Mavericks singer Raul Malo knew he was violating one of the unwritten rules of the studio — don’t record a ballad after lunch, you’re too lethargic — but he had to. His father was literally dying.
And he hadn’t told anyone else in the studio. Not his bandmates, not his producer. He hadn’t even told them that this ballad, “I Wish You Well,” was about his father. He knew if his father passed, he’d never be able to make it through the song.
He simply had to record the song right away and didn’t tell anybody why.
Malo was alone in the studio to record his vocals while everyone else was in the control room. On the first take, he botched a lyric, so he sang it again.
“Everyone was pretty welled up,” Malo recalled of the scene. “I had to step outside and I’m out there just bawling.”
The record’s producer/engineer Niko Bolas soon joined him outside to deliver a message from Malo’s mother. The singer knew what was coming.
“I sang him into the next life,” Malo, 52, said. “It was a beautiful moment.”
“I Wish Him Well” is one of many beautiful moments on the Mavericks’ new album, “Brand New Day,” their third comeback album since reuniting in 2011 and their first for their own label, Mono Mundo Recordings.
The veteran Nashville band left Big Machine Records, home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, because that business model didn’t work for an act that no longer can rely on country radio (wrong sound, too old) and sells CDs mostly at gigs, like Friday’s show at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.
“People think there was a big fight with Big Machine — not at all,” Malo said this week from Nashville. “They were our friends and still are. They gave us opportunity and gave us wings. The business for us has changed. We don’t need a lot of the stuff that that label provides.”
Formed in 1989 in Miami, the Mavericks had a run of success in country music in the 1990s, most notably with the modest hits “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” and “Dance the Night Away.” However, they ran out of steam at the end of the century and called it quits in 2004.
Big Machine gave the Mavericks a shot in 2012 but the material on two excellent comeback albums, 2013’s “In Time” and 2015’s “Mono,” fit the dance floor better than the radio. Theirs is a hard-to-categorize sound that mixes various styles of pre-Beatles popular music, embracing everything from rockabilly and rumba to loungey ballads and Latin jazz, all tied together by Malo’s opera-meets-Orbison voice.
“Brand New Day” is more of the same from the Mavericks. They use banjo for the first time ever on the bluegrassy “Rolling Along.” The title track features a big wall-of-sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s classic 1960s productions with Paul Deakin playing on two different drum kits. And the ever romantic Malo seduces with Tex-Mex two-step “I Will Be Yours” and the stately “Goodnight Waltz.”
“Brand New Day” isn’t the only thing new with the Mavericks. They’ve begun recording their first Spanish-language album (something you can do easily on your own label) but have not set a release date.
More imminent, the group is featured in the new PBS documentary “Havana Time Machine” about Cuba, where Malo’s parents were born. It begins airing on Oct. 6.
“It’s not a political documentary; it’s all about music and culture,” Malo explained.
During a weeklong Cuba trip in April, the Mavericks interacted with several Cuban bands, including the Sweet Lizzy Project, whose album could be released on Mono Mundo.
Even before the trip, Malo had strong views on lifting the embargo with Cuba. “If this embargo wasn’t in place, tomorrow I’d set up a Guitar Center in Havana,” he said. “The musicians don’t have access to instruments.”
Politically outspoken offstage whether about U.S.-Cuba relations or the president’s reaction to crises, Malo avoids politics in concert. He and the Mavericks have responded to recent disasters by doing benefits for Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas, with plans to do things in their home state of Florida for victims of Hurricane Irma.
Whether they are performing in Florida, Cuba or Minnesota, the Mavericks come across as America’s greatest dance band. Where does that desire to keep people dancing come from?
“It’s part of the DNA of the Mavericks,” said Malo, who grew up in Miami.
He remembers an impactful situation from his youth. He’d sneak into a club called Sundays on the Bay in Key Biscayne to hear a ska band called Pluto.
“You’d have this crowd: There were rich people in their million-dollar yachts, people in wooden dinghies, all walks of life come into this bar to hear this band. No matter what color you were or how much money you had or what you drove up on, the moment the music started, everybody was the same. Just there to groove and have a good time. It was a life-affirming moment — it gave you a reason to believe in the power of music.”