Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Ivan Cornejo’s Mexican American Heartache

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Four years ago, when Ivan Cornejo was a junior in high school, he had a meeting with his family to announce that he was dropping out. His parents were alarmed, of course, but his older sister, Pamela, had a more sympathetic reaction, because she also happened to be his manager, and she knew that he wasn’t bluffing when he said that he had to focus on his career. By the time of his announcement, Cornejo was becoming a star on Instagram, where he posted videos of himself singing and strumming his guitar. But, unlike many Instagram kids, he hardly seemed like a kid at all. His specialty was plaintive love songs, delivered in a voice that suggested he was already starting to suspect that romance might be more trouble than it was worth. Not long after he quit school, he released “Está Dañada,” the lament of a boy hoping to make an impression on a hopeless girl. “Está dañada del amor / No siente ningún dolor,” he sang—“She’s damaged by love / She doesn’t feel any pain”—emphasizing the sentiment by enveloping himself in reverb and bending his notes downward, as if he were literally melting with heartache.

“Está Dañada” was a hit—and a demonstration of the rising importance of two overlapping musical domains. One was the frictionless world of streaming, where there are scarcely any limits to how widely a song can spread. The other was the world of Latin music, which was once treated by the American recording industry as a peripheral enterprise but increasingly occupies a place near its center. In the late twenty-tens, a visionary from Puerto Rico known as Bad Bunny began reeling off a string of danceable hits, transforming the locally grown genre of reggaetón and achieving the kind of Anglophone cultural dominance that had generally been denied to Spanish-language performers. (Last fall, Bad Bunny hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live”; Spotify currently lists him as the twenty-first most listened-to musician in the world.) A song like “Está Dañada,” an acoustic recording with traditional Mexican guitars, might not seem closely related to Bad Bunny, but in fact it was a sly tribute to the growing success and interconnectedness of Latin music. In Cornejo’s lyrics, a girl dances to reggaetón, singing along. “Todas las noches, cantando la canción,” Cornejo rasps, and, while “la canción” means “the song,” here it also refers to “LA CANCIÓN,” a hit collaboration between Bad Bunny and J Balvin, from Colombia, which Cornejo quotes in the next line. Three years after its release, “Está Dañada” has been streamed more than a quarter of a billion times on Spotify.

Cornejo recently turned twenty, and he is still managed by his sister, who is also his roommate: they live together in North Hollywood, and on the weekends they often visit their parents in Riverside, about an hour east of Los Angeles. Cornejo was born in California but spent his early years in Michoacán, Mexico, his parents’ home state—they wanted to make sure that he understood their native country. He returned to the United States at age six, which was around the time he persuaded his father, a truck driver, to buy him a guitar at a flea market. He picked up bits and pieces of music that he heard at home: the Beatles songs his mother loved, the Mexican ballads his father preferred, and a wistful instrumental composition by the Argentinean guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla, which teen-agers everywhere know as the musical theme of the video game The Last of Us.

When Cornejo started writing his own songs, he was influenced by a new generation of Mexican and Mexican American acts, like T3R Elemento and Eslabon Armado, who were popularizing a slangy, emo-inflected version of the Mexican style known as sierreño—the lyrics were in Spanish, but the subgenre was sometimes known, in English, as “sad sierreño.” Cornejo’s first mini-album, from 2021, was titled “Alma Vacía” (“Empty Soul”); the cover depicted him holding his bloody heart in his left hand, with a hole in his white sweatshirt where it used to be.

“I always say this genre’s like emo soul music, emo folk,” he told me one afternoon. He is small and soft-spoken, and tends to wear black: slacks and blazers onstage, hooded sweatshirts offstage. Last year, Cornejo signed with Interscope Records, and on this day he was perfecting tracks for his major-label début, “Mirada” (“Gaze”), which he plans to release this month. He had never been to a concert before he began playing his own; his crowd is young, and predominantly Mexican American, although this demographic may be starting to change. At a recent meet and greet, after a sold-out concert in Bakersfield, California (venue capacity: three thousand), a man who did not speak Spanish told Cornejo that, despite the language barrier, Cornejo’s music had changed his life. Cornejo knows that most of his fans expect Spanish lyrics, which is what he has given them—mainly. In “Noche de Relajo,” the first song he ever recorded, he accentuated the initial chorus by saying, to his engineer, “Fuck these hos—am I right, Randy?” (This ad-lib was omitted from a rerecorded version.) And earlier this year he released a Spanish-language song with an English title, “Baby Please,” that seems like a tease. “It’s just hinting that maybe, in the future, I might release an English track—when I’m ready,” he said.

In other ways, Cornejo’s work is already distinctively hybrid. His dark, echoey sound was partly inspired by one of his favorite bands, Cigarettes After Sex, a hazy indie act that he listens to on the road to wind down after concerts. One of the band’s best-known songs is “K.,” about a lost love, and so Cornejo was moved to write “J.,” in which the lovelorn protagonist makes a memorable wish: “Quiero que te trate con respeto ese pendejo.” (More or less: “I hope that asshole treats you with respect.”) Another of his new songs, “Donde Estás,” starts relatively traditionally, with waltzing acoustic guitar, and then makes way for an unexpectedly languorous electric-guitar solo that evokes another of Cornejo’s favorite bands, Arctic Monkeys. “We try our best to keep in mind our fans that are just used to very regional things,” he said, and in this context “regional” is shorthand for “regional Mexican,” a catchall term for many of the country’s native genres, including sierreño.

On his new album, Cornejo wants to expand his fans’ expectations. He has recorded a version of “Quiero Dormir Cansado,” by the Mexican singer Emmanuel, turning a big, dramatic love song from 1980 into an achy late-night lament. When he played it for his parents, he was pleased and amused that they didn’t initially recognize it. Another new song is buoyed, halfway through, by a call-and-response chorus—an idea that, Cornejo admits, he may have got from the 2012 hit “Another Love,” by the English singer Tom Odell, although it also channels the Rolling Stones. The song had begun, he explained, as something more indie rock, but he retrofitted it with conventional Mexican instruments: acoustic guitar; tololoche, which is close to an upright bass; trombone. He intentionally kept the original time signature. “Usually, a regional Mexican song is 3/4, and then this song is 4/4,” he said. “So it’s a unique sound, in a song with regional elements.” The equivocal identity of his music complements the stubbornness of his lyrics, which tend to describe a guy who is hopelessly and unapologetically hung up. “It’s about promising myself that I was going to change—promising myself that I wasn’t going to talk about her anymore,” he said, laughing, about another song he was working on. “And then breaking that promise.”

Nir Seroussi, an Israel-born executive who fell in love with Spanish-language music, spent most of the twenty-tens with Sony Music Latin, which, like many Latin labels, is based in Miami. He now runs the Miami office of Interscope Capitol Labels Group, which is pointedly not called Interscope Latin. “I have an allergic reaction to the word ‘Latin,’ ” he told me. “Because it’s what segregated us. Saying ‘Latin’ kind of felt like, ‘There’s a ceiling.’ ” The label’s Spanish-language performers include Karol G, a chameleonic pop star from Colombia. “Karol G did a stadium tour in the U.S.—she sold more tickets than a lot of big general-market artists,” he told me. “I like defending the underdog, until they’re not. And we’re not the underdog anymore.”

It was Seroussi who signed Cornejo to Interscope, impressed by both his following and his perfectionism—Cornejo can spend weeks tinkering with a vocal melody before he feels that it’s right. By the time the deal was announced, last August, the explosion of interest in Spanish-language music had spread to regional Mexican songs, which were once considered peripheral even within Latin music. That has lately changed because of streetwise young stars like Natanael Cano, from Sonora, and Peso Pluma, from Jalisco, who is one of the biggest Mexican singers on the planet, and whose kingpin swagger inspires a combination of ardor and disapproval that recalls the gangsta-rap controversies of the nineteen-nineties. At a recent frenetic performance in New York, at the Governors Ball festival, Pluma put some news headlines on the screen, including one from a Spanish-language version of the New York Times, which read “PESO PLUMA Y EL DEBATE SOBRE LA NARCOCULTURA.” Cornejo’s shows are markedly more subdued: at Sueños, a Spanish-language festival in Chicago, he descended from the stage to walk next to the crowd, handing out red roses. But the two artists admire each other, and they sing a song together on Pluma’s new album, “ÉXODO”; the song—called “Reloj,” or “clock”—is about ex-lovers who ran out of time.

Like the broader term “Latin music,” the narrower term “regional Mexican music” is not universally beloved. Carín León, a singer from Sonora who is more roots-minded than Cornejo, has been photographed wearing a T-shirt that makes clear his ambitions: “F*CK REGIONAL: Este Movimiento Es Global.” Naturally, no singer likes to be told that his music is only for certain people, or that his career can only get so big. (León is scheduled to play Madison Square Garden in October.) And yet “regional Mexican” is a useful term, because it points to a real phenomenon: a huge and loosely defined community of musicians and listeners, one that is capacious enough to accommodate an inspired outlier like Cornejo. “If you map out ‘regional Mexican,’ he would be on the outer rim,” Seroussi told me—and he meant it as high praise. ♦

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