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Gloria Estefan: ‘Music was my salvation’

At 54, Gloria Estefan looks and feels sexier than ever, and it shows in her latest work, Miss Little Havana, which she wrote and co-produced with Pharrell Williams and her inseparable husband, Emilio. 

Sensual and sexual, the songs express a more liberated Gloria, one who is increasingly open-minded and more eager to show her Cuban and Caribbean heritage to the world — this time in English, with a return to a modern ‘Conga.’ She’s also eager to be a grandmother.

In an exclusive interview with Gloria, the singer tells AOL Music how she she adapts to a changing recording industry in peril, her partnership with Target, her obsession, and tells us how she’d like to be remembered when she is no longer with us.

AOL Music: How was Miss Little Havana Born?
Gloria Estefan:
The album was a fluke. My trainer would see Pharrell [Williams] a lot and told me that he really wanted to meet me, we were introduced and he brought me [the songs] ‘Little Havana,’ ‘I Can’t Believe’ and ‘Heat.’ He said he wrote those songs for me and that he wanted to do a project. It took us a year and a half to coordinate our schedules. Writing is something very [personal], but once we got into the studio, we clicked in a supernatural way, and it was a recording [session] that seemed very familiar. It’s hard to find that chemistry.

AOL Music: This record tells a story from the first song to the last. Why did you choose to give it this treatment?
Gloria Estefan:
The story happened by mistake, too, we hadn’t even thought about it. But when we did ‘Say Ay,’ we’re talking about my return to dance music. It was only after we finished the record that we realized there was a story. I wanted to begin with ‘Miss Little Havana.’ ‘In I Can’t Believe,’ the woman finds herself an old boyfriend in the club, they have a history and at the end, ‘Make Me Say Yes’ is the same story about the guy, who has another [lover], who in ‘Time is Ticking’ remembers, and she has two roads she could take: either she gets famous singing these songs, or she sings them at (four) different clubs. [Her music either takes off and she becomes famous, or she remains a nightclub act]. And that’s how it worked out. Apart from that, I took bits and pieces of conversations we had as we wrote and made them sound as if Pharrell was leaving me messages on my telephone. It happens that that’s a message on my voice mail because he calls me ‘Missy,’ and I wanted to use that so that it sounded more natural, more organic.

AOL Music: This is a very sexy record. Would you say this is your sexiest?
Gloria Estefan:
Yes, I know, but the best part is that it sounds natural. The sexual side leads me when I hear the music. When I write the lyrics, I hear the music over and over and let it speak to me and tell me what the song should say, and Pharrell’s music is very sexy. That’s why in this record, instead of using the piano and everything else that supports the song’s harmonies melodically, there’s metal, and there are practically no bass lines. I told Pharrell that I wanted to bring more live percussion into it. It turned out really cool.

AOL Music: Do you obsess over the creation of a record?
Gloria Estefan:
When it comes time to mix the record, I’m very obsessive. I love that because I’ve already written, recorded and arranged the song. It’s like when you’re about to cook and you’ve got all the ingredients, then you make the stew. Music is very graphic for me, and when something’s out of place, it doesn’t look good to me visually. Everything has to add up, that’s the magic. The engineer would tell me that half a level makes the difference in whether the voice grabs you, or not.

AOL Music: When you hear your first record and arrangements of that era, then listen to Miss Little Havana, what do you feel?
Gloria Estefan:
Happiness, because the original arrangements sound like they were made today. The guy who arranged the programming was a drummer. He was very obsessive. He created them and moved the rhythm of the music in real-time. In Latin music, especially the ‘Conga,’ which has very Latin percussion, you have to feel it — and he knows how to make that happen. I’m very proud of that work because it still sounds fresh, and for it to sound that way 25 years later is incredible. [Miss Little Havana] is a baby born of two worlds because it’s got superb production by both Emilio and Pharrell.

AOL Music: You’ve grown along with generations, who’ve seen changes from cassette to CDs and now digital. How did you adapt to these changes?
Gloria Estefan: To have the possibilities that the digital world offers is incredible. I dreamed of that when I was making ‘Conga.’ Everything had to be cut and pasted on tape and it couldn’t fall. You had the idea, but to get to that end wasn’t easy. Now you move things from here to there and you’re done. It’s incredible. The danger in that is that the music industry suffered a blow because no one, particularly young people, is going to pay for something they can get for free. For them, the Internet is free, and in their minds, there’s nothing wrong with that. As a music consumer, I love that, but what I don’t like — and many people don’t know — is that there’s a huge difference between the sound [quality] of an MP3, which compromises the sound, and CDs, in which you hear everything entirely. The artist records it that way so that you could hear that distinction. We want people to hear it the same way.

AOL Music: Why did you decide to partner with Target?
Gloria Estefan:
There are very few outlets from which to deliver the music physically to consumers. There are only three record labels and they don’t have the money to promote the record. I have a history with Target. I’ve created a program for them in which troops can read books to their kids on video, that way they have their mother or father with them there every night. My dad used to do the same with me on a tape recorder when he was in Vietnam; he bought one for him and one for us, and I would sing to him, we talked, and then we’d send the cassette. Target is also promoting it for Hispanic Heritage Month. I’m Latina, so it’s perfect. Record stores failed, and no one goes to stores for [CDs] anymore. They help, because it’s not easy.

AOL Music: Do you really feel that it’s not easy for someone like you to promote and sell an album?
Gloria Estefan:
Some good comes out of the social networks, and that I’m in control of my artistic property — my image — and to able to reach people. Before you did a prime-time show on television and reached millions of people because there was nothing else. There were no options. Now, people have the option of recording. No one really pays attention to commercials anymore, unless they jump out at you; everything’s fragmented. Thank God that [record company] Crescent Moon is ours, so master recordings of our music are ours, which gives us freedom. It’s another world, and you have to adapt. The artist wants to share what he does, he just has to figure out how to do it.

AOL Latino: You’ve been in the recording industry for many years. You’re a classic. In spite of that, you return with a sexy album, only to put yourself in competition with artists such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna. How does that make you feel?
Gloria Estefan:
I’ve never looked at it that way, because I have the good fortune that that people like something I do every once in a while. It’s been four years since we did 90 Millas, which even won a Grammy. Half of the world doesn’t even realize that because those who speak Spanish aren’t really into that. I’ve been very fortunate, and I promise that I’m not thinking, ‘What do I do now to support myself?’ I’ve never looked at a [ranking] chart. I don’t really know what’s going on. Something has to move me to deliver it the public. [The public] has let me experiment since Mi Tierra, even Gloria, which is pop, dance. Abriendo Puertas, which was Colombian-inspired, Alma Caribena…I feel I’ve got good luck. When I do something [musically] I always think that I’m leaving sons and daughters, maybe grandchildren, music in a world that we’ve had the fortune of hearing.

AOL Music: The day you’re no longer with us, what do you want to leave the world with?
Gloria Estefan:
That I’m remembered fondly; that they enjoy my music. Music was an escape, a salvation for me in life. My father was very ill, and I wanted to be strong, that’s my nature, my personality. I would shut myself in my room to play and sing, and I cried getting all of my emotions out. I have a great deal of respect for music, and I want to send a message to the universe. I want it so that people feel stronger, or to tell someone they love them, something that communicates with [people].

AOL Music: Your son has already been married for a couple of years. Do you want to be a grandmother?
Gloria Estefan:
Yes, but I want them to live in Miami; Los Angeles is too far away. She’s [her daughter-in-law] dying to come back. Her parents live here, too. She’s a great girl. This year she’ll be 30, and she doesn’t want to spend it alone [without her family]. Maybe my son will be ready to come back when she does [turn 30].

AOL Latino: Are you a good mother-in-law?
Gloria Estefan:
I’m very good. I speak to her often. We have a relationship that has nothing to do with Nayib or their marriage. I love her parents a great deal. She [her daughter-in-law] is a very intelligent woman, very good, and she stands by my son.




By Rafael Abreu



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