For Erika Ender, Songwriting Is ‘A Business of Emotions’

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Erika Ender—the celebrated Panamanian singer-songwriter who’s best known for co-writing “Despacito”—is usually on the go.

“I’m always moving from one place to another due to work,” she recently told American Songwriter over the phone.

But that changed on March 18, when Ender decided to hunker down at her home in Miami for the foreseeable future amidst the coronavirus pandemic. As of last week, she hadn’t left her house since then. “Up until now I have seen like two human beings,” said Ender, who normally bounces between Miami and Los Angeles.

With a new album on the way, Ender spent the rest of March finishing up the English version of her latest single “Cosas Que Echo de Menos”—or “Back to the Basics”—which she says is “about the essentials of life—kindness and love and compassion and equality and understanding that we all live in the same house called planet Earth.”

Though Ender just released “Back to the Basics” a few weeks ago, she first conceived of the track sometime last year with the Venezuelan duo SanLuis. “I told them, ‘You know what? I miss music with depth. I miss people with depth. People are so superficial these days—they’re just worried about the likes and being popular instead of knowing themselves and giving the best of themselves,’” she recalls. “And then we said, ‘Let’s write about this. Let’s write about the things we’re missing about who we should be, not how we should be seen.’”

The resulting song is a fluttering call for connection that ends on a hopeful note. “Why don’t we go back / Back to the basics / Try to reach out to what’s within / And look at life with different lenses,” Ender sings in the chorus (lyric videos for the English and Spanish versions of the track are featured below).  

“If you hear them both, it seems like they’re original in both languages,” says Ender of the two versions. “Whenever I try to write a version, I’m always very careful with the spirit of a song. I want it to sound as natural in the native language we’re translating it into as possible.”

Switching between languages and cultures is nothing new for the Panama-born artist, who grew up listening to a wide range of Italian, French, and American LPs that her parents would play for her. “My mom and dad are both doctors but they come from very musical upbringings,” says Ender. “The alarm in my home was my dad putting on music from the [start] of the day until late night, so I grew up listening to lots of music—and lots of music from different countries.”

Speaking to American Songwriter by phone, Ender recalled the beginning of her songwriting career and her breakout song (hint: it’s not “Despacito”). She also reflected on what it means to go “Back to the Basics” during this challenging time. Check out the full interview below.

American Songwriter: When did you first get into songwriting? How’d you know it was something you might want to pursue?

Erika Ender: That I knew since I was little. I remember listening to a lot of LPs that my family had. My mom and dad are both doctors but they come from very musical upbringings. The alarm in my home was my dad putting on music from the [start] of the day until late night, so I grew up listening to lots of music—and lots of music from different countries. My mom is Brazilian–she’s a granddaughter to a Portuegese and a French. And on the other side my dad was born and raised in the Canal Zone, which was an American territory, but he was the grandson of an Italian, a German, a Spanish, and a Chinese. All of those cultures were in the same family.

So I grew up listening to Italian music to French music to Frank Sinatra. That shaped me into the singer-songwriter that I am today, understanding that at the end we all have the same feelings and that we just speak different languages and have different ways of seeing the world.

I think I started writing my first melodies and lyrics together when I was 9. I remember sitting down and reading the credits on those LPs, trying to understand what were the names of the people that weren’t in the pictures. I remember asking my dad and my mom, “Who is Quincy Jones as a producer of Michael Jackson?” And they would tell me, “These are the people that make the magic, that deliver the message in order for the artist to express it and communicate with people.” And I found that so fascinating that I wanted to do that with people as well as singing. That’s the very beginning of Erika.

Then, when I moved to the US in 1998–‘cause I was born and raised in Panama–I started trying to pitch some songs. In 1999, some artists that weren’t as known in the rest of the region but [who] were pretty known in Argentina and Mexico started recording my songs until I got my big break, which was “Candela” from Chayanne, who’s a big icon in Latin America. He’s a very well-known Puerto Rican songwriter and singer. He recorded two songs that I co-wrote and that was my big break into the market.

Before that I wrote the English version of [Son By Four’s] “A Puro Dolor,” which was a smash hit all over the world in Spanish. But since that was not an original I don’t see it as my first song breaking out. The first song I would say is “Candela,” that brought me my first awards. I was like 23 years old! [Now] there’s been like 200 albums with songs of mine, written or co-written by me, and nearly 45 top singles as well.

Do you approach writing for yourself differently than writing for other people?

The essence is the same. I see this as a business of emotions. People usually see it as whatever’s trending is what you have to write about. I don’t see it like that. I dress the songs about what’s going on at the moment, but I try to keep the essence of the message to be faithful to whatever the artist wants to say at that moment–whatever he or she is going through or whatever he or she wants to express. So, to tell you the truth, I tailor the songs to the person that wants to sing them, and then I tailor my songs to whatever I need to express.

What’s “Back to the Basics” about? Musically, what did you have in mind for the song?

The song is about going back to the basics—to the essentials of life. Probably society was a little lost before all of this started happening, and we were all in this hamster wheel going to work, just running in circles very fast without the moral values that keep us in connection with our inner child.

I’m talking about the essentials of life–kindness and love and compassion and equality and understanding that we all live in the same house called planet Earth. Maybe in different bedrooms—one called the United States and one called Brazil—but all part of the same. We forget that we’re all part of the same race, which is the human race. I think this invisible monster has come to show us that, because we weren’t seeing it clearly.

I don’t remember exactly when it was, but last year I was sitting down with a couple of friends of mine—they’re a duo called SanLuis, from Venezuela—and we were about to write a song and I was nostalgic. I told them, “You know what? I miss music with depth. People are so superficial these days—they’re just worried about the likes and being popular instead of knowing themselves and giving the best of themselves.” And then we said, “Let’s write about this. Let’s write about the things we’re missing about who we should be, not how we should be seen.”

So that’s how it started. The original song is called “Cosas Que Echo de Menos,” and then since I loved it so much I said, “I want this for my album, since it’s something that I really feel as my truth and something that I feel could really open some minds and hearts out there.” But this was way before [COVID-19] happened. 

Then, two days before [public health officials] asked us to [stay at home], I was writing the English version of the song, which is “Back to the Basics.” I couldn’t go back to the studio to record this song. It is part of my album, and it was already set to go out in March. It’s the kind of coincidence that you’re not expecting but has everything to do with the moment. It’s a Nostradamus kind of song. But now it makes even more sense than it made back then, because a hug or a kiss is a lethal weapon.

“Back to the Basics” / “Cosas Que Echo de Menos” is out now.

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