Uruguayan-born singer/songwriter Jorge Drexler (who now lives in Madrid, Spain) was, like many of us, quite surprised when “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” (On The Other Side of The River), written for Walter Salles’ 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, was nominated for best song during the 2005 Oscars. “It was a total surprise,” he said over a phone interview from Madrid. “I was not even thinking about being nominated, and I never really believed that I could win, but I was very happy about it–a lot of people were moved by the song.”
When the song actually won, Drexler got up on stage and, not knowing what to say, simply sang a few bars of the refrain, said a brief thanks, and left without another word. At the time, many assumed he was unable to speak English—in fact, he’s not only fluent in English but also in Portuguese. Following the Oscar win, his album Eco (Echo) was released in the U.S., and was nominated for Best Latin Album at last year’s Grammys.
Drexler’s Oscar win was a historic one–for the first time, a non-English language tune had won the Best Song Academy Award (it was also the first nomination of its kind). But the journey to glory began simply. “Walter Salles called and asked me for a song; I received the screenplay and wrote it based on what I had read—I hadn’t seen the film yet–and then I recorded it on my laptop and e-mailed it to Salles,” Drexler recalls. “The final result was emotional to see. I enjoy writing for films, because the process is different. You write a song that is part of the story, and your songwriting is done with the film in mind.”
The trophy may have served to launch Drexler’s career Stateside, but he has been performing and recording for more than a decade in Latin America and Europe. Born and raised in Uruguay, he began his career there, performing on small stages and recording a few albums. In 1995, Spanish singer Joachim Savina was visiting the country, saw Drexler perform and invited him to go to Spain.
“I arrived and soon many Spanish singers started recording my songs, so I ended up staying here,” he says. Since moving to Europe, Drexler has made six albums, but continues to perform in his native country, in Mexico and in Brazil, where he has made many friends, including fellow songwriter Paulinho Moska (from the soundtrack of Woman On Top), who introduced him to other Brazilian artists. Many Brazilian musicians have recorded his songs. Maria Rita, for instance, recorded “Mal Intento” on her Latin Grammy-award-winning Segundo. “I play in Brazil a lot, which is not very common for Spanish-speaking artists who are not international superstars,” he explains. “Brazil has a lot of great music, but it is musically very closed when it comes to Latin music.” This, however, has not been much of an obstacle for Drexler. “The Brazilian artistic community has received me well–it all began with Paulinho, who is a great friend of mine.”
Brazil can frequently be hostile to Spanish-speaking artists, and the reverse is also true. Colombian singer Marta Gomez once said that she only had contact with Brazilian music after she relocated to the U.S. So Drexler's success in Brazil probably owes something to the fact that he can speak the country’s language, something that is greatly appreciated, especially by TV interviewers (Shakira was huge in Brazil before becoming an international star because she learned to speak Portuguese). Drexler’s friendly nature, which quickly came across during our phone conversation, is also a factor to be taken into consideration.
At the time of our interview, Drexler was touring Europe in support of 12 Segundos De Obscuridad (12 Seconds Of Darkness). 12 Segundos is one of Drexler’s most personal albums. The lyrics speak of failed relationships and spiritual quests, occasionally touching on social issues as well. The disc features numerous guests, including Moska, Arnaldo Antunes