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Fifteen years after the release of his Arif and Joe Mardin-produced Manhattan Records debut, State of Mind, singer/songwriter/guitarist Raul Midón is beyond the point of trying to figure out his audience demographic or ascertaining the nature of his specific brand.
When he launched his solo career, he and roster mates like Amos Lee were soft-spoken artists laboring under what he calls the “Norah Jones Witness Protection Program.” Back then he thought he was on course to be a pop/R&B star, but by the time he signed with Artistry Music in the mid-2010s he had amassed a huge following of jazz fans. In 2016 he toured the United States under the Monterey Jazz Fest moniker with Gerald Clayton, Nicholas Payton, Gregory Hutchinson and Joe Sanders. Two years later, he recorded If You Really Want with conductor Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orkest. As the son of a father who was an Argentine folkloric dancer, Midón, who was born and raised in New Mexico, has Latin rhythms practically coursing through his veins.
“My career to this point should make it clear that I don’t subscribe to this idea of fitting into boxes for marketing purposes,” says the two-time Grammy nominee, who launched his career in Miami as a session singer for Julio Iglesias, José Feliciano, Alejandro Sanz and Shakira, with whom he also toured during her Laundry Service heyday. One of the key moments that brought him to the attention of record label executives was a performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Make Sure You’re Sure” during a Carnegie Hall tribute concert to the movie music of Spike Lee. “The art of music is endless if you’re willing to explore that,” Midón says. “All I’m interested in is continuing to try to find my voice and express how I feel about things from my perspective.”
Embracing this creative freedom allows the singer to venture blissfully off the beaten path on his latest album, The Mirror (Artistry Music/Mack Avenue), on which he surrounds eight core songs with two spoken-word pieces (that include soft acoustic-guitar accompaniment). On the first of these, titled “If I Could See,” Midón, who’s been blind since infancy, imagines the sensual feast he might experience during a simple walk. He intones: “If I could see/I would walk alone sometimes/Stroll serenely along a tree lined street and/Watch the comings and goings of people/Moving toward their separate destinies … I would move through space and time/Letting my arms swing nonchalantly at my sides.” On the second, “One Day Without War,” he wonders, “What would it be like if there was no war for one day?/Just one day on which the world would stop and reflect upon the innumerable loss, the bottomless suffering, the unspeakable evil that is visited upon the world when war breaks out.”
[caption id="attachment_29576" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Raul Midón: “There’s precious little written in mainstream culture about what it’s like to be blind, and it’s a major deal. It changes your life completely and gives you a very different perspective on life.” Photo: Sam Prather.[/caption]
“Spoken word is something I debated about before including,” Midón says. “But at heart I’m an artist who speaks to whatever is happening at the moment, so I decided it would be a good choice. I’ve always been interested in writing other things besides structured songs, and I had been toying for a while with putting music to poetry, which is different than blending music and lyrics. I grew up listening to artists who were rappers before they called it rap, like Gil Scott-Heron, and I’ve always wanted to take that sort of approach. Speaking the words over the music makes it especially personal and intimate, and I’m at a point in my career where I feel liberated to do that.”
The balance that Midón strikes between addressing global concerns and allowing us to walk a few blocks in his shoes extends to the equally extraordinary “regular” songs on The Mirror. He peppers the easy-grooving Latin/R&B-influenced “You’re the One” with a brief rap takedown of President Trump and his administration. On the charming, lightly swinging “Disguise,” he lets a woman know that even though he can’t see her, he can “hear through her” and that he’s not impressed with her “dilettante finesse” or superficial values. Though the album also has lighthearted moments — including the bright and breezy “I Love the Afternoon,” featuring lush harmony vocals by Janis Siegel and Lauren Kinhan — and traditional-styled jazz ballads, the deep insights he offers about his disability reveal an artist unafraid to reveal slightly inconvenient truths. “If I Could See” and “Disguise” — as well as the overall concept of The Mirror — follow in the tradition of his fearlessly vulnerable 2017 set Bad Ass and Blind. Unlike legends like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, José Feliciano and Andrea Bocelli, Midón uses his art to illuminate the realities of his unique world.
“I’m putting my neck out there and letting people know this is who I am,” Midón says. “There’s precious little written in mainstream culture about what it’s like to be blind, and it’s a major deal. It changes your life completely and gives you a very different perspective on life. Sometimes even filmmakers trying to be sensitive get it wrong. In the movie Ray, [Ray Charles] touched a girl’s wrist to see if she was good looking or not. The only book I’ve ever read that has a blind character with any dimension is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
“Many blind people I know are obsessed about getting a good-looking girl, even when they can’t see her, and that’s ridiculous,” he adds. “Our culture emphasizes looks so much, but there’s too much emphasis on it. You’re gonna pick a mate based on their appearance? You’ll spend the rest of your life with her, and she won’t always look like that! I’ve been in a lot of conversations with musicians on the road talking about whether a woman was hot or not, and I have nothing to add to those superficial exchanges. They’re so focused on looks, they’re ignorant of what that person may be hiding. It’s not that we’re any less judgmental, we just emphasize and evaluate people based on other elements of their character.” -Jonathan Widran
Featured photo by Sam Prather.