Shout out Hattie Lindert for another great Finals interview, this time with the very based Juan Wauters. Thanks Hattie!
Although Uruguay-born/New York-based musician Juan Wauters feels aligned with a certain American indie rock niche, he focuses on eclecticism and conceptual narrative in his work over any specific tried-and-true stylings. He likes Bo Diddly, and Slick Rick. He wants to shake Bob Dylan’s hand one day (maybe even make a song with him) and also hopes to experiment further with Afro-Uruguayan candombe music.
It’s Wauters’ penchant for amalgamating different styles in the pursuit of a more collaborative music-making ethos that draws a throughline between his first five albums. Whether riffing with Mac Demarco, Frankie Cosmos, or trying out Mexican bolero rancho music, Wauters manages to craft authentic songs that feel like a product of conscious study, never copy-pasted.
An avid traveler and devoted student of music, Wauters has gotten accustomed to letting his repertoire grow organically, and not trying to control or predict his future. On a call ahead of a summer U.S. tour, the artist discussed his new album Wandering Rebel, new hometown (Montevideo, Uruguay), Bad Bunny, Dr. Dre, balancing passion and profession, and adjusting to life as a new father.
HL: First off, congratulations on recently becoming a father. How are you finding it so far?
JW: …It’s true what they say about coming into a new realm of living. You learn a little about yourself, you experience new feelings. You are in the presence of nature at its finest and our lineage as human beings. I had thoughts of: “Wow, incredible all the babies that had to be born and all the mothers that had to give birth in the past millions of years for us to exist today, and for this baby to exist today.” You know, under all the different scenarios that moms gave birth to babies in the past. Today we live in a scientific world, and everything is easier. But I had thoughts of: “I only exist because someone had a baby before, many years ago, in the past.” Millions of people had to be born in my life for me to exist, and then for this new person to exist. All those things you come to face as you come into this new lifestyle, really.
HL: I can’t imagine; everything you’re saying, how it’s all so connected, that’s a really beautiful way to look at it.
JW: And to see the development of the human body up close. It’s crazy.
HL: Absolutely. What have been some of your favorite things to do with your kid? Have you been listening to music together, or playing music with her?
JW: Sometimes I play the guitar around her; there’s music in the background a lot too. We sing songs together; songs I make up for fun. I like walking around with her, toying around, you know. Moving around. I’m living back in Uruguay, the country where I was born, and something that impressed me was to see some of my old friends that I knew when I was a kid when I lived here, see them again, and see them as fathers. And most of them, to see them being great dads, and setting a really good example for the new generation. That was really inspiring, to see friends of mine talking to their young kids and just the way they express themselves in front of themselves. What they say when they express themselves in front of the kids, and what they say when the kid has a crazy question, you know?
HL: I’m glad you mention Uruguay. I know that working on this new album you spent a lot of time there by yourself, off the grid. I wondered what that was like, and if you experienced Uruguay differently as a kid than you do now. How has your relationship with Uruguay changed?
JW: 20 years have passed, so the place is very different. And me, I’m a different person. I never lived here as an adult. I’ve come here on vacations, that's it. But a lot of things of the society, I did not know how to navigate. I’m slowly learning to readjust again. But since it’s also my country of birth--my parents were born here also, my grandparents were born here--I’ve always carried the Uruguayan traditions. So it’s a familiar place--it’s not that I’ve gone to China. I’m not Chinese. It’s not that I’m going to a brand new country. So it felt natural, in the same way. Sometimes, I worry a little bit about having left my quote-unquote “music career” in America, because I developed it there. That’s where I’ve been based out of, since I played my first music. Sometimes I get a little anxious about how things will pan out in the future if I continue being here (in Uruguay). But also, I try to let myself be, because I’m also developing here. I’m gaining here also. People that are interested in what I do in America will hopefully continue with the trip, you know? It’s not like everyone will all of a sudden forget about me there. Sometimes I think about that…I don’t know. Sometimes I think about that, but I mostly focus on what I gain, and not trying to focus on what I’m losing. Like I said, I don’t really think I’m losing anything. New York is still there. It’s an airplane away! My family is still there. It will be different; this will be the first time I go back, living somewhere else, and the first time I tour America living somewhere else. This is the first time I’m a foreign band, coming to America!
HL: So much of your music has been influenced by travel between all these different places, and immersing yourself in different parts of the world. What are you picturing looking ahead at a tour?
JW: We’ve done some touring, for when Real Life Situations came out. I toured last year: we did about 80 shows. Before COVID-time, we toured America, Europe, and Latin America. Then, when I finished the touring, I focused on finishing this album that’s about to come out, that I had mostly recorded in 2021, and parts of 2022. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m a little bit curious to see how it feels to go back, and how it feels to see America again, but now with a little bit of a different perspective, not just as an American. Even though I was born in a different country, I always saw myself as an American living there. I embraced the country, and the country embraced me. Also in New York: I felt like a New Yorker. My family had moved there, and we set roots there. Even as a foreigner, I always saw myself as a New Yorker going around the country. But now there’s a new flip to that. I’ll remain a New Yorker: I can’t take it off my head, or my body, it’s already in me. But now, I’m coming from a new place. Sometimes, relocating comes with a little restructure about how one sees themselves in society, and how you see yourself in the world. You see yourself as an American, we put labels on everything. Now, I’m coming into a time that
HL: How do you think this new album fits into your past body of work, and this new moment of you that’s defined by so much transition?
JW: Interesting you say that because one of the titles we had in mind when we were finishing the album was Intermission. I saw this album as an intermission in my discography. Another title was Limbo. Just like being in a place in-between things. Before, I was definitely, like you said, a traveler. My life was based on just going about. I focused on that. Since I started doing music under my name, I traveled the world and took it all in, and let that affect my music. Then, once COVID came, we were forced to change our lifestyles, because we had to stay in. I found new things I enjoyed that I didn’t know I would enjoy. Even though it was by force, I found pleasure in this new lifestyle, just being put down and developing a relationship with someone and creating a home. Those things I did not give myself time for before. I was on a different trip. So this album describes that in-between time; and also, I changed locations, so my music will be affected by being in a new place. Definitely I think COVID was a breaking point, a point of inflection, in a lot of lives. A lot of people, I’m sure you too, went through personal changes during COVID.
HL: Yeah, absolutely.
JW: Yeah, so it was definitely an in-between for a lot of us. But it’s hard to say what my music will be like in the future because I don’t know. I’ll most likely continue traveling, experiencing new cultures, and letting that affect my music. I find pleasure in making music that way.
HL: When you were talking about doing all that traveling, getting involved in all these Latin American and South American musical traditions, it was making me think of how much I’ve seen cumbia Mexicana getting mainstream flowers in the U.S. over the past year, and that Bad Bunny collab with Grupo Frontera. I wondered if there were other really regional sounds you could see taking off here.
JW: You know, Bad Bunny is a great artist. I enjoy his music. But also, he’s a big business person. Mexico is one of the biggest countries in the world; maybe they thought if they put together a Mexican band and Bad Bunny they could make a world hit. Maybe they thought that way. But, I also see (Bad Bunny) as a genuine artist, and I see him do things that sometimes go against the way people do things. So it depends. I think it’s hard to say what other sounds will become popular: something that I learned from traveling Latin America is that, people here in Uruguay, let's say, don’t identify with what Americans see as Latin. I mean, we’re all Latin American and we’re proud Latin Americans, but mostly, Americans see Latin as whatever happens close to America, like the Mexico-Caribbean area. But then, there’s a whole world below that, that’s really different from Caribbean and Mexican culture. It’s different vibes, just because it’s a different place. So when people say Latin music in America, we imagine some specific Caribbean sound; we imagine a certain type of people. But here, it’s really different from that: they say “Yes, we’re Latin American, but we’re not that representation of Latin people.” We feel close to them because we’re Latin Americans: language connects us, and tradition. We’re all from the Spanish colonies, and we all live under that world. But it’d be interesting to see Bad Bunny do some genres from parts of Latin America more obscure to Americans. I wonder what Bad Bunny would be like with some Chilean music, Peruvian music, Argentinian, Uruguayan music, even Brazilian music--Brazil has had a lot of crossover with America.
That’s mostly what I did on (La Onda De Juan Pablo, a 2019 album Wauters recorded while traveling Latin America). Before I did the album, I was just doing concerts in Latin America, and I came across all these musics I didn’t know. But face to face, not on the radio: in life. I was impressed to hear the sound of music in the place. That was a nice experience. I mean, we’ll see. I don’t know where life will take me: I want to take advantage now that I’m here (in Uruguay) to do some music from my city, Montevideo. Some music that I think represents that feeling of being here.
HL: What would that would look like? In your experience, what are the definitive aspects of the music scene in Montevideo?
JW: There are different styles out here. There’s an Afro-Uruguayan style called candombe, which is mostly drum-bass. Different drums playing a particular pattern, that people sing on top of sometimes. From the United States all the way down to here there’re African people who were brought here who brought their music. But there’re connections to Bo Diddly, you know; it’s all the same really. Old rock ‘n roll, blues, and jazz music: it’s the same, really. It’s a style I really enjoy: I enjoy singers doing that style, and I’ve made some songs that have that style, on some previous albums of mine. But there are other styles here too. A lot of guitar music, folklore, folk music. I like the way they play. I would love to have some of those players in your music.
HL: Are there any collaborators you would love to work with that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet, or ones that you’d like to work with again? You’ve worked with a wide variety of artists over the years; I loved the recent track with Frankie Cosmos.
JW: There’s different ways of collaborating. You can have a person singing in your son, and it says “featuring Frankie Cosmos,” like you said. I love that, because it gives the song a twist; it has a new vocal. But also, incorporating a guitarist when it won’t say “featuring,” that’s what I did in (La Onda De Juan Pablo). I incorporated people playing their instruments. So that was enriching, in its own way too. I would love to collaborate here with some of the masters, the Uruguayan masters. There’s people here who are masters, what Bob Dylan is to us in America; masters in their craft, who have been around that long. In Uruguay, it’s 3 million people, a small country. You have access to those people here. It’s smaller. Bob Dylan for us is like untouchable; it’s a big country. Maybe one day we’ll shake hands. Bob Dylan is the one I’d like to say hi to one day, and make a song with. But also Kendrick (Lamar) in America. I’ve always liked Kendrick, and every time he makes new music…I’m ready. I’d love to sing with Kendrick, and Bob Dylan. But here (in Uruguay) there are masters as well. I’ve considered including them in the way that we write a song together: like how I did on Real Life Situations, get together, and write the song from scratch. With these masters, it wouldn’t be the same really. But slowly…I need to get on tour, and then get back, and see. They’re older: some of them are younger, about my age, that I would like to meet and play with. But slowly. You have to be careful with how you approach people. I want to come with the right spirit: that it’s about sharing, it’s about gaining something, it’s about sharing something with the world. It comes from love, from “I want to be around you, because I appreciate you, and I imagine we could do something nice together.” But maybe they don’t like what I do, so I have to be okay with that. You have to put your ego aside and expect the best, but also just be ready for it not happening.
HL: With collaborators, or anyone you’ve connected with over your music, are there any experiences that stood out to you where you felt like they really understood what you were doing?
JW: This way of making music that I do is mostly based on that; it happens all the time. Being in the studios with friends of mine who I appreciate a lot, and making a song together, was very special. I communicated this to them at the beginning. Everybody knows that I’m a big fan of music, and appreciate all music styles. For years, I always felt like people in our scene, or circle--call it indie rock America; I don’t know what to call the style, but for some reason I’m around certain musicians; we share shows and experiences, and life has put us together--how come we don’t get together and do a song together? How come we don’t exploit that? How come we don’t open up to each other? Why do we have to do things all of us in our own corner, alone; why do we have to make music like that? Why can’t we make something nice for our fans? Maybe also, if you like my music…why don’t you make something out of it? Take the best out of what I do. In my collaborations, I make sure that whatever I loved about that person’s music, it was printed on the music we put together. When I made a song with David Aguilar on my latest album: I love his singing, but also he’s a great whistler. He whistles in his songs really nice. So right away, I knew that song had to have a whistle; it had to have a part where he whistles. Then, we made a song with Peter (Sagar) from Homeshake in Canada. I knew I had to have a guitar solo for Peter, because when I first met Peter, he was playing guitar for Mac Demarco, and I loved Mac Demarco’s show since I first met them. Peter was the guitarist, and I was impressed at his playing. It was high quality--at the end of the show, back then, the band would play a solo instrumental and Mac would do crowd-surfing. Peter would do a solo. I always loved that part of the show, listening to Peter playing guitar. I loved it. So I knew I had to have some nice guitar playing from Peter on the song, so we put it on there.
Most of the experiences, if not all of them, (collaborating) was a beautiful experience for both of us. But still, you know, that scene, we’re still not ready. I’ve been inspired by the way the music business goes: like you said, Bad Bunny made music with a Mexican group. That’s how it goes now. It’s inspiring, really. But part of our scene is like, people love to be in a room making music by themselves. I did do that for a long time, but then I got to the limit of how good I could get. I got to this point, and to keep growing, I thought it’d be a nice idea to open up to the world, and get other people on the album, not just me playing all the instruments. Because then, it becomes a little bit of the same: which people liked, of course. But it’s not growing. For me, growth comes from change. I want to always open a new door, and go somewhere else. By myself, I could be opening doors and trying new sounds along; but it’s not the same as when you get another head in the room to say something.
HL: What are some of the ways you would like to continue growing as a musician? Are there specific things you have planned, or does the growth happen more naturally: all of a sudden you realize you’ve grown, and there you are?
JW: I’m here in Uruguay now, so I’m around a whole group of musicians I don’t know. I’m looking forward to exploiting those relationships. Exploit is sometimes associated with capitalism, and making money, but I mean exploit in the way of: exploit talent. Grow with each other. I’d love to get together with some of these people around here and learn: and then maybe this, I’ll bring back to my friends in America and influence them! So far, I’m just thinking of my near future. Life is long, and I don’t know. But I want to continue growing. And this latest album, the one that’s about to come out, Wandering Rebel, I worked with a producer for the first time. Someone produced the songs and someone had an opinion on how the songs should be. We talked together--as it was happening, we had a conversation. It’s not that they said: “It must be this way.” But that was great growth, being in the room with a producer. It’s been great to come from recording in my house by myself for my friends and myself, playing music for years without thinking it would be the way I make a living and the way I live my life, and turning it into this, a professional musician, having a business also. It’s a business, because I go around, and I have to pay these producers. Also, something in this business that we do: we work with each other for free, just because we want to be associated with each other. Sometimes, if a musician I like wants me to play guitar in his songs, and he says “I don’t have a budget” but I like being around him, I go and play the guitar. Because I gain something that’s not just money. But having to learn to make it into a business and have those conversations, it’s been interesting. The whole thing really, the future is unknown. But I hope to continue writing music along, and being able to hit that spot that you hit only when you’re by yourself. Be in touch with your feelings. And also, I love to work with others, and let that affect my songwriting…producing as well. I love to keep growing, and experiencing new things: I imagine working with Dr. Dre, Rick Rubin, great American producers. I would love to see what would happen if I go in a room with Dr. Dre, or Rick Rubin. Imagine! I think we could make some good music.
HL: Do you have any favorite Dre songs?
JW: I mean yeah, The Chronic, that album when he had Snoop Dogg featured. That’s classic American music. It’s incredible; unheard of. They definitely broke boundaries, and took it to the next level. Sonically, it’s amazing how it sounds on the speakers: the sound they got is beautiful. And also, they’re outrageous about the things they say! Sometimes, it’s important for someone to be outrageous, or offensive. Just go there. There must be space for everything. They’re a bit offensive to women sometimes, and gay people: sometimes they say offensive things. But I think music has to be seen as a bigger thing than just words. Expression is incredible. I love The Chronic, and I love good kid M.A.A.D. city by Kendrick that he made. Incredible American album. And Rick Rubin: I love the early work he did with Slick Rick, The Adventures Of Slick Rick. That’s one of my favorite albums ever. That song “Hey Young World.”
HL: You’ve spoken a lot about all the unexpected people you’ve come in contact with during your career: when you were a younger artist starting out in Queens, would you have imagined for yourself the life you have now?
JW: Not really. I think it has to do with the way I’ve done it, and the way I take it. It’s been very organic, the way things happened. I never had a breakthrough moment; I haven’t had a moment in which I become a star, and things are easier; all of a sudden I have a hit album and a mansion. Then, things would be different. Everything has been very slow and organic, and it’s taken time. But to see it as a career, to see it as a discography, I feel like I’m at a really good place. I’m really happy to be where I am. I would never have imagined I would be this. When I was a kid, I didn’t think of music as a business. We didn’t want it to be a business; we didn’t consider the idea. We didn’t know it was possible to make a living out of it. And then, I probably imagined: Okay, making music is like, all of a sudden you make it, and you’re on the other side. It hasn’t really been like that for me. It’s been a process. I feel like every day I’m making it. There’s different roads for everyone, and mine has been very special. It’s a little bit unconventional: most people that I see around me, it’s more conventional. They have a couple of albums that sound the same, and they develop an audience in that niche world. Looking back at my discography, none of my albums really sound the same. So whoever comes along, hops along more for a conceptual type of art. There’s a concept that ties everything together in my work, but if you hear one album or another, it’s like: “Oh man, now Juan’s singing in Spanish, that sucks because I don’t understand what he’s saying.” I’m sure a lot of people turned around then. But a lot of people that are into the conceptual part of what I do, and the storytelling, following someone's life through their work, it’s probably nice, for a break, to have someone presenting different things. I’m not saying I’m unique: I’m sure there are other people doing this. But around me, I see other people going more into a niche type of music. They stick to what they do. I wish I could do that, but I don’t really have a style. I don’t play a genre of music. Maybe everything has guitar, but sometimes my songs don’t have guitar now, so I don’t really know what I do. It’s a little bit scary to walk on that line, because going back to what I said earlier, there’s no clear view of what it will be like in the future. But also, it’s very encouraging to know that the future writes itself as I just participate in life.
As I grow, I also understand that it’s important not to get too into what life will be like in the future. Look, I’m living in a new country, I’m living in my home country, I did not expect this happening in my life. But it happened. I’m open for things to happen, and I try to take it easy when it comes to change. But then, as with everyone, I suffer and I go through pain as I go through change. It’s not easy, change. But I like changing: I see it as part of life. Luckily, I’ve made my life into a music career--luckily it’s worked so far. I hope we can keep it going, and that I don’t get bored…I try to stop myself from thinking what life will be like, and just enjoy the moment, and take care of what is coming up in the near future. I don’t have goals long term. Maybe it’s a weakness of mine, but I don’t have a goal. I mean, I’d love to play the Apollo in New York one day, or Carnegie Hall, because it’s my hometown, and I always wanted to represent, be at the biggest stage. Big theaters with history, where masters have played. But if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, until I die I’m going to be working for that to happen. So that’s okay.
HL: On the topic of reckoning with creating a career out of the thing you love: how do you strike a balance between passion and profession? Do you think there are any keys to keeping your passion protected while still being able to monetize it and support yourself?
JW: It’s been a process, which I’m still a part of. I’m still learning how to do it. Because yes, it’s a business, and there are all these things you can do to have a better business. But sometimes, they conflict, as you said, with how you want to do your passion. Passion is wild, and sometimes wild things don’t go hand in hand with business things. As I live, I learn things: like when I started with The Beets (Wauters first professional band, an indie-rock outfit based out of Queens), every show they invited us to play at, we would play. That was one of our things, and we were not changing that for anybody. Then, we get an opportunity to play at a big venue in New York, and they say: “If you play here, you can’t do a show either two weeks before or two weeks after, because we want all your fans to come to our show. Don’t play before, and don’t play after; just make sure that everyone comes to this one show, and they don’t see you at a bar on the corner for free the day before.” Now, I’ve learned to be flexible. Before I was very stuck in my ways: it was a rebellious type of thing at the beginning, a way to find power in my life, empower myself. Doing music and finding a place in which I could just be what I wanted, and not have to do things I didn’t want to. In that world, the Beets world, I only did what I wanted. But now, sometimes you gotta do some things you don’t want so much. But then you do them, and you realize that it wasn’t that bad, and you like it too. You find a way to work within those structures. It’s been a process to learn how to make it a business, and keep that passion protected, and keep it real: just be connected with how I want to do it, and not just put all that aside. Because I know if I just do the business, and I don’t protect my soul, how I want to do things in the most unconventional way, then the project will lose all its value. The value is that there’s a soul behind it, fighting to project something, to express something. If I put a lot of limitations on how I can do my thing, then my thing will not flourish. It’s a process, but luckily I’ve found people…there’s people on my team that are patient with me. We learn together. I can be a little bit difficult: like I said, sometimes I want to do things different, and maybe it doesn’t help the difference. But it remains real.