambassador of Latin music, of music in general. But I think an ambassador of I think about all the decisions I had to make in order to accomplish what I've accomplished. And I'm like "Wow, it just started with a dream." So I have this affinity for dreamers. Because it takes a special person to invest their life for no return, and a lot of them just scraping by. And they get up, they wake up and try to find a way.
I have nothing but love and affinity and warmth in my heart for dreamers lately, and I'm really fortunate to wake up with that extra fuel in my tank to just be like "Who am I gonna find today?" So you're talking to a man who's living the best moment of his life, all the way around. You know, there's so much that's fulfilling. The family's healthy and happy, I'm doing what I love to do. I have a lot to look forward to.