Luna Nueva

Already a massive star in her native Costa Rica — with six Grammy Award nominations, a No. 1 dance single, and performances as a featured vocalist on tours with Ricky Martin and Sergio Mendes under her belt — singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Debi Nova is ready to make her mark on the rest of the world with the Decca release of her debut album Luna Nueva. The album is an electrifying combination of irresistible Latin rhythms and potent pop smarts that showcases this vivacious artist’s considerable musical gifts (she plays piano, guitar, bass, and more) as well as her rich Latina heritage.

The cultural brew comes naturally to Nova, who explains that “because Costa Rica is in Central America, we had Bossa Nova coming from Brazil, Afro-Cuban rhythms drifting over from the Caribbean, and, of course, all the great rock and soul from the U.S.,” she says. “It was a real melting pot and I wanted my album to capture that.” Nova’s heritage is echoed not only in the album’s steamy rhythms, but also in the songs’ lyrics themselves. A resident of Costa Rica and the U.S., who has split her time between the two countries for the last seven years, Nova sings in both English and Spanish, combining her native tongue and the language of her adopted homeland, often in the same verse. It’s a colorful hybrid that many Latinos affectionately refer to as “Spanglish.”

“The idea of singing in both English and Spanish on the album wasn’t planned,” Nova says. “As I was writing the songs, I found myself naturally blending the two because it’s something I do every day. As a Latina who relocated to America, I speak Spanglish with my friends and family. My music reflects my being part of a generation of young Latinos who use both naturally. The world is becoming smaller and I’m proud to represent that.”

Nova is releasing a hybrid album at a culturally significant time. According to the Los Angeles Times, U.S.-born Latinos now account for more than 60 percent of all Latinos in the country. Bi-lingual entertainers and performers across all media have become breakout stars thanks to such television channels as MTV Tr3s, mun2, SiTV, and LATV, which seek to reach Latinos raised with American pop culture who want to hold onto their roots.

Those people may be Nova’s natural audience, but Luna Nueva will appeal to anyone who appreciates vibrant, passionately performed pop. Alternating between emotionally resonant ballads and upbeat, danceable tunes, the album kicks off with “Need 2 Be Loved,” a stomping Brazilian samba (complete with Nova’s reggaeton rap) that she describes as “a pep talk to myself to let go of fear and celebrate the moment.” From there, the acoustic guitar-driven love song “We Were Young,” segues into the soulful, flamenco-flavored “Corazón Abierto” and the playful, soca/hip-hop-inspired first single “Drummer Boy.” Other highlights include the sprawling R&B number “Something to Believe In” (a song about one’s relationship with faith and featuring vocals by Citizen Cope) and the evocative, electro-tinged “Ashes & Pearls,” which the environmentally minded Nova says is about greed. “It’s about how we’re not conscious of what we’re doing to this planet because of our desire to make more money and be powerful—so in the end we’re swimming in ashes and pearls.”

Nova’s thoughtful lyrics play out amidst a richly textured backdrop of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, Wurlitzer, percussion, strings, and inventive electronic programming—a sonic landscape she conjured up with the help of her producers, including British studio veteran Marius de Vries—a five-time Grammy Award nominee and two-time BAFTA award winner known for his work with Madonna, Björk, Massive Attack, and Josh Groban, and Oscar-winning Argentinean film composer and eleven-time Grammy-winning producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has scored a host of critically acclaimed films including Brokeback Mountain, Babel, and The Motorcycle Diaries, and produced multi-platinum and Latin Grammy-winning artists such as Juanes, Café Tacuba, and Julieta Venegas. When Nova began writing the songs that appear on Luna Nueva, the two men were on her wish-list of producers.

“In the studio, it’s so important to break out of your comfort zone,” Nova says, “because we don’t realize what we’re capable of until we try new things. Marius always brought the unexpected. At first I’d think he was joking when he wanted to include singing mice sounds on ‘Vete De Mi,’ but he wasn’t. They sound like birds, but they’re actually mice. It’s just one example of his brilliance and experimental spirit.” For his part, de Vries says: “there’s an intelligence and a musicality in everything that Debi does. I think we’ll be seeing her around as a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.”

Nova met Santaolalla, who serves as one of the album’s executive producers, in London while working with de Vries. “Gustavo and I made an instant connection,” she says. “We saw each other’s eyes and we knew that we were going to do something together.” In January 2008, Nova began talking to Santaolalla about signing to his Surco Records imprint (through Decca Music Group) and making a record. “Gustavo was great at taking all the material I had written, including songs I’d recorded with Marius, and saying ‘I like this song, you should put more guitar on that song,’ and just being the overall visionary. We sat down and listened to everything I had recorded and chose the songs that would be on the album.”

“An artist has to have certain traits to make me want to work with them, like personality, originality, and talent,” Santaolalla says. “Debi is a great musician, singer, and performer and she writes great songs. I also like the fact that she can write in both English and Spanish. All of these things added up make her a very unique and exciting artist.”

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Nova is also a stunning, high-spirited brunette with a powerhouse voice and hip-shaking dance moves to match. But don’t be mislead by her beauty; Nova has serious musical chops. Born in the Costa Rican capital city of San José, Nova began playing piano at age four, at the urging of her mother, whose family members all play an instrument. She studied classical piano throughout her teens and fronted her first band at age 13. At 14, she joined the Costa Rican band Gandhi and got her first experience performing on the big stage when the group opened for such artists as Deep Purple, Aterciopelados, and Mana.

She honed her vocal technique during a five-week program at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music a few years before moving to Los Angeles to study voice at the LA Music Academy in Pasadena. When her year at the Academy ended, she entered UCLA’s Ethnomusicology and Jazz Studies program intending to complete her degree, but fate intervened in the form of an invitation from legendary Brazilian artist Sergio Mendes to be the featured vocalist on his critically acclaimed album Timeless (produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ and to accompany him on his tour of the U.S. and Japan, an experience she describes as “a party on stage.” Not long after, Nova signed her first publishing deal.

But juggling her burgeoning songwriting and performing career and her studies soon proved too much and Nova dropped out of UCLA to focus on her music. Over the following years she racked up numerous credits, including those as a featured vocalist on albums by Ricky Martin, Black Eyed Peas, Sean Paul, Mark Ronson, Norman Brown, Boney James, and Mendes, as well as writing hit songs for Belinda and RBD—two of Latin America’s biggest artists. She has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, including nods for her songwriting and/or vocalist work with Mendes, Black Eyed Peas, Sean Paul, Victor Duplaix, and Norman Brown. In 2004, she scored a No. 1 hit in Latin America and on the U.S. dance charts with “One Rhythm.”

The following year, Puerto Rican superstar Ricky Martin invited Nova to duet with him on two tracks on his 2005 album Life — “Que Más Dá” and “Drop It On Me” — and to appear in the videos. Martin also asked her to tour Latin America with him as a featured vocalist and to make several TV appearances, including a sizzling duet at the Radio Music Awards in Las Vegas.

After seven years of non-stop writing and recording, Nova is thrilled to finally be putting out her own solo album. Luna Nueva is a labor of love long in the making. “I’m just ready to give birth to these songs,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been holding onto them and I need to release them and share them with the world.”

[October 2009]