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