Juan Wauters: "I try to make a point of my music describing me as a person."
It was a few years back now that I first met Juan Wauters. My band at the time (that's a different story altogether...) supported him at a gig in Brighton, and what struck me was his sheer enthusiasm to perform. Even after the show he was incredibly gracious and humble with his time, and almost impossible not to befriend. It was indicative of the way that Wauters has lived his life in music.
Born in Uruguay, Wauters migrated to New York with his family in 2002 and began his life in America as a self-confessed introspect. It wasn't until he assembled his former band The Beets and grew into the local creative community that he came out of his shell, beginning his life in transit as a working musician and using his music to bring all kinds of people together.
Real Life Situations, his collaborative new album which is out today via Captured Tracks, is in many ways a celebration of what Wauters loves about music. It's a patchwork of his varied life experiences, a testament to invaluable friendships he's made along the way, and an ode of gratitude to being able to continue writing and recording with said friends including Mac DeMarco, Nick Hakim, Cola Boyy, and Homeshake for instance, all of which feature on the record.
I caught up with Juan whilst he was in Uruguay, having fulfilled a promise to himself by reconnecting to his roots, an opportunity which arose as the world came to a standstill:
Your new album's title Real Life Situations seems to encapsulate something we’ve all been missing of late: real life. What was the main idea and influence behind the album?
I started writing the album before COVID hit, so it was all written and recorded before then. But when the pandemic happened I put everything aside for a while, and thought I'd focus on something else. I didn't feel enthusiastic about my music. Then when I came back to it, everything had a new meaning. I pieced it together with bits of new material, and it became a collection of songs that connected moments in my life. I can't really say it was an album I made with 'an idea' in mind, because the world really changed throughout the process. I didn't have any one concept to begin with.
You've experimented with vocoder, hip-hop beats, and it doesn't feel as rooted in garage-folk as your previous work. Did you have an idea of what the album was going to sound like before you began writing and recording?
With this album, I just wanted to get together with friends of mine. By doing that, it opened up the spectrum of my sound. Let's say, if I wrote a song with someone else, it's not just a 'Juan Wauters' song, it's a new terrain where we can mess around with whatever we want. With that freedom to experiment, we let loose. Given that other people brought their style towards my music and vice versa, we found a middle-ground that wasn't previously thought about. Before we got together we didn't go: "hey let's make a hip-hop beat" or something. It just happened organically.
There's a lot of collaboration on the album, as you say, with Mac DeMarco, Nick Hakim, Cola Boyy, Homeshake, Tall Juan, all contributing. What was it about these artists in particular that made you want to work with them?
Well, these are all old time friends of mine. We've always worked together in different ways. For the last couple of years I've really been into reggaeton - like Bad Bunny and J Balvin - and I've lived in New York most of my life, have always been into rap, and loved it when artists guest on each other's tracks. I kinda wondered why it doesn't happen enough with artists in my circle.
Mainly, it was just hanging out with friends - none of the people that feature on the album I don't know personally, you know. So we said we'd try out some stuff together. Like Queen and Bowie getting together for 'Under Pressure', that song wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for collaboration. On one of my previous records, I included people playing instruments from all different countries, and with Real Life Situations I just wanted to bring people on board to write new music with, and who better to experiment with than your friends?
Obviously you and Mac go way back. Can you give us any backstory to how you met?
When I started my solo career he was on the same label as me, Captured Tracks. We were the only two artists performing under our own names at the time. Maybe the label thought we had similarities, either in terms of personality or songwriting, who knows, but they asked us to get together and record some music back in 2013. That's how we met - I went to his place, with the label wanting us to record some Beatles covers and we hit it off. He's been a really good friend since then.
We've toured together a lot, we've written a lot of music together, but 'Real' is our first official collaboration. There were other tracks we'd written for this album, but 'Real' just flowed. It helps that we communicate as people on a personal level, not just artists. I know his family, he knows mine, you know.
You said ‘Real’ is an ode to being real with yourself. What do you do to ‘keep it real’?
When I got together with Mac, this was the the idea I brought to the table. I was so happy, and feeling quite emotional at the time. So, I said to Mac that we should just write a track about how grateful we feel that we're still able to do what we love to do. Things change, time passes, but we're still able to make music. That line came from us celebrating being able to do what you love, and to love what you do. I guess that's what it means.
The video made me envious, seeing you and Mac goofing around LA on a horse etc. Is that a standard day in the life of Juan Wauters?
[Haha]. Not really! We didn't really know what to make the video about, and Mac had a small motorcycle in his yard, so I bought one and we rode them about LA. Then, we thought it'd be a good idea to ride a horse - I just DM'd just people in the area and asked if anyone had a horse. And the orange convertible, which was our friends. It was just kinda funny. Another idea or imagery that came to my head was, well, I live in New York and you never see rooftops or can't even get onto rooftops. In LA it's so easy to get on people's roofs so we literally did that [haha]. It was basically just a couple of days of having fun and hanging out. Ideally, I wanted to film us walking through the rush hour traffic on a busy highway, but that was definitely too dangerous.
Probably for the best you sacked it off. I can imagine your label wanting to protect their assets! Looking at the album's tracklist it looks quite hefty, but is slightly deceiving as songs are intersected with soundbites of street-level conversation. Was the idea to create a sense of community within the album?
I've always been a fan of albums that have real life excerpts within them. Real life situations! I've travel around the world and listen to all kinds of conversations, and it gives me ideas. I've made a kind of archive of conversations too, on my phone, and when I'm working on an album concept I draw from this archive and listen to the recordings on shuffle. For this album, I selected the one's that fitted in naturally in between the tracks. They all represent my life in one way or another. They reflect my state of mind. And it makes it interesting for me to listen to. I've yet to work with a producer on an album - it's all me - so I can make my records as personal to me as possible.
At one point in the album you directly address the listener with a message that it was recorded pre-Covid and that you intend to buy a one-way ticket back to Uruguay as soon as possible. Had you been missing your home country more than ever?
My family moved to New York in 2002, when my brothers and I were kids. It wasn't until 2016 that I had the chance to play in Uruguay for the first time ever, so I came back here and reconnected with my contemporaries. People who were my age that'd I'd never been friends with, that are like me but hadn't been around because I grew up in New York. Since then I've been reconnecting to Uruguay and always had the idea to returning here for a long period of time without worrying about being on tour, but my life never allowed me that kind of space. Obviously with the pandemic, no touring, no gigs, it was the right time to reconnect with my Uruguayan self. Something that, because of survival, I'd always had to put to one side.
On the flipside, do you think you'd even become a musician had you not moved to New York? How much has living in New York influenced who you are and what you do?
I don't know what would've happened to my life had I not moved to New York, it's hard to say. But being de-rooted from your birthplace when you're a teenager, it makes you really introspective. I spent a lot of time by myself. When I first arrived, I didn't have friends for almost two years. I didn't know the language, so it was just me, my brothers, and my family.
New York as you know has a rich history, musically. The places and the community were there for me to become a musician. People gravitate towards New York from all over, even England to live the dream! By the time I started performing, I already felt like a local, and part of a community.
There’s an unwavering positivity in your music. Do you think that radiates from how you live your life?
Yes, definitely. I try to be honest in my music. I stay away from genres or styles that are 'in vogue'. I've tried hard to form my own unique personal aesthetic - maybe that's impossible as I'm in contact with all of these different musicians on my album, who have their own unique style. My outlook on life is very much positive, but I still try to tap into that introspection I once felt, the sadness, loneliness, and frustration. That's part of who I am, and I try to make a point of my music describing me as a person.
That's the final question Juan, thanks for chatting with me. I'll be there when you're next on the road.
I can't wait to be back on tour, and back in England. See you then!
Real Life Situations is out now via Captured Tracks.