For all the accolades a power couple like Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez receive, there are unsung people behind the scenes working to help them achieve excellence. Performer, musical director, composer and arranger Angel Fernandez has been working with Marc Anthony for nearly 16 years. And when Jennifer Lopez did her latest stint on Saturday Night Live back in February, it was Fernandez who helped put together her performances.
Fernandez’s first big gig was as a teenager, getting the chance to perform and then write with Latin music legend Ray Barretto. From there he went on to work alongside Celia Cruz and David Byrne – front man for The Talking Heads – as well as Anthony and Lopez.
Fernandez’s career spans decades of significant change in the music industry. He has adapted to the times, growing and staying relevant by performing in various musical genres. Recently, he toured with popular Dominican group Aventura, which in recent months sold out shows at Madison Square Garden.
Fernandez cites Aventura’s success as a sign there is light at the end of the tunnel in an uncertain music industry – particularly if you’re able to come up with something new.
Though his long time colleague, superstar Jennifer Lopez canceled her latest album a couple of months ago, Angel states there are future projects in the works and not to count Ms. Lopez out. Fernandez isn’t sure where the future of the music industry is going, but the smart money says he will continue to grow, adapt and succeed in it.
Listen to the Angel Fernandez interview:
Chris Yandek: Why don’t you share a little about the contributions that you have given to the music industry?
Angel Fernandez: “Well, I’m a musician first and foremost. I’m a trumpeter and guitar player. I started off as a performer way back and then I got into arranging with Ray Barretto, again way back in the 80s. So I’ve done a lot of arrangements for salsa bands and some Merengue bands and all the while I was doing that, I was playing with R&B bands and a couple of rock bands. So I was able to map all those experiences and create, I guess, somewhat of a producing style – producing and arranging style that people call me for. If any contributions I’ve made other than my playing have been in the arranging and producing realm and with a couple of compositions thrown in. I did some co-composing with David Byrne for one of his solo records after he left Talking Heads. Yeah. That’s what I do. Pretty much.”
CY: When you talk about composing and you talk about arranging and you talk about directing musical acts and presentations, has it changed any bit with all the technological advances that we’ve had over the years? Have you had to change anything or have new things come with the job?
AF: “Oh yeah. When I started writing, I would write everything on a musical scroll with a pencil and it was really tedious work because when I write, I’m pretty much a plotter. There are people, I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Amadeus about Mozart.”
CY: I’ve heard of it. I have not seen it.
AF: “There’s a scene in there where one of his contemporaries who’s much older and who was like paid a lot of dues and could not understand why Mozart was such a great writer and had so much acclaim when he had been doing this for so long and couldn’t get those things. He was amazed at how Mozart could write something the first time and it would be perfect. He wouldn’t have to erase or anything. He just knew what he was gonna write. I’m not that type of writer. I erase a lot. So back then, I use to do things with scroll paper and pencil and by the time I would finish writing it would be a mess. At some point, music notation on computers came along and I had to learn that because If you don’t keep up with the times you’ll…”
CY: Not be relevant anymore.
AF: “Exactly. That was one of the reasons I did it, but the other reason is that in some ways it made my job easier. Now when I write, I do everything on Finale which is one of the programs I use for music notation on computer and I can just go back and erase, copy and paste like you’d do with word processing and it’s a lot neater. For me, believe it or not, it helped the creative process because I’m not looking at a whole bunch of, a whole mess, smears. So, yeah, I did that. That’s one of the things that’s changed. The other thing is that when I started, recordings were done in professional recording studios that did that, that had their own engineer, had a secretary, had a manager that coordinated everything for the studio and had really expensive equipment.
Now, there are recording studios all over the place. Those studios that use to be dedicated soley to recording are few and far between now. A lot of the really big studios have had to close because people aren’t using them anymore. So when I started, I could afford to be just a musician and an arranger, just writing and worry about wring and playing. The way things are now and the way things I would say some 15 years ago they started changing in that direction. You have to be a jack of all trades. You have to be a writer, a performer. You have to know computers. You have to know engineering. So things have changed a lot and it’s a little bit overwhelming right now with as many things as you’re asked to do. But at the same time, it’s a challenge and it can be a lot of fun if you get it down.”
CY: You’ve worked with many of the greats in Latin music and I’d like to know just in general your thoughts working with that genre. I know that you’ve worked with all types of music genres, but Latin music in specificness, how has changed in the last 10 years as it has become shown more to the mainstream in the United States of America?
AF: “Well, I grew up in New York and I lived most of my life in New York and I formed myself, my musical formation was in New York. New York was the Mecca for Latin music through the 60s, 70s and 80s and even part of the 90s. It’s totally changed now. There’s not really that much happening in New York. There aren’t that many clubs where in the past you could work every day, sometimes a couple of times a day in different clubs. Now you might work once every month or twice every month. There aren’t that many bands. There aren’t that many clubs, there hardly any recordings being done in New York.
So how has salsa or Latin Music changed? It use to be more localized before. It was like a phenomenon that was New York and it went out from there. Now it’s pretty much all over the world, which is a good thing. The bad thing is that in the past you had a lot of bands and there was a lot of work for many people and now it’s more about the stars. There are a lot less bands and bigger stars, but there are few. So there isn’t as much work as there was back then and there isn’t as much variety either as there was then because every band back then had a sound, a stamp of its own and that doesn’t happen. So there’s some good things and some bad things.”
CY: Where are the new bands, the upcoming bands, the star bands? There really aren’t any bands in any genre anymore. Most of the famous bands of today U2, Cold Play, Green Day have been around for decades and many years. There’s really like no bands of any stars upcoming of any significance on a mainstream level as you say.
AF: “You’re right. Although if you look at MySpace, there are a lot of bands on MySpace, there’s a lot of solo artists especially that really don’t get the light of day other than in a place like MySpace where they might get a couple hits a day. Some are lucky that they get thousands of hits and might do something with it career wise, but I think that’s the exception.”
CY: Last year you took your musical talents to the White House with Marc Anthony when he sang for President. Was that the greatest honor of your career?
AF: “That was pretty big. We had been there under Clinton also. We played a function for Hillary and Bill where there was a meeting between the newly elected President of Columbia somewhere in the late 90s and so we played a party for them. That was pretty big. We got to meet Bill and Hillary. They’re very charismatic people, but those two occasions definitely rank up there as far as exciting gigs that I’ve done.”
CY: Any others?
AF: “There’s a lot. There’s a whole bunch. The one that comes to mind for me being, coming from the Latin field, was my first job with Ray Barretto. Ray Barretto was a legend. I was a kid just out of my teens playing with this legend and eventually getting to write for him. Another one was with Macheto who was like, is almost the father of Latin Music and I got to play with him and I consider myself very lucky that I was able to do all that. Playing with Jennifer also has been a blessing because playing with Marc, which I’ve done a lot in the past, I don’t know, 16 years I think. I’ve been with Marc for a long time.
It’s fun because you get to play different kinds of music with Marc. You get to play really good salsa, but you also get to play some pop. When you play with Jennifer, it’s another world. You gotta get into a little bit of hip hop, R&B, dance music and for me as a musician who likes to keep things interesting for myself, it’s the best of both worlds. I get to play in great venues in front of a lot of people and I get to be challenged. It’s a real challenge to do all of that stuff and to try to do it well. I believe that, some musicians like I said before off the record are a little bit snobbish about some types of music. I believe that there’s something to every type of music and even the simplest music that some musician might look down upon takes special kind of approach and technique to play it correctly. So I think it’s all a challenge and I welcome it all.”
CY: Earlier in your music career you got a chance to work with David Byrne. What are your memories of working with the man who as we know, most know him, to be the head of the influential band The Talking Heads in the 70s and 80s. What did you learn from him in your time working with him?
AF: “David is a really interesting person because he has so many interests and he’s so good at so many things and he’s so smart. Yet when you deal with him, you’re dealing with – he speaks very simply, he’s very direct, he’s a really hard worker and he’s a great guy. He’s a big star. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but when you talk to him you’re talking to your next-door neighbor. That was my experience working with David.
What did I learn from him? One of the things that I learned from these people I’ve played with Marc, Jennifer, David Byrne, Celia Cruz, Ray Borretto is that they are all single minded in their pursuit of what it is that they want to do. In David’s case, he was uncompromising. He pretty much did what he wanted to do artistically and he didn’t care. He wasn’t thinking, ok, who I am going to sell this to? What can I write or what can I play that’s gonna sell me millions of records? He just kind of did what he wanted to do and that was amazing to me that he would approach everything he did pretty much that way. So I guess I could say that I learned that is possible that somebody could do exactly what they want to do and still have a large following.
Because when I started, I started as like a jazz musician kind of and when you play jazz and you play what you want to play, for the most part you’re resigning yourself to be poor the rest of your life. Most artists when they choose to pursue their dreams as an artist and a true artist, you resign yourself to being poor, not making any money. David is the exception. He did exactly what he wanted to do and he appealed to a large audience.”
CY: You worked on a solo album with David after he departed from The Talking Heads. Did he ever talk to you about why he stopped the group and why he left the group?
AF: “Well, I worked with them too on their last record. I worked on the record Naked. They all had their own careers and soon after they did that record, Tina had the Tom Tom Club with her husband and they had their own success. They had a couple of hit records. They did some tours. Jerry Harrison, the keyboardist, had a lot of success as a producer. He’s still doing that. I really just do not want to get into what I might’ve heard were the reasons for the break up, but it had a lot to do with their artistic pursuits, what they all wanted to do.”
CY: Recently you had the chance to work with Jennifer Lopez on Saturday Night Live and you’ve worked on many numerous projects with Jennifer over the years. What don’t you tell me about the Saturday Night Live thing and just what people should know about her in general?
AF: “Jennifer, like I said, all of these people who become that big, as big as she is or David, Marc there’s definitely something about them that makes them who they are. Jennifer is amazing in that she just never stops working.
Usually her shows have been heavily dance oriented and in this particular show, she decided not to do any dancing. She was primarily a dancer before anything else I think and she’s an actress, she’s a singer, she’s a producer, she wears a lot of different hats.
So Saturday Night Live, the show we did last week, she decided I want to sing and I want to do everything, pair it down to the simplest form and she did. She choose two very difficult songs to sing and some stuff that was not as challenging and she did that in spite of the fact she had to do about nine skits on Saturday Night Live and it’s all live. When we did the run though I think she did about nine skits. When we did the show at 11:30 that went live on TV, I think she ended up doing like seven skits. That’s still a lot to do for somebody and still have to perform. So Jennifer just takes on any challenge. She’s amazing.”
CY: I’m interested because her latest album was canceled and many people are wondering what the future is for Jennifer Lopez in the music industry and as an entertainment career. What are your thoughts on her future going forward even with all the critics out there wondering what is going to be her future?
AF: “Well, I don’t think Jennifer really lets anything get in her way. I think her future is very bright. She’s singing better than ever. Like I said, she’s single minded in what she wants to do. As far as what kind of business they’re involved with right now, not for me to say. As far as recording for the future, but I do know there are things in the works. There’s no doubt.”
CY: Finally, I’d like to talk with you about the diversity in your music career and how you are continuing to keep with it as we had before this interview started. As well, what do you think is in store for the future of the music industry, because as we discussed the music industry isn’t doing really well financially right now.
AF: “Well, I recently toured a little bit with a group called Aventura. They’re four kids from the Bronx. They’re not 30 years old yet. They started with this traditional Dominican music called Bachata, which is very down to home and not really the kind of thing young people are into when they started, but Aventura was able to mix elements of New York, The Bronx, R&B and hip hop with Bachata and they at a time when nobody is selling records and like young acts are not really being developed, they’ve become bigger than anybody. They just sold out four shows in Madison Square Garden. I think it was last month. They had the biggest selling Latin CD of 2009 and again that speaks to having an open mind for different types of music.
The music that they did like I said was not music that young kids were into and low and behold here they are playing in front of really large audiences. They sold I think five stadium shows in a row in Puerto Rico and anywhere they go in Latin America they just sell out and all over the U.S. and most of their audience is young. So yeah the music industry is in dire straits right now, but you do have acts like Aventura who prove if you come with something new and something that has substance which I think their stuff does and you get a little bit of play which they did even though they were on an independent label, you can still do a lot of things and they’re a perfect example. So the future of music, it’s hard to say right now, but Aventura is a sign that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, distant though it might be.”
You can find more information about Angel at his official website: http://www.angelfernandez.com/