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“I think you need to separate the act of singing from living,” Raul Malo says. “Without that separation, people tend to burn out or die young.”
The former front man of the Mavericks isn’t one of those method singers—the ones who live every lyric, tapping their inner selves in search of onstage catharsis. “In my experience, and the more I learn about other singers, the more I’d say it’s really an act,” he continues. “Some of us are just really good pretenders. You certainly don’t have to be miserable to sing a sad song. I think having life experience helps; it’s probably good for you to at some point have woken up in a puddle of your own vomit, but no, you don’t have to be miserable.”
Malo, 44, comes off as chatty and affable during a wide-ranging conversation—a regular guy, a good dude who just happens to possess a prodigious set of pipes. His lusty, liquid tenor—Roy Orbison-esque with less fragility—tilts the swoon meter. Employing twang, blues, Latin and the classic pop inflections of Sinatra, he’s given to the grand gesture, shooting into upper registers for dramatic effect. And his vocals are just as effective at evoking ebullience as heartbreak.
That versatility is in full flower on 2009’s The Lucky One, Malo’s first album of original material after a few covers records. The jaunty title track is an exultation from a guy who has finally found authentic love. On “Something Tells Me,” he conveys the rueful yearning of a man who doesn’t quite know where he stands with his woman. And on “Crying for You,” Malo’s voice turns tremulous, at first simmering, then pleading.
In all, The Lucky One—with its timeless nods to Elvis, Roy, Hank and Frank—defies genre. Cynics could argue that the music is a mere appropriation of shopworn elements. But the album is very much in character for Malo, who grew up in Miami, the middle-class son of Cuban parents, asking to hear Sinatra’s “Strangers In the Night” on the stereo. One day, at age 9 or 10, he stayed home from school and made his mom a recording for Mother’s Day. Using a small cassette recorder and the family stereo, he fashioned a crude, multitracked version of Presley’s “That’s All Right.” “That was probably the pivotal moment,” Malo says about realizing he had vocal talent. “It gave me affirmation.”
When it came to his own musical tastes, Malo heard a different drummer. “I can’t remember not liking the music I like now,” he says. “That’s either really cool or awfully pathetic—I can’t figure out which.” He soaked up Queen and the Beatles and others, too, but when he hit his midteens at the onset of the 1980s, Malo became alienated from contemporary pop. “It was a curse; you were always the odd man out,” he says. “But I didn’t really care. I just didn’t think A Flock of Seagulls were very cool.”
Malo met a few fellow travelers and joined a few bands, and in 1989, he formed the Mavericks. A couple of years later, the group signed to MCA’s country division, where they experienced an uneasy, decade-long relationship. Although the Mavericks scored a platinum album, several hit singles, a few CMA awards and a Grammy, they chafed at the Nashville music machine. As the years wore on, Malo continued to inject Afro-Cuban, Tex-Mex, rockabilly and vintage pop influences into the music; after the commercial failure of 1998’s Trampoline, the Mavericks’ tenure as tenuous country stars came to an end.
Malo’s solo career during the 2000s has not yielded the same commercial fruit, but he’s a far-more-fulfilled musician. “I’m able to go out and work,” he says. “I have a small but very devoted fan base. It’s not that small, honestly. But I’m not the mainstream, and I came to terms with that a long time ago. After I left the band and started making records on my own, I realized I am not McDonald’s. I’m the mom-’n’-pop restaurant you have to go out of your way to find, but when you find it, you’ll dig it—I’m hoping, anyway.”
Raul Malo performs with Brooke Ramel at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; thecoachhouse.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $20 in advance; $25 day of show. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Role Player: Former Mavericks front man Raul Malo on the art of singing and not being a country star."