In 2000, Alberto Wauters immigrated to Queens from Uruguay. Two years later, his son Juan joined him. Their story is one that has become familiar rhetoric used by politicians and fictionalized by writers—an odyssey of sorts. Yet as cliché as Juan Wauters’ story is, it is equally as real. Coming to the States at age seventeen, without many friends and little family, Wauters’ turned took solace in listening to music and eventually delved into songwriting and lyricism.
His first music project was The Beets: a garage-folk band for which Wauters’ was the architect, primarily singing and writing the songs. It contrasted a vintage, folk lyricism against a more grungy, dirtier sound. Songs like “You Don’t Want the Kids to be Dead” and “Cold Lips” helped shape the band’s likeness to older groups of the early sixties’ such as The Hollies or The Pretty Things.
In 2014, Wauters’ released his album N.A.P. North American Poetry which featured the brilliant song “Water”. Pitchfork Magazine called Wauters’ a type of “playground philosopher...staring hearts and daggers into the center of the universe behind a pair of beat up Ray-Bans.”
The New York Observer also praised Wauters’, declaring that he is “the next big singer-songwriter…a hipster prince, [and] indie visionary.”
Ahead of his show here at Sarah Lawrence, I interviewed Juan over the phone, as he sat in his apartment in Queens. One of the nicest people I’ve interviewed, he is a real conversationalist; we spoke first about his tour— he will be passing through my hometown in North Carolina, so I have to tell him where to get good barbeque. We talked about his home country, about Uruguayan football and the World Cup (about which he is, like most of his countrymen, extremely passionate) and finally about his music: his American Dream of sorts.
John David Crosby: You’re playing Sarah Lawrence to kick off the new tour, and then you’re up to Wesleyan University and later James Madison University in Virginia. How do like playing college crowds compared to larger music venues or festivals?
Juan Wauters: I love it, it’s different you know? It’s different because college kids come with their friends and their groups, and they treat it as like a party on campus. It’s funny, because in some ways, I feel like a house band at someone’s party.
JDC: Does that mean you have to sort of work for the crowd at these places? More than you usually would?
JW: No, not exactly. College kids are really fun, so they’ll typically have a good time no matter what. [On tour] We’ve had some great after-parties too, so that’s always a plus.
JDC: Do you prefer this crowd best then?
JW: I generally like any crowd that comes out when I’m playing!
JDC: The people you’ve worked with on N.A.P. make up quite an international band. Does that bring something to the table musically? You’ve worked with a core group of musicians from Israel, Japan, Argentina, and Mexico.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. They all bring some sort of style and sound that’s new and refreshing. It’s nice, because everyone is very different. I’m not working with them on this tour though, since I’m going for a new setup.
JDC: What sort of setup?
JW: I’m really interested in the idea of the traditional singers of the sixties’, particularly Alfredo Zitarrosa, who is this Uruguayan folk and traditional singer. He was incredible. So, because I’m interested in that, the band for this tour consists of just me on vocals and some piano, and two guitarists accompanying me. I wanted a change from the old setup, because I don’t really like playing with the same band over and over.
JDC: Why is that?
JW: Well, I’m very comfortable playing alone, writing music for myself, and I like playing with different players. It helps me grow as a musician. I am always searching for that right sound, that right direction. And hopefully I never find that, because I can continue to push myself to find new outlets in search of that perfect sound.
JDC: I want to ask you about the difference in songwriting for yourself, as opposed to for The Beets. For some, going solo can seem limiting, as it’s just you and your instrument instead of three or four other musicians who offer other options and outlets musically. How have you changed as a songwriter?
JW: Honestly, I feel more “free” as a songwriter than I ever did as a member of The Beets. For The Beets I wrote a bunch of these songs that I thought wouldn’t work for our sound. I would write stuff and save it for later, and now I can really go in any direction and use anything I like. I really love playing alone, and I’m still finding myself –my voice–which is the most important thing I think.
JDC: Playing alone also instills a lot of confidence in one, like it hits you and you think ‘wow I really can do this alone,’ which must be a really rewarding feeling.
JW: Absolutely, I think I’ve gained confidence in all aspects, you know? I feel really good about writing, performing, music, and lyrics.
JDC: You’ve put out a new single: “Wearing Leather, Wearing Fur”. It’s a duet with Carmelle Safdie. How did this come about? Were you looking to do some sort of musical collaboration?
JW: It just sort of happened. Carmelle featured on a couple of songs from N.A.P and she’s really fun to play with. I think the song is really weird, and it’s like fifteen minutes, which nobody ever does. But I like it, and it was fun for us to work on. It’s totally weird, but in a good way!
JDC: You’re from Uruguay, but you left at seventeen. You didn’t get to return for a while either, right?
JW: Yeah, because of my improper paperwork I didn’t go back for a while. I go back now a lot, but I don’t call it home. My family lives in Queens, so I don’t even have a home in Uruguay anymore. I still see friends of course, but my home is Queens.
JDC: So, would you consider yourself more American or Uruguayan? Obviously, you will always have that Uruguayan heritage ingrained.
JW: Yeah, I will always have Uruguay, and I love that. I am extremely proud of that. But I would say I am as American as I am Uruguayan. I’m a proud American citizen now, and an equally proud of being a citizen of Queens!
Catch Wauters in action when he performs at SLC on Fri., Feb. 13.
by John David Crosby '17