Exclusive: How pianist Arthur Hanlon launched his most ambitious project to date
Arthur Hanlon

Viajero is the new album by Arthur Hanlon, his first for Sony Music Latin. Arthur Hanlon is an Irish-American pianist born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. The son of Irish immigrants, Hanlon started out his musical career at 15 in The Flip Jackson Band. He later moved to New York City to attend The Manhattan School of Music where he was classically trained. The Latin neighborhood where he lived piqued his interest, and he began experimenting with Latin music.

After earning his master’s degree, he found his calling in Latin music and independently released two albums before being signed to Fonovisa/Universal. He became the first and only pianist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Latin charts and the only pianist to hit Billboard’s Latin Airplay charts in over a decade. He has worked with many notable and award-winning Latin artists including Tito Nieves, Arturo Sandoval, Ana Bárbara, Chayanne, Colombian vocalist Juanes, Italian singer Laura Pausini, Venezuela's Ricardo Montaner and many others.

Now, newly signed to Sony Music, Arthur is readying to release Viajero, a groundbreaking album that has taken him around the world in search of iconic Latin songs. Recorded with top musicians in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and the U.S., Viajero is a CD, DVD and film documentary project that follows him around the world with his piano and music. Hanlon made time to speak with AXS before his performance on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, at the prestigious Highline Ballroom.

Tickets for the performance may be purchased at Ticketweb.com
(TICKETS: $20.00 | VIP BALCONY: $35.00 | DAY OF SHOW: $25.00)

AXS: Tell us about the new album, Viajero.

Arthur Hanlon: It’s my first album for Sony (Sony Music Latin). This is my debut, so it’s a really big deal. I was at Universal, and the last thing that I did was a PBS TV special called "Encanto del Caribe" – 'The Charm of the Caribbean. We filmed in San Cristobal Castle in Puerto Rico and turned the whole castle into, really, a soundstage. I invited Marc Anthony, Laura Pausini from Italy, Natalia Jimenez from Spain and it was really a giant celebration of Latin music of the Caribbean and beyond.

AXS: And that performance got you signed?

AH: Sony saw that, and they really liked it. Then I got a call from Afo Verde, who’s the CEO of Sony Latin. He invited me out to lunch and [was] real true to what he said. He said, ‘Look, I’m very interested but I don’t know yet. I’m having all the A&Rs from Europe, South America, the U.S. and Mexico here in February, and I want you to play for them. If it goes well, we’ll see what we can work out.’

AXS: Where did this take place?

AH: In Miami. Sony in Miami has a nice performance space, not too big but the sound is really good. I brought a trio, and they were all there, looking like ‘Who is this Irish American gringo?’ I explained who I am and what my album is all about… and I played. And at the end they gave me a standing ovation, which is bizarre because they’re industry people, you know? (Hanlon leans back in his chair and folds his arms, laughing.)

AXS: Right! A tough crowd!

AH: Right. So I come back the next day, and we literally had a meeting all day. We were in a big conference room; we all piled in there, all these music people talking about ideas, concepts, what can we do… the universe! The energy of the universe – all that stuff! It all came down to, ‘What can we do with Arthur?’ A guy from London said, ‘What about Elton John and Latin rhythms or something?’ A lot of concepts and finally I said, ‘You know, I’m a pianist and for me, the piano is so much more than an instrument. It’s like a vehicle when I’m playing, and it’s my job to transport whoever’s listening to get them out of their chair and get their mind somewhere else. Maybe another place and time, maybe another country.’ And that was it! The guys from Mexico said, ‘He should record an album in Mexico!’ and the Colombian guys were like, ‘What about all this great music we have in Colombia?’ and then someone said, ‘What about Brazil? The samba! The bossa-nova!’ and then it was ‘Argentina! Tango!’ And then the Europeans said, ‘What about Italy? Portugal! Spain!’ So everyone kind of jumped on the bandwagon and that’s how we ended up going to eight different countries, and that’s how Viajero - Traveler was born!

AXS: That’s so exciting! You documented the whole thing on film, correct?

AH: We didn’t come up with the name at first. A camera crew followed me, and it was really about hanging out. For the first couple of days, it was about people, musicians, eating the local food and having some drinks.

AXS: Had you been to all of these countries before?

AH: A lot of them. I’d never been to Italy or Portugal. I’ve been to Colombia a thousand times; Argentina a lot; Mexico a lot; Brazil – Rio de Janeiro – I’d never been to. I was really interested in exploring the samba and bossa nova. It’s very earthy, and I wanted to see how and where it started and record with musicians from those countries. I’ve recorded here, in Miami; once in London and once in L.A. It’s one thing to try to imitate music from another country, but for me it was all about the experience to be there. In Mexico City and recording Mexican anthems with Mexicans, you know? For Argentina, there was Astor Piazzolla, who was like a tango-fusion guy; and also like a rock song called 'Alfonsina y el Mar,' which Mercedes Sosa recorded and which is a huge anthem in Argentina.

AXS: Did it challenge you at all?

AH: Yes. So I was able to get this great material, but the task was to put it in my hands and make it mine and make it real and not just playing the piano melody– make it me. Each song has its own vibe and its own character, you know?

AXS: What is it like to be someone who is from outside of the culture to come into the culture?

AH: It’s been a ride, and that was not always the case. My first album was called The Yellow Piano - El Piano Amarillo. I had been in L.A. and left L.A., and then I went back there and got signed by Fonovisa, and I was really excited. Fonovisa is a Latin label, which is like the most Mexican label of all. I walked in like how I look, and they looked at me, ‘And you are..?’ (laughs) ‘Oh, the new accountant is here!’ (laughs) I’m like, ‘I’m the new artist – Arthur!’ So it was hard.

AXS: How long did it take to gain acceptance?

AH: [By] my third album [La Gorda Linda]. I recorded a duet with Tito Nieves, who is a Puerto Rican salsa musician, on a song I wrote called 'La Gorda Linda,' which is ‘The Pretty Fat Girl.' It’s a play on words but a term of endearment: it’s a cute girl. That song hit No. 1 on the charts and after that, everything changed, as far as who I was and what I was doing.

AXS: What is it like to record as a musician playing this kind of music, on what many would consider such an austere instrument?

AH: That’s an interesting question. The first image you have of a pianist is a guy in a tuxedo playing classical, and that’s not my vibe at all. I make it a voice: It’s a celebration. The piano is there, but the vocalists are not but there is synergy and energy around it and around everything. Of course, the piano is the main part of it, but it’s about producing the overall sound. We did that song, 'Alfonsina y el Mar,' in Argentina and it’s a rock song, so of course it’s got slamming electric guitars and I put strings in it, too. It’s about a woman that killed herself when she had breast cancer.

AXS: Wow. Heavy.

AH: Yeah. She walked into the water… it’s an intense story. She’s a really famous actress and poet who finds out she has breast cancer and writes her last poem, called ‘I’m going to sleep’ and sends it to the paper. Then that night at two in the morning, she walks into the ocean and kept walking and walking… it’s really intense. There’s been rock versions of that song; but getting back to the piano, my piano is part of delivering a much larger message, which is why I’m sitting in a tuxedo playing Bach.

AXS: You were classically trained, though.

AH: Yes, but I’m also from Detroit, and I grew up playing in Motown bands. I was the only white guy in this all black Motown band we had in high school, so I was always mixing. My parents were Irish immigrants and said if I wanted to be a pianist I had to study music and get a classical education. Little did they know that when I went to school I was in Harlem on the border of Spanish Harlem at the Manhattan School of Music, and I lived in an all Latin area at West 130th Street and Broadway.

AXS: When was this?

AH: Late '80s, early '90s.

AXS: Oh, wow. That was a wild time to be up there!

AH: (Laughs) Boriqua, Dominican…that was the neighborhood. It was impossible not to hear the music coming out of the stores, the barber shops, the apartments. It’s a very musical culture. So I started playing Latin music after school.

AXS: That’s quite a dichotomy: classical all day, Latin music at night.

AH: Yeah! It’s beautiful! My mom started calling me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I loved it!

AXS: Were your parents supportive?

AH: Yes. And my mom calls me every day and asks, ‘When are you on TV again?’ She puts on Univision and Telemundo and doesn’t understand a word of Spanish! But she loves it, and she calls all her friends and they come over and watch.

AXS: That’s wonderful. Getting back to Viajero, are there any songs from the album that are being released as singles?

AH: Each country is kind of doing its own single. In Mexico, it’s going to be 'Huapango de Moncayo,' which is really like a second national anthem for Mexico. It’s an old traditional, an indigenous rhythm (claps) – like the song from ‘West Side Story’, ‘America’ - they took that from Mexico! It’s Mexican and not Puerto Rican. I learned that drinking beers in Mexico!

AXS: What about for Spain?

AH: In Spain it’s going to be 'Paco de Lucía,' who is a famous flamenco guitarist who recently died. He had a huge hit that became a pop hit in the '60s called ‘Entre dos Aguas’ – 'Between Two Waters.' So I have a version of that which will be released there, but there isn’t really a single per se.

AXS: So the focus changes for different countries?

AH: Exactly. Viajero has anthems for each country, so, Argentina is going to favor the songs of their country, and so on.

AXS: So now you’re playing at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. You went to school here, but have you ever performed here?

AH: This will be my first time playing, just me as the featured artist. I’ve played Madison Square Garden twice, and I played a year and a half ago at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. That was a big [show], and I came out and played three or four songs; but this will be the first time by myself as a headliner and – with my musicians, a trio - we’re playing Viajero. There are going to be some surprises as well. There’ll be percussion, bass, and piano plus a guest vocalist.

AXS.: Any hints about who that might be?

AH: Jackie Cruz, from 'Orange Is The New Black.' So it’s going to be a celebration of ViajeroTraveler – and also videos from where I went, as a multimedia presentation. After that I’ll be performing in Miami on June 3 and in between there, I’ll be doing a lot of promo the whole time.

AXS: Will you be going out on tour after that?

AH: After that, it’s on to Mexico.

AXS: There’s a documentary in the works as well, is that right?

AH: There is a TV documentary. A camera crew followed me around through eight different countries. It’s got an Anthony Bourdain vibe except it’s a musical Irish guy in Latin America. [We visited] Colombia, Argentina, Brasil, Mexico, as well as Italy, Spain, and Portugal. We wanted to perform in Cuba, but it’s still going to take a long time to get permission, so we did the Cuban songs in Miami, which is perfect because of all the Cuban influence there. In each country, I spoke with artists from those countries, like in Miami I spoke with Emilio Estefan. In Mexico, I spoke with Armando Manzanero, who is this 80-year-old god, biggest songwriter in the history of the country. In Colombia, I spoke with Carlos Vives. I had experiences like that in each country.

AXS: Will this be released on DVD?

AH: Right now, the DVD is going to be released outside of the United States, and you’ll be able to see clips of it on Vevo. We’re working on something for the U.S. that’s still to come so I can’t talk about right now. But the CD is out now! (laughs)

AXS: OK, cool! So we’ll look for you to hopefully make it around on tour and keep an eye out for that something special you’re working on!

AH: Exactly! Thank you!

Arthur Hanlon will perform at Miami's Hoy Como Ayer on June 2. For more information on tickets click here.

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