It’s been quite a year for Juan Zelada, the Spanish singer songwriter, who seemingly came from nowhere to take Radio 2 by storm with each of his last three singles featured as the station’s record of the week. A series of sold out shows in London were followed by a nationwide headline tour in the winter, a deal with Decca and the announcement of his debut album, High Ceilings & Collarbones to be released next week (6 February).
Given that his journey to get here includes time spent playing piano in a restaurant just to make rent, you’d forgive him for feeling a little smug and self-satisfied at how far he has come; he is anything but. He is disarmingly charming and warm, quiet modest and pragmatic about his success and potential for more, as well as being refreshingly grounded and down to earth. When we first spoke at the end of last year his one wish for Christmas was not for a number one record, or huge sales figures, but just a little time to head home and catch up with his family and young nephews. Not something you would expect to hear from someone who stands poised to make the leap into mainstream consciousness in just a few months time.
”It doesn’t matter whether 16 year olds or 50 years olds like it”
We meet at the Norwich Arts Centre a couple of hours before he is due to perform and Juan in a relaxed and chatty mood, sipping alternately from a beer and a bottle of water. Band members come and go as we talk while others chill out around us, the mood and atmosphere between them all is one of warmth and genuine camaraderie.
The first thing we want to know is how all the exposure has affected him and his shows. Previously he has been a mainstay in some of the trendiest parts of London, playing to packed crowds of hip young things, not something one would associate with the stereotypical image of the Radio 2 listener, so, has his audience changed at all? ”Err yeah, it has actually. Cause to be fair, we were gigging heavily in London and that was quite a young, sort of vibrant crowd. [...] then all of a sudden you go a bit mainstream.
“Our last show in London (last) year and I swear it was quite a young crowd. It’s not like all of a sudden all our gigs are mothers and things. But it’s just you do get fan messages that are pretty much across the board, you know?”
The label must be delighted but how does he feel about it? There are some artists who would kill for this level of exposure while others would recoil at the thought of being seen as a mainstream act. Unsurprisingly it’s not something that bothers him, “I dunno, our audience, our target audience I don’t really go into that much,” he explains. ”I don’t really delve into that…people just dig it, you know, you connect with the band, you know…we get on really well. We’ve transmitted and it doesn’t matter whether 16 year olds or 50 years olds [like it].”
Talking to Juan you get the impression that nothing really fazes him, that everything that has happened and will happen is all taken in his charismatic stride. Everything that is except meeting Terry Wogan, a guy who even Juan could learn a thing or two from about being charming. ”He’s just such a suave guy, you know, he’s amazing. It’s like you’re just standing there and you just can’t help but just grin the whole interview with him.”
He may have reached the dizzy heights of an interview with The Wogan, but it hasn’t always been this way. Relatively speaking this has all come about quite quickly, the buzz, the radio play, the record deal; in real terms it has been no time at all since he was playing covers in a restaurant of an evening, having moved down to London following a two year stint at the Liverpool institute for Performing Arts. So how has he done it? Did he sell his soul? Does he have a rich parent funding the whole thing? Was he plucked out of obscurity by a random A&R who just happened upon his show while taking shelter from the rain? As intriguing as all of these scenarios may be, the truth is somewhat more mundane but no less impressive. It’s all down to hard work, talent, commitment, belief, and more hard work.
When you hear the stories though, it does appear that serendipity and luck played a reasonable part and, truth be told; there was actually a moment of right place right time. ” I played in a party in Notting Hill that I wasn’t really supposed to be going to, I just kind of crashed the party with all the fancy people there, they had a jam night going on in this living room and I went up on the keyboard, I dunno, I just fancied it and this girl saw me at that party and got me to play for these guys that had been playing with a guy called Bryn Christopher and basically that twist of fate, from that party I got to meet the band.”
” I’m gonna totally take this jump’ and it really took a leap of faith for him to do the same.”
Belief in himself and the music was key, and it came not only from Juan himself but form those around him. Adam Low was running the restaurant he would play in, and chose to give it up to become Juan’s full-time manager instead. It was a leap of faith that has not been lost on Juan and one that could be pointed to as being key to his current success.
Juan explains, “I was playing keys in his restaurant and then he (Adam) picked up on my original stuff and in his free time he began to organise some acoustic shows in the East End. Just in his free time, nothing really too serious.
“I was like ‘I’m gonna stop doing this piano bar stuff and I’m really gonna go head over heels, completely all the way with my original stuff, I’m gonna totally take this jump’ and it really took a leap of faith for him to do the same.”
It was a leap of faith on Juan’s part as well. Restaurant managers are not really the first place people would look for someone to cultivate their music career. ”He made up for the inexperience and the not knowing with a whole lot of passion for music. He’s rock n roll, he’s well into all that. He believes in it a little bit too much sometimes, [but] he went that route and the struggle and we found little bits of investment from different people, kind of kept it going and then he grew his management agency and he set up, mixed up with these guys at Insomnia music where the drummer’s based up in Hertford and it just kind of all blew up.”
Blew up it did, but Adam was not the only person to come on board, in recent months PR was found ”through friend of a friend,” a radio plugger took him on and Communion Records provided support as well as, according to Juan, ”I think a whole string of events, a lot of twist of fate as well and a whole lot of a hard work and perseverance and almost like that, that feeling of ‘yeah we knew it’ we knew it from the beginning, or we thought we knew it but we never (dreamed).”
With all these people coming together to support him, and believe in him they had to have seen and heard something in the music. So where did that come from? Having grown up listening to his Dad’s records, ”Paul Simon, Billy Joel, James Taylor…that sort of 70’s music,“ the role his father played cannot be overstated.
”I think he’s probably my biggest influence in terms of the music I grew up with, he’s a great self-taught guitarist so I kind of grew in that, the same sort of education of self-taught. Nobody was pushy with me, nobody was ever sort of expectant of me or anything. I think at some point was I maybe nine or ten he said ‘Do you fancy any piano lessons?’ and I went, looking at some of the kids in my class, kind of crying out of classes. I don’t think I fancied that so I just went on the self-taught thing of like battering the white keys of the piano, you know one of those old Casios that you batter the white keys, you smash them all up and then you move onto the black keys and that’s how I kind of got started. From then on it was like just writing and writing and writing songs even these ridiculous lyrics sometimes, like stupid trial and error but yeah.”
”They’re the ones you know are gonna be decent because there’s no effort.”
Ah yes, the lyrics. Famously, “Breakfast In Spitalfields”, his first single to be A-Listed by Radio 2, was written while hungover on a Monday morning and feeling the need for a rejuvenating fry up. ”(I had) gone out with some friends on the Sunday in London Bridge and then I had to just come across the whole of the rush hour, you know, and then switched into Liverpool Street and I had this horrendous hangover, and you know when the only thing that will fix it is a fry-up. (I) got that and then there’s this pretty girl in the cafe, a few workers with their things and yeah, (it was) one of those songs that just sing themselves and they just come easy like, it was all sang and it was there and you come home and you go on the guitar and it’s done in twenty minutes.”
Despite the success of “Breakfast…” there are no more food based songs to come and disappointingly, the eateries of Spitalfields have not offered him free breakfasts for life, though he actually favours the S&M cafe in Portobello.
How do those kinds of spontaneous songs compare with ones that are agonised over and meticulously crafted over time? ”They’re the ones you know are gonna be decent because there’s no effort, it’s a bit of an effortless thing you know? It was similar with “The Blues Remain”, the second single we did which kind of was written (at) some airport from London to Madrid, some baggage reclaim waiting around. Then I got there (Spain), and um it was literally ‘Hi Granma, yeah, I’m alright..I got to go, I got to go’ and just go on the piano and finish the song.”
While the song writing can be effortless, one thing that most certainly isn’t is a Juan Zelada live performance. His music may be quite light and often quite mellow, but when he’s on stage he lets fly with ridiculous levels of energy. So how can he put so much into what is quite a relaxed sound? “It depends on the song. If it’s gonna be a mellow song, I like to treat it as a mellow song. But if it’s gonna be a full on one, the worst thing, you’ve got sometimes, when it’s a full on song, is if you’re just not giving it some. If you don’t give it some then the crowd is never gonna receive it, they’re never gonna get it. So even if you’ve got a full on cracking song, if you just deliver it like a, sort of, sombre muppet, then they’re never gonna (get it).”
From our experience of seeing him play live, there is a definite shift when he moves to the keyboard, something he himself recognises. ”I feel stuff more on the piano, whereas guitar is more a tool for song writing in our band for the rhythmic, percussive sort of thing about it but it’s like almost like a more limited, this thing you want to take care of and you don’t want to break, when you’re on the guitar you don’t want to be fooling around too much.”
It must have been a challenge for him to channel that energy into the album and in part two tomorrow, we will hear more about its recording; the mystery around its title; his expectations and the expectations of those around him.
Photos: Adam S