About two years ago, Raul Malo was in the midst of a career crisis, so the lead singer and songwriter for the boundary-bending rock-country-pop band the Mavericks made a visit to a guru, and it shook him to the core.
"When I left there I thought, 'You know what? We know nothing. We don't know a thing ,"' the 35-year-old musician says in the gravest of tones. "He's seen it all, he does it all."
Yes, Malo found religion, but not in a Tibetan monastery nor under a revival tent down South.
The guru in question goes by the name of Tony Bennett.
"I went to see him in Nashville, and he's just up there singing these great old songs," says Malo, who's widely considered one of the most stirring new pop vocalists in years. "He's doing what he's been doing for 50 years, the people just love it and \o7 he \f7 loves it."
Malo is on a break at the Burbank recording studio where he recently started work on his first solo effort. The album he's making figures to stretch public perception of his talents even further than the four wide-ranging albums the Mavericks made from 1992 to 1998 did.
Now free of the confines of a group--even the loose confines of the Mavericks, which are on an open-ended hiatus--the singer is about to see just how far he can go, in hopes that one day he might reach a state of Bennett-like pop enlightenment.
"It's so simple," he says, gently strumming a Spanish guitar while waiting for the musicians nearby to work some kinks out of an arrangement they're about to record. "There's no fireworks, no explosions, no nothing. You could hear him on a stage or in a bar and it would still floor you. It's the total opposite of what you see on the Grammys."
Suddenly his eyes narrow and a smile starts to form.
"Of course, I say this and a year from now I'll be on the Grammys, and I'll have dancers and all this [stuff]," he says and breaks out laughing.
If Malo's solo album, due in the fall, does win Grammy recognition, it may well be in one of the Latin categories.
Malo is delving deeper than ever into his Cuban American heritage and catholic--lowercase c--musical tastes, tastes formed during a childhood in Miami, where his parents met and married in the early '60s after fleeing the Castro regime. They had grown up loving American rock 'n' roll as well as Cuban pop and jazz, so Malo and his younger sister were exposed from birth to music that spanned a wide range of styles and cultures.
For the album, he has reunited with producer Steve Berlin and pianist, arranger and co-producer Alberto Salas, both of whom he met last year when he was drafted for the second-round Los Super Seven team. Many of the other musicians who worked on Los Super Seven's "Canto," which came out in February, are back for these sessions.
If anything, Malo's record shapes up more as an extension of "Canto" than of any Mavericks album. He sings several songs in Spanish, and one of them, "Ocho Versos," (Eight Verses) returns him to the social commentary and philosophical bent he displayed on the Mavericks' first major-label album, "From Hell to Paradise," but then abandoned.
That 1992 album's title song eloquently related the experience of refugees such as his parents:
\o7 This 90-mile trip
Has taken 30 years to make
They tried to keep forever
What was never theirs to take
I cursed and scratched the devil's hand
As he stood in front of me
One last drag from his big cigar
And he finally set me free
That song, along with the you-can't-go-home-again saga "Mr. Jones" and a ballad about child abuse titled "Children," made the Mavericks a critical favorite, a band that could frame sharp commentary in eclectic musical settings running from Bakersfield country to Tex-Mex to Roy Orbison pop grandeur.
But after signing with MCA Nashville on the strength of its 1990 independent debut album, "The Mavericks," the group moved to the country music capital, where Malo still lives with his wife, Betty, and their three young sons.
There Malo began refining his songwriting by working with various collaborators. That meant his often expansive lyrics were drastically pared back, and the subject turned almost exclusively to romance. His songs suddenly displayed an almost mathematical symmetry and simplicity:
\o7 There goes my heart
Breaking in two
There go my eyes
Crying over you
My arms don't want
For us to part
So when you go
Here come the blues
There goes my heart
It added up to the Mavericks' best-selling album ever, 1994's "What a Crying Shame," which has sold 1.2 million copies, according to SoundScan, and yielded four Top 30 country singles.
The disappearance of social commentary made it appear that conservative Nashville had sucked the independent vision out of Malo and the Mavericks.
Malo, however, says it had more to do with a philosophical shift that accompanied his geographical move.