Raul Midón brings a vibrant sound steeped in classic soul to the pop arena, because pop is where a singer and a song can have the biggest and most widespread impact. When an envelope-pushing song becomes a pop hit, it shifts the entire musical landscape, forcing out the shopworn and clichéd while opening the windows of change to let in fresh ideas. The notion of shifting the landscape is this artist's passion; the wide-ranging skill sets he brings to bear on his mission provide him with the tools to pull it off.
The New Mexico-born, New York-based writer/vocalist/guitarist burst onto the scene in 2005 with his audaciously original debut album, State of Mind, and he's followed it up with an even more memorable song cycle, one that substantiates the depth of his talent and the degree of his dedication. A World Within a World, the title of the new album (Manhattan Records, Sept. 25), might refer to the status of pop music within the culture as a whole; it could also describe the expansive interior realm that this single-minded artist, blind from birth, has created with his imagination.
Midón is bringing currency to a rich tradition of pop inventiveness, combining the beguiling soulfulness of Stevie Wonder, the inventive appropriation of non-indigenous musical elements pioneered by Paul Simon and the trend-defying individuality of Bill Withers. "These are mainstream artists who were on the charts and making art," Midón notes. "There isn't that much originality in pop these days, because everybody is trying to sound like what they think might fit into the narrow formats on radio. But the best pop is as important as much as any music. I mean, I love Paul Simon or James Taylor or Prince as much as I love Miles." With A World Within a World, Midón aims to do his part to replant the pop wilderness.
In the pop field, says Midón, with what turns out to be characteristic outspokenness, "You have to think about your audience, and at the same time make music that's interesting to you as an artist. If something you hate becomes successful, you still have to play it every night, and that's no way to live. Because my first record was successful enough to satisfy the label, and because of the quality of the people I'm working with, we made the second album exactly the way we wanted to make it, which is pretty extraordinary in this day and age. There was no interference, no 'Where's the single?' We didn't go through any of that."
The album's diversity is manifested with brio in the beguiling settings. The opening "Pick Somebody Up," which could serve as Midón's credo, embeds a theme of uplifting social consciousness in an insinuating groove and the sort of lush, uptown soulfulness that distinguished the career-defining albums of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The multitracked acappella piece "Ain't Happened Yet" references the the immediacy of street-corner doo-wop and the exuberance of the Beatles. "Save My Life" updates the silky '70s soul of the Stylistics and Delfonics, interpolated with the deep funk of the same period courtesy of Midón's wah-wah electric guitar part.
Midón focuses on another era altogether in "All the Answers," as he celebrates the ease of access to a vast universe of information thanks to the Internet; indeed, this may be the first lyric to specifically reference Googling. "When I grew up, you had to go to the library to find out about something," he points out. "The impact of the flow of information that we have today is impossible to overestimate-and what really fascinates me is, then, what do we choose to want to find out about? Time is finite, and I can't imagine spending my time on trivia-I just won't do it."
Just as unprecedented is "The More That I Know," which is equal parts love song, message song and modern-day spiritual. "On one level," Midón explains, "the song has to do with traveling-'The more that I know, wherever I go, I want to be close to you'-but it also uses metaphors in a different way. I've always felt at a disadvantage as someone who has never seen in that writing is very visual and image-driven. People really relate to images, and I've never seen images. So what I realized is that you have to write from what you know, and because people also hear, touch and feel, hopefully, they'll be able to relate to these songs. So that song is me starting to get into another way of writing-it's very much about my experience, and not trying to describe a sunset that I've never seen."
References to the perilous world we live in abound on A World Within a World. "Tembererana," which employs elements of Argentinean music, pits images of the threat of looming annihilation against "the power of creation." "The More That I Know" ponders metaphysical questions like "Why do the children suffer so?" And the culminating "Peace on Earth" places the radical humanism of John Lennon's "Imagine" in an unsettling contemporary context. "I got a few people accusing me of being naïve on the first album-I don't think I'll get that this time," says Midón with a quick laugh.
Midón was born in Embudo, N.M., to an Argentinean father and an African-American mother. A passionate music lover for as long as he can remember, Midón started playing drums at age 4 before shifting his focus to the guitar. He turned down a scholarship in creative writing offered by the University of New Mexico after being selected by the University of Miami for its highly regarded jazz program. Staying in Miami after graduating, Midón became an in-demand backup singer, working primarily on Latin projects for artists like Julio Iglesias, Shakira and Alejandro Sanz, while moonlighting as a club performer, sprinkling the requisite cover songs with the original tunes he was starting to write.
On the city's stages, he diligently honed his craft as a singer, writer and guitarist, developing a syncopated, flamenco- and jazz-infused approach to the steel-stringed acoustic.
In 2002, when Midón felt he was ready, he walked away from his lucrative profession in order to pursue a solo career in New York City. "I wanted to become an artist and do what I wanted to do instead of being someone else's hired gun," he explains. When Midón performed for the legendary producer/arranger Arif Mardin, fresh off the recording of Norah Jones' breakthrough album, Come Away With Me, he offered the newcomer a deal on the spot-it would be the final signing of Mardin's long career. Raúl readily accepted, eager to form a partnership with the highly skilled veteran and with Arif's multi-instrumentalist son Joe. Father and son co-produced State of Mind, which garnered critical accolades for its heady fusion of old-school soul, timeless pop, Latin, jazz and the singer/songwriter idiom. Intrigued by what the youngster was cooking up, Wonder himself appeared on one track.
For A World Within A World, recorded after the death of the elder Mardin, Midón and Joe Mardin tightened the focus, with Joe laying down the grooves and playing additional instruments behind Midón's vocals and guitar parts on the majority of the tracks. "Like his father, Joe is a producer in the old-school sense of the word," says Midón. "He's interested in how a record sounds; he can do arrangements and conduct an orchestra-which he did on 'Pick Somebody Up.' Joe brought the value of making an album to the project, as opposed to just a collection of songs."
This is not your average pop record-not by a long shot. With A World Within a World, Midón has fashioned an album that is at once audacious and accessible, of the moment and suffused with history; it's personal yet universal, uncompromising yet inviting. This is that rare sort of pop album that could actually make a difference, and as such, it stands right alongside the pivotal works of the artists who inspired it.