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Obie Bermúdez Comes Clean About Ups, Downs Telling Stories, Fusing Pop-Rock And Tropical
Obie Bermúdez Comes Clean About Ups, Downs
Singer-songwriter Obie Bermúdez triumphed by transforming long days working at a Bronx laundromat into a hit album filled with quirky tales and personal confessions.
BY JORDAN LEVIN
July 9, 2004
LOOKING BACK: 'I took the [laundromat] job because I needed money,' Obie Bermúdez says. ''A lot of times I felt like storming out. It was embarrassing, it was frustrating.'
Several years ago, Obie Bermúdez' music career seemed to be over. After a single salsa album on BMG Latin in 1998, he was dropped by the label and reduced to working at an all-night laundromat in the Bronx. What he thought would be a stopgap gig for a few months turned into a three-year grind. After coming so close to his dream of making it in music, it was almost unbearable.
''I took the job because I needed money,'' Bermúdez says. ''A lot of times I felt like storming out. It was embarrassing, it was frustrating.''
He would call his manager, weeping with exasperation. ''He'd say that's a song, write a song. And I would write about all the frustration, put it down on paper.
''I never gave up. I kept on writing, getting ready. I didn't know when, but something inside me kept telling me that something was gonna happen.''
And it did. Signed by EMI Latin in 2003, Bermúdez's album of personal outpourings and tales from the laundromat, Confesiones, quickly hit home with a public weary of manufactured sentiments and empty pop songs. The album went gold, and several songs spent most of last year in the top 10 of Billboard's Latin radio charts, with two tracks going No. 1. Bermúdez, who plays the West Dade club La Covacha Saturday as part of his first solo U.S. tour, says he never expected it to do so well.
''I just wanted to tell these stories,'' he said at an interview shortly before April's Billboard Latin Music Awards, where he received four nominations.
Watching strangers or going to work at dawn on the subway, Bermúdez had plenty of time and opportunity to observe other people's follies and to monitor his own feelings. In 4:30 am, he sings about keeping his hopes up while rising in the dark to make change for people washing their dirty jeans, proclaiming, ''If someone asks you who I am, tell them with pride that I'm a star that shines in the sky.'' The title track tells of characters from the laundromat: the pretty boy boasting about cheating on his wife, the gay man hiding his sexuality from his family back in Puerto Rico, the drunk washing the vomit and alcohol reek from his clothes. ''I saw the laundromat as a place to wash their sins away,'' Bermúdez says.
His love songs are quirkier and more personal than your standard-issue pop ballads. ''This is how I feel today/Like a wheel lost from a car'' he sings in Así me siento hoy (This is how I feel today). In Me cansé de ti (I got tired of you) he bluntly captures the moment when a relationship inexplicably goes cold. Combined with catchy melodies and clean rock-pop arrangements, they're cool love songs for a younger Latin generation.
Born in Puerto Rico, Bermúdez moved with his family to New Jersey when he was 12. Both his grandfather and father were musicians, although he never got any formal music training.
Even singing salsa, he was drawn to a more thoughtful kind of songwriting, which didn't fit the commercial mold. ''The salsa I recorded . . . was more alternative,'' Bermúdez says. ''I wanted to be more of a storyteller. In salsa whenever I wanted to explain myself or talk about something people wouldn't be into it. Now I'm more comfortable musically, and I feel stronger.''
Ironically, one of the strongest tracks on Confesiones is a salsa song, which Bermúdez co-wrote with the legendary Ruben Blades, who made his mark by breaking with the typical salsa dance party mode in politically conscious, streetwise tales. Bermúdez, who met Blades through friends in New York, was thrilled. ''I'm his number one fan,'' he says. The song, 4 de Julio (4th of July), is a moving tribute to Bermúdez' older brother, who is in jail (Bermúdez won't say for what). ''4th of July/independence/not of the Yankee/but from my sentence''
''Every time I talk to him I can tell he's changed, how much he misses us,'' Bermúdez says. ''I wanted to tell the story of how he sees things.''
The success of such songs makes Bermúdez feel he's found his place. ''Being a songwriter is more accepted now. People are ready for something new with everything that's going on in the world. You should have an opinion and something to say.''
By writing things down, Bemúdez has rewritten his own story. And he's still grateful. ''I always had faith. I wanted it so bad. And now I'm not taking it for granted.''
Telling Stories, Fusing Pop-Rock And Tropical
November 7, 2004
In the tradition of Latin American singer-songwriters before him, Obie Bermúdez has taken up the task of chronicling everyday life and turning it into a successful combination of art and pop music. His new album, "Todo el Año" (EMI), is a sharper, more realized version of the territory explored on 2003's "Confesiones" and pretty much elevates him to the status of current stars Juanes and Alejandro Sanz. And like his colleagues, the Puerto Rican-born, Miami-basedsinger benefits from a transnational perspective that is increasingly the norm in Latino, and general, youth culture.
Bermúdez, who moved to southern New Jersey when he was 9 years old, is perfectly bilingual, carrying with him nostalgia for Puerto Rico even as he confidently navigates the Miami Latin pop universe. In search of opportunities to showcase his music, he moved to New York in the mid-'90s and managed to release a modestly successful album, "Locales." But then he took a now-legendary break from the music world and worked for four years in a South Bronx Laundromat. The stories his customers told him became the basis for many of the songs for "Confesiones."
"I called my new album 'Todo el Año (The Whole Year)' because it's written about the entire year since the last album," Bermúdez said on the phone from Mexico. "It's along the same lines as 'Confesiones' - I used the same studio, almost the same musicians and the same producers. It's been kind of a heavy year, and I've been writing stories the whole time, so it's a little more aggressive."
The songs on "Todo el Año" have more of a hard- driving feel, with an urgency of a young man whose life has suddenly burst open in front of him. Sometimes he's nostalgic, as in "Chapulín," which refers to Chapulín Colorado, the television superhero who entertained Latin American youth in the '70s and '80s. "Who will protect us now?" Bermúdez asked wistfully. "It's a song that talks about the need we have for a hero with all the things going on in the world right now," he said.
Then there's the mellow, self-effacing confessional of "Maldita Boca," an ode to the adolescent in us we never outgrow. "It means 'My Stupid Mouth,'" Bermúdez said. "That's the story of my life. I talk too much."
As has been the case with the most successful Latin pop, Bermúdez's music, with the help of producer Sebastian Krys, manages to fuse state-of-the-art pop-rock arrangements with seductive tropical beats. "I wanted to make a commercial pop record that conveys that I'm a Puerto Rican who grew up with salsa, merengue and the 'cuatro' guitar." But as much as Bermúdez cites Latin singer-songwriters such as Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra and Carlos Vives as influences, he's also a big fan of Dave Matthews and John Mayer.
"Todo el Año" crystallizes the changes in Latin pop from the old-style telenovela singer to the new singer-songwriter. It's as if all the changes of the past 20 years, the increased migration of Latinos northward, have created countless new stories that need to be told. "I fell in love with New York City; the energy, the darkness fascinates me," Bermúdez said. "It's so much a part of me - essential to my identity."