Ask A.CHAL (aka Alejandro Chal) who he sees as his artistic kin and he will tell you: Prince above all, Bob Marley, Alanis Morissette, and Héctor Lavoe. The fact that none of these people are producing music in 2016 is immaterial. The bond, as the Peruvian-born singer and producer will tell you, has more to do with context and intent than release dates.
Our conversation with A.CHAL takes place high above Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood, at the rooftop apartment of his friend, producer Teen Flirt. It’s dark out and Chal has only a few hours left before he flies back to Los Angeles, so he’s understandably anxious to get back to shooting the music video for “Fuego,” the only track off his 2016 debut album Welcome to GAZI whose hook is in his birth language. His crew has already shot some scenes in the desert and filmed at San Miguel de Allende’s Día de los Muertos celebrations. He wants to get more out of Mexico, but his team encourages him to drink a beer and do the interview, so he does.
A.CHAL is an artist on the cusp, a person who spent most of his life in New York City but moved to Los Angeles to conquer the music industry and do no small amount of partying. Welcome to GAZI is the long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s Ballroom Riots, a well-received debut that nonetheless garnered as much commentary about drug intake as its listenability.
Years passed between Ballroom Riots and Welcome to GAZI. Listening to the second album, it’s easy to make assumptions about why it was delayed. GAZI is a collection of LA breakdown stories – classic ones. You’ve got the drugged out Uber ride up the hill to a hookup (“Beverly Kills”), whipping donuts in a two-seater on Rodeo Drive (“Round Whippin,” whose video is an apt, disorienting metaphor for a non-mechanical breakdown if ever there was one), and empty hookups with random actresses when you’re broke and homesick (“Far From Home.”)
“Lavoe will tell you street stories. I love his storytelling; I admire it.”
But GAZI-era A.CHAL is a changed A.CHAL; he’s less slick and more Californian. He’s lost the leather jacket and is now making Hawaiian shirts look good. The sound is just as party but maybe more after — more relaxed, mentally darker, an easy fit in the new era of troubled, polished R&B stars like The Weeknd.
A.CHAL says the album was born out of the LA party scene. At least, some producers were culled from his accomplices from over the last few years, like Count Justice, who was nominated for a Grammy last year for his work on Chris Brown’s “New Flame,” and Tiago, who has worked with Rihanna. “Tiago was someone that I met at one of these celebrity parties,” A.CHAL smiles. “I had never heard his beats but I liked him; he was cool.”
In interviews, he speaks openly about a spiritual change he experienced before recording this album. But maybe in Mexico City he’s feeling the forward momentum of his career, because tonight he focuses on the practical reasons for the break. “For awhile I didn’t think that the stuff I could make was that dope,” he says. “So I worked really hard on making sure it was dope. That’s the main reason of not putting music out for a long time.”
These moments were not spent just driving and fucking dangerously. Chal was signed to Sony as a songwriter and producer, and though he wasn’t releasing tracks under his own name, he logged hours doing work for the record label, penning and producing for other artists, like Jennifer Lopez on “Never Satisfied.” Once you know lyrics about insatiability are his, it’s hard not to see A.CHAL’s hands all over them. There’s a hedonism in the verses that are very much him, even when the visuals are J.Lo’s feathered red robe and sequins at the Dubai World Cup.
That release was a confidence builder. “That was when I was like, I’m starting to get good at this,” Chal says. “To think that you started a song on a piano one day, because you were strung out about something, and to see that it made you — not even money, but it got to that many ears…” he recalls wistfully. He says he has spent the last three months writing a lot of new material that he’s excited about.
This brings us back to Héctor Lavoe, whose chronicling of New York City life in the language of salsa inspires A.CHAL to spin his own existence out into dark R&B tracks. “Lavoe will tell you street stories,” he says. “I love his storytelling; I admire it. That’s something I try to get better at, the thing that I focus on the most if anything.”
“It has to do with the person you are,” he explains. “Like we can both be here, but we are taking it different. And how we take it is based on how we were nurtured, how we live. So we can tell the same story, just in a different way.”
Not to mention the similarities in geographical trajectory that A.CHAL shares with Lavoe, a fellow immigrant who moved to New York City and found musical inspiration. “It’s the understanding of what kind of house [Lavoe] might have been raised in, the morals that he lived by growing up and coming to New York,” Chal says. Though you can’t call R&B a South American genre (not yet, anyway), in the past, A.CHAL has cited the inspiration he culls from certain Peruvian forms of music and the importance of those musical roots.
It also may bear mentioning that drug use has figured largely in the careers and artistic image of both Chal and Lavoe. “I like the danger in his music,” the singer says. “But he’s saying it in a very suave way.”
Chal also explains why Alanis gets a shout out as artistic kin. “Her, it’s more like every song is a diary entry,” he says. “It’s so raw, but then again it’s so poppy. And when I say poppy, I mean it has general appeal because of how relatable her work is.” That commercial appeal and emotional realness gets him. “When you have both? That’s dangerous.”
It seems like time is up on the conversation, but A.CHAL doesn’t do many interviews, and when asked for any final thoughts, he says, “I really love brown people.” Being in Mexico during the Dakota Pipeline protests has reinforced his feeling of connection with native people fighting for their land around the globe, the struggle his Peruvian mom, indigenous Mexicans, and the Standing Rock water warriors share. The world is a conflicted place — and the stories we tell about ourselves reflect that.