Raul Malo's big, buttery voice works on a listener even in casual conversation. It is not something he reserves for performance or the studio. It just rolls out unselfconsciously. Malo, the Cuban country singer from Miami charted throughout the 1990s with the Grammy Award-winning alt-country Mavericks. After they disbanded in the early 2000s, Malo went solo and continued to make superb, thoughtful if progressive country music on his own. He has just released his sixth solo effort, Sinners and Saints.
OC Weekly: Is it because I grew up during the '60s on the California coast, or am I actually hearing some surf rock influence in the new album?
Raul Malo: Oh yeah. Man, absolutely. Certainly the first song (the title track is “Sinners and Saints”) has all these strange elements of it, you know, which of course come out throughout the record as well. I grew up listening to so many different styles. That first song just kind of evolved. I started remembering, like, what were some of the first sounds in songs and music that I heard, you know, as a kid. I asked my mom, and we were talking about some of the first music I ever heard, and it was a lot of these Spanish Flamenco songs.
And all this ended up in your writing?
I started picking up my classical guitar, and I started playing this melody, and I just kept playing this riff, and kept playing it and kept playing it. And then I started playing the same riff, the same melody, on my electric. And then it took on this whole other thing. It sounded like this pseudo surf I-don't-know-what-the-hell kind of mix. But I was digging it, you know? I thought, this is kind of interesting and fun, so I kept messing with it. Eventually, the noise that I was making became sounds, and those sounds became a song.
Does that pretty much describe your typical song writing work flow?
[Laughs.] Unfortunately, yes.
I don't know if I'd use the word 'unfortunately' after you had, what, six hits with the Mavericks? Whatever you've been doing, it works.
Well, you know, you're right, and I'm kidding, but yeah, you know? I really enjoy that part of it. I enjoy just trying different things and experimenting and looking for different ways to skin the cat, so to speak.
That said, your writing for the Mavericks was only subtly different than that of your solo records.
You have to, I wouldn't say contain it, but you still have to play and do stuff with the group in mind, if that makes sense. You have to consider not only the strengths of the group, but the weaknesses too, quite honestly. I don't have the group anymore and I can do pretty much whatever I want, obviously within reason. I have my own limitations to deal with too. I'm not in the mainstream country music game any more, and I can experiment a little bit, you know, and try different things.
Any fallout for having made that decision?
I'm sure my accountant would have wished that I'd stuck to the same thing that I've been doing, you know, over and over [laughs] and over and over again, but that just wasn't for me.
Was it time to leave the Mavericks? Did that project play itself out?
I think so. I really felt, and I guess it's hard for people to understand who aren't in it, that aren't in that situation. I think the main thing I was feeling that by the time we had done the last record, I honestly felt that we had said, as a band, everything we were gonna say. We'd exhausted our musical vocabulary. You know? I'm proud of the music we did and the records we did and everything we achieved, but I really just felt it was time to move on.
You've been quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, that one can be country without being dumb. Have any negatives come from appealing to the collective intelligence of the country audience?
Well, I think there's definitely a price to pay. It's so frustrating. I think that culturally we, and not just in country music, but culturally in general we try to dumb it down so much, from television to movies to just about anything. You can certainly see it in country music. To me, you listen to Ray Price “For the Good Times,” and you go back even further to Jimmy Rodgers. Go to Hank Williams. That was country, but that wasn't dumb, you know? Even songs like “My Bucket's Got a Hole in It,” that's hillbilly poetry and it's done cleverly and it's about as country as you can get but it's not dumb, you know?