Raul Malo is having a long, hot summer. And he's loving it. Besides touring to support You're Only Lonely, his new album of pop covers, the former lead singer of the Mavericks has just finished producing a Rick Trevino project for Warner Bros. Records and is in the midst of completing both a country and a Christmas album with his current band.
You're Only Lonely pairs Malo with producer Peter Asher, who's best known for his work with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt. Malo met Asher following a Mavericks concert. That encounter led to the album for Sanctuary Records.
Depending on how you classify them, You're Only Lonely is either Malo's second or third solo album. He released the self-spotlighting Today in 2001. Then, in 2004, came The Nashville Acoustic Sessions on which Malo was lead vocalist. But he was billed equally with superpickers Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy.
Except for the throbbing, Latin-flecked "For You, " which Malo co-wrote with Alan Miller, all the songs on You're Only Lonely were previously major or minor hits for other artists. Most, but not all, of those artists also wrote the pieces.
The selections are J.D. Souther's title cut, "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" (Willie Nelson), "Feels Like Home" (Randy Newman), "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)" (Everly Brothers), "At Last" (made famous by Ray Anthony and Etta James), "Games That Lovers Play" (recorded by Wayne Newton), "Secret Heart" (Ron Sexsmith), "Run to Me" (the Bee Gees), "Tomorrow Night" (recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Etta James) and "Remember" (Harry Nilsson).
Although he had never performed any of them before, Malo says he was familiar with most of the songs.
"The only one I did not know was ... 'Feels Like Home,'" he says. "Of course, when Peter played it for me, I thought, 'That's one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.' But it was the most difficult one to tackle. That one really took a while to get it to where I felt like, 'OK. Now I'm singing it right.' Every time we play that song, there's always somebody out in the audience that is crying."
A second version of "Feels Like Home" on the album links Malo in a duet with Martina McBride. Cutting that version of the song was something both Asher and Malo wanted. "We asked her to do [that one] specifically," Malo explains. "Peter thought that it would make a beautiful duet, and the stars were aligned. She happened to have some free time, and I think she was working at the studio next door. It was all very serendipitous."
Malo adds that Asher already knew of McBride's vocal prowess. "Peter keeps up [with music]. He loves singers. So if there's a top-notch singer in any genre, chances are Peter has worked with them or knows them -- or wants to work with them and gets to know them."
"For You," according to Malo, was "a little demo I had, just kind of lying around. We put that on the record because we needed an upbeat song. And Peter really wanted something on there that reminded fans of my previous work, that linked all the work together."
To sift out the songs he finally recorded, Malo says he and Asher reviewed about "50 or 60" possibilities. "When we were discussing the evolution of this record, we felt there were enough Frank Sinatra songs [and that] Rod Stewart had pretty much cornered the market on Cole Porter songs. ... We started looking at singer-songwriter stuff . . . [and] at stuff I had loved as a kid."
Malo recorded only two songs that didn't make the album: "Without You" (another Nilsson song) and "Unbreakable" (recorded by Westlife, an Irish group). Of the latter, Malo notes, "I didn't like the song, but Peter loved it. I just didn't sound believable on it."
As a producer, Asher had one trait Malo particularly appreciated. "The most interesting thing I noticed in working with him was that he didn't really let anything get in the way of the vocals -- of a vocal line or a phrase. Everything the musicians played -- every riff, every drum fill, every little chime, whatever -- was tailored around the vocal.
"It was an interesting way to work, because what happens, I think, is that your ear starts to focus on the vocal, and whenever there's a little riff or a little lick, that becomes part of the hook, part of the arrangement, rather than just another fill. That was a different way than, say, working with a band or how country records are made, where basically everybody's filling in all the holes -- and after a while they don't really become special."
The Nashville Acoustic Sessions was a spontaneous project, Malo recalls. "A buddy of mine was working at CMH [Records], which [is the] bluegrass label that put the album out. He asked me if I wanted to make a bluegrass record. It was in between a Mavericks and a Sanctuary record, so I obviously had nothing to do and plenty of time. I never thought about it much. I said, 'Well, I love bluegrass, but I'm not a bluegrass singer. So how about we do this?' I just drew up some songs and said, 'Why don't we do them in this setting?' He loved the idea, and, lo and behold, he put it out. ... It really sounds like what it is -- a bunch of guys sitting around in a living room picking some of their favorite songs."
Those favorites ranged the musical spectrum from Henry Mancini's "Moon River" to Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" to the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power." There's even an instrumental take on Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train."
Malo has quit the Mavericks, and he explains that decision like this: "I think bands should have a life span. The Beatles were really smart about it. The Police were really smart about it. There's a period in a band's life where you're kind of awful in the beginning. Then you get pretty good. Then you get really good and come up with probably the best work you'll ever make in your life. At that point, you should probably quit because you're not going to get any better. I know it's kind of weird to say, but I honestly felt like the Mavericks had done all we were going to do. And, musically, that was it. ... It's nothing against all the records we did. I loved the records and I'm proud of them."
Although Malo has established his credentials as a producer of such other artists as Trevino and K. T. Oslin, he says this line of work is not a primary interest. "I'd rather concentrate on making my own records. If something were to come along that made sense and would be fun, then certainly I'd think about it."
These days, he's quite excited about the upcoming album of country standards he's recorded with his road band.
"To further confuse the issue," he says with a chuckle, "we did it more as if Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra had done a country music album. I've always felt that Nashville -- and all these great songs that have been written here -- could be interpreted in other ways that's not just pedal steel guitar and fiddles. I gotta say it's a beautiful record, and it looks like it's going to come out on Vanguard [Records]. ... We did it the way records used to be made. We're all live in the same room. There are no vocal fixes -- no fixes whatsoever. The only overdubs were an occasional horn part or guitar part. Everything else is live and in the room. And, boy, it sounds like our favorite records."
Tentatively titled Nashville After Hours, the album retreads such favorites as "Welcome to My World," "For the Good Times," "Crying Time," "You Can Depend on Me," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Take These Chains From My Heart."
Next up is a Christmas album, long requested by fans, he says, that Malo will release on his own. "I'm one of those idiots who love Christmas," he beams.
View Raul Malo's performances on CMT's Studio 330 Sessions.