Sessa and Juan Wauters on Immigrating to NYC, Finding Their Musical Voices, and More

The friends catch up.

Sessa is a São Paulo-based singer-songwriter, who formerly performed with the band Garotas Suecas; Juan Wauters is a Uruguayan singer-songwriter who started his musical career in New York City, and has since moved back to his hometown, Montevideo. Sessa released his second solo record, Estrela Acesa, back in June, and a few months later, the two friends caught up about it (and much more) for us. Check out their conversation below.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Sessa: Part of my motivation for wanting to talk to you, aside from being an admirer of your music, is we have a lot of similarities in our stories: with moving from South America to New York, living in traditional immigrant neighborhoods, working with bands in similar DIY scenes. And now, establishing ourselves back and preparing to become fathers while making our own records. What was it for you to arrive in New York? How old were you?

Juan Wauters: I was 18 when I came. First of all, it was difficult because I was 18 — it was my family’s decision to move to America, I didn’t want to. My family had to leave Uruguay, where we’re from, because of economic reasons, and we left in an emergency type of way. We came to America undocumented, which meant that once I came here, I wouldn’t be able to leave America unless solved my legal situation, with my papers. So it was a scary thing to come to a place to which you know you won’t be, first of all, a legal citizen. And then aside from that, it’s scary to come to a place and know that you won’t be able to leave unless you resolve this legal situation, which is really hard to resolve — unless you get married to someone. It’s difficult to get your papers if you come to America in a in an unlawful way.

Sessa: As just a regular worker, yeah.

Juan: Yeah, we came just with the tourist visas and then we overstayed. So that was that was really scary, actually. And it was traumatic because it was against what I wanted to do as a teenager. But at the same time, as soon as I came, even though I was aware that I was becoming an illegal immigrant, I realized around me there was a community of people that were illegal also. So in some ways, it became normalized in my neighborhood. And at the same time, I was encouraged to continue studying by my parents. So I went to college and studied English first, and then through taking classes at LaGuardia Community College [in Queens], I met my first friends from the neighborhood with whom we started the band, the Beets

This is within two years of my arrival. So I started feeling like I belonged slowly, because local people from my neighborhood were accepting me as one. And in that community, as I said, it was normal to be undocumented — you had a cousin, maybe, that’s undocumented, or a neighbor that’s undocumented. So in some ways, it was accepted and normalized and it wasn’t as painful anymore. And luckily through those people, soon I met my first American girlfriend, who later I married. Then once I was married, around 2005 and I got my papers, my whole personality changed because I was…

Sessa: Not carrying that load anymore.

Juan: Yeah, I was not paranoid that I might get deported, you know? And then you could just live life and try out different things. I was going to college, I was doing the band thing in my 20s. I tried different things and ended up sticking to music.

Sessa: Did you play in Uruguay?

Juan: Just a little bit. 

Sessa: It took a lot more space in your life in New York.

Juan: Yeah, in Uruguay, I was maybe starting to play, but I never had a band or anything.

Sessa: That’s interesting. In my case, my family had visas — very half-truth, lots of olive oil to make it look good. My dad worked for my cousin who had a company here, and it made it look like my dad was representing the company in the States. 

My parents came back to Brazil before their green card came out, and after I was 21, I was on my own. The visa didn’t really transfer to me, but I took a student visa and then ended up getting a musician visa, a green card. But yeah, this chapter, you know — it’s so much anxiety. 

Juan: And you were in New York for how long? 

Sessa: Seven years

Juan: Wow, that’s a long time.

Sessa: Yeah. Me and my brother stayed. For me, New York was very interesting because I had a band that — we played together at Death By Audio a couple of times.

Juan: Garotas Suecas, in Brazil, right? 

Sessa: Yeah. And so moving to New York kind of pushed the band to do stuff in the States. So that was the beginning of my more professional life in music and playing shows, having to figure out how to make the show look good, sound good, tour. That was some real education that was possible because my family moved also for similar reasons as yours. But we ended up in Midwood, which was Russian, but kind of like a lot of Sephardic Jews. We had some cousins that moved from Egypt to Brooklyn in the ‘60s, and my family moved from Lebanon to São Paulo in the ‘20s. But somehow my grandfather kept in touch with his cousin Solomon in Midwood, so the family would come [to Brazil] when I was a kid, and I was so curious about this American family — they were very different people than us, coming to this beach town where everybody vacationed. They would show up every five, six years. They were the only people that my family knew in New York. This also was ‘80s New York — it was really fucked up, dangerous, so “Let’s go somewhere where we know somebody.” So that was how we ended up there.

I find really interesting that at some point in your music, it seems like the Latin America and Uruguayan materials — singing in Spanish or actual musical materials — stepped forward. How was this process? You know, playing in a garage rock band and then making that switch.

Juan: Well, I first started as a person in a band. And us as a band were from New York. I was the only proper immigrant. Some of the other people in the band were immigrants kids of immigrants — Americans from an immigrant family. So the band identified with Queens, mostly. Once I started playing under my name, after the band dissolved — you know, you’re playing under your name also now. 

Sessa: Yeah.

Juan: It’s kind of like an exploration; [you can be a] tourist of your soul. Like, who am I? What’s my voice? So in that process of of finding my voice as a solo artist, all these Latin American influences and my impulse to get closer to that side of my life came through in the music more and more. It seems like I really didn’t want to leave Uruguay as a kid. Also, I feel like as we get older, people connect with their roots later in life. When you’re a kid, you just absorb whatever’s around. Then later, you want to connect with something that’s more meaningful, right? 

Sessa: I think so. I relate. I mean, my first love in music was rock & roll and soul music — garage rock, the Stooges, Irma Thomas, Sly and the Family Stone. I couldn’t believe that shit existed. Jimi Hendrix had such a huge impact on me. But in Brazil, the songwriting thing here is so strong, it’s such a part of cultural life. The first thing you get is a nylon guitar, you know, and my grandmother had a guitar. In my case, my family’s not very musical, so it was like, “Oh, the kid is into music. OK, let’s start on grandma’s nylon guitar, learn some songs, see if you’re good. And if you’re good, I’m going to think about getting this loud thing.” So you spend most of your teenage years just dreaming about some Fender thing, and it’s not super available here. So when I came to New York, I was like, Fuck, I’m in the place where the Velvet Underground came from.

Juan: The Ramones.

Sessa: The Ramones!

Juan: I don’t know how it was in Brazil, but when I came to America from Uruguay, I started working right away at a factory. It wasn’t the best job, but I got a little money, and with my first paycheck, I bought a guitar. In Uruguay, you can’t do that. You have more access to electric guitars here. 

Sessa: Yeah, there’s a material affluence in the United States that is very impressive. You know, for the good and for the worse, but that that exists is a big difference. 

But I learned the songs and the first stuff I learned were songs that have a lot more to do with what I do now, than the middle period in which I played guitar in rock bands, or bass in punk bands. I always wrote my songs — I wrote songs for Garotas Suecas — but I toured kind of DIY for a long time in bands, and in this period I spent time with people that were very obstinate about making their music. So I was like, OK, I’m going to start making my moves too.

Coming back to songwriting on the nylon guitar was kind of like finding home again for me. Something clicked. Something hit on me that that was my contribution. I don’t know how it was for you with having other sorts of basic rhythms in your subconscious, that you were exposed so heavily everywhere all the time, growing up in a place that’s not the United States. But I had a hard time playing in American rock bands. People would often tell me that I play too soft or that I swing — things that are very unintentional, even though I listened to The Stooges and the Ramones for a really long time.

Juan: The intensity is different.

Sessa: Yeah. It’s hard wired in the soul, or something. And so, yeah, it clicked for me. Around that time, I was already coming back to Brazil a lot because of the tours, and because finding a spot in New York is so annoying. I was just paying this rent here for a month, and getting on a flight to Sao Paulo is like the same, you know? So then I encountered other people that made my first record [Grandeza] possible — friends and the singers, the free jazz musicians. So that was a bit of how I encountered the music. 

It’s definitely a heavy thing, when you make a record. It’s really motivating. It’s like you have some kind of glasses on and you only see the world through [that]. Like, I can use that. I can, this is good, this talks to the record. But as I’m maturing as a musician, and preparing to be a father, I’m doing that less. On this second record, of course it’s intense and obsessive to some extent, and it’s a labor of passion. But you become a bit better at some stuff. You lose less time circling around some stuff. Part of what I’m learning now is how to keep the fire and not have it sort of damage your life so much, because there are other things. But at the same time, the record’s are in the top three or top five, you know? [Laughs.]

Juan: Yeah, of course. 

Sessa: How did you go about the material that you recorded? 

Juan: A lot of all the songs I wrote before leaving — some I wrote on the trip.

Sessa: Have you ever written while in the studio?

Juan: I did that for Real Life Situations, and the new music that I am working on now. I like it. But also, what I liked about Real Life Situations was that I had written the words and the melody on guitar chords, and I recorded some demos and that’s all I had. But then when I saw the instruments [in the studio], I had to think, How can we get this instrument in the song? Yeah. In a way. In a way that we can show the instrument the best of the instrument and the best of the song. So the recordings that we came up with at the end are very different from the way I thought the songs were when I wrote them. 

Sessa: So it’s about letting go.

Juan: Yeah. But it was beautiful. 

The other day I heard an interview — a guy who’s been releasing music for a long time on an interview said, “I have accepted that not everything I make is really good. So I have accepted to sometimes release music that I’m not 100% crazy about.” I was like, Wow, that’s a cool spirit. Because for me every song I release, I have to really like. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like it, but I want to really like it. 

Sessa: Yeah. I’m not ready to do that yet, but maybe when you’re doing that for longer. I mean, I just have two records out, so there’s still lots to do.

Juan: Yeah. I was like, Well, that’s a beautiful way of seeing music. But in some ways, I wouldn’t want artists to be that way. I would want artist to be really passionate and only show us whatever they love.

Sessa: Yeah, it is interesting. It reminds me of the exercise of judging music — “This is good,” “This is bad.” Of course this exists because part of what moves us in music is passion. You can identify with that, you want to be close to it, admire, honor it. But it really doesn’t change — the music will keep existing. Liking, loving it doesn’t make a difference to the music. It’s just going to keep continuing. You know, of course I have my opinions about music, but it is something good to remember. 

Sometimes it’s just an exercise of humans making sense of life, and I think this is something good, too. It’s an invented purpose. And I think it’s important to have a creative approach to, “What what the fuck are we doing here?” And I think music offers offers that. A five star review, or like, “I like your first record, I don’t like your second” — those things become superfluous very quickly when you start to think about the depth of the practice. It’s been around for thousands of years. The guitars that we play come from ouds and lutes and all these ancient practices and knowledge; it’s a collective construction. But yes, as contemporary musicians putting out records, having kids, paying bills, we encounter the numbers and the reviews and all these other elements. And it’s fine. You just have to not lose the the angle, which is the profound one, you know? The practice is profound.

Juan Wauters’ fifth solo album, Real Life Situations, is 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. Mining older songs, phone notes, new material, and snippets from TV and YouTube, Wauters has crafted an aural document of the year through his eyes.

(Photo Credit: Lucía Garibaldi)