The first time I heard the playful yet thoughtful folk music of Juan Wauters, one thing came to mind: Here’s our 21st-century Paul Simon. Maybe it’s the way Simon, who grew up in Queens as the son of assimilated Jewish immigrants, and Wauters, who moved to the borough from Uruguay as a teenager, represent vastly different but also interconnected New York City existences. Maybe it’s the folk-centric intimacy of Wauters’ sound which, like Simon’s early work, relies on unvarnished acoustic guitar and clearly annunciated vocals. Maybe it’s the way Wauters wrangles his subject matter — friendship, community, introspection, self-actualization, the minutiae of day-to-day life — into deceptively fanciful yet profound metaphors. Maybe — and forgive me here — it’s because both gentlemen are (ahem) rather diminutive.
Or maybe I’m just crazy. Wauters didn’t start playing or writing music or performing live until he was almost 20. His first musical love was ’90s hip-hop. His first band was the cheery anti-folk outfit The Beets, which achieved cult status in New York’s underground community. And unlike Simon, who famously ditched Art Garfunkel at the height of their late ’60s popularity to become even more famous on his own, Wauters has little interest in careerism.
“Playing music is what I like doing the most,” he tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “I’m not complaining at all — it’s better than having a regular job. But at the same time, I find myself getting uncomfortable considering music my job. By making it my everyday thing, my music becomes public, and people pay attention to it, which makes me self-conscious, which can then affect my job. I’m not the kind of guy that loves the spotlight. I hope success comes slowly — I don’t want to dive all the way in. I have to look out for myself.”
In many ways, Wauters’ embrace of the singer/songwriter route, which he kicked off in 2014 with the album North American Poetry, has afforded him the chance to test deeper waters. The Beets didn’t tour much beyond New York City, invoking The Ramones’ “neighborhood kid” roots and Howard Stern’s raunchy pugnacity as touchstones. Wauters’ biography, though, describes his solo work on North American Poetry and its 2015 follow-up, Who Me?, as “existential questioning through pop music” and a “reciprocal process of self-actualization.”
That, Wauters says, is his current motivation to write and perform. “Everything I’m doing is a method of expressing myself,” he says. “That’s something that I cherish and never want to lose.” In fact, he considers introspection a requirement: If he writes songs that “don’t have much to do with me,” they lack vision, voice, and perspective, he says. Curtly, he adds, “I don’t like them as much.”
So go ahead, Juan Wauters: As the Internet says, you do you. Even though his music is basic, he can command stages and captivate crowds thanks to the emotional impact of his songs and a lovably DIY light show put on by longtime friend and collaborator Matthew Volz. Wauters usually tours solo, but on this one, he has fellow South American-turned-New Yorker Juan Zaballa opening for and backing him with his band Tall Juan. “I enjoy playing by myself,” says Wauters. “I improvise a lot, and I play what makes me happy and whatever feels right each night, so I don’t want to have a steady lineup. I prefer calling friends to back me up.”
Another layer of Wauters’ unpredictability? His recent embrace of writing and signing in Spanish, something he never did with The Beets. “I started playing music in New York, where the audience was mostly English-speaking, so I sang mostly in English,” he says. “On Who Me?, I switched between English and Spanish very naturally, but lately I’m becoming more self-conscious of it. I realize how important it is for Spanish speakers — especially kids that were born here to Spanish-speaking families — to hear songs sung in Spanish.”
Which goes right back to his roots in Queens. Wauters says he ‘big ups’ the borough, considered the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world, because it welcomed him with open arms. “Queens is home,” he says. “Because there are people there from all over the world, you become a local right away.” When I finally worked up the nerve to ask about the Paul Simon comparison, he laughed: “I like to represent Queens because a lot of great artists have come out of there.” Contemplation spiked with humility — that might be the biggest difference between Juan Wauters and Paul Simon.