Raul Midón: Creative Adaptation During Covid-19

 

 

 

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Grammy-nominated musician Raul Midón has never fit neatly into any category. A skillful singer-songwriter and guitarist, he melds African and Latin influences, combining jazz with soul and bossa nova with salsa. As an independent musician, he also writes, performs, records and produces all of his own work. His most recent album, The Mirror, was released just days before the US went into lockdown for the Covid-19 crisis, but Midón has used his time at home as an opportunity to perform live for his fans from his studio. This week, he explains his unique production and engineering process to Laura and shares how he collaborates with musicians all over the world. At a time when many of us are scrambling to adjust to the challenges of life during a pandemic, Raul Midón is serving up positive energy, a model of creative adaptation and, best of all, great music!

 

Photo Credit: Samuel Prather

 

For more on the challenges and solutions facing us during the pandemic, check out our Forward Thinking on Covid-19 series.

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Raul Midón:

Hey, everybody. Music is thought of as a very uncertain profession. The demand for music is not going to end with this virus. I’m going to give you a little more about how I record, because I’m sure most people don’t have a clue about how a blind person records. We were all like sending files over the internet. The real power in this industry is ours if we want to take it.

Laura Flanders:

Still coming up on the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.

Hi, I’m Laura Flanders and welcome to one of our special home additions of the Laura Flanders Show. Grammy nominated artist Raul Midón has been called a syncopated wonder. His latest album, The Mirror, was released just days before the COVID-19 crisis hit in the US. But Raul has turned this stay at home moment into an opportunity to share his work and to work with artists all around the world.

Raul, welcome to the Laura Flanders Show and I want to begin by thanking you. I have been having a fairly grim week for one reason or another, but listening to your work this morning and last night just completely lifted my spirits. So first thank you.

Raul Midón:

Well, thank you.

Laura Flanders:

And second, who lifts your spirits? What are the roots of your music?

Raul Midón:

I don’t know why, but I find myself listening to a lot of sort of like meditative, relaxing music with no lyrics. There are certain records that I love listening to. Every now and then I have to hear the Funky Drummer by James Brown. The World is a Ghetto by George Benson. Whenever I want to get inspired for songwriting, I listen to Tapestry or Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan record. There’s so many.

Laura Flanders:

So you have quite an eclectic taste there. And that explains in a way the eclecticism of your work. I know that there are people that probably have to on a regular basis check out your extraordinary Giant Steps recording, the Coltrane piece, where you fly through a gazillion keys on your keyboard in about a second.

Raul Midón:

On the guitar. All of them. I sing it too, which is something that most people don’t do and I improvised sing it. I don’t just sing something that’s been worked out.

Laura Flanders:

Absolutely. So the frets, the keyboards, your mouth, it all becomes one incredible sound. I mean, you’ve been called a sort of syncopated wonder and I can see why. I guess my question is, if you were to describe your music to somebody who hadn’t heard it, what would you say? How would you describe it?

Raul Midón:

My music is a compilation of everything that I love in music. So there’s the rhythm comes from a lot of Latin and African influences, whether it’s Roots, Cuban music or salsa. The cord and melodies part of it is very jazz influenced, Brazilian influenced. And the lyrics and the singing, it’s soul music really. I’ve never fit neatly into any category. It’s always been a distillation of everything that I love in music, including classical. I listened to a lot of contemporary classical music when I was a kid, which I credit with opening up my ears.

Laura Flanders:

How do you explain the fact that you were exposed to music like that? Where your parents musicians?

Raul Midón:

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. My dad is a huge music connoisseur and collector. We had all these incredible records. We lived out in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. So I didn’t have the advantage of being able to go to a club. Like if you live in New York city every night, you can go see incredible music. So luckily we had public radio and I always… Growing up, if it wasn’t for public radio, it would have been a desert.

Laura Flanders:

Well, you mentioned the nightlife of New York and going out to clubs every night and it gave me a pang in my belly as we sit here in COVID land. You were about to perform, I think, in New York-

Raul Midón:

Yes.

Laura Flanders:

… releasing your newest album, The Mirror, when the shutdown came. Let’s play a clip from that to give people a sense. This is, it seems to me, variously titled. I Really Want To See You Again. Or I Really Like To See You Again,

Raul Midón:

To be very honest with you. It was a mistake on my part. I sang, “I’d really like to see you again,” but we called it I Really Want To See You Again, even though that never appears.

Laura Flanders:

Well, what did Leonard Cohen say about the mistake that makes things perfect? Here it is. I Really Want To See You Again from Midón’s most recent album, The Mirror.

Raul Midón:

(singing)

Laura Flanders:

It’s just gorgeous, Raul. I think people are getting it why I started this conversation talking about feeling cheery. How have you adapted to this COVID-19 shutdown?

Raul Midón:

One of the things that I’ve had to do is, is not think about what have, should have, could have. That really gets depressing. And I’ve certainly fallen into that trap at certain points, but you can’t look at well, if, if this wasn’t happening, I’d be doing this and I’d be doing that and I’d be making this much money. It’s kind of made me, I mean, it’s cliche, but it’s made me more here’s another day in which I have enough to eat and I’m healthy and I have shelter and I have my creative possibility and that’s it.

Laura Flanders:

Well, you’ve been sharing that creative possibility with people on YouTube.

Raul Midón:

(singing)

Laura Flanders:

Do you want to talk a little bit about your goals there? Because you’re not just playing the music, you’re kind of doing a grand reveal of your home studio.

Raul Midón:

I’ve been producing and engineering my records now for a long… Since this is the fifth record, I think I’ve done. I’ve always been very into all aspects of music, not just writing it and playing it and singing it, but also the recording. Because when you record, that becomes the instrument as well. Because how something sounds, whether it’s got lots of reverb or no reverb and how loud the voices in the mix compared to everything else, or not loud, or just everything is part of what people feel when they listen to a recording. And so once I realized that it was possible for me to manipulate the tools, which have not been accessible to a blind person up until fairly recently. The technology, the recording technology, has not been accessible because one of the first things you’ve got to do as all of you know, is look at the meters and see how the levels are. All of those tools, with the help of some very smart people and some script writing, became accessible to me.

We are in the studio today and I’m going to give you a little more about how I record, because I’m sure most people don’t have a clue about how a blind person records, much less a sighted person. But anyway, so I am sitting in front of the mics here, and this is an A67 microphone, which is a copy of anointment. And I record the bridge with this mic. And this other mic is I record the… I’m sorry, I record the neck with this mic and the bridge with this mic. I have in order to do this, a little remote control device here, which is a transport and what this does is it allows me to control things (singing) without touching the keyboard. Hooked up to this thing is a foot pedal. So when I’m recording, when I’m playing the guitar, I can hit this foot pedal here and punch in and out without moving positions. Those of you who record know if you’re recording the guitar with two mics and you move a little bit, it changes the way that it records, it changes the levels, the image, and all that stuff.

Laura Flanders:

The keyboard thing that you operate, that isn’t the piano, it’s operating clips and adjusting those levels, as you mentioned. You also have something called a transport. Like how does it

Raul Midón:

Yes. There’s two things. There’s a regular keyboard, like the kind you use on a computer and then there’s the transport thing that I was talking about is basically a way to remote control certain things. Because when you have both hands on the guitar, for example, you don’t want to have to take your hands off to hit the space bar when you record.

Laura Flanders:

We have regularly reported on this program about how people with disabilities and independent artists have been the hackers of our future. They recreate an economy or create an economy and a way of doing things for themselves in a society that is ablest and bigoted in all sorts of ways. No more so than the old studio system, which we also have in television and radio.

Raul Midón:

Yes.

Laura Flanders:

We are the people who have broken out of that and figured out how to do it differently. Some people talk about disability justice as the idea that making life better for people with disabilities would actually make life better for everybody. Do you relate to any of that? Do you consider yourself part of that movement? That world?

Raul Midón:

I mean, I think so. I think in many ways we have come such a long way. In some ways the technology may be ahead of the consciousness, which is kind of, I guess, part of what’s going on in the world in general. The technology really has equalized the… Not equalized. I don’t want to say equalized, but has helped to make the playing field a little more equal. So it’s still an economic situation because all of this technology costs money. For a long time when I was going to college, I was getting supplemental security income, because I couldn’t really afford… I mean, I needed the money, you know, and when I started to make enough money, not to, I tried to get them to stop it. Because I felt like, well, I’m getting this and I don’t really need it anymore.

That led to a rehabilitative person coming to my house and saying… I wanted to get a certain piece of technology that costs a certain amount of money and they were going to help me get it. But they said, “Well, but you don’t have a real job.” And I said, “Well, I do. I mean, I earn money as a musician.” And he said, “Yeah, but that’s not a real job.” And because these people can’t imagine a blind person earning money through music, enough money to… They don’t consider me somebody who’s working. It’s complicated because I think in general, we err on the side of cruelty in this country, as opposed to… When you set up a system, you’re always going to be able to find somebody that’s taking the advantage of it. But the question is, is who’s getting left behind?

Laura Flanders:

One of the things you’ve been involved in since the COVID pandemic hit is an effort to contest Facebook and YouTube’s use of artists’ materials without money or resources going back to those artists. Can you talk a little bit about that campaign?

Raul Midón:

When you have a company that is worth billions of dollars and their worth is based on the content that is provided by us, the creators, and I did, I’ve read up some on this. So an artist, and this is only if you own, this is not, it doesn’t even apply if you’re signed to a record label. But if you own your publishing and you’re the songwriter and you’re the performer, you get $0.006 per stream. That seems wrong to me. You need 3 million streams to even get above the poverty line. That’s crazy. So I think, especially at this time, I mean with these companies, if they, if they gave 1% of their profits, musicians wouldn’t be in dire straights that they are now. Some musicians are… If I didn’t own my publishing, I would have no income whatsoever. None. Zero. The only reason I have a little bit of income is because I own my music.

Laura Flanders:

Do you think that scene of small venues, the kind of clubs and music spaces that first gave opportunity to so many independent artists is ever coming back? And if not, what’s going to take its place?

Raul Midón:

You know, I don’t know. I mean, we are in a situation right now that none of us could have imagined three months ago. And, I mean, in some way I think it kind of has to come back because every single musician, almost everyone, got their opportunity in a small venue. They start out playing in a small venue. Even in classical. Maybe in classical, you don’t play in a bar or a club, but you play in a tiny little recital hall or something like that.

Laura Flanders:

One thing that is happening that you have been a part of are these extraordinary collaborations happening across boundaries.

Raul Midón:

Yeah. I mean, I’m doing that right now. I mean, I did a video with Marcus Miller and a bunch of people with Someday We’ll All Be Free. We’re all like sending files over the internet.

Laura Flanders:

It was extraordinary that was with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic.

Raul Midón:

Yes.

Laura Flanders:

Unbelievably gorgeous. We’re going to play a clip of it.

Raul Midón:

(singing)

Laura Flanders:

Did you record all that individually and then they put it together-

Raul Midón:

Absolutely.

Laura Flanders:

… or was that somehow

Raul Midón:

I recorded all my parts in my studio right here in the house.

Laura Flanders:

Well, it was the most gorgeous thing in the world.

Raul Midón:

Yeah. It really was. And that’s also a testament to like, they had some real heavies on the other end to do the editing the way they did. I mean

Laura Flanders:

Well, I bet you weren’t unhappy with being the first voice you hear.

Raul Midón:

Yeah, no, that was awesome. What a great opportunity in working with Marcus with Monaco Philharmonic. A couple of times we’ve worked together and it was really quite a thrill.

Laura Flanders:

Talk to young artists for a minute. Marcus Miller, you, Herbie Hancock, all the greats, you were all just starting out once. And I’m imagining there are artists just starting out once who are wondering, what the hell are they going to do? How do they move forward? Talk a bit about

Raul Midón:

The only thing I can say is the demand for music is not going to end no matter what happens with this virus. My only mantra has been be the best that you can, this is a beautiful time to work on your craft, to practice, and when it’s time for you to come out, whenever that is, if you’ve been conscientious about working, you’re going to be okay. It’s interesting. Music is thought of as a very sort of unstable or uncertain profession. And it is right now for sure, but in some ways the people who are fairly easy to get along with and who have worked and who are really good at what they do, I’ve found that they always have work. You know, they always have something. Usually, and not always, I mean, I don’t want to make too general of a statement, but I’ve always thought that it was necessary to at least spend some time in a center of entertainment. It’s why I moved to New York city in my 30s because I thought, man, I want to be where the action is. Now, how necessary that is going forward? I don’t know, but I still think being in the mix where the best people are, whether it’s… I guess if you’re into theater or music, New York, or if you’re into making movies and it’s LA, whatever, there’s a lot of value there.

Laura Flanders:

One thing that I also take from your work though, Raul, is your questioning and challenging of some of our assumptions around artistry in your lyrics. You talk about raw ambition and the pitfalls of that. In your Facebook sharing, you’re revealing the technology that some might keep super secret just for themselves. In your discussions, you’ve made a point of saying this is the work of many people when there are a lot of people super attached to that individual staritus, star artists, maybe it is staritis, idea. And finally, I would say, you know, name one job that’s reliable, secure, predictable at this moment.

Raul Midón:

That’s true.

Laura Flanders:

Artists with your great sense of balance and possibility may be our leaders in this moment of reinvention.

Raul Midón:

Hopefully, we’re going to learn that the real power in this industry is ours if we want to take it. Without us, the record executives have no jobs. The lawyers, the managers, the agents have no job. So why do we give all our power away? The unevenness of the distribution for us with streaming and becoming more and more the way we listen to music, man, there’s got to be a fairer way to do it. I don’t fault or want to denigrate Facebook or YouTube, but come on, man, give us a fair shake. You’re making billions of dollars off the content we create. There’s got to be a better way to distribute that wealth.

Laura Flanders:

We often end these interviews by my asking my guests what they think the story will be that the future tells of this moment. So I don’t know, 50 years from now, 25 years from now, what do you think will be the history that we have made right here right now?

Raul Midón:

Well, I think it’ll be a sort of two tracks. There’ll be a track of the people who found a way to make things work, whether it’s teachers finding a way to teach kids remotely and people who did heroic things to save. And then there’s going to be a story of the incredible lack of leadership in our world, not just in this country. All of this sort of nationalism is exactly what we don’t need right now. What we need is cooperation, because this is a world-wide situation. The lack of leadership is just… We couldn’t be worse led in our country right now. I couldn’t have even imagined that we had such an incompetent government right now. I don’t want to generalize because there’s a lot of parts of the government, but certainly the leadership, it’s sad.

Laura Flanders:

Well, I don’t want to tempt fate by suggesting it can’t be worse, but I agree with you.

Raul Midón:

I still have faith because of the fact that information has a way of leaking out in this country and that enough people will say, “Hey, come on, man. We were better than this as a country. We’re better than this as a people, as a human race.”

Laura Flanders:

Raul Midón, thank you so much for your work and for your time with us today. We really appreciate it.

Raul Midón:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

 

 

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