For some people, a hurdle like visual impairment prevents them from moving forward and achieving their goals, for Raul Midon, being blind just provides that much more motivation. The Embudo, New Mexico born singer-songwriter has overcome adversity to become a successful recording artist. Despite his blindness, he used his unique percussive style of guitar playing and eclectic set of influences to rise to his full potential in a way comparable to a young Stevie Wonder.
Surprisingly enough, Mid█n's first encounter with actually playing music didn't involve guitar. He began playing percussion instruments like bongos and other hand drums before moving to guitar. This explains his percussive style of guitar playing as he incorporates hitting the guitar between strums to work a melodic drumming effect into songs.
What sparked his interest in guitar was the fact that it was simply there for him to use, being part of a musical family. "It was just around the house and I started playing it so my father realized that I was interested. The bartender that was playing in the restaurant that my father owned was also a guitar player so he got me lessons with him." He took his first guitar lessons at six years old. "My only musical education until college was one on one education with teachers, and it was more about technique and learning songs, rather than about music theory." When it came time to choose where to pursue his post-secondary education, he selected the University of Miami for its prestigious "Studio Music and Jazz Performance program."
Mid█n's first taste of the music industry came when he began as a backup singer for a whole slew of well-known acts, mostly in the Latin pop market, including Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Jos╚ Feliciano, and both Julio and Enrique Iglesias. Interestingly enough, the abundance of artists that Mid█n worked with had very little effect on his own music when he decided to go solo. "I think the only thing that had an effect (and it wasn't really on my music but it was more on my decision to leave that kind of work) was working with Shakira. I was in her band for about a year and a half and it was the first time that I had really traveled and toured because I was sort of what they call a 'studio musician.'" Working with Shakira opened Mid█n's eyes to what it would be like pursuing a career as a solo artist and being on the road. "I realized that I wanted to take a stab at it as an artist before it got too late, and that's when I chose to move to New York."
Not long after recording his independent release Blind To Reality, Mid█n was picked up by Grammy award-winning producer, Arif Mardin, someone who he thinks very highly of. "It was a very affirming thing, because it's really tough in this business. I think a genius could walk into a record company and be missed, that's how bad it is. Arif is one of the few people left that hears something and thinks: 'I like this, I want to record it,' he doesn't think: 'how are we going to market this?'" This would be Mardin's very first signing of an artist and he and his son Joe produced the record that would establish Raul Mid█n as a driving force in the jazz, soul and R&B genres, State Of Mind.
Many of the tracks on State Of Mind had already been written, including the title track, which was a recount of the struggles and culture shock that Mid█n went through moving to New York City. "It came from kind of a dark period when we first moved to New York. There's always that time when you're somewhere new, especially someplace like this where you're really not sure that you made the right decision." Although "State Of Mind" came out of a dark period in Mid█n's career, the song, like most of the others on the record, has an upbeat, positive spin. A prime example of the positivity that Mid█n exudes can be heard in the track "Sittin' In The Middle," a tribute to the late and great soul singer Donny Hathaway. Mid█n wrote this song as a tribute to Hathaway for no reason other than his sheer admiration of his vocal ability and musicianship. "Donny was a great piano player, great singer, knew how to orchestrate, knew how to write for strings, knew how to do all kinds of things that the pop stars of today don't."
While Mid█n questions the musicianship of modern pop stars, he certainly hasn't lost faith that there are still true artists in the music industry, and he worked with a number of them on State Of Mind. Jason Mraz collaborated with Mid█n on the track "Keep On Hoping." "I think he saw a video or a stream that was on the Kennedy Center of a concert that I gave and I think the way it happened was he was putting together his Curbside Prophets tour, and he called me for that and that's how I first met him." Mraz had seen a video of Mid█n's concert on the Kennedy Center website and immediately wanted to work with him. "I hadn't made State of Mind yet and I got to tour on a fairly major US tour with him," says Mid█n. The tour was a step in the right direction for Mid█n as it demonstrated that his music appealed to a lot of different people, including an audience as young as Jason Mraz' audience.
Another artist that Mid█n was lucky enough to work with was Stevie Wonder. Mid█n credits his producer for arranging that collaboration. "The credit goes to my producer Arif Mardin because Arif had worked with Stevie on many occasions. I think when Stevie got the phone call from Arif, it sort of opened the door, and he got the material and liked it and said yes to working on it." Stevie Wonder contributed his harmonica playing to the track "Expressions Of Love." "He's somebody that was able to make records that went beyond anything that most people have done ever since. It was just a real honour to work with him," says Mid█n.
Currently, Mid█n is finishing up work on his new album. He has been in the studio extensively, working toward having the album out this year. "I think it's probably going to be September when it comes out," predicts Mid█n. In terms of the writing process for this album, which will be his second studio release, Mid█n confirms that there is a definite difference. "It's very different, in some ways. I mean it's still me. We have a saying: 'you have your whole life to write the first album,' and then the second album you have to write it and record it in a much quicker fashion in a way, because you sort of mined all your best songs for the first album." Mid█n recalls going through a list of songs that had already been written for State Of Mind and picking them out, whereas a lot of the songs on this new album were being written during the recording process. "I've always thought that I was at a disadvantage because songwriting is so image-oriented, but for the second album I'd really written a lot more from my perspective. There was a certain amount of reliance on clich╚s on the first record, I think, that I really went a lot more into my own sort of images and my own metaphors on the second album." Although the album is in it's final stages, it does not yet have a title.
Mid█n also confirmed that he will be touring off the new album, which is good news for fans because half the appeal of Raul Mid█n is the experience of his live concerts. "He's simply a genius," says fan and concertgoer Mansoor Khan. "He's got everything there is to get the show on its feet. His music, a blend of jazz, folk, blues and soul is beautifully woven into his intricate and flamenco style guitar playing. His technique, clearly the most distinctive I've seen so far. He incorporates every single trick in the book there is to guitar playing. Watching him play, sometimes, his fast fingers lose sync with the music that resonates from his guitar."
Seeing Mid█n's distinctive style of guitar playing up close and personal is just one part of the experience. He never fails to wow the crowd with his scatting, improvisation, and his ability to uncannily produce the sound of a trumpet using only his mouth. "I was stunned," says Khan. "At first, I thought there was another trumpeter on stage somewhere, but couldn't see any. Then I realized that the sound was coming from his mouth. As if he didn't have enough tricks to keep us occupied, he had to come up with this cool improvisation to sweep us off our feet. It adds a good texture to his music and he does a pretty good job of making it sound real." The "mouth trumpet" is just another aspect of Mid█n' performances that takes the fans off guard. "Really it came out of an interest that I have in vocal improvisation," says Mid█n. "People say 'oh is that a gimmick to get the audience?' and it really wasn't, it didn't even occur to me. I've always been interested in jazz, it's a big part of my listening history, so it was an attempt to emulate and get deep into some of the great jazz improvisers, you know, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, that kind of thing. That's where it came from."
Mid█n hits the stage equipped with only a Canadian-made Larriv╚e acoustic-electric guitar and his voice, yet he's able to captivate audiences and give a full, well-rounded, and definitely entertaining show. "Raul's act is based on just one instrument," says Khan. "What's different is how Raul stretches the instrument's versatility envelope to its limits. Don't forget that Raul is one of only a handful of musicians who can carry their act alone without anyone else's help. In that respect, I would say, he is a talent that needs no accompaniment."
Mid█n has gone from beginning guitar lessons at only six, to backing up almost every Top 40 artist in the Latin Pop market. He has gone from recording a self-produced, independent CD, to creating a masterpiece with a Grammy-award winning producer, and with a new album on the way he shows no signs of stopping. The attraction to Mid█n's music is simple. Khan summed it up perfectly: "He plays his music with compassion. His guitar feels like a part of his body. I guess there is a very clear message in his music: Don't let something like vision impairment hold you down."
For more information please visit www.raulmidon.com.
Writer: Joe Chammas