She’s determined to be heard, man
A cynical Latin rock fan couldn’t have penned it better.
Zayra Alvarez, an aspiring arena goddess born and raised in Puerto Rico, makes it deep into the prime-time CBS competition of “Rock Star: Supernova.” She belts out songs by R.E.M., Evanescence and even digs up Tommy Tutone, shouting “867-5309" with enough of an island-Spanish accent to make the ultimate ‘80s phone number into an international call. She prances around for judges Tommy Lee and Dave Navarro dressed in peekaboo cosmic blue cat suits like she’s Ziggy Stardust’s long lost Caribbean cousin. She gets tagged a “sexy Latina” by show host Brooke Burke.
Then as soon as she sings one of her original songs in Spanish -- “Lluvia del Mar,” a heart-crushing power ballad that she sounds right at home on -- she gets the boot. It was a pretty good summation of the fate of Spanish as a mainstream-rock idiom: It might make you sexy, but it won’t get you the gig.
“I wanted to show them what my voice sounds like when I’m comfortable, not when I’m singing covers that I’ve just learned the day before,” says Alvarez, who on a warm Friday afternoon still appeared to be dressed for the show (or a night at the old Gazzari’s) in leg-clinging silver pants and a white tank top draped with a dangling black cross. “I wanted them to hear how beautiful Spanish can be. I think that was my best performance.”
It’s been only a few weeks since she left “Rock Star,” but the show’s hype machine has clearly begun to have its effect. The Dallas local was in town for the series wrap party, as well as “you know, meetings and press, man,” with two managers by her side. She also has been recording demos for a new album at a friend’s studio in Sherman Oaks.
“I gotta have the full vision before I call the producer in,” she says sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills motel, her voice still raspy from the “Rock Star” festivities the night before.
So far, her new songs -- which Alvarez describes as a heavy mix of glam rock and electronica -- are all in English.
“Singing in English opens up markets,” she says, fiddling with an arm full of silver bangle bracelets. “But I would never abandon Spanish. Songs come out of me in both languages. If a song is better in Spanish it will go on the record in Spanish. I never fight those things.” Alvarez grew up in Arroyo, a small town in the southeast of Puerto Rico, a little over an hour from San Juan. “That was my party town,” she says.
Her parents didn’t raise her listening to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones -- she jokingly calls herself a “little jibarita,” or little country girl -- but she’s been speaking English ever since her first-grade teacher made it a requirement. It came in handy when, after majoring in industrial engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, she landed a job with Boeing in Dallas. After long days in her cubicle and long nights alone in her new city, she taught herself to play guitar and then started hitting a local open mike night.
“People would line up with their guitars and bongos,” she says. “It was pretty serious, with talented singers, not just people making [fools] of themselves singing about their dead cats. It inspired me to try something of my own.”
To better cater to her audience, the first songs Alvarez wrote and performed were in English. An acoustic EP followed, “Breaking Up Grey Skies,” and she soon found herself signed up to indie label Brando Records. But when it was time to record her first full-length collection of songs, “Ruleta,” Alvarez went back to the Spanish she grew up with. Originally released in 2005, “Ruleta” ventured little beyond solid but staid Latin alterna-rock, but it was enough to land slots opening for established Latin American acts such as Circo and La Ley.
“There are amazing rock bands in South America who are very cool and very modern,” says Alvarez, who’s just reissued “Ruleta” with new songs, all in the English that “Rock Star” audiences became familiar with. “They never have a chance to shine in the U.S. because of all the stereotypes. People here think that all Latinos can do is play salsa and merengue.”
Alvarez claims that challenging those stereotypes was her primary goal as a “Rock Star” hopeful.
“I always saw being a Latina as my edge, what would make me different from everyone else,” she says, propping her lace-up stiletto-heeled boots on a rickety patio table.
“There has always been a misconception about Latin music, that it’s very narrow and specific. Latin music is all kinds of styles.”
For her first post-"Rock Star” album, though, Alvarez is eager to get beyond all the classification and just play, as she puts it, “rock ‘n’ roll, man.”
As proof that she’s not alone, she mentions Kinky -- the Mexican electro-rock group that switches as easily between languages as it does markets -- and New York’s hyper-polyglot Brazilian Girls, who dabble in English, Spanish, German and French.
“So far I can only sing in two languages,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe there will be a third and a fourth. I’ll sing in Japanese, man. I’m working on it.”