"For me music is an obsession"

Juan Zelada has been lauded by the BBC and landed a contract with Decca

"My older siblings used to jokingly call me Little Hitler because as a little kid I was the bossy one in the group we had. You saw music was a hobby for them. For me, on the other hand, it was an obsession." Madrileño Juan Zelada sounds happy when he talks about that obsession, which five years ago took him to London and pushed him all the way to signing a contract with Decca (Universal), home of Paul Simon, Jamie Cullum and Imelda May.

The springboard was two 2011 singles chosen as BBC Radio 2's Record of the Week. "It means your song is heard 20 or 30 times a week for a month," he explains. "According to what the station told me, this hasn't happened to a Spaniard since the times of Julio Iglesias."

The second of those two singles, The Blues Remain, is a pleasant mix of soul and pop, sung in English, with the emphasis on the piano. In the video he even gets up off his stool like Jerry Lee Lewis, if minus the killer instinct.

"The first song I played at home was Great Balls of Fire, always by ear, hammering the keys. And it's true I admire pianists such as Ray Charles and Billy Joel," he says.

Zelada is speaking the morning after a gig in Newcastle. He is on tour around his country of residence and unraveling the origin of his love of all things English. "When I was nine we settled in Hong Kong because my father had a job there. And at that age it was easy to get the hang of English. Later we moved to London."

Back in Madrid and after years studying audiovisual communication, fate intervened: he won a grant to study at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), the school built by Sir Paul McCartney. "I received a diploma from him for a competition I won alongside some Norwegians. I was playing with them in shabby bars."

Although it meant playing in The Cavern, the shrine of The Beatles, it was difficult for Zelada to leave Madrid. "I loved seeing the jam sessions in the Café Central and Populart in Huertas."

In 2007 he moved down to London, playing in piano bar after piano bar, as well as in restaurants and on cruise ships. "Three or four around the Caribbean: hundreds of people with requests. They make you play a lot."

It was through one of these paying jobs, accompanying soulman Bryn Christopher, that his current group emerged, made up of his bandmates from that time. He and Christopher even opened for Amy Winehouse. "The tour was canceled halfway through because of her health problems. I remember her giving a disastrous performance in Birmingham, insulting the audience, and the next day giving a memorable one in Glasgow, her voice filling the whole place."

The Madrid musician's fairy tale even takes in the restaurant sector: the head of one of the places in which he played piano ended up leaving the industry to become his manager. "He financed my EP with his savings, and with investment from another agency, making the most of reduced prices, we were able to record in several studios such as Abbey Road and Rockfield, a farm in Wales where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody."

Out of the 16 songs recorded at those sessions emerged a second EP, published by his manager and the basis for the album Decca is set to release at the end of January.

The BBC played the first track, Breakfast in Spitalfields - with a catchy melody and Steve Forbert-style folk air - and it ended up becoming a record of the week in June (The Blues Remain received the honor in October).

That is no easy feat for an unsigned artist: "[The BBC] don't always play what listeners want to hear, sometimes they look for a personal touch and introduce new people. I was lucky enough to be one of those," he says.

The Spaniard has been compared to singer-songwriters such as Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz. Is he in danger of being branded a feelgood musician? "They have become clichés of themselves. Beyond my upbeat singles, the rest of my music has more substance."

And why did he choose Decca over more lucrative offers? "I prioritized the one that didn't want to change me. I don't know if I have a commercial calling. I do what comes out of me. In my own way."

Singer Juan Zelada.
Singer Juan Zelada.
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