It All Goes Back to the Voice

Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

About two years ago, Raul Malo was in the midst of a career crisis, so the lead singer and songwriter for the boundary-bending rock-country-pop band the Mavericks made a visit to a guru, and it shook him to the core.

"When I left there I thought, 'You know what? We know nothing. We don't know a thing ,"' the 35-year-old musician says in the gravest of tones. "He's seen it all, he does it all."

Yes, Malo found religion, but not in a Tibetan monastery nor under a revival tent down South.

The guru in question goes by the name of Tony Bennett.

"I went to see him in Nashville, and he's just up there singing these great old songs," says Malo, who's widely considered one of the most stirring new pop vocalists in years. "He's doing what he's been doing for 50 years, the people just love it and he loves it."

Malo is on a break at the Burbank recording studio where he recently started work on his first solo effort. The album he's making figures to stretch public perception of his talents even further than the four wide-ranging albums the Mavericks made from 1992 to 1998 did.

Now free of the confines of a group--even the loose confines of the Mavericks, which are on an open-ended hiatus--the singer is about to see just how far he can go, in hopes that one day he might reach a state of Bennett-like pop enlightenment.

"It's so simple," he says, gently strumming a Spanish guitar while waiting for the musicians nearby to work some kinks out of an arrangement they're about to record. "There's no fireworks, no explosions, no nothing. You could hear him on a stage or in a bar and it would still floor you. It's the total opposite of what you see on the Grammys."

Suddenly his eyes narrow and a smile starts to form.

"Of course, I say this and a year from now I'll be on the Grammys, and I'll have dancers and all this [stuff]," he says and breaks out laughing.

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If Malo's solo album, due in the fall, does win Grammy recognition, it may well be in one of the Latin categories.

Malo is delving deeper than ever into his Cuban American heritage and catholic--lowercase c--musical tastes, tastes formed during a childhood in Miami, where his parents met and married in the early '60s after fleeing the Castro regime. They had grown up loving American rock 'n' roll as well as Cuban pop and jazz, so Malo and his younger sister were exposed from birth to music that spanned a wide range of styles and cultures.

For the album, he has reunited with producer Steve Berlin and pianist, arranger and co-producer Alberto Salas, both of whom he met last year when he was drafted for the second-round Los Super Seven team. Many of the other musicians who worked on Los Super Seven's "Canto," which came out in February, are back for these sessions.

If anything, Malo's record shapes up more as an extension of "Canto" than of any Mavericks album. He sings several songs in Spanish, and one of them, "Ocho Versos," (Eight Verses) returns him to the social commentary and philosophical bent he displayed on the Mavericks' first major-label album, "From Hell to Paradise," but then abandoned.

That 1992 album's title song eloquently related the experience of refugees such as his parents:

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This 90-mile trip

Has taken 30 years to make

They tried to keep forever

What was never theirs to take

I cursed and scratched the devil's hand

As he stood in front of me

One last drag from his big cigar

And he finally set me free

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That song, along with the you-can't-go-home-again saga "Mr. Jones" and a ballad about child abuse titled "Children," made the Mavericks a critical favorite, a band that could frame sharp commentary in eclectic musical settings running from Bakersfield country to Tex-Mex to Roy Orbison pop grandeur.

But after signing with MCA Nashville on the strength of its 1990 independent debut album, "The Mavericks," the group moved to the country music capital, where Malo still lives with his wife, Betty, and their three young sons.

There Malo began refining his songwriting by working with various collaborators. That meant his often expansive lyrics were drastically pared back, and the subject turned almost exclusively to romance. His songs suddenly displayed an almost mathematical symmetry and simplicity:

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There goes my heart

Breaking in two

There go my eyes

Crying over you

My arms don't want

For us to part

So when you go

Here come the blues

There goes my heart

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It added up to the Mavericks' best-selling album ever, 1994's "What a Crying Shame," which has sold 1.2 million copies, according to SoundScan, and yielded four Top 30 country singles.

The disappearance of social commentary made it appear that conservative Nashville had sucked the independent vision out of Malo and the Mavericks.

Malo, however, says it had more to do with a philosophical shift that accompanied his geographical move.

"The soapbox thing does not appeal to me at all," he says. "I really get tired of artists who do nothing but preach to the public, like everybody's an idiot and that people should know better. So I've kind of purposely stayed away from that kind of stuff.

"Not to say that 'From Hell to Paradise' or 'Mr. Jones' were preachy, because they weren't. But I started to get a hint of that, and I thought, 'You know, I just want to entertain.' There's a lot more fun that way, and a lot more freedom that way."

Freedom, to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, is just another word for no airplay, and country radio and many fans--especially those in the U.S.--became increasingly confounded by the Mavericks' musical eclecticism.

After the commercial high point of "Crying Shame," sales for the group's next album, "Music for All Occasions" (1995), dropped to 640,000. "Trampoline," in which Malo and company moved deeply into big-band rock and pop, followed three years later and to date has sold just 190,000 copies.

"'Trampoline' threw a lot of people for a loop," Malo says, flashing a mischievous grin. "That's OK. I liked it."

What never flagged was Malo's soaring voice, which is the focal point of his new album.

"A lot of people loved his voice--he's just a great singer," says Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records, a radio industry journal. "Because he has a pretty wide range of music in him, the anticipation level in the industry has to do with wondering what he's gonna do on his own."

What Malo's doing falls in line with his perceptions of his strengths as an artist.

"I've realized that singing is what I do best," he says. "I'm a better singer than I am a songwriter, so I just write songs so that I can show off." He laughs.

Most songs on his solo album, which will be released by the Higher Octave label, center on love.

"To me that's still the most interesting subject," he says, his eyes sparkling. "It's why we do anything we do."

Malo feels that a song such as "Dance the Night Away" from "Trampoline"--with its refrain, "I just want to dance the night away / With senoritas who can sway"--does speak of a philosophy. It's just not one with obvious political overtones.

"It's the carefree letting go of whatever's bringing you down," Malo says. "There's so much serious stuff going on. Out in California you've got the energy crisis, you've got crime, and it's not just California. Every place has problems. So if you can make people laugh or have fun or forget their hardships for an hour or two, what's wrong with that?"

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Producer Berlin, a longtime member of Los Lobos, signed on to oversee the recording because he's intrigued by Malo's attempt to bridge disparate musical worlds.

"He has a deep knowledge of stuff that most people consider schlocky--stuff he grew up with, like the cocktail pop of the early '60s," Berlin says. "What we want to achieve is a large, very arranged pop record, albeit one with amazingly complex and well-performed Latin rhythms. That tension makes for a very, very interesting record. I don't think anyone else is trying this. At least, I'm not aware of anyone who is."

Malo has been trying to do it since the mid-'90s, but was stymied by various record company, management and band pressures, he says.

"Those were some of the most depressing times of my life," he says. "I thought if I'm ever going to do something outside of [the Mavericks], I need to go out on my own and just wipe the slate clean. For a while there, I thought I might never make another record. I felt like if I can't do it my way, or the right way, I'm just not going to do it. I'll go wait tables, or just produce and still do something creatively.

"Then it all started to fall into place. Luckily, I'm with a label that understands the concept of making a record just for the sake of making a record. And they'll figure out how to sell it."

No problem, says Dan Selene, executive vice president of artists and repertoire for Higher Octave, a Malibu-based label that specializes in new age and world music.

"We had a meeting of the minds right away on what the record should be," Selene says. "He's doing adult eclectic vocals with a Latin twist, and that's perfect for our audience, which is basically 25 to 54 years old.

"We operate within the niches and then try to expand on that," Selene says.

"The music comes first, and with music that powerful, it will find an audience."

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