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The Many Voices Of Robi Rosa… Moving In On Ricky Martin’s Turf

The Many Voices Of Robi Rosa


April 4, 2004
Copyright ©2004
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Robi Rosa goes solo again with "Mad Love."

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Robi Rosa was watching three versions of himself sing and pose on a plasma screen television in his recording studio here. There was Intellectual Robi (in thick-rimmed nerd glasses), Thug Robi (in a white tank top that shows off the ornate tattoos on his chiseled arms) and Romántico Robi (in a dapper dark suit that he wears like a runway model).

They were all vying for camera time in the video his wife, the actress Angela Alvarado, had directed for "Lie Without a Lover," a breathy rock complaint from his new album, "Mad Love." As he watched, the real-life Mr. Rosa, with his scuffed motorcycle boots propped up on the studio's mixing console and his trucker cap pulled down over his eyes, tossed off production terms like "rotoscope" and "green screen."

Mr. Rosa, 31, who was born on Long Island and raised in Puerto Rico, has made a career out of juggling musical identities. A former lead singer of the saccharine Puerto Rican teen-beat factory Menudo (that's him on "Like a Cannonball" from the "Cannonball Run 2" soundtrack), Mr. Rosa spent most of the 90's reinventing himself as a mysterious and artistically credible Latin rock bad boy. Over the course of three solo albums — two in Spanish, one in English — he even created his own Ziggy Stardust alter-ego, Draco, a brooding glam bohemian who wasn't afraid of pink hair, feather boas, dark mascara and arm-length black leather gloves.

Mr. Rosa buried his pop past beneath Draco (he even went so far as to legally change his name to Draco Cornelius Rosa) but he never abandoned it. While Mr. Rosa was singing about witchcraft and Baudelaire over gothic guitar feedback on his last solo album, "Vagabundo," from 1996, he was simultaneously leading a secret life as Latin pop's most sought-after ghost writer for very un-Draco artists like Ricky Martin, Julio Iglesias and Ednita Nazario. Mr. Rosa could growl lines like "I speak of love while I walk through the valley of death's flowers," then turn around and write Mr. Martin's fluffy crossover hit, "Livin' La Vida Loca."

Mr. Rosa's return to his own solo career with "Mad Love" (Sony/Columbia) — on which his Draco angst is greatly tempered by his knack for lush pop-rock romance — secures his place as Latin music's most successful anomaly. In a world deeply inhospitable to genre chameleons, Mr. Rosa has managed to find a way both to play by pop's rules and to break them. "I'm a man of fortune," Mr. Rosa knowingly sings on the sweeping ballad "Trying to Reach You" (on which he sounds like a raspy Sting). "I'm a man that's free."

While "Vagabundo" was marked by edgy rock-en-Español mood swings, "Mad Love" was recorded predominantly in English and bears few traces of its predecessor's darkness. While there's the odd rock eruption and some notable compositional risks (strings arranged by Van Dyke Parks, percussion recorded in Brazil, instrumental tracks brought back from Puerto Rico), "Mad Love" mostly finds Mr. Rosa riding a melodic line between his mainstream and underground sensibilities.

What has long united these two extremes is the stubborn, maverick attitude (Mr. Rosa calls it being "punk rock") of an acutely self-aware artist who runs the other way at the first sign of being directed. Mr. Rosa quit Menudo at the height of its success and recorded two solo Portuguese-language albums in Brazil by the time he was 17, and then years later quit the New York City funk-rock band Maggie's Dream on the brink of its second album. He also tried being part of a punk duo with the former Circle Jerks bassist Sander Schloss in the mid-90's and has, at times, been an actor. In 1988 he starred, alongside Ms. Alvarado, in the cult favorite "Salsa: The Motion Picture" and a year later in the German film "Gummibarchen Kussit Man Nicht" ("Real Men Don't Eat Gummy Bears").

"I come in and do and be as I please," he said. "Especially if you try to swing me another way, forget it. I'll swing this way."

In 1995, Mr. Rosa was fresh out of rehab for heroin and alcohol abuse when his former Menudo colleague, Mr. Martin, approached him to help write and produce Mr. Martin's new album, "A Medio Vivir." Mr. Rosa took the job, but in typical Rosa style, worked under an alias, Ian Blake. The album included Blake/Rosa's "(Un, Dos, Tres) María," a huge Latin pop hit that helped launch Mr. Martin as a global pop idol. Mr. Rosa went on to help write and produce Mr. Martin's Grammy-winning "The Cup of Life" and "Livin' La Vida Loca," for which Mr. Rosa sang backup and played steel string guitar.

"When I first brought that song to the label," Mr. Rosa said of "Loca," "One executive was like, `Where's the hook?' Let's just say he's not working there anymore."

Mr. Rosa's success with Mr. Martin (which included "She Bangs," now getting a new life as a "hit" for the "American Idol" castaway William Hung) led to an invitation from the Puerto Rican singer Ednita Nazario to produce her 1999 album, "Corazon." For it, Mr. Rosa retired Ian Blake and became Dolores del Infante.

"I thought changing my name would help me focus on these other people and keep me open to these other worlds," he said. "In Ricky's world, people from soap operas are hanging out. It's an Armani world. It's a world I don't click with. So I thought if I created this guy Ian Blake, I could do it. With Ednita, I would listen to her and enjoy it as Dolores Infante. I'd dance in the room, living Ednita's whole thing with all the joy and positivismo que hace falta. I just didn't think that Robi Draco Rosa was going to feel that."

But the relationships between Mr. Rosa and his collaborators haven't always been that smooth. In 2000, when Mr. Martin announced plans to sing "The Cup of Life" at the inauguration of President Bush, Mr. Rosa issued a press release denouncing the decision. "Singing `The Cup of Life' at George Bush's inauguration is like playing the fiddle while Rome burns," he wrote. "This is a president who would have people in his Cabinet who would obstruct the exercise of civil rights, human rights, consumer rights, the right to choose, the right to be free of gun violence and the right to a clean environment. This is a betrayal of everything that every Puerto Rican should stand for."

Last week, Mr. Martin was in a recording studio working on his next album and was unvailable for comment, said a spokeswoman for Columbia Records.

Though Mr. Rosa maintained that he and Mr. Martin remained "life-long friends," they have not worked together since. "It didn't cause a riff between us," he said. "His management didn't dig it, but I wasn't thinking about them. I didn't even think about Rick when that went down. I was thinking about what I wanted to say."

Which is what Mr. Rosa has always thought about the most. Leaning back in one of his studio's low-rider chairs, he closed his eyes in the dark as he played back some rough masters of "Mad Love." When he heard himself sing a line from "This Time" about being "an ocean dweller" with "bad weather" in his head, Mr. Rosa switched gears and started talking about "Ulysses" and how the song reminded him of writers having conversations with God. It would be easy to imagine Mr. Rosa having a conversation with the divine, then cutting it short when God proved too difficult to work with.

"I know I can't do it alone, but I can't be in a musical situation where I don't have that last call," he said. "I've had a lot of conflicts with other producers, with other cats I've collaborated with because they come and sit down and think. That drives me up the wall. Music is meant to be felt, not understood. So you just get to it. And along the way, if it's a great day, you capture some magic."  

Josh Kun is a music writer based in Los Angeles.

Robi "Draco" Rosa Moving In On Ricky Martin’s Turf

Ex-Menudo Singer Gaining Fame His Own Edgy Way; Living La Vida Rosa

Associated Press Writer

April 2, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. All rights reserved.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Robi "Draco" Rosa has been on the music scene for two decades, first as a member of the Puerto Rican teen dream group Menudo, then as a top producer and songwriter for Ricky Martin and others.

Yet when it came to his own projects, the spotlight has eluded the man who wrote "Livin' La Vida Loca." Edgy, avant-garde and radio unfriendly, his rock-infused solo outings have garnered little more than critical acclaim - partly due to Rosa's own design.

"I don't go there. It's a bad investment for me. I get no return from trying to be up ahead of things, to see if I can try and manipulate," he says. "I don't work like, 'Go in this direction,' or 'Let's listen to so and so.' I don't strive to be a certain way."

For years, Rosa has refused to alter his work to reach the mainstream audience. He even hates to alter his look - the heavily tattooed singer grimaces at advice to shave off his beard in order to be more marketable. "There's more opportunity when you're clean shaven," he admits reluctantly.

But his latest work, "Mad Love," may finally give Rosa some commercial success to go with the artistic praise.

The 33-year-old's second English-language album (and fifth overall) may be his most accessible yet - a romantic, brooding disc that he says was influenced by Miles Davis but is more than a little reminiscent of Sting.

"I think that this album has just enough commercial appeal that it would grab a very big audience," says producer-songwriter Walter Afanasieff, a hitmaker for artists ranging from Celine Dion to Mariah Carey who collaborated on the "Mad Love" album. "It's not mediocrity; it's not redundant."

While Rosa claims he didn't craft his record for pop hits, if the result gets him to a wider audience, that's OK by him.

"I felt that maybe I would have a chance to go around the world with 'Mad Love,' Rosa says during breakfast at a posh Beverly Hills hotel, a few minutes from his home. "If I can do that, it's exciting."

It's not as if Rosa's music hasn't traveled around the world before.

The budding New York-born musician became a world sensation before he was a teen, when he moved to Puerto Rico and his uncle convinced him to audition for the group Menudo - a bubble-gum teen pop band that relied more on pinup looks than music.

The group's appeal grew beyond Spanish-language markets, and Rosa's chiseled, model-ready face was out in front. Even the United States got caught up in the Menudo craze for a brief moment in the '80s.

During that time, Rosa began to write his first songs - even though no members of the group were writing their sugary lyrics. But when Rosa wasn't able to contribute musically to the group, he bolted.

For some of his fans, the path he took may have seemed incongruous with his previous persona. After starring in the movie "Salsa" in 1988 with future wife, Angela Alvarado, he created the hard-rocking group Maggie's Dream. In 1990 the band released its self-titled debut, with Rosa as lead singer and guitarist.

Though a hit critically, the band went nowhere. Not only was there friction in the group, but Rosa also admits it was a turbulent, wild time in his life.

"The only negative really was I was out of my mind back then - having a good time, young and crazy, whatever you call it," he says. "It just took me a minute to get there and know where to put my energies."

So he started working on his on solo projects. His first album, the Spanish-language rock album "Frio," was released in 1994. But its lack of success led him to start exploring other musical projects, including songwriting for other Latin stars, such as Julio Iglesias.

"It was never my goal to take on that career. I fell into it. I got a phone call one day, sort of change the course. My son was just born, I needed some work, and I got the phone call," says Rosa, who has two young boys. "That just kept slipping into a bigger and bigger thing, so I ran with it."

Ricky Martin's success gave him plenty to run with. Rosa penned the song that would turn Martin from a Latin star to a world sensation - the 1999 smash "Livin' La Vida Loca." He also wrote "She Bangs" and other hits for the singer.

Martin's crossover success helped create a Latin music boom and made Rosa one of the most sought-after songwriters. But the more his popularity grew for writing hits, the more disenchanted Rosa became.

"There wasn't any passion, and when there's no passion, there's no love - it's like a relationship. you're going to run yourself into the ground," he said. "It wasn't good for me."

So once again, he poured his attention into his own projects. Besides working on solo albums (the Spanish-language "Libertad del Alma" was released in 2001), he built his own company, Phantom Vox, which not only incorporates his studios of the same name, but art projects, and even artist management.

Rosa's passion is evident when he talks - he truly lights up when the conversation revolves around his music, and deflects questions or gives short shrift about other extraneous topics, like the Latin pop boom and bust.

He's also not easily satisfied. That was clear at a recent showcase at a New York City, packed with fans, industry insiders and media. Twice, Rosa stopped the show and became testy with band members because he was unsatisfied with the sound, though whatever problem there was was probably unrecognizable to the crowd.

"It's very hard to please Robi. He doesn't like everything and everyone," Afanasieff says. "(But) he's one of those who will inherit the earth."

Still, Rosa insists he's doesn't want the world - just the opportunity for more people on it to hear his songs.

"What is the spotlight? I don't know what that means," he replies when asked if he's ready step back into it. "I do know I'd like to go around the world and share the music."

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