Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz won so many Latin Grammys for his last two albums of dreamy romantic tunes -- seven in all -- that he became a poster boy for the safe, conservative school of Latin music that historically dominated the industry.
And when he swept the top categories last year for his "MTV Unplugged" album, a live acoustic set of old songs, he seemed a bit embarrassed by the generosity of his colleagues in the Latin Recording Academy.
The unassuming singer-songwriter scooped up his trophies and temporarily dropped from sight. But behind the scenes, Sanz was feeling the pressure of success, which normally induces artists to produce more of the same.
So what could he do for an encore?
"I knew I would have to surprise people," says Sanz, relaxing recently with a glass of wine in a swank suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Above all, I had to surprise myself. Because there comes a point where you get comfortable with all of that acclaim.
"Look, I've always thought that awards were not important and all that. But I realized that, like it or not, winning brings a responsibility that you must assume. The responsibility to not let people down, to keep growing and to show that you deserve all those awards."
Judging by the quality of his new album, Sanz took that challenge seriously. The low-key artist returns with a fresh and indeed surprising album, appropriately titled "No Es Lo Mismo" (It's Not the Same). The touching and provocative work marks a major step forward for Sanz, edgier and more intense, with a strong rhythm and emotional depth that reflects his return to his flamenco roots.
Sanz has cleared away the rococo excess that cluttered his music, though his new songs are paradoxically more complex. They are less meandering, advancing forcefully, sometimes with defiant commentary and brain-teasing wordplay that defies facile translation.
In the Dylanesque monologue of the title cut, Sanz rebelliously answers critics: "Read my lips, I'm not for sale." The singer successfully interlaces Spanish and English with guest rapper GQ in a hip-hop tune, "Try to Save Your Song," taut with sexual tension.
Even his love lyrics sound more real, like aching, intimate conversations. But Sanz sometimes delivers protest disguised as romance. "Sandy a Orilla do Mundo" (Sandy at the Edge of the Earth) is about a Spanish coastline spoiled by an oil spill, and the song seethes with heartbreak and anger against greed.
Warner Music, the label that established Sanz as a pop star in Spain 12 years ago, says the new CD has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide since its release Sept. 2. Warner executives believe Sanz is reaching a younger, hipper audience with his modern, more outspoken approach
"It's been a long time since I've seen this kind of excitement in stores for a record," says Gabriela Martinez, Warner's Miami-based vice president of marketing for Latin America. "This album creates a perfect balance because it has a feel that is more progressive, more rhythmic and original, without ever abandoning that trademark romanticism. You still are hearing the essence of Alejandro, but he's evolved."
Evolving often means taking chances. For Sanz, 34, this album involved a series of risks -- from changing the songwriting process to choosing a new producer.
"I learned a lot from painting," says Sanz, an amateur artist with a slight build and a crooked, impish smile. "Painting teaches you that taking risks rarely leads to failure. In fact, from the moment you assume a risk, you have succeeded.
"To me, failure means getting stuck. Even getting stuck in success can be a failure. I don't want to be identified with a standard way of making music. I want to advance. I want to create a style that carries my own name."
A passion for guitar
His real name is Alejandro Sanchez Pizarro, born Dec. 18, 1968, and raised in working-class districts of Madrid. His parents hail from Andalusia, the cradle of flamenco in southern Spain where he vacationed as a boy every summer.
His father, Jesus, was a door-to-door book dealer and aspiring musician who wound up managing mostly unknown cabaret acts. Sanz began studying the guitar at age 7 and pursued it with a passion that finally unnerved his mother, who broke the instrument one morning because the boy wouldn't let the family sleep.
Originally, Sanz dreamed of becoming a flamenco performer, but the student quickly realized that flamenco was a lifestyle, not just an occupation. "Flamenco can be very hard on beginners," says Sanz, a twinge of resentment in his voice suggesting his early experience still stings. "If you lose the rhythm, they toss you out with, 'You're no good, boy!' They're very strict and very cruel. But it's also a marvelous education, because you either learn to play or else."
Sanz knew he could never compete with peers reared on flamenco, so he decided to keep flamenco as a base while pursuing a career in pop. To this day, he believes he made a contribution to the genre by naturally asserting his flamenco identity in mainstream music circles, where the genre is sometimes disparaged or ignored.
Sanz made his first record for the Hispavox label under the stage name Alejandro Magno. It was a techno-flamenco fusion that he labels insignificant with a dismissive wave. Those were lean years in the 1980s when he worked strip joints, playing short sets between acts.
His first big break came while he was studying business administration and working at a small recording studio in Madrid. Sanz wrote some songs for another artist, but he persuaded producer Miguel Angel Arenas to shop the demo to record companies on his behalf. That led to his first album on Warner, 1991's "Viviendo Deprisa" (Living in a Hurry). Produced by Arenas, the album sold a million copies in Spain alone, and set Sanz on a path to international stardom.
The novice was signed by Inigo Zabala, who then headed the label in Madrid. He still plays his demos for the Spanish executive, who now heads Warner's Latin American operations from headquarters in Miami, where Sanz also has a home.
Sanz says the label suggested asking Quincy Jones, the fabled U.S. producer and arranger, to produce the new album. But the artist declined, turning instead to a relatively unknown Cuban American trumpet player, Lulu Perez, to co-produce.
"In the studio, there's a lot of doubt about what should be done at various points in the process," says Sanz, who plays the tres, a Cuban guitar, for the first time on the album. "An artist sometimes can't decide which way to go. But when you have a big-name, professional producer, they don't wait around for you to resolve your doubts. They just forge ahead despite them. I wanted to participate in the production, to control the final result."
In the cover photo, a tattoo is clearly visible on his upper left arm -- the image of the bull's head taken from "Guernica," Picasso's antiwar masterpiece. It's a symbol of his opposition to the war in Iraq and his conviction that, after Sept. 11, artists have an obligation to address social concerns. He even sprinkles a couple of profanities in his lyrics, undermining that patina of respectability that smothers much of Latin pop.
"In the end, there's a lot of us who stopped thinking for ourselves long ago," Sanz says. "We've all gotten comfortable and we've let politicians do the thinking for us, and decide for us and do everything for us. We're allowing them to wipe out our individuality.... So this record is an appeal to different ways of seeing the world. It's saying, 'I want to hear your voice too. I want to hear the people's voices.' "