Long before he was the man who wrote “Despacito” — one of the world’s most ubiquitous and all-time greatest hits — he was Luis Fonsi, the Spanish-language heartthrob with millennial pop charisma. He toured with Britney, recorded with Christina and, with every album, he steadily ascended the mainstream Billboard charts by the power of his evocative Latin balladry.
Yet even longer before that, he was Luis Alfonso Rodríguez López-Cepero, the bespectacled new kid at his Orlando, Florida middle school. A transplant from San Juan, Puerto Rico, he didn’t speak much English, but he could carry a tune; he joined the school’s choir and promptly earned himself the nickname, “Fonsi Rodríguez,” after the Fonz from Happy Days. (He still can’t say why that is — perhaps the hair?) By the time he was in high school, he was busking around Orlando’s theme parks with his a cappella group, the Big Guys, which co-starred his best friend and future ‘NSync member, Joey Fatone.
Fonsi could have joined the elite echelons of child stars and ex-Mouseketeers by taking the fast track to teen fame, but he ultimately didn’t. “I loved what those guys were doing,” he tells Rolling Stone by phone. “I was really influenced by Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, Boyz II Men and all these other amazing R&B singers. But I wanted to keep my Latin heritage always present. So I said, ‘How can I use everything I’ve learned and do it in Spanish, for a Latin American audience?’ I said, ‘If I’m gonna do that, it’s gonna be fresh.'”
Both Fonsi’s gut instincts and strong sense of orgullo latino would pay off for the next 20 years and counting. By the time he wrote and recorded “Despacito” with reggaeton hitmaker Daddy Yankee in 2016, Fonsi was a multi-Latin Grammy-winner and pop titan in his own right. But the spellbinding groove was so potent that international pop darling Justin Bieber couldn’t help but muster his own rudimentary knowledge of Spanish to record the “Despacito” remix. The song remained affixed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 consecutive weeks, tied with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995 single “One Sweet Day” for most weeks spent at Number One.
The song was clearly a boon for a Fonsi — but its accompanying new album, Vida, arguably extends his winning streak well into 2019. Stacked with more reggaeton romántico jams — and of course, his signature Latin ballads — the album debuted at Number 18 on the Billboard 200, and knocked Bad Bunny’s X100PRE off Number One on the Top Latin Albums chart. Fonsi spoke with Rolling Stone about his long awaited new album, the connections between salsa and country music, and his evident sixth sense for good pop songs.
Did you originally write “Despacito” as part of an album? Or was it a one-off song that eventually became part of the greater work that is Vida?
“Despacito” was always a part of my album. It started as a quick, unpolished demo using just a guitar and my vocals. I really didn’t know where to take the song — it was born a cumbia, like a ka-chika ka-chika kind of vibe. That was the only way I could play it on my guitar. So then I met up with Andres Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, who are the key producers of the album, and we wrote a bunch of songs together in Miami. They stayed with me for a week. Then I was like, “Guys, check this out. Where should we take this song?” And they were like, “It’s so obvious. It needs an urban beat. It needs to just have a drive.”
Obviously it became the first single. Our plan was to release that song, then release a second single and then release the album. But obviously the song just kept on growing and growing and then Justin Bieber put out the remix, and it kept on growing. It just completely threw our original plans out the window. So we said, “Let’s just hold on to the album for now. Let’s keep releasing singles. Let’s ride this wave and let’s take advantage of all these beautiful opportunities.”
You had been the Prince of Ballads since the late Nineties. What made you shift from writing ballads to writing the most famous reggaeton song in history? Did you intend to break into the urban market?
That’s a great question. I would say during the Nineties and that first decade of the 2000s, pop music was really ballad-driven in Latin America. And don’t get me wrong, I’m very romantic and love ballads because they give me the most sort of space to sing. However, having said that, I don’t consider myself a balladeer.
Why is that?
I’m Latino. I love mixing styles. I love rhythm; I love dance. Earlier in my career I would always do these more dance-driven songs, but the label wouldn’t release them as singles, because the radio would not play them. It was always, “OK, but you need a ballad.” I was cornered into that ballad world. So now, fast forward 20 years, and pop music has evolved so much. It is so influenced by urban music that I finally said, “I listen to urban music. Why can’t I mix what I do with that?” I always listened to Spanish-language music, but my high school years were all about R&B: Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, Boyz II Men. You know how R&B and hip-hop are intertwined? I think it’s the same with me and urbano. I speak their language. It felt natural for me to do something with an urban artist.
So how did you start working with Daddy Yankee?
After we finished “Despacito”, we actually … I recorded the whole full version. We mixed it. Everything was done. It was ready to print and ready to release. But at the end of the day I got this strong urge. I said, “What if we get like a big urban act? And we take this song to another level.” So I called Daddy Yankee, I showed him the song and he loved it. He came to our studio in Miami and he added pure magic to it. I can’t do what he does — when that verse comes in, the song just lifts off. So I’m grateful that he took a chance and that he gave the song the credibility it needed. It’s a perfect mix of what a pop urban song should sound like.
And you know pop quite well. You just so happened to move to Orlando at a very pivotal moment, when teen pop was taking off.
I’m lucky that I had that background. In Puerto Rico I had the best of Latin music — I grew up listening to salsa. That’s what my dad would listen to. You name any salsa song and I can probably tell you the name of it and who sang it and who produced it. But then I moved to Orlando, the capital of early 2000s pop music. My best friend, still to this day is Joey Fatone from ‘NSync, who I sang with in an a cappella group in high school. Bands like ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys, they were all formed in Orlando. I worked at Universal Studios. I worked at Disney. I sang with all those guys on every street corner in Orlando. But still, I decided not to go that route.
You could have been in one of these boy bands if you wanted to! What made you take the solo route instead?
I didn’t not want to be in ‘NSync or Backstreet Boys, you know? I love those guys. But when ‘NSync got together as a group, I was already a sophomore in college. I decided to study music at Florida State University, and got a degree because I wanted to be prepared for the business. Pop and R&B are where my heart is. But I think being Latino defined my sound very early in my career. I wanted to keep my Latin heritage always present. I wanted to use everything I learned and do it in Spanish for a Latin American audience. The Latino ballad singers were a little bit more traditional — they wore the suits and the tuxes when they sang … I love them all as well, but it was always a bit formal and I was a bit more informal.
Cultural pride continues to be central to your career as a pop musician, and it’s clearly paid off for you. Last year you released a hit song with Demi Lovato. She hasn’t been super outspoken about her Hispanic heritage, but she seemed to come out of her shell in “Échame la Culpa.” What was it like to work with her on that song, and in Spanish?
We didn’t get into a big cultural talk. But when she posted videos of her singing “Despacito” on social media, I said, “You know what? I’m going for it.” I didn’t know her personally, I just reached out to her through my record label. And she only knew me as the guy who sang “Despacito.” But she was like “Yeah, for sure, let’s do the song.” Our very, very first conversation was a Whatsapp call. She said, “You know, Fonsi, I want do this song with you… But I want to do it in Spanish and I want to do it right.” I was like, “Listen, you’re preaching to the choir. I want people to hear you singing in Spanish. I think people are going to appreciate that so much.”
So how did that go in the studio? Did you have to do much coaching?
When she got to the studio, there were a few little pronunciation things that we had to tweak. But otherwise her Spanish was on point. And let me tell you. If you listen to it, it’s not easy. It’s like “Despacito” — very syllable heavy. But by the end the producers and I were looking at each other like, “This is perfect!” She nailed it. She’s such a sweetheart, and a pro. She’s got a bunch of hits but she was like, “I believe in this song. I love the fact that I’m singing in Spanish.” So it was one of her big tour numbers. I got on stage with her a few times in a few cities. It’s always such a blessing to get on stage with her. I’m a big fan.
It’s tough, right? Especially if you grew up in the United States — I mean she grew up on the English-language side of show business. For her to record a song in Spanish with you, and to excel at it, can be pretty inspiring to Latinos who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish and want to learn.
If there’s one thing that I’ve taken from releasing songs like “Despacito” and “Échame La Culpa” and “Calypso” — which I did with a British rapper, Stefflon Don — is that the world is coming together and sort of getting smaller. Nowadays people are not afraid to change their normal listening habits and listen to different things. I think streaming plays a big part in that. YouTube plays a big part in that. It’s like, “Hey, maybe I don’t understand every single word that they’re saying but this song makes me feel this and it makes me move and I connect to it.” To be able to sing in both languages, to work with people from around the world and mix styles and cultures? I think that is truly what music should be about.
How do you feel about Latin pop becoming increasingly globalized?
It’s really exciting to finally live in an era when you can do a bilingual song and have people connect to it. Whereas, maybe 10 years ago it would have been a stretch, now it’s quite normal. And I give a lot of credit to urban music and reggaeton. It’s connecting people, it’s making people move. Reggaeton and pop vocals mix quite well. The “Despacito” mix — I’m not the first person to create that mix. Just like in the hip-hop world, we’ve seen a rapper and a singer get together. You have the melody and the rhythmic rap part, and it’s a perfect mix that’s really connecting with the world.
When did you first realize the impact of your music, outside the charts?
I just got done with my tour late last year. I went to all these countries that I would never in my wildest dreams think of going to do a two-hour show in Spanish. We were doing arena shows in Turkey and Russia and Latvia and just beautiful countries — which are culturally so different — but where people just want to dance and try to learn the lyrics so they can sing along with me. It’s exciting that people have that sort of mental freedom to say, “Hey, I want to think outside the box. I want to hear different songs. I want to learn them.” I think at the end of the day, what people want to do is have a good time. And that’s what Latinos bring to the table. You think of us, and you think movement. You think party. I like to be able to translate that into music.
Your music has people from all over the world dancing to reggaeton — meanwhile, we’re seeing a lot of hard nationalist policies crop up in many other countries besides our own. It may be optimistic, but perhaps it’s a sign of hope that people won’t be so closed-minded forever?
You used a word that I absolutely love. You said hope — that’s what I feel. There’s hope. For those of us living in the United States, you see how … or at least I feel as though Latinos are treated a certain way. We’re obviously living in tense times. But the reality is that last year, or two years ago, we saw that a song in Spanish could tie the record for most weeks at Number One at the Hot 100… At the same time, the government wanted to build walls? I think it’s hopeful. There are people out there, no matter what their political preference is, who just want to sing a song in Spanish. That’s the power of music and that makes me feel hopeful.
Many people don’t know that you’re an avid country music fan — you wrote “Despacito” on a Gibson Emmylou Harris guitar. I also read once that you recorded a tape of yourself singing country to impress a girl?
Absolutely. When I lived in Orlando, one of my first serious girlfriends in high school was a huge country fan. So I had to do a little country song for her. And when I was going to college in Tallahassee, I listened to a lot of country music. I loved Bryan White. I loved, obviously, Garth. And now I listen to a lot of the very melodic country, that blends a little bit with pop. Rascal Flatts and all of those guys are great. The thing I like about country is that it is very similar to Latin music — it’s so meticulous and so poetic. And all about storytelling. You take a little bit of the twang out of a country song and it’s the same as a Latin ballad. I go up to Nashville and do a lot of songwriting — there’s such a strong connection there when I write with Nashville writers.
What have you been working on in Nashville?
Well, I don’t know if I can tell you but I’m working on a country collab. Breaking more barriers!
You know how we have a Great American Songbook — songs that are canonically American? People don’t think to include Latin music as part of that canon. But if you could assemble your own Great Puerto Rican Songbook, which songs would you start with?
Aw man. I would have to say a salsa group called El Gran Combo. Have you heard of El Gran Combo?
¡Tú me hiciste brujeria! [You put a spell on me!]
There you go. I’m a huge salsa freak. I’d start with El Gran Combo and anything from Fania Records. Héctor Lavoe. And probably my favorite all time salsa singer is Frankie Ruiz — that whole New York/Puerto Rico connection in salsa to me was important. I never had the salsa-style tone in my voice, so it was easier for me to sing the more soulful, romantic style. But salsa is everything to me.
I think you got some good slow jams on Vida, where you get to show off your vocal range a bit. People are loving the slow jams these days.
A lot of my hardcore fans who have been with me for many, many years love the new sound, but they miss the ballads. So in the album, I made sure to record songs like “Le Pido al Cielo,” or “Dime Que No Te Iras,” which are these big ballads that are fun to sing. The way I did my set list on my [Love and Dance] tour was half ballad, half uptempo, 50-50. I’m way too hyperactive to sing a full show of ballads! But having said that, I am way too romantic to do a full on uptempo show — I feel free when I’m doing a ballad because I can give it my hundred percent when I’m singing. But when doing the uptempo, it’s more about the attitude, it’s more about the vibe. I’m just like a hybrid, I don’t know how to live in just one world.
That’s generally the present of pop right now — you’ve really personified that.
We grew up in an era where we would go to a record store and we would search for music by genre. “This is the jazz section. This is the classical section.” I majored in classical music, and now I’m doing ballad pop! Well, I don’t even know what I do anymore. But what is pop at the end of the day? Pop is a mix of a bunch of stuff — it’s completely different than pop 10 years ago and 20 years ago. You have artists like Marc Anthony, who can do a salsa record, then a huge pop English record, and it works because he’s a chameleon. He can morph according to each different style.
Being a true pop chameleon is just understanding that, at its core, music is intuitive. And it’s all about trusting your innate sense of what sounds good.
At the end of the day, it’s just a melody and a lyric. If you get down to the main ingredients, if you have a good melody and you have a good lyric you can dress it — and undress it — however you want.