By: Rodrigo Sánchez
Photos: Cortesía de Dream Team Agency
The first thing Peruvian singer/songwriter Gian Marco says sounds like the perfect recipe for failure: “I’m not an artist who gets radio play and I’m not signed to a record label.” He has, in fact, enjoyed a twenty-year career without getting radio play and while doing things his own way. That’s not surprising to those who don’t know him, but you might have been surprised had you been at one of Gian Marco’s two sold-out shows a while back in Italy, one in Milan and the other in Rome, a city he had to leave without touring in order to make it to Japan in time for concerts in Kawasaki, Tochigi, and Aichi.
So who knows about him besides the Italians and Japanese? Quite a large Spanish-speaking audience, including famous musicians like Juan Luis Guerra, Alejandro Sanz, and Diego Torres, who sang duets with Gian Marco on his latest album of original material titled Días Nuevos. He is also well known to Marc Anthony, Alejandro Fernández, and Gloria Estefan, who have all recorded his songs. And the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences not only knows who he is but has awarded him three Latin Grammies.
With a career spanning more than two decades, Gian Marco has just released an album of classics titled Versiones, produced by legendary Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra, just like the stars of yesteryear. Although most of the success he has known during his career has been due to his talent as a composer, Gian Marco is setting off, once again, on the road less traveled, introducing a new album filled with legendary songs by other composers. Let’s see how he calibrates his compass.
You’ve won three Grammies as a singer/songwriter. Why did you decide to record an entire album of songs by other composers?
For a number of reasons. Musically, I really wanted to sing the particular type of song you hear on this record, with orchestrations and arrangements. Emotionally, this project is a tribute to my parents. I felt as if I was on stage and my parents were in the audience listening and watching me sing these songs, which are very special to them. I was also drawn to the challenge of trying to put my own personal touch on these songs, which are so well known, so I got a lot of guidance from Arturo Sandoval, who produced the record.
Tell us about the process behind Versiones.
This is the kind of record many of us musicians dream of recording; the process was incredible. Once I got Arturo Sandoval on board, the first challenge was choosing the songs. As a singer, it’s not enough to just like a song, I also have to be able to interpret it convincingly. I feel like we achieved a good balance on Versiones and that every song means something very special to me. For example, “Almohada” was a huge hit for José José and I also thought of it as a tribute to Adán Torres, the Nicaraguan poet who wrote it. It was also lovely to record Latin American classics like “Perfidia” and “La flor de la canela.” And I included classics in English and Portuguese.
Once the songs were chosen, the process of going into the studio and recording alongside thirty musicians was also beautiful and very magical. I feel like we made a record that the whole family can enjoy.
You’re not known for singing in English or Portuguese. Did you feel any trepidation about it?
I felt much more at home with the Portuguese because both my grandfather and my mother’s family is Brazilian, so I have some roots. I heard the language a lot while growing up and it’s been part of my life. As for the English songs, I think it’s about having respect for the composer; I mean you have to respect the melodies and the music’s intentions. And I worked with a great vocal coach who helped me with the pronunciation. In any case, it’s fashionable nowadays to sing with an accent.
What has been hardest for you during your twenty-year career?
The hardest part has been maintaining an attitude that keeps me from giving up. Especially in this field, you have to control your quota of frustration since you will undoubtedly encounter many rocks in your path. And even though many musicians in the world are trying to get their music out to the people, I believe there’s an audience for everyone. It’s been very helpful to have always had the conviction that I wanted to be a musician; not just have a hit or two on the radio, but a career, to dedicate my life to this always. I released a few records in Perú and started to develop little by little. Then I had some success as a composer with songs like “Canta corazón,” which Alejandro Fernández interpreted, and that opened up some doors to an international career as a singer/songwriter.
The songs I composed for others get more radio play than the ones I sing, but that never bothered me. On the contrary, I’ve accepted that that’s just the way it is, part of who I am and my career, and separate from what I want as an artist.
How does your composition process differ when you’re writing for another artist instead of for your own records?
It’s much easier to compose for others. I think that when a musician composes for him or herself, they may be a bit prouder or more careful, and perhaps even a little too precious. So I think it’s easier to write for someone else. In my experience with Alejandro Fernández for example, all the references were there: his background, his voice, his style, so you’re more certain about which direction to take. As far as the composition process itself, I’m not very methodical. I don’t shut myself up in a room with candles or anything like that. I do try to write constantly, to build up my catalogue of songs, not just when somebody asks me to write something. I don’t have any formulas for writing; the only thing I really try to do is summarize a story in three or four minutes. It’s really a big mystery because, a song like “Let it Be,” for example, is very simple, but it has an incredible power to touch you. It’s a huge challenge to try to write something that can be so simple and also so beloved.
What kind of impact have the Latin Grammies had on your career?
The Latin Grammies, and the Grammies in general, are a form of recognition and they give the winner a chance to be noticed by people. It’s like a light that shines on you for a moment and draws attention to you as a prize-winner. This is especially true if you aren’t backed by the typical record label structure, as in my case. I’m an independent artist and that has been one of the biggest challenges in my career: how to become known without the infrastructure and contacts of a record label? It’s recognition that makes part of the listening public take notice of you. Naturally, when they do turn to notice you, whether or not the attention lasts more than a second, or you make a new fan, will depend entirely on your music.
What made you decide to remain independent of a record label?
Beyond being a musician, with all of the romantic and artistic connotations, I think I have a business side. I started out playing in a bar and little by little, with a lot of work, I’ve been able to create a very united team, which has helped me along in my career. I prefer to work without the machinery of a record label because I don’t think I need it.
Aside from the awards, you’ve also earned recognition from musical icons like Juan Luis Guerra, Alejandro Sanz and Diego Torres, who agreed to participate in your latest record of original songs. How did that come about?
I am very humbled by their participation. I am friends with all three of them and it was easier for me because I don’t have a record label and didn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy.
What has it been like to work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador?
When they suggested I become an ambassador, they asked me to choose a topic or a project. I chose self-esteem because I think it’s a very serious issue in Latin America. The Italian-born writer Antonio Raimondi, who lived in Perú, has a phrase I feel reflects Latin American reality very well: “Perú is a beggar seated on a golden bench.” I continue to cooperate with UNICEF any way I can, happy and fulfilled by the chance to participate in something like this.