"I don't like you, you're a fool / Let me hip you to something," Juan Wauters sings on "Let Me Hip You to Something," the opening track of his 2013 album N.A.P. - North American Poetry. It's a telling lyric that nicely sums up the inherent contradictions of Water's music: fiercely individualistic, but largely reliant on the willingness of the audience to receive, warts and all, his message of self-assessment and self-acceptance. That said, Wauters writes on instinct and rarely with an audience in mind. "Everything came kind of natural," he says. "I played music for a long time without an audience, so it's [been] a very personal process."
At one time, Wauters, along with Jose Garcia, served as the driving force of the prolific Queens-based garage outfit The Beets. As a solo act, Wauters is decidedly less beholden to the pop structure that defined The Beets — though he doesn't rule it out entirely, employing it as needed, another tool rattling around in the toolbox.
"With The Beets, I was cutting off my ideas because I was really happy with the way The Beets sounded as a band," Wauters says. "That was the style we knew. ... If we were going to go somewhere else, it wasn't going to be as good, because it would [have been] just me directing other people."
- Photo courtesy of Carmelle Safdie
- Branching out: Juan Wauters
As a transplant from Uruguay, Wauters is as likely to sing in Spanish as in English. Wauters' approach to songwriting yields results that are both vital and strange, asking listeners to spot him a few blemishes and quirks in service to his big ideas. For example, though Wauters builds upon a bedrock of acoustic guitar, the overall sound is percussive, not melodic.
Though challenging, Wauters' brand of off-kilter, out-of-sync folk does not project vitriol or judgment; it merely espouses the worldview by which Wauters lives, demanding that the inherent weirdness unique to every person's experience should be embraced without cynicism or irony. "Let Me Hip You to Something" culminates with Wauters' mandate to "Get cool to who's you, yeah / get a headache, yeah / take medicine, yeah / get better, yeah" before devolving into a refrain of a cartoonish jowl-flapping. It is moments like these, expressions of utter silliness, that reveal the depths of Wauters' confidence. Though he cites The Beatles and Brazilian songwriter Jorge Ben Jor as influences, Wauters' music is actually closer to that of Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair of Half-Japanese. Like Johnston and Fair, Wauters is an earnest outsider who succeeds more on the strength of his conviction than on his musicianship.
Wauters seems to have found a kindred collaborator in singer-songwriter Carmelle Safdie. After playing a featured role on two tracks on N.A.P., Safdie partnered with Wauters on an EP, Wearing Leather, Wearing Fur, a collection of songs woven together to form a meandering 13-minute track that touches upon everything from aging out of recreational drug use to the early life of James Brown. Safdie's confrontational warble is well suited to Wauters' probing, deliberate guitar work. It might sound strange, but strange is what Wauters does best.