Latin music star shows optimism in new album

— When Juanes received seven nominations for last year's Latin Grammy Awards, a lot of people asked, who's he?

This year, the Colombian singer-songwriter with the emotional lyrics and eclectic style has three Latin Grammy nominations and a little more name recognition outside the world of Latin music.

"I'm elated right now, brother," Juanes says in Spanish during a recent quick stop for Cuban coffee with milk and a cream cheese pastry at a Coral Gables cafe. "My album is near the top and everything is going well."

Juanes knocked the Latin music world on its collective ear last year with his first solo album, "Fijate Bien" (Pay Close Attention), and was praised as an underground upstart.

The 29-year-old then quickly assembled the album "Un Dia Normal" (A Normal Day), which was released in May and features a duet with Grammy-winner Nelly Furtado. The single "A Dios Le Pido" (I Ask God) held the top spot on charts in 10 countries and three continents.

Juanes performs it on the WB Network's "One World Jam: A Concert for Global Harmony," which airs in select TV markets from New York to Los Angeles through Saturday, and includes performances by Elton John, Nelly and Boyz II Men. The video for "A Dios Le Pido" spent considerable time at No. 1 on MTV Latin, and Juanes was nominated for Viewers Choice honors in Thursday's MTV Video Music Awards. (The Latin Grammys are awarded Sept. 18.)

The slim, shaggy-haired, self-proclaimed storyteller has been promoting his new album internationally, and plans a tour later this year in Central America and the United States.

The two albums show Juanes' ability to combine different styles � rock, cumbia, salsa, reggae, ballad, folk � but he says the consistent theme in his music is emotion.

State of mind

"Music is the only way that I can free myself," says Juanes, born Juan Esteban Aristizabal in Medellin, Colombia. "Music is therapy. Through the songs, you discuss what you feel and the situations you've lived through, and share those with people."

His first album addressed his state of mind when he was embarking on a solo career after more than a decade with the Colombian rock band Echymosis. Juanes had left home for the first time, split with his girlfriend and arrived in a place where countless performers have hit brick walls: Los Angeles.

"The first album was about a dark, sad, angry time in my life, and it was reflected in the music," he says. "It was a very important album for me, because I believe pain is part of growing as a person. You have to feel the difference between happiness and pain. That realization helps people grow and value the things around them."

"Un Dia Normal" comes from a more optimistic Juanes.

"It talks about tomorrow, about hope ... as opposed to darkness," he says.

It also reflects his current vagabond lifestyle.

"This disc was created on a journey," Juanes says. "It was thought up in hotels, airplanes, airports. I composed songs in the countries I toured while I was promoting the other album.

"I would travel with my acoustic guitar, composing as I went to different places. The first disc was put together all in one place. This disc is a traveler, errant and going in all directions."

"A Dios Le Pido" is currently No. 4 on the Billboard Latin Singles chart, but the percussive, guitar-laden musical prayer has grown into something more in Colombia. It has been No. 1 for 15 weeks there and has become a sort of touchstone for a nation ravaged by war.

"In a world that goes by so fast, it discusses the basics, the things that make up our lives," Juanes said. "I don't go to church or read the Bible, but I still believe strongly in God. It comes from the habit of praying and petitioning God for my family, love, peace for my homeland � the fundamentals."

Learning guitar

Juanes began learning guitar at 5. His father and brother taught him the basics of Colombian and Latin American pop music styles � tango, bolero, son, cumbia. He got into heavy metal after learning the electric guitar at 16, and made five albums with the hard-rocking Echymosis.

Today, he doesn't like to pigeonhole himself.

"The words 'alternative' and 'fusion' � what do they really mean?" he says. "I can't describe my own music because it comes from my soul. I don't know where pop starts and rock ends."

Juanes caught the eye of Jose Tillan, a vice president for MTV Networks Latin America, before the release of "Fijate Bien."

"Juanes had the luxury of developing his career early on with Echymosis," Tillan says. "But as a soloist he was able to make a really good first record which didn't sell many, many, many units but it showed he is a ... true singer-songwriter."

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