Stepping into Phantom Vox, the studio Draco Rosa has built on his 100-acre farm in the mountains of Utuado, Puerto Rico, your senses are overwhelmed: The aroma of incense – maybe it’s sage, maybe sandalwood – is thick, and as your eyes adjust from the outdoor brightness to a hazy dimness, you realize you’re surrounded by a museum-level quantity of stuff: trinkets and taxidermy, a piano, a matte-black drum kit, retro signage, and the flag of Puerto Rico’s Macheteros, a radical independence party founded in the 70s. Lining the walls of its built-in shelves are hundreds of books, from contemporary and classic fiction to collections of art and spiritual guides, under countless reels of recordings above them.
It’s not hard to imagine that, when emptied of all the press and friends present for a listening session of Monte Sagrado, his first album of original music in nine years, Rosa’s Phantom Vox is like his own personal temple.
Ushering in guests from the studio’s balcony, Rosa, dressed in loose white linens, greets each of them as they come in, whether a familiar face or not. That warmth was not what you’d expect from someone with a career like his: this is the guy who wrote some of Ricky Martin’s biggest hits, and has won multiple Grammys and Latin Grammys throughout his decades-long career, which started back in the 80s when he joined the wildly popular boy band Menudo. Successful or famous music industry figures aren’t necessarily unfriendly, but Rosa’s welcoming everyone so personally was refreshing.
Straight away, Rosa explains to his audience that what they’ll hear is not the same album his record label had anticipated. Silently, we listened not to the collection of “beautiful songs” he’d initially presented to Sony, but instead to the product of Rosa’s newfound energy, something he hadn’t expected after conquering cancer two times in the past seven years.
Rosa says in a later interview that both he and Sony loved the originally proposed album. But when it came time to record that material last April, Rosa found himself changed, renewed. For months prior, doctors had been lowering his medication. His body and mind were responding positively.
“I just felt this vitality, and I had fun in the studio. I hadn’t had that kind of fun in a long time. I felt that part of me was gone; I was sick, fell ill twice. You kind of accept that, ‘Hey, it’s time to move on to another space and time in your life,’” he says. “But I just couldn’t turn my back on the way I was feeling, so I just ran with it, and stayed true to that.”
Defying expectations in favor of his creative gut is not atypical for the musician, whose 1994 album Vagabundo was critically panned as too alternative, too dark, and too experimental. Today, it’s considered a classic by fans and music writers alike; its vinyl reissue August was a commercial success.
“I felt that part of me was gone; I was sick, fell ill twice.”
Monte Sagrado could share a similar fate – again, Rosa has opted for what he’s uniquely driven by, rather than what’s currently popular. Guitar-heavy and melodically winding tracks like “333” and “Tu Lado Oscuro” speak to that embrace of healthy exuberance; they’re exploratory, and at times a bit wild. Even more pop-minded rock numbers – the celebratory “2 Nite 2 Nite,” or “Que Se Joda el Dolor,” where Rosa basically tells a difficult recovery process to fuck off – are injected with enough punk grit to oust them from today’s radio readiness.
In that respect, the album reminds us that healing is a complex experience, and while meditative introspection may be part of it, for some – like Rosa – welcoming the return of vigor is another way of being grateful. More than once in our conversations – at the listening session and in our follow-up interview – he expresses gratitude for being able to finally “be silly again in the studio,” to experiment and be playful.
“It’s a beautiful moment,” he says. “To have the health, to just enjoy life and enjoy the process, it’s a big deal. It’s a great moment. It happens maybe once in a lifetime, maybe twice if you’re lucky.”
There is contemplation in Monte Sagrado, though. The album is named in tribute to ancestral lands on which his studio and farm are located, home to indigenous Taínos before they were practically eradicated by the invading Spanish.
“My neighbor is Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana. It’s right there; we could walk there in five minutes and I could be there,” he says. “So all these tierras have that history and that sort of mystical flair, that aroma of mysticism and spirituality that, si te dejas llevar, it’s wonderful. So to respect that, in my mind, it’s con tu permiso. I come here to hopefully make music; sometimes not the greatest music, but we’re going to be loud, and sometimes be silly and get a little more wild than we should – but con tu permiso, with your blessing.”
“To have the health, to just enjoy life and enjoy the process, it’s a big deal. It’s a great moment. It happens maybe once in a lifetime, maybe twice if you’re lucky.”
Rosa admits he’d been nervous about building Phantom Vox near ancestral lands, and the title track is a prayerful request for permission. He pleads to the land and the ancestors on behalf of himself, his family, even the people of Puerto Rico: everything must be with their blessing, and with it, they’re never alone.
Following where the creative energy took him became part of paying tribute, and as his vitality continued to surge throughout the making of Monte Sagrado, Rosa felt that approval had been granted.
“You figure either it’ll go really bad or it’ll be a whole lot of fun, and it was a whole lot of fun. And in the madness of making it, I thought, ‘Wow, we have the blessing to move forward and make music,’” he says. “It’s a very personal thing.”
The album that was shelved to make way for Monte Sagrado could be released next year, he says. But for now, Rosa is focused on sharing this one. It’s the story of where he is now, his expression of gratitude for getting there, fueled by his own mode of paying tribute, and in his own kind of temple – one that could eventually be passed on.
“When you walk into Phantom Vox, this can have a life on its own whether I’m here or not. That’s all the goal is. You start and you go, then your game is over, and somebody else will be here, hopefully, and will be able to take advantage of that great energy,” he says.
Monte Sagrado drops on October 26 via Sony Music.
Draco Rosa’s “Monte Sagrado Tour”
November 28 / Philadelphia, PA / The Foundry at The Fillmore
November 29 / New York, NY / Highline Ballroom
December 1 / Washington, DC / The Howard Theatre
December 2 / Boston, MA / Royale
December 4 / Chicago, IL / Thalia Hall
December 12 / Los Angeles, CA / The Regent
January 4&5 / Orlando, FL / House of Blues