SONAR user Raul Midon likes to take chances to find that next new thing that will inspire him, make him complete, to drive him in a new direction; as an artist, it’s simply what he does. Taking chances has paid off as you can see here with his amazing performance on The David Letterman Show. Today, on a beautiful day in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, he took a chance on the suggested oyster appetizer and it paid off. “Man, that’s Rock and Roll!” he said after the seasonings kicked in. After all, uncooked seafood is always a crap shoot even in the best and cleanest eateries, but to Raul Midon, taking chances is a way of life that has paid off on many levels.
The early years:
Raul, blind since infancy, was influenced by music early in life. His father was a professional dancer, so music was always on in the house. Miles, Bird, Beethoven, John Cage, Classical, Argentinean Folk; always an eclectic mix and one that would shape his development as a musician in the years to come. In his house, they didn’t just listen; they studied the music of the masters. Around the age of 4 he started banging on drums, something that would later influence his guitar technique and make him one of the most recognizable sounds in music years later.
Along with music, Raul and his twin brother Marco developed another passion: Ham Radio. The images created in his mind by linking up with fellow operators across the country and around the world helped develop his imagination and fuel Raul’s desire to communicate. This hobby had them communicating even out of this world, literally, as they actually made contact with the Space Shuttle during one session.
While his brother Marco pursued technology as his passion with NASA where he became an engineer, music would quickly become Raul’s outlet of expression. His artistic expertise was first honed through years of private lessons with flamenco, classical and jazz guitarists in his hometown of Santa Fe, NM, and then at the University of Miami where he studied music and earned a B.A. in studio music and jazz. His first exposure to midi-technology came thru his relationship with Kentyn Reynolds (Santa Fe) who was one of the industry’s earliest pioneers of midi implementation and whom also worked at Roland. These early guitar influences as well as his exposure to midi-technology helped define his sound.
The developing years:
After high school he enrolled at the University of Miami’s prestigious music program. Upon graduating he went to work locally, supporting a variety of well-known Latino performers, including Julio and Enrique Iglesias, Jose Feliciano, Alejandro Sanz, and Shakira.
In Miami he would become a successful background vocalist and guitarist; his vocals a cross between Stevie Wonder and Oteil Burbridge, and his scat-flamenco playing a stylistic marriage of George Benson and Paco De Lucia. Also, he plied his skills in the studio for other people while playing his own original music in the bars and restaurants around Miami. Even though he was playing and singing his own music, the emphasis was on the work he did for other people.
The experience was wonderful, but something was missing. He wasn’t happy playing someone else’s music. He had something to say, and he wanted to say it: he needed to do his own thing.
“There were really no places in Miami to play original music,” he commented. “It’s all playing in a restaurant or a bar or something.” It was time to move on; to the only place he could think of that would support an original artist…
Raul relocates and finds an abundance of receptive venues like Joe’s Pub, where he earns a regular monthly gig and starts to develop a following. Eventually he gets a call from legendary New York City House DJ, mix-master and engineer Little Louie Vega. Vega has heard Raul play and wants to work with him. He was even going to pay Raul for the privilege of having him create some lyrics, an exciting notion for Raul. They get together and Vegas spins a cut for Raul, who is slightly daunted (“House music tracks are loooong, much different than what I normally do in terms of writing lyrics,” Raul would say later). So he wings it. He starts scatting, riffing over the music, coming up with lyrics and even throwing in some guitar.
It works. The collaboration would become “Sunshine” and end up on Vega’s Elements of Life album. (Later Raul would strip it down and remake the song in his own style and add it to his own State of Mind album.)
Things are starting to pick up and on one night in 2003 he is approached backstage about performing at Carnegie Hall along with heavyweights such as Bruce Hornsby and Cassandra Wilson on a on a bill entitled The Movie Music of Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard. Raul is asked to perform a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Make Sure You’re Sure,” which appeared in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” He accepts, and the performance pays immediate dividends.
Variety magazine says the version features “romping guitar chords and vocally compelling trumpet mimicry adding a spunky drive.” More importantly, the man of the evening takes notice: Spike Lee calls Raul the next day and asks him to work with him on his next film. Raul ends up composing the song “Adam ‘N’ Eve ‘N’ Eve” for Lee’s 2004 film “She Hate Me.” (Raul would later be invited to perform again in the 2007 version of the event, this time staged at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.)
Raul also sets out to land a recording deal. His team takes a unique approach: he would audition for heads of labels live in their offices, rather than submit a demo that may or may not ever get heard. Raul would perform songs for a host of well-known label heads around New York, including Clive Davis.
Enter Arif Mardin to open another chapter in the journey:
After numerous meetings around town, Raul arrives at EMI/Manhattan Records and was discouraged. “Auditioning for the companies were all very similar experiences, they didn’t want to tip their hand. I had no idea if they were interested or not.” He was not getting anywhere, even if some of the labels seemed interested.
At this stop, however, Raul would play for Arif Mardin, the multiple Grammy award winner and music business legend who was running Manhattan Records. Mardin was already well-established as a producer and executive for Atlantic Records, having produced a string of hits from the The Young Rascals “Good Lovin’” in 1965 to Bette Midler’s 1989 hit “Wind Beneath my Wings” and many more. Mardin was now at the peak of his game having just produced Norah Jones’ double-platinum album Come Away with Me for Blue Note/EMI, which earned him the Producer of the Year Grammy award.
“I played ‘Everybody’ for him. He listened, head down, and when I started singing he picked his head up. I finish the song and he walks out. I asked my wife who was with me, ’What just happened here?’ A minute later he comes back in with the whole staff and says ‘Play that
again Raul.’” Raul knew he had found a home, but while he was experienced at making records for others this would be the first time Raul would make his own full-length record, and Arif would be critical in developing Raul’s sound.
“He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with,” Raul reflected. “He kept me true to myself while bringing out the natural arrangements of my songs. Sometimes I had ideas I tried to pitch based on what I thought the industry wanted and what I heard others doing who were getting commercial success, but Arif just said ‘No, no, that isn’t what you do!’ He steered me straight even when others tried to change me, and supported me in being more of who I am.”
Before working on Raul’s record, Arif had to put the finishing touches on a Queen Latifah’s “The Dana Owens Album.” He ended up putting Raul on that record playing guitar and even singing some background vocals.
“He had a full orchestra, and he held them up at one point so he could fit in my parts. They were waiting for ME as I played guitar, I couldn’t believe it!” Later Queen Latifah and Raul would go on the Today Show to play the cut from the album.
“I got there and Arif was there too which wasn’t surprising, but he was there just for me; to make sure I sounded good. He left as soon as my bit was over. It was just astounding that he would come for just me. I was very intimidated but this helped when we made my own record.”
Raul’s first record for Manhattan Records, State of Mind, came out in 2005 to critical acclaim. “He [Arif] was there every day for my record. He got Stevie Wonder to play on the record and even hosted the press party for the record at his house, ensuring it would get lots of coverage.” Clearly Raul feels a great debt of gratitude to Arif. “He’s one of the guys I’ve met with that has all the hype and he’s a legend who deserves it. He’s just astounding. We lost him too early.”
A World within a World continues the strong momentum built from State of Mind. The sophomore effort gets solid reviews and major media outlets are taking notice. He gets interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Things are going well. He’s starting to play in Europe and develop a following there. He’ll go over as an opening act, and then come back months later as a headliner and the crowds are just as big. He is invited to play at the Kennedy Center’s Open House Arts Festival, and even plays high profile tribute concerts to Johnny Cash and The Who, seemingly odd choices for an artist like Raul.
“Oh I love the Who – I had the The Who Sell Out album already, I didn’t even have to purchase it,” he says when asked about the latter. “I’m a huge Keith Moon fan. I just think he’s one of the greatest. On that record, he just plays his ass off. I grew up with The Who as well, so to me it was a pretty natural thing and kind of a challenge to do that particular song.” That song was, not surprisingly, “I Can See for Miles.”
“It presents the kinds of challenges I like, harmonic challenges; and when you look at their history, I don’t think anything like that had been done before. They were in some pretty heavy territory at the time. When that album had come out, Sgt Pepper had just come out, so it’s a pretty heavy time in Rock and Roll history. But even with that, I don’t think something like ‘Miles and Miles’ was done in Rock and Roll before…”
Continuing on his path, the Joe’s Pub connection pays off yet again: he’s asked to be a guest artist at the “TED” conference series, perhaps the most high-profile gig of his career. Some of the most famous and respected people in the world are invited to be TED speakers; their presentations make the news and are available to everyone 24/7 on the internet. In bringing together “Leaders in the Fields of Technology, Entertainment, Design,” the TED performance serves as the perfect opportunity for Raul to debut a new song called “All the Answers” which is about the meaning of technology. It mirrors his growing interest in and use of technology, especially in his artistic life.
It’s 2010 and Raul’s third major album Synthesis is now out. Raul is in the big time now. Working with him on the album is a veritable who’s who in music. Larry Klein, the legendary bass player and producer signed onto the project as soon as he was called. Vinnie Colaiuta is on drums who has just spent the last several years touring with Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin. Dean Parks, well known for his guitar work on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam album and Michael Jackson‘s Beat It, is also onboard.
Raul has also moved out of New York City into a home with a studio in suburban Maryland. A friend from Miami has helped him select and outfit the studio with some of the latest technologies for recording artists, sighted or not. Raul’s gotten pretty handy with them and they play a big part in the production of Synthesis.
At the heart of the studio is a customized version of SONAR. A company called Dancing Dots has developed ‘scripts’ or instructions for SONAR to work with standard JAWS computer screen-reading software (short for “Job Access With Speech,” JAWS is a program that makes Windows-based PCs accessible to blind and visually impaired users). The set of Dancing Dots scripts, called “CakeTalking,” along with its hundreds of pages of customized documentation and tutorials has given Raul and others unprecedented control over their work. Now blind artists can use the same tools as their fully-sighted counterparts.
“CakeTalking really lets you harness the power of SONAR. With this program I can do all my own audio editing and mixing. And I have access all kinds of things in terms of processors such as compressors, reverbs and modulation. And it’s all built-in, so you can access the parameters with speech because it all talks to you.” He also raves about SONAR’s synths, like Dimension Pro and Rapture. In fact, several of the demos that would eventually become final tracks on Synthesis were produced using SONAR. “This is miles ahead of the previous tools that were available.” He sees this as the next big leap forward in his journey. “For me, this is the future. I can see the writing on the wall.”
Walking out into the afternoon sun, Raul is energized, ready for the evening’s gig. But in a larger sense, he’s also ready for… more. More movie work, more festivals and larger gigs in the U.S., more records, and like the oyster back in the seafood restaurant, he wants to keep trying new things and to keep moving forward. He’s toying with an idea about touring with a group for the first time and even a possible move back to New York City (he misses its vibe and opportunities).
He has other ideas too, but whatever he opts to do next, he is undaunted. The playing field is leveling; “Technology is proving the great equalizer for blind artists,” he says.
After all, it’s his journey. Why shouldn’t the power be in his hands?
For more information on Raul Midon please visit www.raulmidon.com