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Why Edgar Barrera’s New Era In Latin Music Is His Biggest Yet — And How He’s Crossing Over to the Mainstream

A unique phenomenon occurred on Billboard’s Latin charts in January 2021: Songwriter-producer Edgar Barrera scored No. 1s on the four genre charts: pop, rhythm, tropical and regional Mexican airplay. The songs were Camilo’s “Vida de Rico,” Maluma’s “Hawái,” Marc Anthony and Daddy Yankee’s “De Vuelta Pa’ la Vuelta” and Christian Nodal’s “Dime Cómo Quieres,” respectively. Eleven months later, Barrera — who is also known as Edge — took home the 2021 Latin Grammy for producer of the year.

The back-to-back honors marked the start of a new era for the fresh-faced 31-year-old, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary as a professional musician in 2022. During that decade, he has placed 74 entries on the Hot Latin Songs chart and spent seven weeks on Billboard’s Songwriters list, one of them at No. 1.

A hallmark of Barrera’s success is his ability to move fluidly across genres, crafting hits for regional Mexican acts (Banda El Recodo, Grupo Firme), pop (CNCO, Sebastián Yatra), urban (Farruko, Rauw Alejandro) and tropical (Anthony, Silvestre Dangond), while working closely with Camilo, Nodal and Maluma. He has collaborated with mainstream U.S. artists Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes and has songs with Camila Cabello in the works.

Raised near the border between Roma, Texas, and Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, Barrera grew up with both languages and cultures. As a teen, he hustled his music by handing out custom CDs to artists, many of whom ignored him. One who didn’t was Kumbia Kings’ Luigi Giraldo, who helped him land an internship with songwriter-producer Andrés Castro (Carlos Vives, Shakira) in 2010. With $1,300 in his pocket, Barrera made the 1,500-plus-mile drive to Castro’s Miami studio in a run-down 2000 Malibu with a broken stereo.

“Edgar is that rarest of writers — a triple threat who is equally at home writing and producing hit singles for the Latin market as he is for the regional Mexican and domestic markets,” says Jorge Mejía, president/CEO of Sony Music Publishing Latin America & U.S. Latin, who signed Barrera in 2012 in a deal that included creating his own publishing company, 11 Once.

In February, Barrera launched his BorderKid label, a joint venture with Sony Music U.S. Latin. He says he’s most excited about the opportunity to break artists. “I understand the business, but my focus is not the money,” he says. “If I’m not passionate about a project, I’m not doing it.”

Your new label is called BorderKid. Why?

It’s my connection between cultures. I’m always in the middle. I was raised on the border of Mexico and the U.S. I just released the label’s first record. It’s a song called “Te Marqué Pedo (I Drunk-Dialed You),” recorded by a duo from Mexico, Alex Luna and DAAZ, and Christian Nodal. I co-wrote it, and it has gone viral on TikTok. [The song also has over 12 million streams on Spotify and made the service’s global viral chart.]

Latin music is growing faster than other genres. What do you consider to be the essential elements of a crossover hit?

It has to connect with the audience. Records have to speak the way that younger generations speak. That’s why you see so many up-and-coming artists connecting with audiences while artists with longer careers are having trouble. Songs that chart are songs that go viral on TikTok. But that’s tricky. Whenever I’m in the studio and [the artist] starts talking TikTok, it automatically makes the songwriting process feel forced and not legitimate. Features should be natural.

You write melodies, but lyrics are more your thing. What is your approach there?

It has to do with the essence of the artist. When I write, I write with the artists, and the songs have to feel real to them. With Maluma’s “Hawái,” audiences connected to that song’s backstory [which was Maluma’s then-recent breakup with a girlfriend]. It was the same thing with Camilo and “Vida de Rico.” That song feels real for Camilo, who comes from nothing. If he sings about swag, he won’t connect.

I’m not a songwriter with a folder of songs that I’m shopping around. I help artists write their stories. I have artists who tell me, “I want to sound like Maluma or Camilo,” and I say, “But you’re not Maluma or Camilo.”

How do you describe yourself as a songwriter?

I’m the one whose words reflect reality, without too much poetry. I’m the one who says, “It’s very pretty, what you post on Instagram” [referencing “Hawái”].

You have written and produced on Camilo’s two albums, 2020’s Por Primera Vez and 2021’s Mis Manos. How would you describe writing with him?

He’s one of the few people with whom I can be very realistic and transparent, and I think he feels the same. That’s why we get along so well when we write together. We can do crazy, silly things. We play off each other.

What is the process like with Maluma and Christian Nodal?

I would go on tour with [Maluma] and build a studio wherever he was — in his hotel, in his tour buses, on airplanes — wherever we were inspired. We’ve become very good friends. With Christian, I’ve never recorded him in a studio. I have my little backpack where I keep all my studio equipment. I take that with me, record the vocal guide, put some cushions around us for the sound, and we record. With these artists, there’s a 20- to 30-minute window of time, and you need to do it right. You have to capture it in the moment.

Is there a similar distinction between writing a pop or regional song with just a couple of collaborators and an urban track that sometimes has more than 10?

The urban and pop worlds are very different. In urban, the producer is a songwriter. The beat of the song many times is an integral part of the song. Sometimes the engineer has songwriting credit. Sometimes the manager does, too. (Laughs.) I respect each person’s approach to their business, but I have mine.

You don’t have a manager. Why not?

I like to have direct contact with people. All my negotiations are different, so it’s easier for me to do it directly. I like the business, and I like to be involved in the business. I know everything that’s coming in or going out of all my accounts. But I’d like to find a manager who can bring stuff to the table.

In 2019, you co-wrote and co-produced “boyfriend” for Ariana Grande. How did that come together?

It was the first song that I worked on that was written 100% in English. I later worked on Selena Gomez’s Spanish-language project. The challenge is to work with mainstream artists and open the door to their market, which is still very closed off to Latin artists. But now we’re being seen differently.

You recently wrote with Camila Cabello as well.

Camila Cabello is a big fan of Camilo, and Shawn Mendes fell in love with Camilo’s music. Camila made a playlist for their producer, Ricky Reed, who looked at the credits and said, “I know this guy.” We had worked on a Bomba Estéreo album [in 2016]. Turns out Ricky was the producer on a Bomba track I wrote with Camilo years ago [the first track Camilo and Barrera ever recorded together]. Everything is connected, no? So he called me and said, “Hey, Edgar, what are you doing? Camila wants to meet you.”

When you interned for Andrés Castro, what helped you break through as a producer and composer?

I was the guy who cleaned the sessions [ensuring that no sound elements competed with the musical performances]. One day, Omar Alfanno [the Panamanian singer-songwriter who wrote “Purest of Pain” and “El Gran Varón”] came to the studio to work with Andrés on a song for Thalía. Because I was 20, I was the target audience, so they asked for my opinion. I didn’t know who Omar was, so I was brutally honest and said I didn’t really like it. He asked why. It was a song about writing letters. I told him, “I don’t send letters. I don’t know anyone who does,” and he said, “OK, I’ll give you five minutes to improve it.” I wrote a chorus about flying with paper wings, and Omar liked it. He turned his chair around and told Andrés: “Let’s have the kid write with us.” A few days later, they took me with them to the Sony Latin offices. I went from intern to songwriter in a week.

What was your split of the song?

Equal parts. I’ll always be thankful to Andrés and Omar. [Alfanno and Castro helped Barrera create his Once 11 publishing company.] Andrés is the master Jedi. He was best man at my wedding. Working with him was a schooling. Thanks to Andrés, I met Maluma, who used to go to the studio to write with Andrés when he was just starting out. I told Andrés I had an idea for Maluma. He showed it to him, and he liked it. It was our first song, “Sin Contrato.”

***

Tributes

Barrera’s artist collaborators share what makes him stand out most.

Edgar Barrera and Camilo pose in the press room during The 22nd Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Maluma: “Edgar Barrera is not just a musician — he’s a visionary. He understands different musical planes and makes them all sound so natural, as if each genre were a part of him. We have great empathy in the studio, but what truly defines us is brotherhood.”

Christian Nodal: “Aside from being like a brother to me, Edgar is a truly talented being who writes with his heart in his hand. He knows how to mix genres perfectly. Regional Mexican and norteño flow through his blood. I admire and respect him a lot. He’s devoted 24/7 to music. Be it for love of the art or love of business, he’s always thinking about music.”

Camilo: “Edgar and I have a deep connection because of the honest love that he has for songwriting. His devotion to melodies and lyrics that connect to the heart is the main reason that we have chemistry. That blend of honesty, of love and respect for the craft, is a treasure to me. He’s a great friend.”

Mau y Ricky Montaner: “Edgar is a secret weapon. He filters your ideas and maximizes them. He’s a key element in the studio but also in life. A great guy.”

Andrés Castro: “Edgar is a combination of humility, talent, responsibility, dedication and intelligence when it comes to business. There’s not many of those. When he arrived at my studio at 19 years old, he came to learn, but he also taught me many things. Aside from his friendship, he’s one of the people I most admire in the industry.”

This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.

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