The only instrument you notice walking into Juanes’ sun-dappled home on Key Biscayne is an upright piano, covered with lesson books for his daughter Paloma, 7, who on this weekday morning is sprawled on a sofa, along with siblings Luna, 9, and Dante, 3, in pajama-clad, spring-break bliss. The 16 Grammy Awards, racks of guitars and other trappings of the 40-year-old Colombian rock star’s career are in his recording studio upstairs.
The studio “is the right place for them because this is my place for work,” says Juanes, sporting baggy shorts, a loose T-shirt and a smiling face full of stubble. “Karen [Martinez, his wife] and I decided to keep the house clear of all those kinds of things.”
Several years ago, relentless pursuit of “those kinds of things” almost destroyed Juanes’ music and marriage. He and his wife separated for months at a time, split by tension and his punishing schedule. His daughters would wail when he left on a continual round of concert tours and promotional trips.
Today, he’s confident that when he picks up his suitcases to fly to New York, they’ll take his departure in stride.
“Before when I traveled my kids would be crying at the door,” he says. “It was killing me. Now I tell them I’m going away, and they say ‘OK Papi, when are you coming back? Friday? Great.’ ”
He’s hitting the road now to promote his memoir, Chasing the Sun, which he launched with a signing at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Monday. In the photo-filled autobiography, Juanes details his boyhood and musical beginnings in Medellin, his rise to one of the biggest musical stars of the 2000s and the burnout at decade’s end that led him to retreat.
“I couldn’t look at myself in the press or in the mirror or listen to my music,” he says. “It was like I had this personage sitting on top of me. I was saturated, exhausted, empty. I felt lost.”
The breaking point came in July 2009 with the collision of major personal and professional events. His son was born just eight days before an enormous concert that Juanes had organized in Havana, which sparked a maelstrom of controversy and media attention.
“It was like a break in my life and my spirit,” he says. “Something in me changed. On the one hand there was the birth of my son, which I felt very deeply. Then the concert in Cuba was such a contrast, with so much happiness and hope and love — but I also had so many difficulties in doing it and encountered so much hate and rage.”
He broke with the manager who had shepherded his career, canceled concerts in Miami and Orlando and a Latin American tour, shut down his email accounts, cut himself off from the media and told his record label, Universal Music Latino, that he was taking a break.
He emerged with an MTV Unplugged album last year recorded at the New World Symphony, and now with the book. He also came back with a new determination to balance his career with a private space for his family and his music.
The change carries some risk. His current Loud and Unplugged acoustic tour brings him to smaller venues — including Radio City Music Hall in New York and, on June 27, Hard Rock Live in Hollywood — than the arenas he played on previous blockbuster outings. And Spanish-language radio and pop music continue to trend toward reggaeton, hip-hop and pop-dance music very different from Juanes’ classic-style, Colombian-influenced rock.
While he seems confident he’ll return to the big leagues, he’s also prepared for the possibility that the life he wants to lead and the music he wants to make may not be compatible with super-stardom.
“Before stopping everything I asked myself this for two years,” he says. “At this moment in my life what matters to me is to be happy. If I have to play smaller places I will. But I want to be calm and enjoy it.
“It’s not like if I play in big places I won’t be happy. But I don’t want to start adapting to what’s in style to make my music. I want to stay true to my roots, to keep making the music I love, that comes from my soul. And if there are people who want to listen to it, I’m happy.”
Key to that happiness is family routine.
“A day might start with something as special and as simple as taking the kids to school,” he says. “I can go to parents’ day at Dante’s school and sit with the kids and the teachers and the other parents and see what a day is like for him. Go to church with Luna and Paloma. I can help them with their homework. We can go to the movies or sit down together for lunch or breakfast. Things that are so simple and so important.”
When he’s working in the studio, the children might join in — Paloma on piano, Luna on guitar, Dante banging on drums. “Paloma and Luna love to sing,” says Juanes, who learned to play guitar from his father and five older brothers. “I love it.”
His previous pace took a creative toll on P.A.R.C.E., the lackluster 2010 album that followed the Cuban concert and the first not produced by his longtime collaborator, Gustavo Santaolalla.
“It was like I couldn’t do anymore,” Juanes says. “I was in the studio working at like 20 percent of my capacity because it didn’t matter to me. It was really strange.”
Now he feels re-energized and re-inspired. “I’ve thrown off all the garbage, all the fears, all the dust, all the stupidity, all the ghosts,” he says. “The new songs are different, but they’re powerful again.”
In the transition he has looked to older musicians whose careers have spanned decades: Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican singer-songwriter who produced his Unplugged album; Miguel Bose, the Spanish star who was his closest partner in the Cuban concert; Ruben Blades, the salsa pioneer who moderated a Juanes “Town Hall’ session with listeners on SiriusXM radio last week, the first the network has devoted to a Latin artist.
He says he has also been inspired by Bruce Springsteen, for whom he performed at the Musicares Person of the Year gala at the Grammys in February, the only Latin among musicians that included Sting and Elton John.
“It was amazing,” Juanes says, laughing. “I admire [Springsteen] so much — I’ve listened to him since I was 13. Meeting him was a dream come true. Live he blows your mind. He’s 63 and he seems younger than any young guy.
“These are devoted artists for many years. And what they’ve told me is careers are like this. You’re up or down, and you’re going to be up and down many times. It’s part of your development and you have to accept it.”
Juanes’ career seems to be on the way back up, and his return has been marked by a burst of English-language media. Last fall he was the first artist to sing in Spanish in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He has performed on The Tonight Show four times, and appeared recently on Katie Couric’s talk show and on Live With Kelly and Michael. On April 29, he’ll sing two songs on a Latin edition of Dancing With the Stars. In July he begins recording with Steve Lillywhite, the famed producer for U2, The Killers, the Dave Matthews Band and a host of other major artists.
Though work nearly consumed him, Juanes’ response has been to keep pouring himself into music. He sees no contradiction in this.
“Music is a really powerful way for me to catalyze all kinds of things,” he says. “It’s always been the cure. Through music I’ve healed all the wounds I’ve had and celebrated all the good things in life. Through music I turn things, good or bad, into energy.”