It’s nice to see Raul Malo back in the spotlight. The onetime Mavericks frontman hadn’t exactly gone quiet, but over the last several years his big voice has been muted somewhat by label difficulties and diffident promotion (not to mention an underwhelming reunion with his former band). Fortunately, that’s all changed with last week’s release of his new album, Lucky One, which is receiving a welcome reception from critics and a nice push from his new label, Fantasy. (Yes, that Fantasy Records, which is now part of the Concord Music Group and is building a nice little stable of Americana artists to go with prodigal — if not fortunate — son John Fogerty.)

Malo co-wrote every track on Lucky One, which brings together the myriad influences that have long kept his work so interesting. The swinging “Moonlight Kiss” is equal parts Bob Wills and Dean Martin, and recalls the jazzy sound Malo brought to a set of classic-country covers on his last album, After Hours. (That disc had been Malo’s third consecutive covers album, and followed a collaboration with legendary producer Peter Asher that had the misfortune of being released by the Sanctuary label just before it collapsed in 2006.) Another key track on Lucky One, “Lonely Hearts,” allows Malo and producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) to immerse themselves in their beloved Latin rhythms. Then there’s a pair of big ballads, the epic and haunting “One More Angel” (inspired, if that’s the word, by the death of a friend’s daughter) and the lovely “So Beautiful,” which is proving a highlight of the sets on Malo’s current tour.

Malo rolls into Austin for SXSW gigs this Thursday and Friday, 3/19 and 3/20. Popdose caught up with him last Friday as he was preparing for a show in central California, on the heels of a two-day whirlwind through SoCal’s two Houses of Blues and a Wednesday-evening stopover to perform “Lucky One” on the Tonight Show.

Was that your first late-night booking in awhile? And more important, did you get to hang out with the kid from Superbad [fellow guest Christopher Mintz-Plasse]?
Yeah, it was my first time with Jay Leno … actually my first late-night show as a solo act. I did get to meet him – he’s a real nice kid. Of course, later that night my boys were like, “Dad, you hung out with McLovin!” I was an instant hero.

The new album is your first featuring original songs in a long time. How did you come to make a bunch of albums of covers [including a 2006 Christmas album] in a row?
Through a strange set of circumstances. The way I look at it is, I had three records in a row that happened to be covers records. The only one that was by design was the one with Peter Asher [You’re Only Lonely], which was set up while I was in London during the last Mavericks tour [in 2003]. What happened then was that I started touring that record on my own, acoustically, and then I put together a trio. While I was out with the trio we started learning some arrangements of old country songs, and we found we were having a lot of fun playing with the arrangements, giving these country songs a bit of a jazz treatment.

My bass player has a studio in his house, and we recorded them out there. The folks from the [New Door] label heard the completed tracks and offered to release it – they thought, “Great, here’s a record that’s already done that we can put out.” And they liked it so much they said, do a Christmas record!

I know I’ve condensed this to a couple minutes, but that right there represents over two years of my life. Anyway, I’m proud of those records – they were fun to make and to tour with.

Were you writing all along through those years, or did the songs on Lucky One come together as you were getting ready to go into the studio?
I did keep writing during those years, so I did have some songs stashed away when the label deal [for the new album] came together. But there’s nothing like a deadline to inspire you, so a lot of the songs on the album did end up coming in at the last minute. I’m always writing, but it was nice to finally put an album of original songs together.

For 15 years now I can’t see a picture of Fidel Castro without thinking of you singing “From Hell to Paradise.” Watching you do that live was the first moment when a lot of us knew you weren’t going to settle for being a typical country artist.
Yeah, that song separated us from everything else that was going on. It cast us – cast me, I guess – in a different light. But that’s me talking now. Back then I didn’t think about that kind of stuff. I remember Johnny Cash singing about this subject and that, political stuff or protest stuff, and it was still country music, it was still folk music. I had kind of a chip on my shoulder about that. I kinda still do, when I look back on that now and think about how tame country has become, how middle of the road, how inoffensive – which of course just makes it even more offensive.

You know, Hank Williams was a hillbilly, but what he wrote was poetry – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was hillbilly poetry. Those old songs read like poetry. They sound great on paper, and then you put music to them and you discover all these twists and turns to them, things that make them interesting. You can be country without being dumb. I just wish more of the guys coming out today would remember that. But it’s not just country music — we’ve dumbed down the culture in general to a degree that’s just pathetic.

Doesn’t every generation say that about the ones that follow it?
Yeah, I suppose so, but now things are different. We’ve cut music programs, and art programs, out of the schools. Nobody learns to play an instrument anymore – I went to a public junior high school that had a full orchestra. My kids will never experience what an orchestra sounds like with them in it. Instead, we’ve turned our kids into Guitar Hero-playing idiots.

With the Mavericks, circa 1994It’s an oft-told tale that you absorbed a lot of different musical styles when you were growing up, and you’ve strived to integrate all those influences into your own work. With the new album you seem to have found a more organic way to do it. Does it feel that way to you?
The Mavericks, as widespread as we got, we were still supposed to be this country-rock thing. Everything we did had to be within that context, and while we could play around the edges of it, we didn’t deviate from it all that much. Now I don’t have those restrictions anymore – I’m not a singles-driven artist, and I don’t have to stay within a format, so I can move from a jazz-trio thing into a Latin-sounding arrangement without running it by somebody first. I feel like I’ve earned the right to do exactly what I want to do. My identity is pretty well established already – it’s too late to play the [expectations] game now.

So as far as I’m concerned, the shackles are off, and when it comes to making a record I can go with what my instincts tell me. If something sounds good to me, I’ll do it, and hope it will sound good to other people.

Do you find yourself writing in a way that naturally integrates all those influences? Do you sit there while you’re writing and think, “You know, some flamenco trumpets might sound good there?” Or do those touches get added in the studio?
Sometimes there’s a specific arrangement that comes to mind when I’m writing, but more often than not I wait to see how the studio process goes. I look forward to surprises, you know? So a lot of times something will come to us in the studio that gives a whole new feeling to the song, and we’ll go with that.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen at all – sometimes the demo turns out to be the way to go. I’m usually not a big fan of using demos, but on the new record we wound up using three of them because [producer] Steve Berlin convinced me that things sounded great as they were.

Legendary producer Peter AsherHow was working with Berlin different from your other recent experiences?
Well, when you’re talking about Steve versus Peter Asher, they’re two completely different creatures. Peter never leaves anything to chance — everything has its place, and as the singer you’re just waiting for him to tell you what to do, how you’ll fit into the arrangement. I don’t know if that’s my favorite way to work, but with Peter I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about arranging from him. One thing about him was, he never let anything get in the way of the vocals. And that was an interesting thing to watch, especially for me, coming from a band where everybody was always trying to get his two cents in and it was always, “What about me?” coming from every direction.

Berlin, on the other hand, is really into messing with sounds and arrangements. He loves to play with guitar sounds. For example, he’d suggest, “Why don’t we mike these speakers from the back and run the mikes through a wah-wah pedal?” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I knew that for this record his musical scope would be the right one.

Those covers albums served as wish fulfillment for a lot of people who’ve been fans of yours for years, and always imagined what you could do with classic country and pop songs. What did those albums represent to you?
That was certainly Peter’s thinking. The balance we had to find with [You’re Only Lonely] was finding songs that would showcase my vocals but that we could give a bit of a different arrangement from the originals. We didn’t want to do one of those “songbook” records, because nobody needs to hear one more version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” you know? So we thought, let’s just find some songs we love that haven’t been done to death, pick favorites from some great songwriters. We didn’t always agree on the same songs – Peter had some songs he really wanted me to sing, but I just didn’t think I’d sound too good on them — but to his credit, he would defer to me.

Hopefully someday we’ll do another album together. If Sanctuary hadn’t shut down, we might have had a little hit record there. It sure doesn’t help your chances when your label shuts down right after the record comes out.

I have to say, not having been aware of the label problems, I was surprised those covers albums didn’t do better than they did. It’s nice to see you getting a bigger push with the new one.
Well, thanks for that. The world is so different nowadays, the business has changed so much. I feel pretty fortunate that even with all that, I’ve still been able to get out and work, and have a band, and have a bus. I really can’t complain about anything. Fantasy is doing a great job promoting this album, really getting out there and working it, and that makes me feel good. It feels like either we’ve caught up with the world, or maybe the world has caught up with us, or something. I’ve been on the other side many times, and it gets discouraging. But I’m still glad for the work and excited to keep going. I’ve told the label that when I’ve had enough, I’ll curl up in a fetal position and let the whole thing go.

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