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Gloria Estefan / Jesus Cordero

Gloria Estefan steps out for 'Standards'

The superstar tackles the Great American Songbook, with a global twist

By Alanna Nash
Special to MSN Music

Though the Cuban dance beat thrust her to stardom in the mid-'80s with the Latin crossover band the Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, 56, has long yearned to honor the American songbook. With "The Standards," out Sept. 10, she does just that, but with a nod to her international fan base. Singing in English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French, she puts her own cultural stamp on such venerable songs as "What a Difference a Day Makes," "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Embraceable You." On "They Can't Take That Away From Me," for example, she enlists a 6/8 time, and what she calls "almost an Afro-Cuban bass feeling."

"This album was my baby from beginning to end, from production to the look of the cover and the photos," she says. "I'm a very proud mama!"

MSN Music: Why did you want to do the "Standards" album?

Gloria Estefan: It's been my dream from the get-go. This genre has always been my heart, my personal preference. Dance music wasn't what allowed me to emote. As a little girl, I played torch songs from Cuba on my guitar to please my grandmother. And when we came to the States, I listened to my mom's records, Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. I also loved musicals, so I very clearly knew about George Gershwin and Gilbert and Sullivan. When I got older, the pop stuff -- Carole King and Stevie Wonder -- came in. But my earliest influence was exactly this genre.

Listening Booth: Hear the new album from Gloria Estefan

You've said that music has always been a catharsis for you. I know you made audiotapes for your father when you were a girl in the '60s and sent them overseas to him in the service.

Yes, and also when he came back, and he was very ill, and I had a lot of responsibility to take care of him. This was my way of letting out all my emotion, because I wanted to be strong for my mom. I'd lock myself up in my room and just sing and cry, and I would feel better. It was a wonderful tool to get through some very tough times. Music is almost mystical to me. It really has an incredibly powerful force. When I was in my 20s, I would say to [husband musician-producer-entrepreneur] Emilio [Estefan], "Man, if we could figure out the frequency that turns people on, we'd be an instant hit!" [Laughs] Actually, I'm careful what I put out there into the universe, musically. I don't take it lightly.

How did the new album come about?

Back 30 years ago, when we performed "Conga" on the Johnny Carson show, they asked us to do a second song. I sang "Good Morning Heartache" with my keyboard player. Even then I thought, "One day, I will do this kind of record." Two years ago, at a University of Miami trustees dinner, Shelly Berg, the dean of the Frost School of Music, sat at the piano and asked me to join him. Again, I sang "Good Morning Heartache." And as I was singing with him, I saw the whole album in my head.

Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?

I don't like to just sit around and not move forward. So I started preparing for this record a year ago with a voice coach, Torb Pedersen. He takes a different focus, a neurological focus to your voice. We worked for months, because I wanted to make sure that I had my tools incredibly sharp. I have a broader range now than I had before, because of all the years of studying and growth. I also have a lot more emotional vocabulary to go to when I sing, just because I have a lot more life under my belt. It helps to have lived and experienced things to be able to really wring the most emotional performance out of the songs.

Bing: More on Gloria Estefan

Could you have done this material as well as a younger woman?

Because of my age and where I am in life, I've found that I just am a lot freer than before. And in this genre, that is very important. Because you're singing songs that have been done by the greats of all time, and the only thing you can bring to it is you. The American songbook was written between 1920 and 1949, and at that time, there was a lot of nuance and sexual subtext to the lyric. When you listen to "How Long Has This Been Going On," and you realize the many things it could be about, you can interpret it much better. You can't do that when you're in your 20s, because you have no clue.

You sang "Smile," the Charlie Chaplin song, in Spanish, and wrote new lyrics for "El Dia Que Me Quieras," which you and Emilio danced to as your wedding song. What was your thinking behind those?

Well, imagine, I'm a songwriter. What a great opportunity to add another layer! I wanted to do "Smile" in my native tongue, and because the version that was out there was a love song. It had absolutely nothing to do with the original lyrics. I played the record for Geraldine Chaplin, and she cried and said she loved my Spanish lyric more than the English original. And then my wedding song, "El Dia Que Me Quieras," had never been done in English, and it's been awhile since there was a good wedding song out there. Of course, "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" had never been done in English, either. These are things that I could bring to the table to set the songs apart. As a writer, it's wonderful to be able to contribute something new to a standard.

Where do you stand with "Do That Conga," the proposed Broadway show about your life?

I've already had two very good, in-depth sessions with the writer. I'm looking forward to fast-tracking that project soon.

Alanna Nash is a New York Times best-selling ghostwriter and author. She has also written scores of magazine articles for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, USA Weekend, and Entertainment Weekly. Her office is lit by two lamps that once adorned the living room of Graceland, and she saw the Beatles live in concert three times.

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