The UnstoppableOngoingAwesomeUnapologeticLimitlessNon-StopLifesavingCurrentExplosive [Re]Invention of Richard Cortez
It is possible to meet Richard Cortez on different occasions and think you have met a different person each time. This isn’t to say that he has a façade on display, dissembles in his dealings or worse, has multiple personality disorder. But when you have an opportunity to peel back the many layers—each of which is on regular display, through his music, his live performance, and his dedication to standing apart and out in his craft—you find just what a neat guy he is.
Cortez, 26, is a South Florida native—born in North Miami Beach—who first picked up a guitar at age 16. (His musical talents run both deep and wide, as you will see, which is made all the more extraordinary because he can’t read music.) Still young, he was soon playing at the original Pride Factory’s coffee shop, and his local reputation began to blossom. “I took that open mic night by storm,” he recalls. In 2002, the Stonewall Library began a series showcasing new artists, and he was invited to play.
All the while, the up-and-coming performer was fine-tuning his musical voice and styles, which coincided with his personal exploration. “Growing up here can make you hyper-sexualized,” Cortez offers. “It’s always about showing ‘more skin.’ Even in ads, you find dentists and real estate guys using shirtless models to sell teeth cleaning and laminates.” Cortez found himself caught up in the “faster” side of Greater Fort Lauderdale’s gay lifestyle, and explored a hungry sexual appetite as he engaged in his own journey for self-realization and actualization.
The “hyper-sexualization” he observed and experienced was evident in Cortez’s last album, “Sleeping with Strangers,” which released in 2010. “It was dark,” the artist admits. “Lots of distorted cellos and electric guitars.” Because he doesn’t—can’t? won’t?—read music, Cortez collaborates by dictating ‘sounds’ that are then ‘translated’ into musical notes.
Cortez recorded “Strangers” in a small house, which doubled as a recording studio, in Columbia, SC. “It was a reverse ‘Wizard of Oz’ situation,” he explains. “I lived in ‘Oz’—Fort Lauderdale—and I got dropped off in ‘Kansas,’ so to speak.” The opportunity to step back from himself and from the fast pace gave him moments for reflection.
“I had a big epiphany at that time,” Cortez relates. “It started to come together for me as to how to merge my gay sexuality with being a whole gay person. What intimacy was lacking in my life that I was engaging thusly. I also realized that getting hammered every night was not going to make me a star.”
He sees a purgative experience in the process of recording “Strangers.” “It was very therapeutic looking at my life from a sexual standpoint. It was very emotional, very revealing, very raw,” he says, and exhibits just a touch of each of those descriptors as he does so.
His desire to take things in a new direction meant moving away from his previous efforts and stylings. “I had become the ‘Anne Rice’ of folk music: dark, deep, introspective,” Cortez muses. “It was always about the pain and the anguish and showing the world my scars. This project is about having fun,” he says, referring to his newest release, “[Rec]ord” (the title is a play on his name, as the first three letters are his initials), which debuted this week and takes Cortez musically into terra incognita.
Cortez took his process to new limits: he invited seven friends to audit 17 live songs he performed for them, and they voted on which tracks to include in the finished product. “I also documented the entire process,” which included building a recording studio in his actual studio-sized apartment. (The documentary, called “For the Record,” can be viewed in its installments at youtube.com.) “I used eight pieces of plywood, plus all this padding and soundproofing.” His artistic process was just as meticulous, with elements that impress upon you how seriously he takes this.
“I recorded with a 13-piece orchestra,” he says. “These are all real instruments, nothing electronic. Each instrument was recorded one at time. This is why it took me two years,” he adds, laughing. “I didn’t want to make music that sounded predictable—so I used a tuba instead of a bass guitar to drive the rhythm.” The finished album is a fun and eclectic buffet of sounds and styles including soulful anthem (in the track “Patsy Cline”) and inspired-by-the Beatles (“The Next Best Thing”).
Cortez also employed a huge variety of non-traditional instruments. On this album you will find the sounds of flutes, piccolo, ukulele, trombones, cellos, marimba, glockenspiel, and euphonium (Google it). He also brought in a 30-member children’s chorus and backup singers, recording the kids and other singers two at a time. He wrote everything, and played it by ear—literally—one-on-one with each musician. And did I mention that this man has no formal training as a performer, producer or writer?
Cortez plans another album release in the winter. He stays busy and active in the community, playing 10 Pride festivals in the past 12 months and performing with some of his musical idols, including gay folk legend Eric Himan. He is happy with the way the culture has changed since he began to record in 2005. “We have taken such a huge, amazing leap,” he notes, with Lady Gaga singing about being “born this way,” and a general shift in attitudes across the spectrum of society towards LGBT persons and issues.
With a bright future before him, Cortez is contemplating what that future holds. “As the fight for equality has changed and gays have become more mainstream, I feel less pressured to be an activist,” he acknowledges. “Now I don’t have to be the ‘gay singer/songwriter Richard Cortez.’ I can just be ‘singer/songwriter Richard Cortez.’” The future looks promising.