Álvaro Díaz wants to spread happiness to everyone, but most especially to himself. His newest album, Felicilandia, began its gestation during 2020’s long quarantine lockdown when the singer, better known as Alvarito to friends and fans, found himself in his feels for long periods of time with no outlet to express himself. He decided to channel those wistful feelings into a new project and rounded up a diverse cast of artists to collaborate alongside him and also behind-the-scenes.
As it is, Felicilandia stands out from the pack as a very unique proposal from a talent that’s shown major strides in his growth as an artist. For every song that at first blush seems to want to get you on your feet and dancing—and from “O.G. Black” to “Brilloteo,” there are plenty in that vein—a deeper gaze reveals a throughline from intro to outro that tells the journey of someone feeling their way in the dark looking for any semblance of bliss. The Alvarito of Felicilandia wants to feel content with life and his circumstances in a less fleeting way, and the only manner he knows how is through love, in all of its forms and manifestations.
It’s an album structured into subtle acts as it tells a story, but what also makes it successful aside from the ingenuity is the raw sonic powerhouse production that brings it to life. Producers such as Tainy, Orteez, Jota Rosa, Lara Project, and Caleb Calloway contribute some of the best beats you’re likely to hear all year, flipping old school reggaetón samples in fresh ways while also incorporating R&B, lo-fi, and pop sounds. The lyrics are charged with meaning and purpose, all while peppered with as much Puerto Rican flavor Álvaro could muster. “I wanted to include lots of Puerto Rican colloquialism and slang into the album,” he tells Remezcla. “From the very beginning, before I wrote anything, I knew I wanted to make it feel very Puerto Rican.” This, among other things, makes Alvarito happy. And with this album, he intends to share his joy with all who’ll listen.
Remezcla met up with Álvaro Díaz to talk a bit more about Felicilandia, his creative process, and how he challenges himself with every new project.
This interview has been translated, lightly edited, and condensed for clarity purposes.
This is by far your biggest release yet—how do you feel right now?
I’m very excited and very nervous. I put a lot of love into this album, and for a long time, and I sometimes can’t believe it’s about to come out and people are finally going to be able to hear it. I hope they love it as much as I do. Every time you put your art out there, you feel a [weight off your shoulders], you exhale and tell yourself, “Okay, it’s out”.
When do you decide an album is “done?” When do you feel you’ve locked in the perfect balance of songs you want people to listen to?
It’s really difficult. I don’t know if you’re ever “done” because if you could you’d keep tinkering with it. Even right now I listen to it and there’s moments where I think, “we should’ve added some background vocals here.” You just have to reach a point where you tell yourself to stop. I sit with the project, go through it a few times, analyze it, and since I know what I wanted the essence of it to be, I ask myself if anything’s missing. I look for those things, and sometimes I make last-minute changes! The song “Close Friends” wasn’t originally going to be included in the album, but at the last minute I switched it out with another track that was a bit more personal and didn’t entirely go with the overall vibe I wanted to achieve. When I relistened to [the song], I realized it’s very contemporary, and that’s why I study the album before release because you find yourself saying, “if I hadn’t made that decision I wouldn’t be as happy with [the project] as I am now.” That’s when I feel I covered all the bases.
The other day in a tweet you referred to Felicilandia as “Where Sad Children Go Find Happiness.” What makes Álvaro Díaz sad?
Love. And what makes me happy is also love.
Sounds like a struggle!
It’s a struggle, for sure [laughs]. But I don’t necessarily mean relationship love only. It’s love for myself, love for family, love for friends. Not for material things, though. I think love for material things isn’t a part of this project. There’s no songs where I talk about just clothes or things like that, like classic Álvaro would. This is more love-related, and to me, the album is a pursuit of happiness. And in the outro [“Para Ya!”], there’s an audio of my mother talking about a song she used to sing to me when I was little that says “I found happiness in love.” The whole album, I’ve been singing about love and trying to find happiness, so that audio really brings the theme together. To me, the real last track is “Online 🙁.“ In my head, “Para Ya!” is the closing credits of the movie. The first track is instrumental, like with opening credits. “Online” is the last scene where you realize the girl has gotten over you and you’re left wondering why she isn’t answering your texts, and “Para Ya!” is the closing. The arc of the album starts off happy, then runs into conflicts, and finishes sad.
Your songs have always had a touch of melancholy in them, even the upbeat tracks. What about that feeling makes you gravitate towards it so much?
I’m a very sensitive person by nature, and oftentimes I even keep my feelings to myself and instead write them down. I think I say more in my writing than in actual [person-to-person] communication. Which is probably why my exes hate me [laughs]. Because I end up saying more in my songs after breaking up than when we were together.
A long time ago, I did a song called “Insomnio.” It was like my fourth song ever, and when I made it I was nervous about showing it to anyone else. Soon, a friend came over and he listened to it, and when the song was over I noticed he was actually crying! A song I produced by myself, in my room, with a shitty computer mic, and it made him cry. Why? Because he felt seen by it. So, when I make [melancholic] music like that I see it connects with people deeply. Then again, if you’re not really into romance, then songs like that don’t really do anything for you. But when you’ve been through those experiences it’s a different feeling than if you’re listening to songs about clubbing or dancing with a hot girl. It’s more intimate. And I found myself just being very passionate about making music that connects like that.
I kept on doing that type of music. Now, after years of making music, you find your niche, and I like leaning on that style. I don’t wanna make “cool love songs” or anything cheesy, which is how I feel they were before my time. Before, a song would be like “El amor es una magia” [singing], and I’d never dedicate that to a girlfriend. Real talk! But I would like to make a “Reina Pepiada” and hope someone dedicates it to their partner. So that’s where it comes from; just trying to make the kind of music I want to hear too.
You have an eclectic mix of talents in Felicilandia, ranging from big names like Randy, Rauw Alejandro, Feid, and Rawayana, to lesser-known acts like Zizzy, BRATTY, and yensanjuan. Is that how you planned the album to be?
Bro, 100%. I make notes when I’m developing an album and write down random ideas, and not all of them happen but I try. There was a time when—especially in [this genre]—every artist had the same “featurings” on all their albums. It was the same collaborations over and over, and you never discovered any new artists. So I told myself whenever I got the opportunity to make songs with major artists, I’d also make space for less recognized artists that I like too. I might not be the biggest artist in the world and give them the big-time exposure I wish I could, but I like having that balance of talent. It makes me happy to have someone big like Sebastián Yatra on a very SoundCloud-y and uncommercial song, but also have people like yensanjuan, like BRATTY, or like Zizzy—who I love, and I feel like music in Mexico is in good hands with him. I don’t choose artists because of numbers or clout, even with people like Feid and Rauw, who are my brothers and we’ve been friends for years.
How do you decide which artist you want for each track? Do you have a song and then think of an artist you want to hop on, or do you go to the artist and tell them you want to collaborate from scratch?
In this album, it was mostly the former. It was more having the song and then looking for the “featuring.” The song with Randy, we already had my vocals and the beat, and I hit him up like “Randy, I know this song sounds wacky but I really think it needs you doing your thing.” When we made “18 + 1,” I made some beat adjustments and sent it to [Jesse Baez]. Same with BRATTY and Zizzy. The only song that was made in collaboration from the ground up was “Llori Pari.” Feid and I were on a roll trading collabs back and forth, and when I got the beat from Tainy, I told him, “This sounds like something for Felicilandia, we should do something together.” I already had the idea of using the chorus from “True,” marrying that melody to reggaetón, and from there onward it came together.
A few years ago you said you made “music for ninjas,” referring to the fact that it was dark and ominous-sounding. A lot has obviously changed since then, so what would you say has changed the most about you and your creative process since those days?
I still feel I’m making music for ninjas because in my mind it also meant—and this was Randy’s nickname for us—that we were making music that was great, but no one knew about us until suddenly our songs popped up and surprised people. So we were very lowkey and “silent.” I feel I’ve evolved a lot as an artist; writing, composing, producing, even using my voice more. I’m singing more than I used to because back then, I was shy about it. [Even] now, I’m still not what you’d call a singer but I know how to use my voice better. One learns over time, but I still have the same mission and same intentions. That’s what I’ve tried to not stray from over the years. I want past me to be proud of what I’m doing now. Other artists maybe have changed their style a lot over their trajectory and it’s been good for their careers. But I decided to stick with mine and I feel it’s gonna work and it’s gonna be worth it.
How do you challenge yourself when the time comes to plan a new album? Do you meet with your team to hash out a new approach or do you have a wishlist of things you want to do?
It’s mostly me who puts myself in a position to make those decisions. I challenge myself, for sure, and in this case, it was to make something that sounded fresh and something that could express what I was feeling at that moment in time. Because my vibe is a big part of how I approach a project, and during all of quarantine last year, [this album] was very much my vibe. After that, the challenge depends on what I’m trying to go for. In this case, I wanted a sound that was more organic, so I bring in people like Vento Alejandro on two tracks, AJ Dávila [from Dávila 666] on guitars, Luisfre and Bairoa from Buscabulla, Bebo Rodríguez from Cultura Profética, El Mono from La Vida Bohème, Rawayana… a lot of artists that aren’t technically “featurings,” but they were there on the instruments and adding to the music. El Mono played bass on “Gatillera” and others. AJ Dávila played on a bunch of tracks, and he’s like a legend to me, aside from being like a big brother. And he brings that indie rock flavor from Puerto Rico. It’s music I love, and now they’re participating here in something that could be considered mainstream and it creates, to me, a balance I wanted.
Much has been commented by listeners about how your music is hard to classify under any specific genre, and you yourself have said you acknowledge it’s not for everyone. Are you comfortable with being the kind of artist people don’t really know what to expect from? Do you like surprising your audience?
For sure, it’s what I love the most. I’m a huge fan of Kanye, and what always intrigued me about him is that you could never predict what his releases were gonna sound like. You never knew what vibe he was on, what’s inspiring him, who he collaborated with, which samples he used. I feel like I want to be that kind of artist too, although maybe not as drastic as him. Sometimes artists come out with stuff that’s so unexpected that it shocks and confuses, but with me, I want to at least switch it up while maintaining my essence. That’s what I want to continue achieving for the rest of my career, and I’m already working on my next project. I already have five tracks that are for sure going on the next album, and it’s completely different from Felicilandia.
You mentioned earlier a track that was cut because it was a bit too personal; was that the rumored track dedicated to the late Alex Malverde? I know you had a close professional and personal friendship with him. What can you tell us about him and why you were inspired to write a song about him?
The song is going to be released eventually, we just decided to hold it because we have a different plan for it. Alex was like my Mexican dad. I’d always say that because he was the guy who I credit for the success I’ve had over there. He’d take care of us when we were over there, make sure nothing bad ever happened, make sure we had everything we needed, and he was our friend too because we could also chill with him and have a great time. His passing really affected us and it hit all of us hard.
Finally, to end on a lighter note, I gotta ask: do you know if O.G. Black has heard your song yet?
[laughs] As far as I know, he hasn’t heard it yet, but I’m sure he’ll get a kick out of it when he does. I’m sure he’ll appreciate we referenced him so much in a love song.
Listen to Felicilandia below.