Catching Up With Juan Wauters

If Juan Wauters didn’t exist, New York would have to invent him. The Uruguayan-born musician moved to the city with his family as a teenager and has called Queens his home ever since. As a songwriter — first with his punk band The Beets, and, since 2014, as a solo artist — Wauters exemplifies a strange kind of charm that seems distinct to New York: His work is smart, flinty, and not naive to the worst ways of the world. His records are recorded quietly and with sparing instrumentation, as if he’s trying his best to respect a sleeping neighbor. 

What sets him apart, though, is the seemingly unending supply of kindness that seems to flow through him. At times it can seem like Wauters has never met a person without sensing their deep and inherent worth, a quality that spills over into his songs. At one point during our conversation, he stops to answer the door for a Jehovah’s Witness, and after telling her he’s on the phone, makes sincere plans to talk with her soon about the Bible. When I tell him I’ve never heard someone treat a door-to-door evangelist with so much respect, he seems to shrug and says, “She’s so nice.” He means it. 

But, to mangle the old Twitter proverb, kindness should never be mistaken for a lack of depth. After therelease of 2015’s Who Me?, uncertain of his feelings toward the music business and encouraged by a return trip to Uruguay, Wauters left New York and set off on a trek through South and Central America, where he recorded La Onda de Juan Pablo. 

It’s the first record Wauters sings entirely in his native Spanish, and it features collaborations with musicians he met throughout his travels. It’s also his most stylistically diverse record to date, incorporating folk sounds from Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and more. 

And now he’s released Introducing Juan Pablo, a collection of tracks he recorded before his trip. Though the album seems to be a continuation of the optimistic spirit of Who Me? — “Yesterday, my life was in ruins / Now today, I know what I’m doin” goes the opening line — it finds him in a darker and more pensive mood, more willing to share a broader range of experience. The two names in the album’s title are meant to be a reclamation of a part of himself he left behind when he immigrated from Uruguay; listening to it, it’s hard not to feel like you’re seeing Juan Pablo Wauters more clearly than ever before.

Aquarium Drunkard: How did these songs come together?

Juan Wauters: I had the opportunity to go play back in Uruguay, the place where I was born, where I have never played, but I have family and friends from my childhood. Being exposed to that was a mind-opening experience. I really didn’t have much of a Spanish catalogue. I’m singing to people that are like me; we all share the same type of language, and I’m singing in a different language. Coming back to Uruguay and singing in English felt strange to me. So at the same time it was very gratifying to understand that I had an audience in Uruguay, where I’ve never played, and I was being well received. My contemporaries were paying attention to what I was doing. Then I went to other countries to play music and the same thing happened. Like, oh wow, there’s a whole new world out here! I also realized that I’m very much like them even though I lived a lot of my life out here.

At that time I was not playing much of a live show, and I was experiencing my life in Latin America. I went on different trips, and at some point I decided to record an album in which I visited all the countries I had been on tour and had liked their music and had had a connection with their music and their people. I was invited to act in a movie in Argentina, and that brought me all the way down there. From that I said “Oh shit!” I’m all the way south in the continent. I’m gonna come back slowly up to New York, visiting different countries. I put together a studio with my equipment in New York. I put it in two suitcases, and I went and I did it all over a period of seven months, a month in each country. Going around, I would go mostly every night and try to see musicians I could collaborate with, and what I was looking for was uniqueness, something very particular to this country’s instruments and the way people played. Then, I would think how this music and this musician and these instruments could fit within the context of my music, because I didn’t want to do their music styles so much as I wanted to do a collaboration with these people and these instruments.

Aquarium Drunkard: So were you co-writing with these musicians? 

Juan Wauters: No. The songs were all written, and they were all written in my style, the way I write songs. Sometimes a lot of the parts were written by me beforehand, but a lot of it was left to them to do their thing. There’s a couple of songs where a particular instrument that I had never seen, I would tell the guy “Okay, before we start the song just let loose and do a little introduction, then we’ll kick in. When you kick in, I’ll go in with you.” So the guy would improvise a little bit with the instrument, and then we would go into the song. I recorded a lot during the time, and what came on the album was what I felt was the most cohesive collection of songs, but a lot of the other songs that were recorded on the trip did not make it on the album.

AD: It does feel really cohesive, which is interesting because it’s such a range of sounds. You don’t have to know very much about South American music to know that you’re doing a lot of stuff on this record that shouldn’t necessarily work together, but maybe it’s because it’s all coming from your voice and you’re kind of the center of the whirlpool so to speak. It seems as though it sort-of holds together in that way. 

Juan Wauters: Yes, good point. That could be it. Also, another thing I would tell the guys to be conscious of – and there were men and women involved that I played with – was to meet me halfway, because I didn’t want them to think that I came to the country to do their music. I came with something to the country and I wanted a collaboration. I wanted us to meet halfway, so they painted the album with their music, but also 50% of the song, the songwriting, and the song structure, maybe even more. The album is decorated by these people, but the idea and the whole structure is arranged by me. 

AD: Have you played the record for the people you worked with?

Juan Wauters: Yeah, as soon as I finished it I made sure to send it to everyone. A lot of people said, “Oh I really like it!” A lot of people were very happy to participate. I’d say “Hey, you know guys, this is a self-financed project. I’m doing this on my own, but at the same time I’m considering your time, and I know that we’re all working musicians, so I want to compensate you for your time.” A lot of people said, “Yeah, okay we charge $200 a song,” or
$50 a song,” or “$3 a song,” or “$10 million a song,” and some other people said, “No, no, no please. We’re really happy to help you. We’re happy you’re showing our culture to the rest of the world.” All of this existed within the making of this album. Some people were more committed than others — some poured their hearts into it, others just came, played the track, and left.

AD: So you became, I don’t want to say like a presence in these places. I know you were a traveler, and traveling you’re a sort of temporary presence, but you developed relationships with these artists and with their cultures too.

Juan Wauters: Very much. I stayed one month in each place. I was in Lima, Peru, when I came up with the idea for this album. My friend that was hosting me said, “Let’s go to this bar that I think you’d like. It’s very traditional.” We went and there was some guy playing piano in the basement and a percussionist playing along with him. These two musicians were the ones that inspired the trip. When I go back to Lima, the first thing I did was go back to see where these guys were. I asked somebody working there, “Hey, what happened to the percussionist?” The old man had just passed away. That was heartbreaking. I came to the realization that because of this man, I was back there and because of him this album exists pretty much.

Then, there were other guitarists that I had seen. In Lima, they have this music that is guitar and the cajón, it’s like a box they hit, and they sing, but I always disliked the cajón because I would see it in the context of like some guy playing on a beach. I’d be like “Ah, this is corny,” but then I saw the Peruvian guys play it, and was like “you can actually make this sound cool!” I ended up meeting one guy named Walter who played the harp. I met him randomly at a music store. The harps were made by his uncle in a little town in the mountains. One time I walked by his store and I heard him play, and I said, “Hey, would you play on an album I have?” And he said yeah! I would hang out with him almost daily to go over the song because he’s never played any other styles of music but his. It’s like if you asked a Mississippi delta blues guy to play some Mexican music, they don’t know what to do. It was very hard for us to find a middle ground – it took us almost one month, and I ended up hanging out with him almost daily for weeks, and then on the actual last day I left Lima to go to the next country, Mexico, we did the recording of the song. We got to know each other. A lot of conversation, a lot of going over the songs, a lot of sharing. I hope that Walter will always remember me, as I will always remember him. This happened mostly everywhere I went.

AD: It seems like the way you’ve talked about this trip is almost like you’re making your way through the country trying to do something, like trying to write songs, meet people, and make a record. It seems like also there’s maybe an attempt to redefine yourself. Was that part of it for you? 

Juan Wauters: Perhaps, now that you say, yeah. Like I said also, this had something to do with me wanting to address my Spanish-speaking origins. When us immigrants move to America, something that we do in order for us to survive here – I mean I did it subconsciously because I was young – is to assimilate. We left behind wherever we’re from to assimilate here and to live here. My parents moved here. My brothers moved here. It’s not something I chose to do. My whole reality relocated. So that other me that existed in Uruguay, even though I’m very much in touch with that because I’m in touch with all my friends and family and I go back often, it has to be on a second rung. By doing this, I’ve been able to reconnect with that other me from before, and now the two coexist.

I still see myself very much a New Yorker because my family is here and by now the majority of my life has been here, but also I don’t see New York as my only home anymore. I only come back here because any time I have down time, I like to be around my parents. They’re important to me – and my brothers as well, and my relationships here. Aside from that, I’ve made friends everywhere. In Uruguay I have a big circle of people I know. I’m part of a community down there. Now it’s a little bit confusing where home is after the trip. Definitely this album opened up a big door for me, and I hope it will remain open.

AD: I’ve always considered you to be such a New York artist. Everything from the words you choose to use to the way you record. everything just feels very of New York, and then when I first heard La Onda de Juan Pablo, I was surprised by how cosmopolitan it felt. It felt like I was looking at – obviously it was still your work and I recognized your voice and your cadences and the things I associate with your songwriting – but it felt like I was seeing you for the first time in some ways, if that makes sense?

Juan Wauters: Yes, most likely same here. At the same time, that’s always been inside of me. If we were to strip down the songs from all the instrumentation, they would most likely be like any of my other songs. What I was able to achieve with this album is to be confident about the idea that recording has to happen at a studio or a specific place. From now on, recording for me, it’s open for whatever. Up until now, I wanted to make sure everything I do is different from what I’ve done before, or a little bit different, because it could become boring. I see a lot of my musician contemporaries choose that route and to me it’s very annoying. I feel like they gave up. By doing this, all I’m doing is digging and digging and digging closer to my heart, closer to the core of the truth about me. The more I do it, the better I get at it. To get comfortable, I would be cheating myself. I’m very aware of this.

AD: To that extent, Introducing Juan Pablo seems like your most dynamic record. I think we see the loose, charming guy that we’ve met from earlier records, but I think a song like “El Hombre de la Calle” is a little darker and a little bit more standoffish. You allow a sense of alienation to come through. I’m curious if it was harder for you to show these other sides of yourself that you haven’t really shown us on record before.

Juan Wauters: This album, I did it during that time I was telling you about after my first two solo albums, and I right away understood that recording and touring could become very hideous things. Like, okay, I’ll record an album in two weeks in New York, then I go on a tour to present the album, play shows for everyone to come, then I record another album, then I go again, and I go again, and I go again. It’s all very capitalist to me. I feel like with music I invent myself a reality in which I could avoid a little bit of it. At least I set the pace of my lifestyle, not the capitalist world. By doing my music and my expression and all the different ways I express myself, I feel like I could beat that pace, whereas when I’ve had jobs and the jobs that my parents have had, all my brothers, all my neighbors, everybody around, I feel like sometimes we become slaves of this crazy, mad world that is draining you all the time.

AD: I wanted to ask you about releasing this record as Introducing Juan Pablo. I know that you’ve said that when you came to the US, you assimilated, which means that you were no longer Juan Pablo Wauters, you’re now just Juan Wauters because of the conventions of the way people use their name in North America or in the United States. What does it mean to you to be able to use Juan Pablo on a record?

Juan Wauters: By using this title, Juan Pablo, what I wanted to do – and I’m happy it didn’t work out at this time – but when I finished the album in 2016, I thought of maybe releasing it under the name Juan Pablo. The label at the time said no, it’s a bad idea. Let’s have it be under Juan Wauters, this is the name we’ve been using. I wanted to set a difference between the work I’ve done before as Juan Wauters and this. It’s more personal. I feel like reclaiming my full name will perhaps bring me closer to something of a more personal space? I don’t know how to really word it.

My expression, doing songs and being able to record myself and hear myself back and being able to voice whatever I want to voice has helped me to understand life, to navigate through my problems. This is a sacred place for me that I’m hoping to preserve, but sometimes as life continues things get in the way. I set things in my way, and the world sets things in my way and sometimes I have to step back and realize, hey what is it that I’m looking for here? Am I willing to compromise certain things in order to continue doing this? Like I said, I’m not the type of musician that will give everything up for success or fame or anything like that. I’m sure there’s many like me around, but I’m set to live my life the way I want to and if the music doesn’t work the way I want to, I’d rather do something else. The music will always be my life, perhaps not publicly, but it will always be that channel for me to remain healthy. If this channel gets blocked by some certain thing, I think I will fall into depression or something, if music becomes something else and not this sacred place.

AD: Do you consider yourself an optimistic person?

Juan Wauters: I think a lot of people tell me that I’m an optimistic person, but no, I think I’m very realistic. I see the positive and the negative, and I let them exist. I’m very aware of all the negativity in the world, but I’m also very aware of the positivity. It feels like these days people would rather focus on the negativity and complaining, which I’m okay with. It’s always good to complain and expect a change, but we have to be aware that there’s a lot of good things happening and things are not as bad as we think. I really don’t want anybody listening to me as if my world is anything special. Everybody is different and that’s the beauty to me.

AD: Where do you think you go from here? I know you’re not releasing records as Juan Pablo Wauters, but you’ve kind of reintroduced yourself to the world and your audience. What do you think is next?

Juan Wauters: The idea that I had after I did Introducing Juan Pablo, then when I did the album in Spanish was to do a third album under this Juan Pablo name. Now that I’ve been working on it, I’m evaluating what I’ll do, but this is the idea I had before. I don’t know if it’s a great idea to tell the public what I’m thinking about, but I wanted to do an album of my interpretation of the New York sound, like the sounds we hear in New York City when we walk around and whatever that might be to me. After I do this New York album that I have in my mind, if I end up doing it, if it doesn’t morph into something else, I don’t know. I will see what I’ll do.

I’m recording a lot of things that right now might sound crazy, but at the end I know that they will have some type of cohesive idea all around. After I do this album, you know how music now is about having a single and a video, or how younger artists are doing that, like 20 year old rappers and stuff? I really want to experiment with that later. I really like that, coming out with a song maybe like every month or every 6 weeks coming out with a new song and a new video Instead of having an album, maybe do that throughout a year.

AD: In some ways, it’s like putting out a 45, right?

Juan Wauters: Yeah, I guess so! I guess we’re coming back to the roots. I mean, I don’t know, but I’m only brainstorming because you asked, but at the same time, I’ve only planned my life up until next week. I’m taking it step by step. Especially today, I knew you would call. Now in a little bit I will go practice with a flute player friend that lives around here. I really don’t know, but all I’ve learned in this last couple of years is that it’s very important for me to [keep] my expression channel open, stay close to the people that I appreciate, and continue recording freely and always remember the purpose of why the guitar came into my life, and why I’m still coming closer to the guitar. Not just the guitar, but songwriting. Why do I gravitate toward songwriting? Why is that such a thing in my life? I never really did it to impress anyone. I must keep that in mind, I think. It’s very gratifying to be able to have an audience. Even though I’m saying that I do it for myself, I’m also very, very happy that people can relate to my work and my life.

AD: I think all the things you’re talking about – the idea of remaining open, and remaining open to the ways that your expression comes out of you – I think that’s what people respond to. They think that they see the real you, and I think that’s what comes through these new records, this deeper sense of you, who you are, and what you’re about.

Juan Wauters: I’m so happy that you say that because I guess this is the reason that I do it. words / m garner

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