Juan Wauters is the last of a dying breed: deferentially loyal to New York City and its regal borough, Queens, Wauters lives and breathes an artist's life. After dismantling (but not forever) his janglepunk band The Beets in 2012, Wauters remained in the city, and turned the focus to his solo music, which grew into a full-length record, out now on Captured Tracks. The project is different from The Beets in a number of ways: lighter in tone, but heavier of heart, the songs show Wauters wrangling with the everyday push and pull of New York life, but through the lens of a 1960s troubadour. He is romantic and wistful, and the sound has a yellowy tinge, as if it was thrown through a time warp across continents to land exactly when New York needed it most. As a bevy of creative types flee the city for greener, cheaper pastures, Wauters appears to be writing songs that hint of protest and passion, proving that those who want to stay should, to proliferate the artistic community once again. On the phone with Wauters as he wandered Chinatown, stopping in loud, bustling places to plug in his “wonky cell phone,” he told me about the record, The Beets' future, and New York life.
Do you go back to visit Uruguay at all?
I go back every so often, yeah. My dad came in 2000 and I came in 2002.
Do you have plans to go back at all and live permanently?
When they moved here, they had no plans on moving back there, kind of like what people do when they move to New York, you know. They wanted to stay.
What was the impetus to leave for New York?
There was an economic crisis that was going on down in the region there, and my father had a business, and he lost everything. It was very hard for him to find a job and he got very upset with the country and he really didn’t want us to grow up over there. He wanted us to grow up somewhere else.
I know that you’re fond of Queens and New York. Are there other places in the country that you’re fond of or is New York your number one?
Oh, New York, yeah. I don’t think I could go anywhere else. I like the whole country, I’ve toured it a couple of times. I’ve been all over. Other places are cool, don’t get me wrong, but my place is New York. New York has a little bit of everything.
Is there something about your personality that jives well with New York?
I developed a sense of self here, so I identify with New York. It has to do with my personality, I think. I really discovered myself here.
In what way?
I developed a sense of myself here, yeah. That’s what it is, yeah.
Is it different writing solo songs for the acoustic guitar than writing songs for The Beets?
I write all my songs on the same guitar, I’ve had the same guitar for a long time. In early 2012, I wasn’t really playing with The Beets, so a lot of those songs came around that time, and I was revaluating the idea of continuing The Beets or putting my energy into music and stuff like that, so I don’t really think about how I’m going to write or what instrument I’m going to use.
How did you know that you were going to make this solo record?
I was writing mostly alone, using a studio where I recorded the last Beets record and I liked it a lot. The Beets weren’t playing in 2012, so I said, “I am going to get into it.” When I had a bunch of songs lined up, I came up with a track list and it was time to record, I wanted to put it out. I didn’t want to come up with a new band name, since my band name is The Beets, I was thinking I would name it something else. The only difference is that I did it all alone, this record, and called all the shots, whereas before it was more of a collective work.
Did you like that process?
It wasn’t intimidating because I have been doing it for all the time I’ve been in The Beets. I’ve always recorded some stuff on the side on my own. The fact that I was working at a better studio, I was able to perform differently. I wouldn’t have been able to do this record at home because in a studio you’re able to hear yourself better and come up with better arrangements and stuff like that.
Do you think that you’ll continue to write like that, in a studio?
Alone, yeah yeah. I wanna do another record that’s gonna come out soon, I think. I think I’m mostly gonna do it by myself. I feel very comfortable like that. I want to put a band together for touring and stuff, but The Beets are still always there, so maybe we’ll decide to do another record, I don’t know.
Your songwriting style has a stream of consciousness quality. Is that how you find yourself writing the songs?
I think about my music as kind of a tool that I have to express myself, as a way to document my life, so I can talk about the things that have happened to me. It’s like how it is therapy for people. I’m thinking about it all the time. Yeah, it’s a stream of consciousness in that way, I’m thinking about it constantly. Sometimes I could be singing about the same things but using different words. Are you talking about the live show? How the songs are connected with the other words?
I had heard that some times when you play solo, you used a freeform structure to construct the set lists.
It’s a very hard thing to do. You gotta be in a good mindset to do that, you know? It’ s a work in progress every time you go out there. There’s no time for doubting it. Whatever comes comes, and you just go ahead with it. I like to try to do that, but I think it’s something that I’ll be able to master over the course of whatever, maybe over the next couple months, the next couple years. It’s a lifetime process, it’s something I may never learn. The idea though, I really like it, having the music flow by itself. I do that a lot. When I connect one song into another one. I like how it feels to do it. I like the sound, too.
Do you know where that comes from, that desire? That ability to free your mind?
I like the idea of expression. Songs sometimes fuel expression. Sometimes groups plays things the same way all the time and for me—it’s not phony—but it’s just something that doesn’t really work for me. I don’t have much control over my persona, so sometimes I’m moody and the shows can turn out a little bit moody. And sometimes I’m in a good mood and the shows turn out to be positive. We play the same songs all the time, so coming up with something that represents the moment would be the best way to represent what I do. It’s strange, it’s still a really hard thing to do. I’m working toward that.
How do you feel that you’re able to capture that in your recordings?
I did this for the last record, but it’s something that I’m working on for the next one. I just go and start playing at the studio, and I see how the songs come out, and if I like it, I try to do that. If not, I go on to the next one. I’m going to try to use this more for the next record. It’s hard to see if it’ll work every time. Doing everything together might not work. I like the idea of songs, too. It’s a hard balance to strike.
Would the next record be one long track?
I’m thinking about it. Maybe one side would be like that. Maybe both sides, maybe just a little section in the record. I’m gonna try, try it out.
Something I’ve noticed about the record is that it’s very vintage sounding, like it’s from the 60s or 70s.
I’m influenced very much by songwriting and pop music during the late 60s, when the radio exploded with songs, and I feel like it’s a good combination between recording and playing guitar on the chair in some cabin in the South. I’m a huge fan of The Beatles, I’m a huge fan of The Ramones, and those people really focused on the idea of songwriting. It’s not really about a sound, it’s more about the song. From beginning to end. there are patterns that repeat in every song: intro, verse, a chorus, another verse, another verse, and an outro. I played all those songs a lot on my own, so I kind of picked it up from that.
Would you ever fear that people would tire of that pattern?
Oh, I don’t think about that. It works out for me. If they want something different, they can listen to other bands. Of course, I want people to like what I do, I’m really glad that people like what I do, but at first I have to think about what I wanted to do. If they get tired, I don’t know. Performing music or any sort of art is a conversation between the artist and the audience, so of course the audience will react to what I do. Right now, my songwriting keeps developing. It’s very very different from what it was, say one year ago, two years ago, ten years ago.
How would you describe it now as opposed to when you first started?
I keep picking up different tricks. It’s all about learning. You learn one trick, then you learn the next trick, and it keeps adding up, so it’s becoming something that is more personal to me. It’s my thought process. I think it’s totally becoming something on its own. The music is already the music. I’m a huge fan of music, so I’m a huge fan of just listening to music, and I can’t deny that all the music I listen to influences what I do.
The record has a number of geographical influences—you sing in Spanish on some songs, and the cover is a photo of you in Brazil, and its title is North American Poetry. How did all these places influence you?
When I went to Brazil, I saw the Cristo, the statue, and I got really paralyzed. It’s the same when I saw the Eiffel Tower. I was really into architecture at the time, I’m really into this kind of thing, so I saw it, and I was like, “Whoa.” I was with my girlfriend, and she was said, “Hey, we should come back here tomorrow, early, early, early, and take some pictures for the album cover.” And I said, “Hey, let’s go!” I’m a huge fan of Brazilian music, but I didn’t think too much about it. I just liked the setting and the site, I thought it’d be a fun picture.
And the album title?
I came up with the title because Matthew Volz, who is a member of The Beets and does all the artwork, he and I wanted to put out a poetry magazine. We have some notes. Our idea of music and the arts isn’t, you know, we didn’t learn it. It’s just our ideas. So we did a poetry magazine, and I came up with that title for it: NAP. Which is an acronym for North American Poetry.
Does the poetry magazine exist?
We made one each, and we were going to reprint it once the record comes out. We’re probably going to make another issue. We did it, yeah.
Does it feature poetry by you or your friends?
Matt and I both wrote some poetry, and then Matt did some art, too. For the first one, we asked a lot of friends to do stuff, but then we never did it. We were thinking of continuing it that way, of it being our poetry, and always having a guest poet just doing one poem.
Is writing poetry different to you than writing lyrics?
I got into that when I wasn’t playing with The Beets so much. I got into writing and rhyming things. More the mathematics of poetry, you know. I got into that. I started writing a lot. Some of those ended up being poems and some of them ended up being songs. If I see something that draws my attention in the world, sometimes I write something about it. If I feel something, if I have a problem with something, sometimes I’ll write about. It’s all pretty abstract. I want people to make of the songs and of the poems whatever they want of them. What it means to me might be different than what it means for other people. I encourage that, actually. It’d be pretty boring if it was just people listening to me sing about myself.
There are a lot of people talking about an exodus of New York—young artists, musicians, trying to go to other cities that are cheaper. I see you as a real New Yorker, a person who makes music and makes art in New York and survives doing it. Would you ever leave?
Sometimes I think about getting out of the city for a bit so I don’t have to think about money so much. But then I think about walking outside of my apartment and being somewhere else, and I wonder about how that would affect me when it comes to making things. Let’s say I went to Seattle or Baltimore. I don’t know if I want to walk outside of my house and be in Baltimore, you know. But I feel like when you’re busy doing other things, you forget how to do art. In order for something to be good, you have to put a lot of time into it. For me, it took me a long time to feel comfortable to do what I do. The more you do your art, the more confident you are about it. If you have to keep all kinds of jobs to survive to sustain yourself, it’ll affect the process of doing other things. I feel like people might start leaving. But for me, I want to try to say. I don’t want to leave.
Juan Wauters' N.A.P.: North American Poetry is out now on Captured Tracks.