Nothing to Lose: The Ballad of Tall Juan
Written and Photographed by Rick Perez
Far Rockaway, Queens
It was raining as I stepped off the A train onto an unfamiliar platform. The air held a hint of salt, a smell I haven’t experienced in awhile. I was about an hour outside of Brooklyn, in a town by the sea called Far Rockaway, Queens. The rain calmly pattered on my shoulders as I walked to a little house on the banks of Jamaica Bay. I was meeting with Juan Zaballa, the musician everyone knows as Tall Juan.
Tall Juan has been circulating throughout the NYC music scene for some time now. He’s played with a number of prominent bands, has toured extensively throughout Europe, and even has a few write ups in the Deli Magazine. I didn’t get a chance to experience a Tall Juan show until The Summer’s End Music Festival in Brooklyn, where myself and the San Francisco journalist Garrett Riley were covering the event for BoC.
The house on the banks of Jamaica Bay stood alone between two empty lots, and as I entered the house I was greeted by Juan and his two roommates. I was welcomed into an extremly calm setting, and was a little surprised that Juan himself reflected the environment. I half expected Juan to be the wild man I saw on stage two months ago.
We each poured our respective drinks (Juan his wine, me my beer) and he began to tell me his life story, beginning with his childhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Juan Zaballa, like many musicians, started playing guitar with his friends at a young age. He began to regularly play shows at the age of 15, and by the time he turned 18 he was recruited by Fantasmagoria, a popular Argentinian band that Juan looked up to.
After 5 years, however, Juan grew tired of the stagnant music scene in Buenos Aires. “It’s bubble,” explained Juan, “Everything that is going on is right in front of you. You can’t play as many shows as the U.S.”
He continued, “Here you can tour and go to Europe and Japan. It’s not as easy in Argentina. It’s a hustle. I’m down to sacrifice for my music, but I wasn’t getting as much back.”
His boredom was also due to lack of creative freedom. As a songwriter, Juan found himself unfulfilled. “I was doing music for someone else’s band, and I had things that I wanted to express. My needs weren’t being fulfilled.”
Juan rolled up a cigarette as I thought of my own reasons for leaving San Diego, where I had grown up. Similarly to Juan, San Diego wasn’t fulfilling my needs, either. My reasons were only validated by the people who encouraged me to go and pursue my dreams. It was because of them that I made the decision to move.
For Juan, his move to New York City was motivated by his sister, a musician who was already living there, and Camela, a childhood friend. Their reassurance provoked Juan to sell everything and relocate to New York City.
“Were you scared?” I asked Juan, recalling my initial fear of moving to New York.
“Not really,” he said reassuringly. “I didn’t expect anything, and I had nothing to lose.”
During the first few years in the United States, Juan was tackling a new language and finding his voice as a musician. Though he performed a lot with his sister, Juan didn’t feel like he was ready to perform on his own. It wasn’t until his friend, roommate, and fellow musician Juan Waters, encouraged him to play by himself.
“I wasn’t feeling that confident playing my own stuff,” recalls Juan. “My first show was at a house in Bushwick. I only had two songs, I remember sitting in the chair, and my leg was shaking.”
Juan has come a long way since his first show at that house in Bushwick. Now, Tall Juan seems to know who he is as a performer. I asked if he planned every move and antic on stage, or if his performance was improvised.
“It depends on my mood,” explains Juan, “One show I may close my eyes and don’t move, another show I might be sad and get angry and do crazier shit, I don’t know.”
The sun was setting as our conversation went on. Juan turned on the kitchen light and poured himself another glass of wine. As I cracked open another beer, I asked him which emotion his music stems from.
“I don’t know if you would call it, frustration?” he seemingly asked himself, “I started writing a lot when this girl broke up with me.”
Sitting back down with his wine, Juan went on to tell me about his first relationship in New York. He was fresh to the city and knew very little english. She was a model who spoke no Spanish, so the poor communication caused a lot of frustration. “You feel dumb, but you’re not dumb, there’s just a language barrier.” Their break up inspired him to write a lot of songs about her and the situation he was going through. He still continues to write about feelings of frustration, and often times telling stories of people leaving people and others just wanting to live.
“Why is that so important for you to express?’ I asked.
“It’s something I feel a lot. I don’t want it stay inside me. It could be like a cancer if you don’t sing what you feel.”
Juan doesn’t just sing about his own emotions, but also of the feelings of the people around him. If his friend gets his heart broken, Juan writes about it. If another friend tries to kill himself, Juan puts that experience into a song. He allows himself to step in the shoes of the people who are going through rough times, singing their stories of pain. It’s way to show that he cares about them and their struggles.
The sun had finally set as I left the house on the banks of Jamaica Bay. The rain created an atmosphere of reflection, and I let the whole experience sink in. I thought about Juan’s passion leading him to an entirely different country, and how difficult it must have been to try to express yourself and learn a new language at the same time. This extra layer of struggle has helped him find his voice and has shaped him into one of the most memorable performers in New York. The ballad of Tall Juan isn’t just a story about a musician moving to New York City; it’s about an immigrant living his American dream.