The story of Carlos Arzate's new record Camaleón can be summed up in the story of how its centerpiece song came to be.
"Broken Glass" is a big, bright soul tune, the type of sound that made huge hits in the 1960s and 1970s. But it didn't start that way.
"Broken Glass" became what it is through some fortunate twists of fate, an eagerness to explore musically, sharp lyrics that take on tough issues, and Arzate's powerful, passionate vocals that keep pushing the song to new heights.
"'Broken Glass' is a lament on what we call progress," he says. "I wanted to make a political statement about the marginalization of movements."
Starting with a news clip of protestors, the song is Arzate's immediate reaction to that tense moment, to being on the outside of a particular incident, but aware of the larger problems facing the country and the demonstrations that call attention to deep injustices.
"I sat on my couch and wrote the first verse. I'd worked all day, put my kids to bed and was watching that on the TV. I felt like 'What am I really doing about it?'" he says.
Thinking back to his own childhood, living on food stamps and free lunch at school, Arzate reflects on how it felt to be an outsider, distrustful of authorities, and how even years later he sees the stark divide in society as profits remain valued over minority lives. And how movements toward justice don't take smooth roads.
"Broken Glass" originally came as a folk song, a fingerpicked guitar tune that looked to the era of 1960s protest songs ("I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan at the time," Arzate says.)
But while the recorded demo captured the lyrical feel, it didn't quite have the right magic.
Like other songs on Camaleón, "Broken Glass" came to life as Arzate and Ryan Alfred hashed out ideas in Alfred's living room. Alfred, who produced Arzate's EP Fly Away and the follow-up album Got Me Wrong, remains the cornerstone of Arzate's shape-shifting band, The Kind Souls.
"Ryan and I were really comfortable working together going into this project. We have some overlap in the music we feel passionate about and that made us feel good. We knew we had something that would be fun to work with on the arrangement side," Arzate says. "I'd imagine people in their 50s, who grew up in the '70s, listening to big soul records. I wanted it to resonate with them and transcend age groups."
But even with that big, soulful sound, "Broken Glass" still wasn't complete.
Then came the poets. At a break between verses, the voices of Teré Fowler-Chapman and Logan Phillips enter the song, an intertwined poem, made all the more powerful by the moments they speak in unison.
Arzate had approached Phillips to compose a poem for the song. Then, at a party, he played "Broken Glass" in its earlier folk version and in the middle of the song, he gave a verse to Fowler-Chapman to improvise a poem.
"I'd already asked Logan, but I was enamored by that experience with Teré," Arzate says. "Unbeknownst to me, Logan and Teré worked together and they got this poem together based on the feeling of the song. I was in flux because I respected them both, but that wasn't even the case. They both showed up in the studio and said 'We're going to do it together.'"
Recording simultaneously, the two poets gave the song its missing element, one Arzate never could have anticipated the night he first started writing lyrics.
"I'm really fortunate," Arzate says. "Experiences like that reinforce the idea to me that these are the right songs for the record. Some of these songs have been built over the years and this record is a document of that. It wasn't a conceptual idea. It's what I felt were my most fortunate songs. It's one of those records you just throw on and it has a little bit of everything. It's a good listen."
With a larger recording budget courtesy of some generous supporters, Arzate got the opportunity to work more deliberately in the studios (Saint Cecilia, Landmark and Dust & Stone) and add more variety of instrumentation to push the album to the sound he wanted.
"I approached it not afraid of it getting too big. It was that approach, that nothing is off limits it we can do it earnestly, that informed my vocals, taking risks in the songs, even ad-libbing in the booth," he says.
Part of what led to Arzate reaching for more with his vocals on this record came from his experience channeling Van Morrison in a Fox Theatre performance to commemorate the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz.
"That opened up all kinds of doors. I felt empowered," he says. "All those Cover Up shows I did informed those tunes in an indirect way. It gives me confidence to push the boundaries on what might be accessible. It's very freeing. You see the roads they walked. Just think about the adversity that Otis Redding had. It comes out so passionately. You can hear that grit in the music."
Making Camaleón was a journey, Arzate says, of songs revealing themselves to him in surprising ways. But they're all full of life, full of "protein."
"There are so many colors. It's a really thick fabric. There's some scars, there's some redemption. My goal is quality recordings that I'll dig in 20 or 30 years," he says. "When I was younger, I worried about what that criteria was for others. As I've grown older, the criteria became for me. That's the satisfaction. The rule is for a song to make the cut for me, I have to be able to believe in it enough to sing it every night."