Jorge Drexler leads a sort of double life as a musician. The Uruguayan's six album released in Latin America are extremely popular and are full of profoundly literate lyrics with musical accompaniment that range from cumbias to tangos. He makes the kind of records you might hear at the best apartment parties in Latin America, where people like to dance in the middle of the room or debate the lyrics off in a corner.
But in the U.S., he is likely known for winning an Oscar for Best Original Song ("Al otro lado del río") from the film Motorcycle Diaries in 2005. The recognition did a lot to raise his profile among fans and fellow musicians. (And for a truly sublime intersection of cultural reference points, watch Drexler receive his award from Prince here.)
Drexler's latest record — Salvavidas de hielo was released on Sept. 22 and demonstrates why Drexler remains one of Latin music's deep thinkers.
In fact, earlier this year Drexler delivered one of the most popular TED Talks in Spanish, in which he spoke of poetry, music and identity. It's fascinating to watch him talk through ideas that often come out in his song writing. Like defining art as part of a continuum of creativity that builds on those who came before us. And he also deftly illustrates how the idea of migration is a connective tissue we share as humans. Drexler further developed these themes on the new album with the songs "Movimiento" and "Pongamos que Hablo de Martinez."
Salvavidas de Hielo translates as "Ice Life Vests." Of course, floating pieces of frozen water will eventually melt, so the song (which is a duet with Mexican vocalist Natalia Lafourcade) is really about the ephemeral nature of life. We explored this heady concept and more during a phone conversation with Drexler from his apartment in Madrid.
Drexler gets nerdy about songwriting
Songwriting is like a playground that you can enter through many doors, and I like to use every door. I sometimes start with a sequence of words, some musical notes, sometimes with a pattern, like writing in décimas, sometimes associating meanings. And you tend to get different kinds of songs depending on the type of door you use to get into that playground.
Drexler on his song "Movimiento"
The act of movement to stay alive — I wanted to write a song about that, and acknowledge how we've been moving since we got on two feet. We have migrated; we kept moving from Africa and occupied the whole planet. This is not new, we've always done that. Putting that into perspective helps to understand what is going on in the present, and it is good to know that if I might not be from here, neither is anybody. Everybody, sooner or later, has made it to that place at some point in history. Like what I say in the song: "Soy padre, hijo, nieto, y bisnieto de inmigrantes." ["I am the father, son, grandson and great-grandson of immigrants."]
Drexler on filling the space of silence with song
I think silence is mi materia prima, it's my prime matter. I write and make music on and over silence. Silence in music is my canvas, and it's a very scarce thing nowadays. I'm a very easily distracted person, and I get distracted all the time for the most stupid reasons. So I write those songs for myself. Especially because silence is not something that I always achieve, but it's something I always crave. In the same way that you sing a lullaby when you want a child to sleep, this song ("Silencio") is a grownup lullaby for when I want to achieve silence in my life, which is difficult to get.
Drexler's musical reference to Gabriel García Márquez's novel 100 Years of Solitude in his song "Despedir a los Glaciares"
Glaciers [are] this natural element that we take for granted, one that is still there, but melting. So when I listened to the melody and the lyrics: you feel a kind of saudade, a resignation. And you refer to these cyclical aspects of nature, but do you think we can do more things to mitigate this meltdown? Is it a goodbye, or is it a see you later to the glaciers? I think, right now, there's no doubt it's a goodbye. It really seems there's a relationship between what we do as humans and what has been caused by global warming, and it is a very serious thing. But I'm not talking that much about that in this song. Like in "Movimiento," I hate bitterness and complaining, and I wanted to focus on something very important, and that is that when you lose something, or you have to say goodbye to somebody, it's very important at some point to honrar esta relación, honrar las heridas, to honor the wounds. And it'll be our generation that will have to say goodbye to the glaciers. And I think we should be grown-up enough to cry, to acknowledge these beautiful things that are about to fade. It's a sad song, and I almost didn't let it get into the record, but then I realized that there was a light in the song, like when [Leonard] Cohen says "there's a crack in everything, and that's how the light gets in."
Drexler on songwriting
When you start writing a song, you don't have the idea of where it will end up. You don't know if it will be somebody's lullaby or end up in their funeral. Songs are playing roles in people's lives as the songs of others play a role in mine. Let me tell you an anecdote: I was taking my children to school, and I saw a woman discreetly dancing to something, it was subtle, and I saw her face smiling. And that's the power of this profession; we can change moods, even if it's just for a while. That is why "Salvavidas de hielo" [the song with Natalia Lafourcade] is called what it is. It is an ephemeral, life-saving device, floating in its own element. What we do as songwriters is to create ephemeral epiphanies.