Raul Malo Finally Gets Out Front

Raul Malo’s first solo album almost never happened. The former lead singer of the Mavericks , whose first effort alone, Today, was released Oct. 23, said he came close to packing in his musical career, period.

Due to contracts, he was long unsure of his status. Finally, he said, he got released from his contractual obligations with MCA. “I would have been heavily screwed otherwise,” said Malo over lunch at a Nashville sushi restaurant. “We wouldn’t be talking right now. I’d probably have a job doing something else. It was some of the most disheartening times of my life. It was horrible. At some point I seriously thought I would never make another record again. If I’d had to stay at MCA and if I’d had to stay in the Mavericks, we would not have made any more music and it would be done with.”

Once free, he began exploring the possibilities of a solo work, finally signing with OmTown Music, a division of Malibu, Calif.-based Higher Octave Music. “I think I’m the only release on the label this year,” said Malo, “so that’s great. I was talking with them about maybe doing a solo Spanish album or a solo English album. The company just said, hey, why don’t you do a combination of the two, put some of your favorite Spanish songs on and we’ll make a combination, as long as we have a couple of singles to work at radio, and I said ’What?’ I fell out of my chair. I said, ’You’re gonna work us at radio?’”

The resulting album has Malo’s soaring voice on 11 new Malo compositions and the classic song “It Takes Two to Tango,” divided between Spanish and English. Co-writers range from Dennis Britt and Wally Wilson to Rick Trevino and Jaime Hanna. Malo is working on producing solo albums for the latter two.

In recording, he went to Los Angeles and co-produced the album with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, with whom he had worked on the Los Super Seven project, a landmark Spanish-English work. In working with premier studio musicians such as Alberto Salas, Rene Camacho, Ruben Estrada and Ramón Stagnaro, Malo found himself in a new studio situation.

“Whenever the Mavericks recorded, I was always on top of everybody to do this, to do that, play this,” he said. “These guys are so good musically — and just hear stuff in a different way — that I didn’t want to thwart their creativity. So I just kinda stood back and let them run with it. These guys are seriously badass musicians. So I just sat there and sang. I knew that was the only thing I could do that they couldn’t do. I just shut up and let them play.”

In putting together songs, Malo said he wrote many in Spanish, for the first time. “It depends on each song,” he said. “Some of the Spanish stuff really just came out, and I started to explore that because I really haven’t done that before, just stream of consciousness sort of stuff. And it worked. I started to like what I had to say in Spanish. Some of the lyrics are pretty heavy lyrics in that there’s a message there.

“’Ocho Versos’ is one in particular. It’s so funny because ever since From Hell to Paradise people have said, ‘When are you gonna write another of that kind of record?’ I never felt like I wanted to write that again — to me that was one moment in time. But a song like ’Ocho,’ to me, is like a continuation of that, except it’s in Spanish, and it felt more real in Spanish, like I wasn’t betraying anything.”

He enlisted Shelby Lynne to sing a duet on the old chestnut “It Takes Two to Tango.”

“That’s all live,” said Malo. “I just love Shelby to death. She’s got a razor blade in her mouth the whole time. We were talking about doing this duet, she’s an old pal and we’ve kinda been along the same path. We both have been on the outside and the inside of this town and we know what it’s like. We were talking about songs, she loves the old songs like I do and when I said ’Two to Tango,’ she said, ‘Hey, I know that song. Hell yeah, I’ll do it!’ She came in and we had to have cocktails first. And you can hear it, but it’s great. It’s total anti-normal. I admire her irreverence. Cusses like a sailor and drinks like a man. And not a bad singer to boot.”

“Are We Almost There” is the closest thing to what might be considered a pure country song on the album. “I demoed it up, and out of all the stuff here, it sounded like something the Mavericks would have done,” said Malo. “I was kind of hesitant to do it, and then I brushed aside my own insecurities and just listened to it as a song and I thought, you know, I wrote this song and so what? If the Mavericks would have done it, fine. I wrote the songs in the Mavericks. So for me it was a good way to link the two together. They’ll always be linked together, no matter what I do.

“A song like ’Let’s Not Say Goodbye’ was originally gonna be a negative song, like ’we’re done with it, just get your shit and get outta here,’” he said. “But we turned it around, and now it’s a much more loving song. I’m not terribly spiritual, but we need to look inward at our relationships with our families and friends and people we’re close to and take care of that. That’s sort of the underlying theme of the album in its own way. It wasn’t done overtly, certainly, but it’s there. I hope the record will make people think about things that way. Music in general does that to me.”

As far as the Mavericks’ future goes, Malo said it’s not bright. “I would have to say that the Mavericks are on a permanent hiatus. We’re not broken up, per se, there’s no finality, no guillotine falling. Well, it has fallen. But I hate to say ’never,’ that we would never do a record again. If the stars were aligned and if I’ve got time and if everybody’s got time to do a record and the time is right, and if we felt we could make a record for a label that would promote it right and would sell it, then yeah.

“But to make a record for a label that’s just gonna sit on it, and then put it aside because it might be cool to have a Mavericks record, then forget it! I’ve been through that before, and I’m not gonna do that again. I want to make music that at least is gonna have the chance to be heard. That’s all I ask for. That’s all I asked for with the Mavericks, and a lot of the time we didn’t get that chance. I really don’t think that the Mavericks got the fair chance that they deserved for their music to be heard. You could blame it on the label or the radio or a combination thereof. I blame just the whole darn system.”

Malo said the categories of country and rock and whatever no longer matter to him. “I’m a fan of music and I’ve always liked mixing different things,” he said. “To me, it’s all so related. The other night at the Country Music Hall of Fame [induction, on Oct. 4] I was watching the Everly Brothers get inducted ,and I’m listening to the records and you realize, they’re a rock ‘n’ roll act! These were rock ‘n’ roll songs, they weren’t country songs. They didn’t play the Grand Ole Opry. They were rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, Johnny Cash , he wasn’t considered a country act. Elvis !

“I’ve always loved all kinds of music, and it’s kind of a lofty goal to bring it all together. It’s not realistic. But you can certainly mix and match certain things and open people up to the possibilities. Whenever the Mavericks played live, we threw down peoples’ expectations of what a country music show should be. It was anything but a country music show. There’s not much difference between a rock ‘n’ roll song and a country song. Webb Pierce ! I sang Webb the other night at the Hall of Fame, “I Ain’t Never.” That’s a rock ‘n’ roll song. So the lines for me have always been blurry.”

For the immediate future, Malo plans a short acoustic tour this fall. “After Thanksgiving we’ll do a tour with the big band [from the album] for two weeks and take the holidays and go back and start up again in February. Next year will be the big tour.”