Mario Vazquez: Keep It Fresh

For the past few years, very few people shamelessly announced to the universe that American Idol was TiVo’d weekly. However, last year, during the 2005 American Idol semifinals, a then-unknown Mario Vazquez coaxed the closet fans to emerge from hiding. With curly hair, pensive eyes and a voice as smooth as caramel, Mario was undoubtedly […]

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For the past few years, very few people shamelessly announced to the universe that American Idol was TiVo’d weekly. However, last year, during the 2005 American Idol semifinals, a then-unknown Mario Vazquez coaxed the closet fans to emerge from hiding.

With curly hair, pensive eyes and a voice as smooth as caramel, Mario was undoubtedly going to soar to the top. And he did just that, reaching the Top 12 with flawless performances – but when America met their Top 12, Mario Vazquez was missing. Speculations circulated as to why he vanished, but there was no clear answer at the time. That season of American Idol resulted in Carrie Underwood’s victory, but she wasn’t the only one granted a recording contract.

After one audition with Clive Davis, Mario Vazquez met his destiny and signed a record deal with J/Arista Records. Since then, he’s been perfecting his debut album, slated for release this Summer. The project boasts production from the likes of Scott Storch and the reggaetón power twins Luny Tunes, and his first single “Gallery” is already making waves with eager fans.

Mario sat down with us recently to recount the time following his departure from American Idol and his progress on the new album. He also discussed his work singing backup on the song “Whatever Happens” for Michael Jackson’s 2001 Invincible album. You didn’t know? Read on… Alternatives: Can you describe the series of events that followed your decision to leave the American Idol Top 12?

Mario Vazquez: Once I left Idol, there was a media storm that pounced on my front steps and I just did a lot of interviews and stuff. There were a lot of rumors about why I’d left the show. I was approached by J Records, which was actually one of the last labels to approach me, and I was offered to audition for Clive Davis. So I auditioned for him the day after Carrie Underwood, who was the winner of my season, was crowned American Idol. The next day I was in [Clive Davis’] office auditioning for him, and got signed the next day after.

Ever since then I’ve been recording my album. I’ve been in and out of the studio from Atlanta, Miami, Puerto Rico, L.A. and New York City. Right now I’m in Atlanta sweeping up the remainder of the album, and we’re gonna set to release August 29th. We just premiered our video for “Gallery” on TRL, and right now I’m on a radio promo tour for “Gallery.” So yeah I’ve been pretty busy!

AHHA: It sounds like it! Did you have any reservations signing with J, being the only Latin male artist?

Mario: Not at all. That was the great thing about it. I think it’s much better, because they can focus more on one instead of ten artists who are Latino and in the genre I’m in. I feel very free artistically at this label because they’re not trying to put me in this box. That’s something that I considered when I left the show as well. My art is very important, and I don’t want anyone to dictate anything else.

AHHA: Growing up, who were your influences?

Mario: I have so many influences. From all the doo wop, the Stylistics, the Teenagers, from Prince to Michael Jackson… from Mary J. Blige, everybody. I’m a kid from the radio. I loved everything under the sun. I always say I’m a sucker for a melody, because I’m a true singer at heart. Anything I feel, I just start singing. I’m so glad I was exposed to that earlier on from my family because not too many people are exposed to Motown, doo wop, or even the old Latin Jazz classics like Eddie Palmieri stuff like that. I’m pretty fortunate.

AHHA: How was your family growing up in terms of nurturing your craft?

Mario: My family…they’re the ones who started it off. They gave me the bug. My mother’s a singer, my uncles and all of my aunts are musicians and singers as well so they’ve always been involved in the arts.

AHHA: So you’re from quite a musical family.

Mario: Yeah, definitely the Vazquez genes. [laughs]

AHHA: You mentioned Michael Jackson as one of your influences. What was it like working with him when you were younger?

Mario: It was great. No one is like Michael Jackson. No one. At one point, once I finished the session with him, I actually took a little hiatus because it felt like a big dream of mine had come working with him. But then, you know, reality kicked in and I had to move on. But it was definitely a major opportunity in my career…a big highlight.

AHHA: Well we all know Michael Jackson has the ability to sing and dance on stage, and I know you’re the same way. How do you manage to combine all the dancing with the singing in your performances?

Mario: I think it just comes naturally. We’re Latino, we’re always dancing and singing and talking and moving. I don’t know, it’s something I’ve always liked and something I’ve always admired in videos and performances. I think if you’re going to be an entertainer, do it right. If it means having dancers, background singers to make your show bigger, fine. You’re there to entertain your audience. And I’m definitely into doing that – I was born to do what I do!

AHHA: You had a huge fan base during Idol and I’m sure they’ve carried over to now. Has anything crazy happened to you yet?

Mario: Well not what I would consider crazy. Like on the MySpace pages and stuff – there have been some kinds of weirdos. [laughs].I know they like to cut little pictures and do montages and stuff, but nothing too crazy. The fans have been very positive, and I’m so happy that I can still have fans from Idol who are supporting me and waiting for the record. I really appreciate that.

AHHA: I read somewhere that before the music [was] poetry.

Mario: I was always involved in music first and foremost but I think you might mean storytelling. I used to be a champ at that. I won like state finals and championships. [laughs] I think that’s why I lost my accent. A lot of people tell me I don’t necessarily have a New York accent. I blame that on the whole storytelling competitions I was involved in. People are like, “Wow you’re the whitest puertorriqueño I ever met!” I’m like, “Damn. Thanks.” I’ve been getting that like, “Damn, you’re Latino?” I’m like, “Yeah I’m Latino. What do I have to speak like that [heavy Spanish accent]?”

AHHA: Growing up in New York, were you involved in the Hip-Hop culture?

Mario: Yeah, you know, around my way I wasn’t heavily into it. I leave that to my middle brother, he was involved with everyone on the block. There were times coming back from school, they’d be breakin’ at the end of my block, so that was always the highlight of school was seeing the b-boys do their thing. I was actually more involved in Freestyle, but later on I started getting more into Hip-Hop. Right now on the album, I’m actually getting to work with a few R&B/Hip-Hop artists and Scott Storch. We’re definitely getting that Hip-Hop influence on the album.

AHHA: What can we expect from the album?

Mario: You can expect everything from this album: Hip-Hop, pop, R&B, I’m experimenting with reggaetón. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do the album like this being a new artist. It’s pretty hard to market an album, when you’re coming from all of these different genres, but I feel like I’ve definitely succeeded in doing that with this record. It’s about having the right producers, the right lyricists to work with. I’ve been pretty fortunate.

AHHA: So you have reggaetón on the album.

Mario: Yeah we’re actually working with Luny Tunes on a few tracks. Nothing is confirmed as of yet, but we’ve worked with Luny Tunes and Lester Mendez as well. And Scott Storch has actually been doing some reggaetón! It’s kind of more of a breakdown type of thing. And we’re working with this brand new rap artist named Knox; he’s Latino, and he’s doing his thing on the track. I also have one song featuring Akon, I recorded here in Atlanta with kind of an Atlanta-based sound. We have Alicia Keys singing background on one of the songs; the last song I performed on Idol called “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart;” got Krucial Keys producing it. It’s working out really well.

AHHA: You have a remix to “Gallery” featuring Baby Bash.

Mario: There is a remix featuring Baby Bash, which is actually what we recorded for the video, so he has a cameo in there. We had a lot of fun doing that. It was hot. It’s a whole mix’n match thing, which I love. It keeps things fresh.

AHHA: What’s currently in rotation on your iPod?

Mario: Let’s see: M.I.A, Esthero. I love Esthero. She’s one of my great artists on my iPod. Plus, just a bunch of old school stuff. I have an eclectic mix.

AHHA: Do you plan on adding that eclectic taste to your own music?

Mario: Yeah we’re trying to put pieces of that and sprinkles of the eclectic-ness. [laughs] We’re trying to keep it fresh for this record, and for the second album we’re definitely looking into doing more Spanish stuff. Maybe even a holiday album or something. Just…I wanna make beautiful music and sing. That’s it.

AHHA: If you weren’t here, where would you be?

Mario: I think I would be working in [publicity]. I can sell anything. I’ve got high hopes on this, so I’ll take it one step at a time. [laughs]