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Gloria Estefan has sold millions of records and won multiple Grammy Awards for hits like “Conga” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”
Now, with over three decades in the music business, she’s decided to take on standards — and not only songs like “Embraceable You” and “The Way You Look Tonight” from the Great American Songbook, but also Brazilian and Argentinean classics.
As Gloria Estefan tells Here & Now, “this music is my heart.” It was music that her parents played when she was a child.
When her father was serving in Vietnam, the two would exchange tapes: Estefan would send tapes of herself singing classics like “Moon River” to him, and he would send tapes of himself talking to her and her sister.
Estefan told Here & Now that those memories, and the years between then and now, enrich her recording of these songs.
“I think it helps to have life under your belt though, before you do these songs. They have a lot of nuances that because of the time, they used a lot of subtext, and I think it helps to really understand the different layers of the song when you’re going to interpret them.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
When I say Gloria Estefan, what do you think of? Maybe this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONGA")
GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) Come on, shake your body, baby. Do the conga. I know you can't control yourself any longer. Come on, shake your body, baby. Do the conga. I know you can't control yourself any longer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET ON YOUR FEET")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) Get on your feet. Get up and make it happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS GET IN THE WAY")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) But the words get in the way. There's so much I want to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM IS GONNA GET YOU")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) No way, you can fight it every day. But no matter what you say, you know it. The rhythm is going to get you.
HOBSON: Gloria Estefan through the years. She has sold over 100 million records worldwide and has won seven Grammys. But on her new album, Gloria Estefan is going back to the future and tackling the standards with the bit of Latin flare. This is "You Made Me Love You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) You made me love you. I didn't want to do it.
HOBSON: That's "You Made Me Love You" from Gloria Estefan's new album "The Standards." It's out this week. And she joins us from her Miami studio to talk about it. Gloria Estefan, welcome.
ESTEFAN: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure. I told you I'm a big fan.
HOBSON: Thank you. I'm a big fan of yours. And, you know, there are a lot of standards out there. You have appeared on some of them with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. But what made you want to make an album of your own of the standards?
ESTEFAN: Oh, my gosh. This goes back to my childhood, honestly. This music is my heart. I mean, when I came to the United States, I was 2 years old and besides my mom's record collection with the standards of Cuba: Javier Solis, Trio Los Panchos, you know, Celia Cruz, Olga Guillot, the big torch singers of the time. I sing since I talked, so the songs that I would learn to play on my guitar and sing for my mom and my grandma and my dad were standards - "Moon River," I listen to Andy Williams, I watched his show, I watched Dean Martin, loved Frank Sinatra, saw his movies. So this genre was very close to my heart.
And actually, the first time we were ever on "Johnny Carson" when we performed "Conga" that we were in the top 10, they asked us to do a second song, hopefully not an original because since we were a brand new group they didn't want to do two brand new songs and one of them was already a hit. So I chose "Good Morning Heartache."
And I did it with just piano, my piano player and me because I wanted people to know that I loved this genre, that I'm a singer that also did ballads, always thinking that someday in my future, if I was lucky enough to have a career that lasted that long, that I would revisit these songs at some point. And it all happened very naturally.
I was at a trustee dinner because I'm a trustee for the University of Miami, the dean, Shelly Berg, who played piano and did the arrangements and conducted the orchestra on "The Standards" was there, and he asked me to sit in on the piano with him. And I said, hey, do you know "Good Morning Heartache" 'cause this songs very special to me?
He did. And this whole idea unfolded while I was singing that song with him. He brought so much passion to it that it just - the entire idea flourished in my mind right at that moment. And right after I finished singing it with him, I asked him if he would want to do this with me.
(Singing) Good morning, heartache, you old gloomy sight. Good morning, heartache. Thought we said goodbye last night. I tossed and turned until it seemed that you were gone. But here you are with the dawn.
HOBSON: You want your fans, you want people who listen to you to know that this is part of you as well.
ESTEFAN: Very much so. Oh, my gosh, so much. I think if you listen to my ballads and the songs that I've written, you can kind of hear that influence throughout my music in the melodic lines that I use, in the romantic music that I write. So it is very much my heart and very natural to me. It's really a happy place for me. And I wanted to record the album - kind of that genre had always been recorded historically - live in the studio.
So we went in, and we did four songs a day. I sang along with the rhythm section, which these guys - Shelly got the guys that could bring a lot to the table because we wanted each musician to bring some of himself to it. And I sang along with them until they were happy with the take, and I actually used everything I sang live.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) I could cry salty tears. Where have I been all these years? Little while, please tell me now. How long has this been going on?
HOBSON: When you say your happy place, where do these songs bring you? I just - to remind listeners, you were born in Cuba. You moved to Miami when you were two. What do you think of when you're in the world of standards?
ESTEFAN: Well, first of all, I think of a tiny apartment where I lived with my dad in San Antonio, Texas. He - I was an Army brat. When - he went to Bay of Pigs. He was a political prison in Cuba for two years. And when they did that prisoner exchange that President Kennedy did, they offered the Cuban men that had been a part of that, that if they took intensive English courses, they could join the U.S. Army as an officer. So we went along with him to San Antonio, Texas, where my sister was born. And I was six years old at the time, and I could - my mom was always playing these records. And those were the songs that I listened to.
And then, eventually, that was also the beginning of the British invasion. I started listening to pop radio. But, at first, it was my mom's record collection, and I remember singing these songs. I started playing guitar at eight years old, and these were the songs that I would sing and play for my family. And then when my dad went to Vietnam, I would actually - he bought us two reel-to-reel tape recorders. He took one, and he left one. And I would record myself singing "Moon River," a lot of these actual standards that I - some of them recorded on this record, and I would send it to him in Nam. And then he would send back tapes of him talking to us, and to my sister, and just all those times growing up.
And then later, when I fell in love, other things, you know, took on even more meaning. And I think it helps to have life under your belt, though, before you do these songs. They have a lot of nuances that, because of the time, they used a lot of subtext, and I think it helps to really understand the different layers of the songs when you're going to interpret them.
HOBSON: Do you still have those tapes that you sent to your dad?
ESTEFAN: Yes, I do. I can't listen to the ones with my dad, because it breaks my heart. He passed away 1980. We took care of him a long time - me particularly, as a teenager. But I actually, on one of my shows, took a tape of me singing "Cuando Sali de Cuba" that The Sandpipers recorded way back when. And I did a duet with myself on stage, my nine-year-old self. I played my guitar, and we played the tape, and I sang with myself.
ESTEFAN: It was quite something. The fans loved it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: Gloria Estefan. Her new album is "The Standards." You can see a YouTube video of the song she's talking about at hereandnow.org, and we will have more with her after a break. HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.
And we're speaking with legendary musician Gloria Estefan. Her new album, "The Standards," is a bit of a Miami production. Not only is the Cuban-born Estefan Miami-based, but the music is co-produced and conducted by Shelly Berg, who is dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where Estefan is a trustee. And, Gloria Estefan, I want to listen to a song that you really put your own stamp on. This is "The Way You Look Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) Some day, when I'm awfully low and the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight.
HOBSON: This is such a staple. What made you decide to tackle that one?
ESTEFAN: I wanted to pick things that not only were special to me in my own life, but I also wanted it to be something that Shelly really liked, because he was going to be doing all the arrangements, and he directed and conducted, of course, the orchestra. So we sat together and we played. He played his piano. I made him cry. He made me cry. We chose songs that not only we loved, but that we could bring something new to, and that he had a musical idea to do something very different.
We wanted to do things that were a little adventurous, musically, that kind of rode the fine line between, you know, a record that the pop audience would understand and love, but that the music lover, the more jazz-inclined audience would also find interesting. So that also had to do with the songs that we chose. And we just came to a great consensus, I think, on all of this. And I like that it's not your usual take that you're going to get on a lot of these songs.
HOBSON: Well, how would you describe the difference between what you've done with that song and, say, Tony Bennett?
ESTEFAN: OK. Well, the time signature is completely different. Shelly knows that I have, you know, Latin roots, and on that song, particularly, although you don't hear the Latin roots, there's like this repetitive little riff that he created underlying that is - he's playing on the piano, that almost becomes, like, a sub-melody under what is the regular melody of the song. So, yeah, I don't think I've ever heard that one done in that particular style.
HOBSON: Now, on "The Standards," we should say that you not only have songs from the Great American Songbook, you've also got a song from the Great Brazilian Songbook. Let's take a listen to this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EU SEI QUE VOU TE AMAR")
ESTEFAN: (Singing in foreign language)
HOBSON: Gloria Estefan, I want to have you, first of all, pronounce the name of that song for me, because I'm going to have a hard time with it. But tell me about that one.
ESTEFAN: Yes. This is "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar," which means I know I'm going to love you. And I actually got the opportunity to write that song in English. It has never been done. It's you I'll always love. I really racked my brain to get the correct and perfect kind of translation for it because, you know, it's very difficult to directly translate. But I'm fortunate that, since I do speak Spanish, and Portuguese has a lot of that romance language root, besides a lot of other things. And I do speak French, so a lot of their pronunciation works out, as well. But I wrote it in English. I recorded it, not only in Portuguese, which is on the main record, but I did it in Spanish, French.
And it's so sexy. I mean, for sensuality, look to Portuguese. And Brazilian - particularly Brazilian music, they just - their syncopation, the sound of the language is so sensual. And I really wanted it to keep that same feeling. So I was able to add a layer to a Jobim song with a new lyric that had never been done before in English, which I also was able to do with my wedding song, "El dia que me quieras," which I hope becomes an incredible wedding song in English, which is "The Day You Say You Love Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DAY YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) The day you say you love me, the most beautiful of roses will bloom in every garden of a color never seen.
That's what I love about this record, as well. Not only are the American standards going to be something that people will enjoy worldwide and already know, but there's a Brazilian standard. There's an Argentinean tango, which is "El dia que me quieras" from 1920. And, you know, there's "Smile" in Spanish, as well.
HOBSON: Well, you used the word sexy to describe it. And I think a lot of people, in listening to some of your classic songs - maybe "Conga" or "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" - they hear that sexy, but in a very different way. It's sexy like on the beach in Miami sexy. This kind of makes you want to curl up in front of the fire in the living room.
ESTEFAN: That's the idea. Actually, that's the idea for the whole album. I really wanted this to be a mood-setter, you know, something that you could put on from beginning to end and kind of relax you, maybe become a part of your special moment somehow, either individually the songs or the whole album. And, yeah, you know, we've got the sun in our music, definitely. I'm an island girl. I was born on an island in Cuba. I - Florida is practically an island. It's as close as you could get to - it's a peninsula, just hanging on by the smallest strip of its land mass. So I kind of feel I'm on an island here, too. And that brings a certain sensuality and fun to music. And that's definitely been expressed in our music through the years.
HOBSON: When you perform, do you like performing the old stuff, as well as these new - well, I guess, new-old songs of standards?
ESTEFAN: New-old. I love everything I do when I'm on stage. I really - I'm fortunate that there's never a song that I go, oh, God. Do I have to do this song again?
ESTEFAN: And that's because we've been very careful when we do an album to really do stuff that we're excited about sharing, and that I love. Because you know that if you're successful, you're going to have to do it a lot. And "Conga" never gets old for me. I really have a blast just as much today as I did when I was excited about presenting something new to the world. And my fans seem to feel the same way. So I'm happy about that.
HOBSON: Well, is there a song from "Standards" that we should go out on?
ESTEFAN: There's a very special one, because, you know, I had an accident back in 1990. They told me that, not only would I never walk again, but that I wouldn't be able to have that other baby that I wanted. And I had my miracle baby, Emily Marie Estefan, who was born December 5th, 1994. And although this song is a love song, you know, typically for a couple, she was in the studio every day when I was doing this record and has been, throughout her life, most of the records I've done, she's been there, because she's the best musician of all of us. And I sang this song to her in the studio.
She was sitting there, and I said, baby girl, this one's for you, because the line, you irreplaceable you, I can think of no one else that I can sing that line for. So I think that we did a very special rendition, because it was just so heartfelt, and I wear every emotion that has to do with this baby girl right on my sleeve. And I think that this song is very intimate and probably very symbolic of what I wanted to achieve with this record, and it was - I sang every word for my baby girl, Emily. And that is, of course, "Embraceable You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACEABLE YOU")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you. Embrace me, my irreplaceable you. Just one look at you...
HOBSON: Well, Gloria Estefan, a legendary singer, new album is "The Standards." Thank you so much for joining us.
ESTEFAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. And I really hope that the fans love it and your fans love it. I think that it's an album very close to my heart. I enjoyed so much doing it, and I hope that people enjoy listening to it as much as I really enjoyed recording it for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACEABLE YOU")
ESTEFAN: (Singing) I love all the many charms about you.
HOBSON: And by the way, Meghna, the White House has invited Gloria Estefan and other artists to perform next week as part of Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.