Soulful Blind Guitarist Makes Melodies Without Boundaries

Raul Midon’s smooth voice, guitar skills and unique blend of genres have critics comparing him to Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. And now the singer-songwriter from New Mexico is out with the new album “Synthesis.” The use of special software has allowed the blind musician to have exceptional level of creative input on the project. Host Allison Keyes talks with Midon about his music, his inspirations and the magic of live performances.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Raul Midon's mellow voice and mad guitar skills make his CDs a must-have for music lovers. An infusion of soul, pop, jazz and Argentinian folk, his sound has been praised for its diversity and blend of various genres. Raul has been compared to legends like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, but it was his own unique sound that made his debut single "State of Mind" a hit.

(Soundbite of song, "State of Mind")

Mr. RAUL MIDON (Musician): (Singing) And I want to be rich. I want to be happy. And live inside a love that shines bright enough to last a lifetime. I want to be rich more than a fantasy. Ride the winds and climb, because it's all a state of mind.

KEYES: And now he's out with his third album, "Synthesis." I am so psyched to have Raul Midon here in our Washington studios with his guitar. Hey, Raul, how you been?

Mr. MIDON: Great.

KEYES: You're looking good as always.

Mr. MIDON: Oh, thank you.

KEYES: I wonder, what's with the name of your latest album? Your last two were "A State of Mind" and "A World Within a World." What are you looking to tell us with this name this time?

Mr. MIDON: "Synthesis" came about because I was thinking about what this album was about for me, and it was to combine elements that are maybe not normally combined together. You know, I've always been kind of not in a category. You know, people say, are you, you know, R&B? Are you this, are you that? And it's always been kind of a difficult question to answer because I really just like a lot of things. And so I like to combine those elements together to create something greater than the sum of the parts.

KEYES: You've said that people are always trying to pigeonhole you into a certain genre. Do you yourself put yourself anywhere or are you basically man of all music of the world?

Mr. MIDON: I don't. I mean, I know that it's necessary in the world of commercial music to be somewhere in the bin, in a category, but I really don't. I've always just been interested in a lot of different things. I mean, there are elements of soul. When I say soul, I mean in the way that I sing. There are elements of, you know, songwriting, I think of as pop. I think I got into trouble once when I said, you know, what I do is pop and, you know, it's, like, well...

KEYES: Dun-dun-dun.

Mr. MIDON: Yeah. I mean, it's not, you know, pop in the way that, you know, "American Idol" or something like that.

KEYES: I wanted to actually take a listen to one of my favorite songs on this album, which is "Invisible Chains." I like the lyrics, I like the vibe.

(Soundbite of "Invisible Chains")

Mr. MIDON: (Singing) Where there's a will, there is a way. Where there's a will, there is a way. It's a crying shame to lose a game as a prisoner in a picture frame made for you and me. If only we could see the invisible chains, the invisible chains.

KEYES: I have to say, Raul, I'm used to your music being very uplifting and happy and this album kind of struck me completely differently. What's going on?

Mr. MIDON: Well, you know, you grow up and you start finding different things to write about. I don't see it as not happy, I just see it as more dimensional. You know, songs like "When You Call My Name," which is a love song but a more spiritual love song than, you know, something earlier that I wrote, maybe like "Waited All My Life," which is sort of the new love or the...

KEYES: Or "Suddenly."

Mr. MIDON: Or "Suddenly." You know, this is more spiritual. You know, I didn't choose the day when I was born, and I don't get to say when I'll die. And I didn't know if I'd ever fall in love.

(Soundbite of song, "When You Call My Name")

Mr. MIDON: (Singing) And I didn't know if I'd ever fall in love. I feel the...

It's a love song, but it's a different kind of love song.

(Singing) I don't know why, but I hear music in the rain. I see the sunlight in my brain getting brighter as the clouds are lifting. Why it is I wake up every day knowing everything's okay just as long as I can hear you call my name.

KEYES: For our listeners that don't know, you're blind and still playing this amazing guitar. But you are able to use some technology this time that gave you a level of control over this album that you haven't had before. Talk to us a little about that.

Mr. MIDON: I started using a program called Sonar with CakeTalking about a year ago. And some very, very intelligent, smart, blind people wrote a professional-grade recording software that makes it possible for me in my home studio to really, in a way, pre-produce the album. What it allows you to do is just to sort of tinker around and play around and really get what youre hearing in your head. This record is closer to my mind's ear than any other record that I've ever done.

KEYES: What do you mean?

Mr. MIDON: Well, you know, there's the mind's eye. I call it the mind's ear. I mean that what I heard in my head is what came out on this record and even beyond.

KEYES: Raul, what's your favorite song on this record that you could play for us in the studio?

Mr. MIDON: Hmm. Well, that's interesting. Actually, I didnt plan to play this, but I think in some ways one of my favorite songs as a writer is "Bonnie's Song."

KEYES: It is very beautiful.

Mr. MIDON: It's so visual, and I'm not sure how that happened. I dont even recall how it happened, but it's just, you know, I wish I could write a song like that every day, you know? But - so I guess I'll play this one.

(Singing) Bonnie floats through marshmallow sky, twilight caresses her face. Gliding above all the where and why, she's a picture of beauty and grace. Streetlights and buildings go wandering by and so does the edge of the coast, counting lovers and casual eyes wondering which one has hurt her the most. She can go anywhere, anywhere she wants. And she can go anywhere, and everywhere she wants. Anywhere she wants. She can go anywhere, anywhere she wants. And you can go anywhere, and everywhere yeah, yeah you want.

KEYES: You know I have to come out of that and ask who Bonnie is.

Mr. MIDON: Bonnie is - I mean this is a character, once again, but it's based on - Bonnie was actually one of my mother's best friends, and they came out to New Mexico, where I was born, from New York and they had a lot of adventures and stuff. But really, that was the beginning point of that song. It's not necessarily about Bonnie per se. Its about actually, it started out being kind of a visualization of flying, you know, of Bonnie flying away from her former life and becoming someone else by going somewhere where nobody knows her history. It kind of started out like that.

KEYES: Youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we are chatting with singer-songwriter Raul Midon about his new album "Synthesis." I wonder how - if you cannot see - youre able to visualize. How does that work in your head?

Mr. MIDON: I'm not sure. One of the things that I do a lot is I read a lot. And I think, you know, one of the great things about literature is its the only art form in which everything has to be described in words, and I think that's about as close as I come to seeing.

Literature means that you have to use your imagination and that the author has to bring that situation, the environment, the way people look, what they're thinking, everything, they have to bring it into the present with words and that's probably one of my greatest sources of insight, in that sense.

KEYES: Actually, there's another song that I wanted to ask you about, because it sounded so totally not Raul to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What's up with "About You," man?

Mr. MIDON: My brand. I'm ruining my brand.

KEYES: See, nice guy. Not so much now.

Mr. MIDON: Well, you know, I think, you know, everybody has felt that way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIDON: ...at one time or another about somebody or about, you know, something that happened, and I, you know, that song was a product of, you know, having a home studio and saying, well, I'm just going to record this because this is how I feel and I'm not thinking about it being on a record, and it ended up on the record. And I love performing this song live, I have to say, because it's - there's a catharsis. You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Well, you know, now youve got to play it. But finish your answer first.

Mr. MIDON: There's something about being able to stand up on stage and get away with saying this and having everybody interpret it in the way that they want to interpret it, and to the person that they want to say it to, you know. It wasnt meant to be sort of a - to curse for cursing sake or anything like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: After you play a little of it in the studio, we're then going to play a bit of the CD and then we're going to talk about the difference in the way the way that you sound.

Mr. MIDON: So I'll just play a verse or two of it.

(Singing) I just want to thank you for everything you see. For every clever word I say, for my golden opportunity. For stoking the fire, for my creativity. For burning up the wires just when I needed someone to talk to me. For bringing out the courage and stirring up the rage. For showing me that loyalty is a phantom on a page. And I'd like you to know, I never really gave, I never really gave, I never really gave a (bleep) about you. A (bleep) about you. A (bleep) about you. That's right, a (bleep) about you. I just want to tell you, though I've never seen your face, I know it's true from the things you do that youre a cowardly disgrace. You say to me that youre sorry. You tell me that youre sad. You tell me that youre worried about our friendship going bad.

KEYES: One small thing before we talk about the difference: the horn that you were playing in the studio is not a horn - an invisible horn that you ripped out of your case. It is your actual mouth. Are there real horns on the album or...

Mr. MIDON: There's both.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MIDON: That little...

(Soundbite of mouth horn)

Mr. MIDON: That's actually a real trombone. But the little interlude...

KEYES: Except for the one that you just did just now.

(Soundbite of mouth horn)

Mr. MIDON: That real on the record as well. That's me doing that. But yeah, I'm doing this mouth trumpet thing that people that know me, you know, that's one of the things that I've been doing for a while. It's sort of my own homage to jazz and how much I love it and that's just the way it is, you know.

KEYES: Between the difference in your live performances, which I have seen some of, it is usually you and your guitar and your fabulous personal mouth horn on the stage, as compared to the album that has a much more lush musical bed to it. Which do you prefer and how do you think that changes what people are thinking about what they're hearing?

Mr. MIDON: You know, I hope that the record stands as its own thing. It's sort of always been the thing with me that I've heard a lot, you know oh, the records are great, but you should see him live, you know, kind of thing. And I love live performance and I'm always going to do things differently every night, because that's part of my love of jazz. You know, I'm not interested in playing the songs exactly the same way every night. I want people to recognize them but I want to have some spontaneous improvisation. But I want the record to be its own thing.

KEYES: You worked with producer Larry Klein, who's worked with Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock. What was that like?

Mr. MIDON: It was amazing because I had been, of course, a Joni Mitchell fan and I've been a fan of a lot of the records that he's produced. And I met him, I think, last February for the first time and I just knew that we were going to hit it off. You know, it's always...

KEYES: Did he hear you play somewhere or...

Mr. MIDON: Yeah. I think, you know, he heard me with Herbie Hancock when I did the album "Possibilities."

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MIDON: And basically what you have to do is to see if youre going to hit it off with a producer. You know, are they going to try to make your record or are they going to try to make their record?

KEYES: Right. I'm interested in the fact that you used actual musicians as opposed to the computer instruments that so many people are using these days. Does that make it easier for you to gel as a group, for you to have the vision of what you want to put on a record so that its got some actual soul to it, as opposed to some computerized thing with no heart?

Mr. MIDON: The thing about playing with real musicians is that there is an energy that happens while youre playing that is unique and special to that moment. Whereas when you do it another way, where youre sort of recording everything separately, youre sort of putting it together later, which is the new way of making records. We sort of made it - made the record the old way and it helped me to feel more in the moment while I was making the record and while I was singing the songs.

KEYES: Raul Midon is a singer-songwriter and guitarist. His new album is called Synthesis. He joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thanks, Raul.

Mr. MIDON: Thank you.

KEYES: I've got to ask you, can you play us one more song to go out on?

Mr. MIDON: Sure. This is a song called "Don't Take It That Way."

(Singing) You call her up on the telephone. You say, I miss you, man I'm all alone. She says I'm sorry but I'm moving on. I found somebody else while you were gone. She says, dont take it that way. Dont take it, dont take it that way. Dont take it that way, dont take it, dont take it that way. Seek freedom with the foreign girl. You took a trip all around the world. Broke a promise for a heavenly thrill. You said I do when you meant I will. You said, dont take it that way. Dont take it, dont take it that way. Dont take it that way, dont take it, dont take it that way. Hitched a ride on a private plane, you might have turned the tide by going against...

KEYES: To find out more about Raul Midon and hear full studio versions of his songs, please go to the program page at npr.org and select TELL ME MORE.

That's our program for today. Im Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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