Rico Blanco: “I can’t set the bar low no matter how hard I try, because I’m answerable to myself”

NME meets the former Rivermaya songwriter, who’s in artist emeritus mode and a state of contentment

Rico Blanco had been nursing carpal tunnel syndrome since the ’90s and putting off surgery. When he finally bit the bullet earlier this year – in his birthday week, nevertheless – Manila was put on lockdown soon after. Not only was the musician left with one functioning hand, he tells NME, he was also left to fend for himself.

“I had to do all the chores myself. My garden was dying from the heat of the summer. And my dog got an eye infection; I couldn’t even put eyedrops on him,” he chuckles, miming his robotic moves from post-surgery. “And we’re talking about a German Shepherd here, man.”

Had this happened earlier, he would have still had a housekeeper. But as luck would have it, she fell in love and left. Add that to being an itinerant one-armed man, a wreck of a pet owner, and a budding gardener in mourning, and you get a picture of Blanco’s life in quarantine. From one mishap to the next, the songwriter had to tap the dormant problem-solver in him.

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“It was like a rug had been pulled from beneath us, and whatever you had, you had to make it work. Now I’m a little more settled. I’ve developed a system,” he says, beaming about repairing an old washing machine himself using found objects, moving the couch to improve the view, and buying his first robot vacuum.

“I wasn’t going to wait for things to get better. More than making the most of it, I was going to enjoy this time. And to enjoy it, you have to find the joy in it,” he says, at the same time acknowledging the precarious position a word like “enjoy” occupies at a time like this.

“People are not very adaptable, but I am”

So he transformed that potential into kinetic energy, fashioning out of thin air – and during the dreariest of circumstances – the single ‘This Too Shall Pass’ (released May 17), a rousing yet comforting tune that takes petty personal discomforts to a place of shared universal loss. And “loss” is the operative word here, because though the song is a good bit of pep talk, it doesn’t speak from a smoky rubble but from an ongoing fire.

In this rare, extensive sit-down with NME, Blanco is simultaneously private (modestly dodging discussions about his charity efforts) and involved (dissecting the cogs that enable his creativity to turn). He speaks fondly of family and is self-effacing about his own skills (“I’m not a musician’s musician”). He’s also comfortable referencing Rivermaya, the legendary Filipino band he helped steer for 14 years before he embarked on a solo career.

“People are not very adaptable, I think, but I am. It’s just a trait I have. Some of my friends call me a futurist, because I like to think of what’s going to happen next,” he says.

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That calm introspection is a luxury, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But Blanco has been counting change to get to that place. And at the end of 2016, unbeknownst to most, he finally got there.

The new administration was wrapping its controversial first year. A close friend just came back from the States, master’s degree in tow. Blanco’s then-single ‘Wag Mong Aminin’ was a year-end chart-topper. But he is an artist who’s regularly churned out hit singles since he was 21 and is now past his mid-40s. “I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, but it was just more of the same,” he remembers feeling.

There were no more worlds left to conquer, at least not from typical avenues like award-giving bodies and critics’ circles. And while creative stagnation wasn’t on the horizon, the songwriter felt that, as a brand, he was at a dead end. So Blanco called his managers and his touring team, and his message was brief but resounding: “That’s it. I’m done.”

He was more obtuse about the subject to his fans, posting in code, “I’m going to take my foot off the gas pedal.”

Rico Blanco Rivermaya new single Happy Feelin
Credit: Balcony Entertainment

He walked away from touring, his TV shows (including the well-loved SoundTrip on E! Philippines), and the punishing daily grind. “If [I kept music as a] career, I’d have to excel in it. And I can’t set the bar low no matter how hard I try, because I’m answerable to myself,” he confesses, adding, “Whether or not I release another album, it wouldn’t change my life or my name.”

But cold turkey was a brutal proposition, especially since Blanco wasn’t walking away shot and bruised. A gradual severing seemed more reasonable, so he booked just five shows in one year, and a lone date in another. And following the longform masterworks he’s largely associated with (the Queen-like stylings of ‘Yugto’ from ‘Your Universe’ remain fodder for bar-stool talk), his name started popping up in one-off collabs with unlikely conspirators, among them Maris Racal (‘Abot Langit’), Joyce Pring (‘Baka Sakali’) and Julie San Jose (‘Isang Gabi’).

It was, however, his surprise tryst with breakthrough stars IV Of Spades (the artful synth bop ‘Nagbabalik’) which made the most noise; it even birthed a double-bill concert in 2019.

On August 25, Blanco released yet another standalone single, the rockabilly-by-way-of-New-Wave track ‘Happy Feelin’. It’s a stylistic swivel from his May release, but it’s made with the same adaptive spirit. If anything, his current lone-wolf workflow is in the same creative continuum as 2012’s ‘Galactik Fiestamatik’, a kind of anti-guitar album with, ironically, the exuberance of rock guitar. But this time around, the collaborator is not a guest musician or a shiny new piece of gear. It’s history.

As for leaving the music life, the contradictions are not lost on Blanco. For a semi-retired man, this seems like an awful lot of activity. But it’s not so much a Michael Corleone situation (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”) but an artist-emeritus scenario, where the only commitments left are to the muse and not to a calendar, a paycheque, or a bottom line. “It’s like a Taoist thing: go with the flow, but listen to the universe’s cues and just be conscious of your creative voice talking,” he shares.

“If you don’t like me, nothing I do will ever make you like me”

Nowadays Rico Blanco is able to take a step back and survey his life’s work. He’s been more receptive to brands using his material for corporate social responsibility campaigns. A covers album of his material, titled ‘Rico Blanco Songbook’, has just been announced. He’s also picked up the paintbrush again, his leanings moving from Magritte-style surrealism to realist-era Picasso. Lastly, his La Union resort is set to open, at least when all this blows over. When he speaks, he sounds content.

“If you don’t like me, nothing I do will ever make you like me. And if you like me, there’s very little chance you’ll start hating me,” he says. And love him they do, especially now that he’s opened up through livestreams, vlogs and TikTok. Fans have always had a pretty good window view to his soul, but now he’s thrown the doors open as well.

“It’s because of the work I’ve done in music that I’m now able to do work outside of it. That decision I made in 2016? It’s one of contentment.”

Rico Blanco’s ‘Happy Feelin’’ is out now

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