Josep LlobellBorn: January 4th, 1946, Barcelona (Spain)
Between 1960 and 1966, young Josep studied the saxophone as well as music theory at Barcelona’s Municipal Conservatory. Meanwhile, he worked in a small shop. Llobell, commenting: “My job was to repair amplifiers. Of course, I had to work to pay for my classes. Meanwhile, my interest had switched from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll music. Rock offered so many possibilities for a saxophone player, but conservatory lessons were exclusively classically oriented in those days. Apart from studying the saxophone I took solfege and later on harmony lessons, but I broke off taking music theory in ’62 after being hired by Barcelona’s branch of EMI as an engineer. The way it came about was incredible. While working at the shop, I had a short lunch break of half an hour, which I usually preferred spending at my parents’. As time was limited, I refrained from washing my oil-stained hands, instead wrapping the tuna sandwich my mother had prepared me in an old newspaper. At once, my eye fell upon an ad – EMI Odeón’s Barcelona branch were looking for a sound technician. That was the job of my dreams! It would allow me to combine my knowledge of music with my technical ability. Without further ado, I presented myself to EMI’s board director in Barcelona. He was pleased to find out that I could actually read scores. Most engineers in those days were not capable of doing that. The job was mine!”
“In my first year with EMI Odeón”, Llobell continues, “I was mainly in the cutting room working on the vinyl cutting machine. It was an important part of learning about the music I would be recording in the studio later on. Meanwhile, I studied books on relevant subjects such as acoustics. Several times, I was allowed to travel to London to extend my knowledge by watching my colleagues in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios at work. Finally, I was allowed to work in the marvellous grand studio of EMI in Barcelona which was actually quite similar to Abbey Road’s Studio 2 where the Beatles recorded their material. For two years, I worked as an engineer on records and demos – an important part of my learning curve.”
In the meantime, while continuing his conservatoire studies and working at EMI, Josep had joined a local rock band, Los Gatos Negros. “I must have been eighteen at that time”, Josep recalls. “We played contemporary rock songs as well as well-known older repertoire. We did not make much money, but we were young and happy to play for any audience at open-air festivals and in music halls. With Los Gatos Negros, I worked at the Bowling Lounge in Andorra and subsequently in the Costa Brava seaside resort of Calella for an entire summer season. We even recorded several EP records. After Los Gatos Negros, I played in another group, the Golden Quartet, which specialized in more commercial-type pop music and Mexican repertoire. I stayed with them for a short spell only, as I was called up to perform my military service. That was after leaving conservatory in 1966.”
After three years with EMI Odeón, Llobell joined Belter as a sound engineer. Belter was the company which had released the Gatos Negros records. Around the time he joined them, the record house expanded its activities immensely. From the second half of the 1960s onwards, they were the most successful company in Spain by far. To young Josep, being given the opportunity to work at Belter was thoroughly exciting.
“In the 1960s, the recording business developed at an incredibly rapid pace. Mono turned to stereo and we discovered multi-track recording, from four to eventually twenty-four tracks. As an engineer, I tried to play my part in bringing about the best possible sound. I came up with the idea of hitting a butane gas stove to create an extra powerful drum sound, but there were many more things… I recall rubbing two pieces of sandpaper which created a special sound effect too. All the while, I worked with some of the most popular artists and the most talented arrangers of those days. Amongst many others, Joan Barcons and Augusto Algueró regularly recorded at Belter’s studios in Barcelona. Especially maestro Barcons was someone I worked with very often, spending long hours and nights in the studio with him… A wonderful arranger and conductor as well as a nice character with a great sense of humour. It goes without saying that I paid close attention to how he and others went about writing and recording their arrangements. It is no exaggeration to say that I learned or discovered something new every day… music is a world without frontiers. The possibilities are endless.”
While at Belter, Josep also occasionally played the saxophone in studio sessions. As a sound engineer, he worked on the recording of countless hit releases by the likes of Salomé, Manolo Escobar, and Catalan songstress Núria Feliu. Over time, however, Llobell realized he needed to master another instrument than the saxophone in order to take the next step: “With my conservatory background, the logical next step in the studio business would be to try my hand at producing and arranging. To that end, the saxophone, musically speaking, was too limited, unless I would leave the studio business and look for a jazz orchestra which I could play in, but that was not something I was particularly interested in. The recording studio was my world. Therefore, I taught myself to play keyboards – the piano being the virtually indispensable tool for any arranger. Around that time, the Minimoog appeared on the scene, a type of synthesizer which offered all kinds of new technical possibilities. Later on, I bought myself a second-hand Roland synthesizer to continue experimenting.”
Finally, in 1975, Llobell was given the chance he had been waiting for for so long. Belter’s artistic director Manuel Cubedo commissioned him to produce an instrumental studio album. Llobell: “The budget available was quite large. We picked ten attractive international melodies, ranging from Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chamaleon’ to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by the Beatles. Using models of electronic music I had been working on, I created string and brass lines using just the synthesizer. On this album, I worked with Belter’s best studio musicians. The project was released under the name ‘Enterprise’. I was quite pleased with the result… and I was not the only one. In the following three years, Belter allowed me to make three more Enterprise albums. It was a great way to experiment with all the possibilities the synthesizer offered to create arrangements.”
In 1979 and 1980, Llobell came up with two more instrumental LPs, recorded in the Belter Studios in Barcelona and released on the Ariola label: ‘Oliver’s planet’, containing mainly Llobell’s own compositions with arrangements in funk-disco style, and ‘Orquesta Arabella’, with innovative arrangements to songs of Belter’s most popular artists, such as Peret, Ana Reverte, and Manolo Escobar. Still in ’80, Josep arranged and produced the signature tune to the animation TV series ‘La batalla de los planetas’, recorded with the group Parchis.
Josep, commenting: “Belter’s board of directors was really happy with that release, not least because the series was successful and the song got a lot of airplay as a result. From that moment on, more production work came my way. By that time, I knew how to properly organize a studio session. For fifteen years, I had closely watched Madrid-based producers such as Augusto Algueró and Eddy Guerin do their jobs when they came over to Barcelona to record their arrangements. Moreover, as the big studio orchestras were progressively done away with in favour of synthesizers, drum computers, and the like, record companies were looking for producers and arrangers who were able to transmit a more modern, contemporary sound. Thanks to my solo albums as well as more generally being interested in technical developments such as the Linn Drum machine and Atari computers, I was at an advantage compared to others. It was sad to see the big score arrangers of the old generation more or less disappear from the scene, but I am afraid it was an unavoidable natural process.”
In the early 1980s, Llobell worked as a producer and arranger on Bianca’s hit single ‘Monigote’ as well as successful album releases including ‘Amor y libertad’ by Susana Estrada, which he composed in its entirety, and ‘Las canciones de tu vida’ by Marfil. Moreover, he teamed up with the likes of Bacchelli and Conchita Bautista. In 1984, however, Llobell’s employer, the Belter record company, went bust. Llobell, commenting: “After nineteen years at Belter, this was a blow, but one which I had seen coming for some time. The directors had been making lots of money and got away safely starting new business adventures, while we, those who did the real day-to-day work – and severely under-paid too – were kicked out on the street. Intuitively, I had prepared for the inevitable. A year before Belter ceased their activities, I had cautiously started constructing my own little studio, which I christened ‘Audio-Lines’. The budget was extremely limited and at the beginning, I had to make do with an eight-track recorder, but the excitement was there… because all of this was mine and mine only! To my relief, there was no lack of work practically from the beginning. I had built up enough of a reputation at Belter to manage on my own. These were good times with lots of work.”
In the second half of the 1980s, Llobell worked with folk singer María José Santiago as well as the fledgling Chilean-Catalan pop artist Alejandro Abad. Moreover, in 1989, he composed Danuta’s hit song ‘Nobody’s woman’ and arranged and produced Sergio Dalma’s debut album ‘Esa chica es mia’ for which he also co-composed the title track – which was a big hit in Spain and Latin America. Occasionally, Josep took up his old metier of saxophonist, for example for David Lyme’s disco album ‘Like a star’ (1986). Besides, between 1986 and 1993, Josep Llobell recorded no fewer than four full records with gypsy artist Junco, initially as an arranger, later taking on the role of producer for him as well. “His records sold really well”, Llobell recalls. “Junco was a special guy to work with. I remember one session when we recorded his vocals. Singing the sentences more or less one by one, he would stop each time after one or two lines to grab a sandwich from his pocket and take a little bite. That way, the recording took much longer than was necessary, and moreover he naturally did not really sing as well as he could. After getting restive, I told him to stop eating and focus on the recording. He promised me as much, but I could still see his mouth moving as he tried in vain to eat on without my noticing. There are many more similar sort of stories to tell about Junco, but that was how he was – and let us not forget that his records were popular and sold extremely well!”
Into the 1990s, Josep Llobell continued his involvement in producing and arranging for Spanish folk and pop artists, including the likes of Samara, Junco, Tonino, and Sandra Morey. Meanwhile, he also tried his hand at creating house and techno for various studio groups, including Hard Noise and Makina Power. Llobell: “The Euro-style dance music produced in other Western-European countries was really interesting. It sounded powerful, but unattainable at the same time. Apart from the fact that some of these producers from abroad were simply very talented, their equipment often was more advanced than what we were used to in Catalonia. Nonetheless, we tried to copy their sound and it turned out to work quite well. For quite some time, it was a valuable extra source of income for me and others, though the success of these records was mainly due to the airplay in discotheques rather than sales which were usually modest.”
In 1993, Llobell co-composed the song ‘Enamorarse’ for Andalusian songstress Ana Reverte. With the song, for which Alejandro Abad was Llobell’s co-author, she represented Spain at that year’s OTI Festival, a song contest for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries which was organised annually between 1972 and 2000. The 1993 edition was held at Valencia’s Teatro Principal with twenty-five competing countries. In the end, ‘Enamorarse’, which was conducted by the contest’s musical director José Fabra, was proclaimed the overall winner of the festival.
Llobell: “Winning OTI was an incredible experience. All of a sudden, I was on stage being embraced and congratulated by all kinds of singers and film personalities – all of them persons from showbiz who I greatly admired. To me, that was the most wonderful moment of winning the festival. Through her record company Horus, Ana Reverte was invited to participate in OTI. I had produced several of her albums before. In those years, Alejandro Abad and I signed our compositions together, sharing the revenues on a fifty-fifty basis – apart from the keyboards, arranging, and production, all of which I took care of by myself. In a local restaurant, we first discussed our OTI song for Ana. I suggested writing a ballad with lyrics about the different stages of falling in love. My inspiration came from the Hollywood film ‘Falling in love’ with Robert de Niro and Meryl Streep which had made a deep impression when I watched it. With Ana, who was a great flamenco singer, we recorded one more album after the festival. Professionally speaking, winning OTI was quite an important moment to me. It resulted in more work being offered to me… going to Eurovision in 1994 with Alejandro, for a start!”
In the 1990s, Josep Llobell was commissioned to write several jingles for Movierecord, a company providing advertisements for Spanish film houses and cinemas; some of Llobell’s melodies have been run for over thirty years now. Another successful collaboration came his way some years later, with fledgling Basque singer Raúl (Raúl Fuentes). Llobell co-produced two albums for him, ‘Sueño su boca’ (2000) and ‘Haciendo trampas’ (2001), composing some of the material for these two cd’s himself, including, most notably, ‘Sueño su boca’. This song came second in Spain’s Eurovision selection, but was a monster hit in Spain and beyond.
In the 2000s, Llobell became heavily involved in writing and arranging music for various television productions, most notably ‘Eurojunior’ (2003-’05), the highly popular pre-selection format for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, and ‘¡Allá tú!’ (2004-’08), Spain’s version of game show ‘Deal or no deal’. Llobell: “For Eurojunior, I was contacted by Vale Music, the production house which took care of the songs participating in the selection show. I was one of five producers who worked with child and adolescent performers. Especially the 2004 edition was extremely successful in terms of viewing figures and record sales; more than 800,000 copies of the sampler album of all participating songs were sold. (Spain won that year’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest with María Isabel López’ ‘Antes muerta que sencilla’ – BT). Around the same time, another production company called Gestmusic commissioned me to write all incidental music for ‘¡Allá tú!’, a quiz which was broadcast daily on Telecinco, a private television channel. I highly enjoyed creating music of suspense, happiness, and disappointment which was used throughout the programme. This show achieved incredibly high viewing figures for several years.”
Josep Llobell has continued working as an independent studio owner, engineer, composer, and producer in Barcelona until the present day.
Josep Llobell in the Eurovision Song Contest
Between 1977 and 1999, national broadcaster TVE never organised a televised pre-selection programme to pick Spain’s contestant for Eurovision; instead, TVE preferred an internal selection process to choose a suitable song. For the 1994 edition, TVE simply approached Alejandro Abad and Josep Llobell to write that year’s Eurovision entry after the duo had won the 1993 OTI Festival for Spain with Ana Reverte’s ‘Enamorarse’. “TV officials also involved in OTI wondered if we were interested to do Eurovision as well. Well, of course we were. Having worked together for years and being a songwriting duo who signed virtually all our material together, we were thrilled at this opportunity. Unusually, though, the song we picked for the contest was a composition not by the both of us… it was penned by Alejandro all by himself.”
The song Llobell is referring to was called ‘Ella no es ella’ (= ‘She is not her’), a sensual ballad in typical Latin style. As usual with Abad’s records in those days, Josep Llobell wrote the arrangements and oversaw the recording in his home studio in Barcelona. As the arranger of the song, Llobell was the natural choice to conduct it in the Eurovision Song Contest as well, though he needed time to convince himself. “TVE left it to Alejandro’s record company, Horus, to indicate the conductor of their preference – and so they contacted me. At first, I declined, claiming that I am not a conductor. I knew how to write an arrangement and how to lead a session with a group of studio musicians, but I had never stood up in front of an orchestra before. It only took me a couple of minutes, though, before realizing this was an occasion I should grab with both hands. What was I waiting for? Getting old? Therefore, I dialled the number of Horus’ managing director and told him I wanted to do it after all. In the studio, using synthesizers, I recorded the strings and brass parts exactly the way I wanted them to sound at the Eurovision Song Contest. I knew I had to be extremely careful writing down the different parts of the score to avoid any mistakes – and that I duly did. This gave me confidence that I would actually enjoy the trip to Ireland.”
In 1994, the contest was held in Ireland for the second time running after Niamh Kavanagh’s winning performance of ‘In your eyes’ the year before. The venue chosen was Dublin’s Point Theatre. “I had never been to Ireland before”, Llobell recounts. “Some friends told me the Irish people were quite similar to the Catalans in terms of hospitality and friendliness, and they turned out to be right! Dublin was a historically interesting, wonderful place to visit. In the afternoons after our rehearsals, Sinéad, the guide who had been assigned to our delegation, would take us to lunch for which there were liquors on the table as well. The Irish knew how to entertain us! One night, she took us to a disco… to get an idea of the real Dublin atmosphere. I drank some five or six more glasses of strong alcohol – she told me the local habit was to have one after the other, nonstop. Well, in the end, being in a very bad condition, I had to be brought back to the hotel. The morning after, ten o’clock, I vividly recall turning up at the rehearsals at the Point; one of the cameras caught my face and I saw myself on a huge screen. I have never seen someone resembling Dracula so closely as myself at that particular moment!”
As for the rehearsals, how did they go? Llobell: “Quite well, actually. Everything was really well organised. The technicians were excellent professionals. Being used to the chaos which usually rules supreme on Spanish television sets, I was very surprised to note how disciplined the Irish television crew was. After every rehearsal, we were invited by the director and his assistants to check the way the performance looked and sounded. He asked us if any adaptation was needed in the image or the audio – that is what I call a professional approach.” “For our performance of ‘Ella no es ella’ at the contest in Dublin, the orchestra played only the strings and brass parts. We had decided to pre-record all rhythm elements – drums, keyboards, guitar, and bass – on a tape I prepared back in Barcelona. That is why there were five guys backing up Alejandro on stage pretending to play these instruments... because Eurovision rules in those days stipulated that any instrument on the backing track had to be mimed on stage. All of these guys were musicians and good friends who I frequently called upon for recording sessions in my studio, the only exception being Jordi Sánchez, a friend of Alejandro’s who worked at a car dealer. This backing track caused a minor hiccup at one of the rehearsals. The technician who had to start the backing track, pushed the play button at click bar 2, whilst I had arranged for it to start at bar 1. The director immediately stopped the rehearsal, turned the technician’s attention to his mistake, and apologized to me for what had happened. Apart from that one incident, the rehearsal days were without problems.”
In spite of all rehearsals, Josep Llobell could not help feeling nervous on the evening of the live broadcast. “We were performing amongst the last countries in the show”, he recalls. “In the greenroom, I was getting more and more nervous as all participants before us were doing great performances, one after the other without fail. I was getting more and more worried: someone is bound to make a mistake here or there. Would we be the ones to mess up – or especially was I that unlucky person? As we were taken from the greenroom to the hall to perform, I felt as if I was about to be crucified. With all I could, I tried to calm myself, but without much success. The director who accompanied us noticed, and gave me a wonderful piece of advice. “When you take your bow, why don’t you dedicate your salute to someone dear to you?”... and that is what I did: stretching the palms of my hands to the camera, I saluted my deceased mother. This made me feel secure and instilled me with a desire to take on the whole world! Musically speaking, the performance went perfectly well. I prefer not to speak of the stage performance. Of course, we did not get that many points, but to me it was a unique and unrepeatable experience which I will never forget. Winning OTI as a composer in 1993 and participating as a conductor in Eurovision in 1994 were great additions to my curriculum... experiences which not everyone in our trade is lucky enough to live. I am proud to have participated in both – incredible!”
The 1994 festival in Dublin was to remain Josep Llobell’s only conducting appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest, but it was not the end of his involvement in the competition. In 2000, he nearly won the right to represent Spain again in the festival, this time as a composer. His song ‘Sueño su boca’, co-written with José Ogara and performed by Raúl Fuentes, finished second in the Spanish Eurovision pre-selection – the first one to be organised since 1976 – behind Serafín Zubiri. In terms of record sales, ‘Sueño su boca’ turned out to be one of the biggest hit singles of the year, completely eclipsing Zubiri’s winning ‘Colgado de un sueño’.
“Raúl was brought to my attention by José Ogara”, Llobell explains. “They are both Basques. Apart from his qualities as a songwriter, Ogara is a good singer in his own right. I produced one of his previous albums. That is how we had gotten in touch. Raúl was his protégé and he turned to me to produce and arrange his debut album. The Horus record company, for whom I did a lot of production work in those days, really believed in Raúl. They set aside a generous budget, allowing me go to Cuba to record part of the instruments. After that, we went to Los Angeles for the sound mix! They took a big gamble, but it paid off as the album did extremely well. Most of the song material was written by Ogara. For two or three songs, I contributed to his original ideas by adding some themes and phrases here and there; ‘Sueño su boca’ was one of them. Together with ‘Esa chica es mia’, which I wrote for Sergio Dalma, it was my biggest hit as a songwriter. Both songs got lots of airplay on radio and television. Everyone seems to know these melodies.”
One year later, in 2001, Llobell was involved in the contest one more time. Spain’s entry to that year’s contest in Copenhagen was David Civera’s ‘Dile que la quiero’, composed by Alejandro Abad, with whom Llobell continued working for some years after their shared Eurovision experience in Dublin. As Abad also was the producer of the song, he had it recorded in Llobell’s Audio-Lines studio in Barcelona. Apart from taking care of the sound engineering job, the studio owner co-arranged the song with Xavier Ibáñez. Llobell: “Admittedly, I had quite forgotten about that song. When involved in a lot of studio work, one sometimes overlooks some productions which went on to be quite successful – and this song was a hit. I am more than happy to have been involved in it. I have got nothing to be ashamed of!”
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