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How Latin Superstar Juanes Balances Family And The Singing Career He Loves

Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald Staff

The only instrument you notice walking into Juanes' sun-dappled home on Key Biscayne is an upright piano, covered with lesson books for his daughter Paloma, 7, who on this weekday morning is sprawled on a sofa, along with siblings Luna, 9, and Dante, 3, in pajama-clad, spring-break bliss.

The 19 Grammy Awards, racks of guitars and other trappings of the 40-year-old Colombian rock star's career are in his recording studio upstairs.

The studio "is the right place for them because this is my place for work, " says Juanes, sporting baggy shorts, a loose T-shirt and a smiling face full of stubble.

"Karen [Martinez, his wife] and I decided to keep the house clear of all those kinds of things."

Several years ago, relentless pursuit of "those kinds of things" almost destroyed Juanes' music and marriage. He and his wife separated for months at a time, split by tension and his punishing schedule. His daughters would wail when he left on a continual round of concert tours and promotional trips.

Today, he's confident that when he picks up his suitcases to fly to New York, they'll take his departure in stride.

"Before when I traveled, my kids would be crying at the door, " he says. "It was killing me. Now I tell them I'm going away, and they say 'OK Papi, when are you coming back? Friday? Great.' "

In his recently released memoir, Chasing the Sun, Juanes details his boyhood and musical beginnings in Medellin, his rise to one of the biggest musical stars of the 2000s and the burnout at the end of a decade that led him to retreat.

In his recently released memoir, Chasing the Sun, Juanes details his boyhood and musical beginnings in Medellin, his rise to one of the biggest musical stars of the 2000s and the burnout at the end of a decade that led him to retreat.

"I couldn't look at myself in the press or in the mirror or listen to my music, " he says. "It was like I had this personage sitting on top of me. I was saturated, exhausted, empty. I felt lost."

The breaking point came in July 2009 with the collision of major personal and professional events. His son was born just eight days before the enormous “Peace Without Borders” concert that Juanes had organized in Havana, which sparked a maelstrom of controversy and media attention.

"It was like a break in my life and my spirit, " he says. "Something in me changed. On the one hand there was the birth of my son, which I felt very deeply. Then the concert in Cuba was such a contrast, with so much happiness and hope and love - but I also had so many difficulties in doing it and encountered so much hate and rage."

He broke with the manager who had shepherded his career, canceled concerts in Miami and Orlando and a Latin American tour, shut down his email accounts, cut himself off from the media and told his record label, Universal Music Latino, that he was taking a break.

Last year he emerged with an MTV Unplugged album recorded at the New World Symphony, which won a Latin Grammy for Album of the Year, and then the book. His “Loud and Unplugged” tour brings him to the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood on June 27.

But Juanes is prepared for the possibility that the life he wants to lead and the music he wants to make may not be compatible with super-stardom.

"Before stopping everything I asked myself this for two years," he says. "At this moment in my life what matters to me is to be happy. If I have to play smaller places I will. But I want to be calm and enjoy it.

"I want to stay true to my roots, to keep making the music I love, that comes from my soul. And if there are people who want to listen to it, I'm happy."

Key to that happiness is family routine.

"A day might start with something as special and as simple as taking the kids to school," he says. "I can go to parents' day at Dante's school and sit with the kids and the teachers and the other parents and see what a day is like for him. Go to church with Luna and Paloma. I can help them with their homework. We can go to the movies or sit down together for lunch or breakfast. Things that are so simple and so important."

When he's working in the studio, the children might join in - Paloma on piano, Luna on guitar, Dante banging on drums. "Paloma and Luna love to sing, " says Juanes, who learned to play guitar from his father and five older brothers. "I love it."

His previous pace took a creative toll on P.A.R.C.E., the lackluster 2010 album that followed the Cuba concert.

"It was like I couldn't do anymore, " Juanes says. "It was really strange."

Now he feels re-energized and re-inspired. "I've thrown off all the garbage, all the fears, all the dust, all the stupidity, all the ghosts," he says. "The new songs are different, but they're powerful again."

Credit Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald Staff

During the transition, he has looked to older musicians whose careers have spanned decades: Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican singer-songwriter who produced his Unplugged album; Miguel Bose, the Spanish star who was his closest partner in the Peace Without Borders concert; salsa pioneer Ruben Blades; and Bruce Springsteen, for whom he performed at the Musicares Person of the Year gala at the Grammys in February, the only Latin among musicians that included Sting and Elton John.

"It was amazing, " Juanes says, laughing. "I admire [Springsteen] so much - I've listened to him since I was 13. Meeting him was a dream come true. (Listening to him performing) live blows your mind. He's 63 and he seems younger than any young guy.

"These are devoted artists for many years. And what they've told me is careers are like this. You're up or down, and you're going to be up and down many times. It's part of your development and you have to accept it."

In July he begins recording again, with Steve Lillywhite, the famed producer for U2, The Killers, the Dave Matthews Band and other major artists.

Though work nearly consumed him, Juanes' response has been to keep pouring himself into music. He sees no contradiction in this.

"Music is a really powerful way for me to catalyze all kinds of things," he says. "It's always been the cure. Through music I've healed all the wounds I've had and celebrated all the good things in life."