Songs from NPR's Studio 4A:
Songs from A World Within a World:
Courtesy of Manhattan Records
Singer and guitarist Raul Midon aims to make art — and to make the charts.
Courtesy of Manhattan Records
Singer-songwriter Raul Midon first entered the public consciousness two years ago with his album State of Mind. Audiences and critics alike were drawn to his remarkable guitar chops and his voice, often likened to that of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder.
Midon always performs solo. No backup — just him and his guitar. But his new CD, A World Within a World, functions as a substantial departure from his previous recordings, which focused mainly on his instrument and his voice. Midon says this disc reflects what he's thinking about now: Interviewed in his dressing room, he talks about the pitfalls of trying to get noticed in a commercial environment.
"It's easy to get off track in this pop music field because people get elevated to greatness," Midon says. "People get called artists that aren't artists. I try to keep my eye on the prize as I see it."
Of course, Midon sees things differently than most — he has been blind since he was an infant growing up in New Mexico. Midon says the prize, as he sees it, is the goal of becoming somebody who contributes something lasting to the musical landscape.
Midon hopes A World Within a World is part of that process. But it may surprise his fans.
"What we did was try to make a studio album this time and try and keep the essence and make it more about the songs," he says.
Midon says the arc of the new album is much broader. Sprinkled among the soul tunes are tracks like "Caminando." Sung in Spanish, the song eschews R&B in favor of traditional music from Argentina.
There's even an a cappella tune on the new record. Midon says he wanted to pay homage to groups like Take 6 and Singers Unlimited: "It took days to get all of these parts recorded, but it turned into this a cappella monstrosity," he says.
But Midon still wants to make a living from his music, which he says is tricky. For him, it means making music he likes that will also sell.
"What I try to do is take the parts of it that I think have a shot at being commercially viable ... and put those on the record," Midon says. "You cannot make a record — I can't, anyway — thinking about, 'Will this play on the radio?' If you do that, I think you're gonna end up making a record that you're not going to like. Because, let's face it: Pop radio is pretty bad these days."
Midon says the narrow arena in which artists are forced to compete for attention on the airwaves saddens him.
"There's a sort of conflict," he says. "People want to hear something new and something different, but what the sort of values of commercial radio are — it has to sound like the last thing that was a hit on the radio, which nobody really wants."
But he also says it's difficult to tell the difference between what will sell and what won't. Midon says that the way people listen to music now — for example, putting songs they like into an iPod playlist — might actually be good for his sales.
"I hope people will listen to the record and get where I'm coming from, and that ... it's not about genre," Midon says. "I think people in a certain way are getting that now, because people have their own musical universe where they are living now with the iPods and so forth. People are living in their own musical universe, so it's not out of bounds to hear Madonna next to Mozart."
Midon says the best way to hear him is to see him live — just him and his guitar.
And he hopes that will convince audiences to vote with their wallets for the other Raul Midon.