We think we know what we want. The digital age has made it easier than ever for us to get it - we can search, skip, and customize to our hearts’ content. But something is lost in this exchange - without an external perspective, how can we know what we’re missing? Juan Wauters understands this. It’s why he’s such a big fan of radio - it takes some of the power out of our hands, opening us up to new sounds, new possibilities. This is the effect he sought to reproduce on his fifth album, Real Life Situations, a multifaceted ode to surrendering control and taking life as it comes. References to radio abound on its 21 tracks, and with good reason - the album spans genres, narrators, languages, and perspectives with the ease of spinning a rotary knob.
Until recently, Wauters had viewed his solo project as just that - a singular expression of his artistic vision. A trip through Latin America while recording his last album, however, laid the groundwork for a different approach. Inviting local musicians to contribute to the songs he was working on produced a collection unlike any of his previous work, infused with the musical traditions of each country he’d visited. As a result, 2018’s La Onda De Juan Pablo and its follow-up, Introducing Juan Pablo, were Wauters’ most expansive and sonically diverse records to date, tracing both his Uruguayan roots and his travellers’ spirit.
Newly eager to collaborate, he began reaching out to friends, travelling across North America to record with Mac DeMarco, Peter Sagar (AKA Homeshake), Nick Hakim, Cola Boyy, El David Aguilar, and more. The resulting tracks are united more so by ethos than genre or style: Wauters lends his chameleonic songwriting to experiments in hip-hop (“Unity”), lo-fi R&B (“Monsoon”), and deft indie folk (“Lion Dome”). After a few of these sessions, an image began to take shape of an album comprised entirely of collaborations. Then came the pandemic.
With his recording plans - which included travel to Europe and South America - put on pause, Wauters stepped away from his own music for a while, taking refuge in his home base of New York City. He turned instead to OutKast, a group he admires for their creative nonconformity. This time, one song in particular stuck out as pertinent. Life can be brutal, BigBoi observes on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, but it can also be beautiful, so long as you’re “man enough to handle real life situations.” The simple truism stuck with Wauters, and when he returned to his album at the beginning of the summer, he had not only a title, but a new plan completely. Mining older songs, phone notes, new material, and snippets from TV and YouTube, Wauters let go of the structure he’d imagined, opting instead to craft an aural document of the year through his eyes.
Despite the circumstances of its creation, Real Life Situations is not a quarantine record. In many ways it’s the opposite of one, taking togetherness as both its subject and its primary medium. Pre-lockdown collaborations like “Presentation” and “Real” playfully offset Wauters’ more pensive solo tracks, and even in its sparest moments the album pulses with life. This is due in part to an impressive array of interludes and samples, most of which are field recordings that Wauters collects on his phone, ranging from the innocuous (“A Peter Pan Donuts Conversation”) to the intense (“Crack Dabbling”). Under his care, these small moments become coordinates for the peaks and valleys of human experience, coloring the album with Wauters’ unique shade of realism. “Some people think I’m an optimist”, he explains, “but I’m not. I’m always seeing all sides of things.”
Of course, Wauters himself never disappears in the boisterous crowd. Indeed, some of Real Life Situations’ most tender moments are completely his own; like when, over a deceptively jovial melody on “Locura”, he tries to remember the feeling of being at a concert full of people. On “Powder”, he gently encourages his subject to embrace their true nature, promising over a delicate string arrangement, “you're that you you knew.” Themes of loneliness, personal growth, patience, and companionship arise again and again; we can feel Wauters navigating a rapidly-changing world in real time.
It is this interplay between genre-hopping eclecticism and earnest, plain-spoken observation that makes Real Life Situations come alive. It’s something Wauters is known for, and for all its collaboration, this album could only have been made by him. Jubilant choruses and spoken word poetry bleed into city noises and overheard conversations. Real freedom, the album suggests, comes not from gaining control, but from accepting its artifice. Like the programming on a radio station, there’s something here for everyone. All you have to do is listen.