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Juan Wauters wants to connect with you, no matter what

Juan Wauters has had to change his creative process in recent years.
Juan Francisco Sanchez
Juan Wauters has had to change his creative process in recent years.

When you listen to Juan Wauters' signature acoustic, twangy sound overlaid with his gentle vocals, it's hard not to find it a bit uplifting.

The Uruguayan-American musician from Queens has established himself with that signature boppy sound, and the straightforward storytelling that comes through in his lyrics.

Wauters has a penchant for cleverly observing himself and those around him – and his latest album, Wandering Rebel, takes the introspection to a more intimate, uncertain place; perhaps a product of the circumstances that led to the project, and where he finds himself after its release earlier this month.

"I was going through some big personal things during 2020," he told me over a Zoom call in early June.

Yes, of course there's the obvious lockdown as COVID gripped the world. But for Wauters, new and old relationships were springing up too.

"I met someone in Uruguay, my birth country, over the phone [via] text messaging. And I went to meet her. Now we're together," he said. "But I [also] reconnected with Uruguay during COVID. Meaning, I started spending long periods of time there that I hadn't done since I was a kid."

A brief part of that reconnection occurred in a remote beach town in Uruguay where Wauters spent a month after moving back in late 2020. He settled in Montevideo, the city where he spent a part of his childhood before moving to New York as a teenager with his family.

The return resulted in an experience that for many immigrants can feel foreign and familiar at the very same time.

"From being away so long, you come back and you're not the same as the Uruguayans that stayed there," he said.

"It felt a little bit like I'm coming to a place where I'm from, but I don't know people personally like that, everyone as they do. So I feel like the new guy in town ... but also it was my town."

"I had to live through that during the process of making this album, and it definitely affected my psyche."

In tracks like "Nube Negra" featuring Y La Bamba, Wauters' struggles and self-doubts are illuminated with the lyrics, originally in Spanish,

Tuve el presentimiento que todo sería mejor en otro lado

Pensé en vivir en otro pueblo

Cambiar los amigos y el trabajo

No me daba cuenta tenía que cambiarme a mi

I had the feeling that everything would be better in another place

I thought about living in a different town, changing my friends and my job

I didn't realize that what had to change was me.

Those doubts were due, in part, to the upheaval of Wauters' creative process while making this album.

"It was very confusing for me to be able to have a substantial piece of work to show to the world without having contact with my fan base that I see often at my concerts," he explained.

For Wauters, the near constant touring that his lifestyle consisted of prior to 2020 was a tool to measure how his songs connected with his audience.

"So I was kind of blindfolded trying to figure out which music resonated without having my contact with my audience," he said.

Want more on music? Listen to Consider This on the unexamined impact of a lullaby.

Then there was the pandemic-driven disruption to his ability to work closely with others.

Collaboration is a big deal to Wauters, whose previous albums Real Life Situations and La Onda de Juan Pablo relied on contemporaries like Nick Hakim, Mac DeMarco, and many of the people he encountered through his travels to give his music its full story and texture.

It was in that forced pause that he was able to find a new creative space for himself — within himself — less marred by the expectations of others. He tells you so in "Let Loose."

Standing at the edge of some world

It feels good to let go and let loose from the world's pressures

To think of what to sing freely

And now that I have the chance to sing to you directly

I'd like to say

It took a long, long, long, long, long time

For me to sing to you this freely

Wauters was able to go further along that path, admitting to himself that after years of a nomadic lifestyle, settling down suddenly didn't seem so bad. In the title track of his new album, "Wandering Rebel," accompanied by John Carroll Kirby's lush piano stylings, Juan is experiencing some changes, and he wants to update you on plenty of them.

During COVID I discovered

That I like stability

But the world still sees me

As a wandering rebel

Yes it does influence my day to day

What they got to say

But not so much

Later, he lets you know that,

I'm looking to have a family

So if this music thing not pick up

We'll have to make some changes up in here

In fact, Wauters shared that he and his partner Lucia welcomed a baby girl into the world earlier this year. His doubts with music and touring are no longer the subjects of his contemplative croonings, but the choices he faces in his new reality: living in Uruguay and being a partner, as well as a father.

As Wauters confronts these big life changes, the album, which can feel thematically fragmented, begins to make perfect sense: What part of life is just one feeling and emotion?

In one of the standout singles, "Milanesa al Pan," the beginnings of his own love story are shared — accompanied by a plucky guitar — and he tells of the simple pleasures of spending time and eating a big, delicious sandwich with your sweetie after a day walking on the beach.

As he tours for this album in North America this summer, something he wasn't sure he'd ever do again, Wauters finds himself with mixed emotions.

"Right now I'm trying not to make conclusions. I'm just going on automatic, I'm just cruising, trying to live this moment," he said."Of course I miss [my family] but this is something I enjoy also. I'll see in time if I can hold it, if I choose to."

And with so many new aspects to his reality, Wauters is content with taking it one day at a time.

"The future feels so open and unknown. I don't know how [my music] will develop in America while being in Uruguay, and I don't know how it will develop in Latin America. Maybe I become more of a musician there, and not as much in America anymore," he said.

"I don't know. It's a big crossroads. And some people that heard this album told me that it shows in the album, and it's like an inflection point in my discography."

I ask if he sees that as creating many new possibilities for himself. He smiles and nods, "Yeah. Many doors ahead opening."

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Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.