Two Grammy wins and 12 top-ten hits on Pop, Latin, and adult-contemporary charts across the globe have not changed what’s most important to Jon Secada about his music. His new album release, Otra Vez, allows the singer-songwriter the long-awaited opportunity to reconnect with his loyal, Latin fan base. With a fresh batch of tunes possessing the spunk he displayed as a dancer on Univision’s 2010 reality series Mira Quien Baila!, he’s ready to take to the road again and experience the “synergy” that connects his musician’s instincts with his love of the stage. He talks with Justin Kantor about his multi-faceted musical journey. Also listen to a podcast of the interview on BlogTalkRadio.
Otra Vez is your eighth Spanish-language CD. What is the concept behind it?
I haven’t done a Spanish Pop record in awhile. So, to put it together means a lot — to have a song on the radio that’s both. My career started in both Spanish and English, but I’ve done more recordings in English. I’ve been doing a lot of work in the Latin market these last few years, and I’m excited to get back to my Latin fans.
Who did you work with on this CD?
I worked with four or five teams of people. I love to work in teams of writers and producers. It took me three years to write and get all the songs together. The project started in Colombia, where I was a judge on the Spanish version of American Idol. I met producer Jose Gaviria then. As a result of our professional relationship and friendship, a lot of good songs came about. Some of the songs turned into working with some other guys that I know in Miami. Little by little, the record started to come together.
Tell me a bit about your beginnings on this Earth. Being raised in Havana, what stands out in your mind about the experience?
I don’t remember much. I’m a product of the American dream. I left Cuba when I was eight, so what I know is my life here in the U.S. I grew up in Miami as a Hispanic- American. I’m very proud of my roots: growing up in a very Latino environment, speaking Spanish. That’s always been important to my career. But at the same time, I was always drawn to American music and pop culture. When I first got signed to SBK — and even when I studied music, even though everything was Anglo-oriented, I always did stuff in Spanish. In Miami, you listen to all kinds of music. Latin radio stations are just as popular and important as their English counterparts. But I was also personally drawn to Pop, R&B, and Rock singer-songwriters in the Anglo market.
Indeed, in 1992, it was unusual for a new artist to debut with an album in two language formats.
My manager at the time, Emilio Estefan, made it a point to convince the record company to let me record all the songs in both English and Spanish. That gave me the international career that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. My Latin following is an amazing base that has been with me since day one.
You alluded earlier to your studies of music. Most of us think of you as a pop singer first; but it’s worth noting that you have a Master’s degree in Jazz vocal performance. How did you fall into that?
I wanted to study music and be prepared to do whatever came my way as a musician. That’s been my thing since day one. As a result, the most direct connection I could find to popular music was studying jazz. And it’s been great. I love education. It continues to be a big part of my career. I always credit everything I’ve done and the kind of musicians I have to my studies.
I really enjoyed your exploration of the genre on your Essentials CD. It was especially cool to hear you revamp what I believe was your very first recording, “Wishes,” from the mid-’80s. You got your big break as a background vocalist for Gloria Estefan; and you went on to co-write her hits “Coming out of the Dark and “I See Your Smile.” Tell me about that breakthrough. Was it a long process, or did everything fall into place at wrong moment?
Everything evolved, but I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time, meeting the right people. The Estefans were very important in helping to catapult my career. I worked with them for 18 years. That came about by me being in the scene here in Miami, working in nightclubs with the guys that I went to college with. Everything snowballed, and things started to work out. At the same time, I was working really hard, doing my demos, trying to get noticed around town and do my thing as a musician and singer.
Your debut single, “Just Another Day,” made quite an impact around the world. How do you remember feeling about the reaction as a first-time solo artist?
I worked for over five years before my first CD came out. I was part of a songwriting and production team with the intention of one day having my chance as a solo artist. But I was so attached to doing my thing as a musician, from the way I was raised. Before I noticed, I had my first record, which really came as an evolution of all the work I was doing up to that point.
You’ve recorded a new version of “Just Another Day” on Otra Vez. How would you describe it?
It’s kind of a little reminder of how it all started for me. It’s a new dance version. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on radio, where it really all started with that song. One of my production partners suggested it to bring people up to speed as to what I’m all about as an artist.
What is it about the song that has made such a monumental impact since the time of its initial release?
I don’t know; I got lucky. As a songwriter, you sometimes feel like you’ve written a song that’s good, but you don’t know until people hear it if they’re gonna dig it or not. It worked out. Thank God that the record company liked it. It had the substance to be a good song, and ended up being a big hit for me.
The Latin pop-music market holds a distinct difference from the English-language one in that artists don’t have to be twenty-something in order to achieve chartbreaking success. What are your thoughts on that phenomenon?
I think it comes from the culture: the fan base demographically grows with you in a different way. It’s wonderful. Once attached to an artist, the Latin fans generally love and wanna hear them all the time — depending on the music they put out. It’s definitely a part of how Latin fans become endeared with the artists they enjoy.
In addition to your singing career, you’ve also had a side profession writing songs for the likes of Ricky Martin, J-Lo, and even Mandy Moore. What have those experiences added to your career?
I’ll always consider myself a songwriter and musician first. For years, that’s what I did primarily; and it opened doors for me to be an artist, and so many other things I’ve done since — theatre, television. It all started with the studio work.
When you first came out, you were marketed as an adult-contemporary artist. As your career has evolved, you’ve been noted for a more upbeat, danceable sound. I personally started noticing that with your Better Part of Me album in 2000. Have you made a conscious approach to shift your musical direction?
For me, it begins with wanting to connect with pop radio. That’s my main thing, and that’s what I wanted to do with this particular record. Doing it in Spanish helped me to produce a record that sounded very young which I feel my fans can identify with. I grew up listening to pop singer-songwriters on the radio. That’s been my focus as an artist: material that I know, God willing, can be on the radio for a long time.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on Otra Vez, starting with “Un Sueno Nada Mas.”
I wrote that with Drago, whom I hadn’t worked with before, along with one of my longtime producers, Randy Barlow. Randy has a hand in just about every song on the CD. “Sueno” is a pop song that came up through conversations hangin’ out, tryin’ to put what we thought was a good idea melodically with a good lyric and expand on it. The storyline of the song is the connection that you have with somebody when, at the same time, there’s a missing element in the relationship. You can’t live without this person, and you want them in your life; but there’s an element that’s still just a dream before the relationship is completely there.
How about “Para Olvidar”?
Jose Gavidia is the writer of that one. I love that ballad. I fell in love with it when he first played it for me three years ago. It’s basically asking, “How do you live with somebody when she’s not really there?” You’ve just gotta forget about her completely.
And the first single, “Dejame Quererte (Mi Secreto)”?
It’s a fun song about having a good time with somebody and connecting with them. I wrote that with Jose around same time we recorded “Para Olvidar.” It’s basically asking the person to allow it to happen.
You mentioned your stage work. At different times in your career, you’ve been on Broadway in productions of Grease, Cabaret, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. How did you break into that sector of the business, and what part of your artistic vision does the work fulfill?
Since college, I was attracted to theater. I did some musical theater, more on the side of operettas. Then, when I graduated, I did some musical revues. So, the theater and acting elements were already there. My agent knew of my interest in that area, and brought to my attention that a couple of shows were looking for recording artists to fill roles. I just jumped on the opportunity.
Was it what you had hoped it would be?
Yes. It was a lot of work, though. The three shows that I’ve done have fulfilled and enriched my life as an entertainer just about more than anything else I’ve done, especially when it comes to being on stage and singing.
Did that experience help you when you participated as a contestant on the dance show Mira Quien Baila! last year?
Well, with that, I was getting into something brand-new for me. I knew I was going to be doing a lot of dancing in styles that I had never done before. I was quite anxious about being part of the show. I got hurt some; but I learned a lot.
I could tell from your appearances on the show that you’ve been working out quite a bit. Is that a lifestyle for you?
It has become so, especially in the last three years. Little by little, it has escalated to a point where it’s definitely important to my everyday schedule.
Lastly, I know you do a good amount of non-profit work. I’ve read about the Jon Secada Music Scholarship at University of Miami and Keeping Music in Schools. What drives your work in these areas?
It stems from my love for education: where I come from, how grateful I am, how important I think education is. The reason I have a career in music is that I decided to study formally. So, I’ll always try to be a good example in that way and do whatever I can to help advance it.
Well, you’ve got a lot of irons in the fire —stage, music, dance, non-profit work, and even a restaurant. Where do you see your career taking you, say, in the next five years?
Right now, I’m so focused on the success of Otra Vez. I haven’t traveled or promoted a pop record in awhile, so I’m committed to wherever this record takes me musically, tour-wise, and getting the word out there. Still, I love entertaining. The opportunity to do a Broadway show, or go back to television — I enjoyed my time doing the Latin American Idol for four years — I would like the chance to host a show in some shape or form again. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities, and at this point I will entertain anything that comes my way.