meta-scriptKali Uchis On What It Means To Be A Latin "Crossover" Star In The 21st Century | GRAMMY.com
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Kali Uchis 

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Kali Uchis On What It Means To Be A Latin "Crossover" Star In The 21st Century

Kali Uchis also discusses her first GRAMMY win with Kaytranada and her upcoming Spanish-language collaboration with SZA

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2021 - 02:21 am

Kali Uchis still remembers the reactions she would get when she was crafting her first Spanish-language record, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), which was released late last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "You're going backward in your career doing this. This isn't going to get supported," she would hear. “Well, this is what I want to do,” the Colombian-American singer would answer. That album, a body of work that captures her isolation and is a cross-pollination between haunting boleros, downtempo trip-hop, and a splash of reggaeton, ended up landing on the Billboard 200 and received glowing reviews around the web. "I really just make music for the love of it, not for the same reasons that others would," Uchis tells GRAMMY.com over the phone as she’s about to board a boat in Miami. “A lot of people just look at it as a business.”

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Going against the grain is exactly what Karly-Marina Loaiza has always done. (At one point, her unwavering determination to her art, and self, led her to live in her car during her teens.) Sticking to her guns is finally reaping the rewards, especially now that Latin music is consumed on a global scale and continues to become one of the fastest-rising genres in the U.S. Yet, while Latin music has been increasingly dominating mainstream airwaves worldwide—most notably since reggaeton's second explosion in the mid-'10s—Uchis is among the few successful crossover stars who didn't have to conform to the demanding and dominating rhythms of reggaeton. She's been helping forge her path, leading a new rising Latin R&B scene alongside other bilingual luminaries like Omar Apollo and Paloma Mami.

Recently, she achieved a major accomplishment in the music industry: her first GRAMMY for her song "10%" with Kaytranada. From here, Uchis can only go higher. Her latest music video "Telepatía" has already garnered nearly 20 million views in just two weeks since its release. The R&B singer is planning to hit the road again this fall and also has a collaboration with SZA underway: "I really admire her as a woman, as a creator and as a writer, so I was honored to help segue her into her first song singing in Spanish," she says. 

Just as her songs can easily tap into the depths of human emotion, with equal parts soul and grit, the 26-year-old star candidly reflects on her career with a social and critical lens. Chill yet assertive, Kali Uchis taps into racial and gender politics, all while redefining what it means to be a Latin "crossover" star in the 21st Century.  

Hi Kali! First of all, congratulations on your first GRAMMY win. When your name was announced, what went through your head?

I was in Mexico filming a commercial, and Jenn Nkiru who was directing it also won a GRAMMY for directing the Beyoncé video ["Brown Skin Girl."] We both found out that we won a short time between each other, and we were both freaking out. She went to the other room to go do a thank you speech, and I didn't really take it in because I had to be on camera. But I so couldn't focus while on set because I was like, "Oh my god, we won a GRAMMY." I need to get on my phone, make a post and thank everybody.

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On your video for "Telepatía," viewers see you in Pereida, Colombia. What would you like your fans to see or know about the place of your heritage?

Since the first day that I came up with the name Kali Uchis, I was in Colombia. I have a home there, too. My first years of education were in Pereida. I spent a lot of time there going back and forth. I left to be able to have both worlds, and that's how I've lived my whole life. For me, it was always really important to represent. That's why a lot of my first videos take place there, in the streets that I played in when I was a little kid. It’s really about never forgetting where you come from.  

Everybody there [in Colombia] is so proud of me and the kids are always so happy that I'm there. At the end of the day, I feel so loved and supported by my community. That's what my dream has always been. Anybody who knows me knows I'm so proud of both of my homes [the U.S. and Colombia], and growing up that way is what contributed to a lot of who I am as a person and as an artist, the way that I see the world, and the way that I listen to music. No matter where you come from and who you are, as long as you keep working and stay true to yourself, you'll get where you want to go. 

Your parents are Colombian, you were born in Virginia and are an L.A. resident. Describe your personal connection with these places.    

There’s just so much that comes with being multicultural. I feel love for the DMV area because that's where I'm from, northern [Virginia.] When I lived there, I never really felt embraced. I always felt like people were always like, "Oh, you're not from here. You don't dress like you're from here. Your music doesn't sound like you're from here." When I was really little, we lived in an area called Chirilagua, where there’s a large Latin community. It's pretty much all Salvadorians. I love Salvadorians, and I love the Latin community there. At the end of the day, all I ever really wanted was to show love to my community and receive that love in return. It's a beautiful thing to be accepted by people in general. 

Moving to L.A., I felt very accepted and loved. L.A. is also my home. When I go to Colombia, I feel the same thing. And when it came to VA, I never fully felt that way, like I didn't belong there as much. I think that was what made it difficult to grow as an artist there and the main reason why I left. Aside from the fact that I really don't have many family members there either. My parents live in Colombia. I think it's a situation of "go where you're loved, go where you're supported." That's what I always tell everybody, no matter where you come from or who you are, just go where you're loved and supported, and try to represent where you come from the best you can. It's really complicated, and it's really interesting.

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How has that transmigrational experience played a role in your musical development? 

I feel like it’s what contributed to people looking at me as a niche artist, or even me looking at myself as a niche artist. I’m okay with that. I feel like part of being a niche artist is that you can't be categorized from one place, yet somehow that makes it harder to market artists. In my case, it was like, "Where is she from? She's from here, but she's also from there." It’s just more things that contribute to you not being able to be boxed into one category. Even some people now will be like, "Colombian-American, what does that even mean?" A lot of people still don't even understand what it means to be a dual citizen. For some reason, they just can't grasp how someone could have two homes, or two cultures, or more than two [nationalities]. I think that has been a blessing and a curse for me. It goes both ways, but I also wouldn't have it any other way.

It certainly brings some challenging layers, especially when one’s developing their identity, but I believe it makes creative growth more enriching. 

Yeah, not just as artists, but as human beings. I think the most important thing is to figure out and know who you are, and not let society [determine that]. Just the idea of borders and of people obsessing with one's nationality is a very strange societal norm. Don't ever limit yourself based on those things.

In your last video, we also see you portrayed as a retro Hollywood chanteuse and then a little more Latin-styled with a sultry edgy. Who are your fashion and style icons? 

Most of my life I have been inspired by not being able to be defined or confined to only one style. For me, being versatile, experimenting with genres, with style and never identifying as one [singular] look or anything. That's what really helped me make my life of creation fun and worthwhile—experimenting. Otherwise, you end up limiting yourself when you do one thing. In general, I'm a very nostalgic person. I love to mix futuristic things sometimes. I love the ‘90s, and I also love the ‘60s and ‘70s. Women being expressive with their sexuality, women being tomboys. 

I think gender identity and gender norms are another way that people try to restrict and confine us. I definitely had my own personal experiences with coming into my femininity and understanding what femininity was for me. Even now as an adult, I'm still realizing like, okay, I don't always have to be so glam in order to feel like me. Or, I don't have to have my identity attached to this certain brand to make me more comfortable. I'm trying to wear less makeup and just play with different styles and stuff. Just experimenting.

Thinking now as an adult, I realize that certain things in the ‘90s were actually appropriation. For instance, I never realized a certain hairstyle was called bantu knots, and that it came from an African tribe. Growing up in the ‘90s, you just saw No Doubt’s [Gwen Stefani] and Björk wearing these hairstyles and later realized that they were taking it from Black women. I think that's something that you have to be careful about, when you look at some of these older ‘90s styles, a lot of it is appropriation. Become more aware of that, and learn more about where things actually come from. That’s the most important thing to do when it comes to style. Educate yourself about what you're wearing.

On Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)—meaning Without Fear (of Love and Other Demons)—what does the title represent to you?

Sin Mideo was a phrase that pushed me to never [live life without fear]. I feel like everybody should live life without fear. We only have one life. You shouldn't live it for anybody else. You should do what makes you happy. As long as you're not hurting anybody else, you should do what feels good for you and be who you want to be, whatever that is. Sin Miedo also captured the essence of isolation. All of my songs come from my own personal experiences. So when I made the album, I was thinking, "What type of state of mind was I in when I made all this music?" Isolated. I was literally not talking to anybody. I didn't have any friends around me. I was living by myself in this L.A. apartment, very lonely and separate. It's something my aunt used to always say to me growing up, "Sin Miedo, sin miedo." My first tattoo was also "Sin Miedo. Sin Miedo is really a state of mind. I think the most important thing as an artist is to never lose your mind and vision, and as a human, to never lose your soul.

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Aaliyah in 2001
Aaliyah in 2001.

Photo: Sal Idriss/Redferns

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8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

More than 20 years after her untimely death and 30 since her debut album, 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number,' Aaliyah's legacy lives on through female R&B artists of generations new and old. Dig into her impact, from her fearlessness to her fashion sense.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:39 pm

With worldwide sales of 32 million, five GRAMMY nominations, and more than a dozen Hot 100 hits to her name, Aaliyah achieved more in her tragically cut-short 22 years than most would several lifetimes over. And more than two decades after her untimely death, the female R&B scene is still very much indebted to her pioneering talents.

In the last few years alone, she's been namechecked by Beyoncé, sampled by SZA and Normani, and covered by Mariah the Scientist and Sinead Harnett. And that's only on a sonic level. Ella Mai and Mahalia also recreated her signature tomboyish look in their video for "What You Did," as did Jhené Aiko on " P*$$Y Fairy (OTW)." Justine Skye and Sevyn Streeter are just a few of the names who paid their respects in 2023 ABC tribute Superstar. And going further back, Aaliyah has also been cited as a major source of inspiration by Ciara, Tinashe, Nelly Furtado, and Rihanna, while Katy B and Jessie Ware even named their "Jolene"-esque duet after their musical icon.

And thanks to Aaliyah's innovative second and third studio efforts, 1996's One In A Million and 2001's Aaliyah, finally escaping from licensing limbo in 2021, those growing up in the streaming age are now discovering her supremely sultry voice, masterly interpretative skills, and array of forward-thinking hits, too. In the last three years, the likes of "Try Again" and "Are You That Somebody" have racked up more than 140 ad 170 million streams, respectively, on Spotify alone.

But why exactly does the singer nicknamed Baby Girl still have such a hold on contemporary artists, several of whom were barely out of diapers when she was busy tearing up the R&B rulebook? To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, here's a look at how the "street but sweet" star built up such an inspirational legacy.

She Knew How To Use Her Voice 

Aaliyah arrived at a time when powerhouses Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were the dominant female singers. But the New Yorker quickly proved that lung-busting multiple octaves isn't the only way to vocally impress.

Aaliyah was still capable of such acrobatics. According to producer Daryl Simmons, she would often rely on opera runs before recording to warm up her voice; Diane Warren, who worked with the star on ballad "The One I Gave My Heart To," has spoken of how she was taken aback by her versatility. But Aaliyah's signature delivery was very much "less is more." You can hear her sensual, featherlight tones in the likes of Kelela, Rochelle Jordan, and The Internet's Syd, the latter of whom has specifically hailed Aaliyah as a formative influence on her own cooler-than-cool style.

She Retained An Air Of Mystery 

Aaliyah's less-is-more approach also applied to her public profile. Perhaps due to the controversy surrounding her relationship with debut album producer R. Kelly, the singer largely preferred to let her music do the talking.

Even when she did speak to the press, she kept her cards close to her chest. And she avoided giving the more salacious outlets any further ammunition by growing up away from the spotlight. If they were looking for celebrity beefs, love triangles or stumbling out of nightclubs, they had to look elsewhere.

In the social media era where oversharing is the norm, Aaliyah's desire to keep her private life entirely private now seems both admirable and practically impossible. But there are still several artists who've recognized there's a power in retaining a sense of mystery. Just look at Sault, the enigmatic collective said to be fronted by the Aaliyah-esque Cleo Sol, who've released 11 albums and evenperformed live without officially revealing their true identities.

She Was A Triple Threat 

Triple threats are par for the course these days. From Beyoncé and Rihanna to Brandy and Nicki Minaj, almost every female R&B star now seems determined to show they can pull off singing, dancing and acting — and, in the case of Jennifer Lopez's recent passion project, all at the same time. But Aaliyah was one of the first to showcase such impressive versatility.

In 2000 thriller Romeo Must Die, she stole the show from Jet Li as the daughter of a crime lord who refuses to get drawn into his dangerous underworld. And thanks to an inventive blend of wirework and futuristic choreography, she was equally spellbinding in the video for tie-in single "Try Again." 

Meanwhile, her slithery performance as the titular bloodsucker was by far the standout in 2001 horror Queen of the Damned. Having landed key roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Sparkle shortly before her untimely death, Aaliyah's movie career would undoubtedly have ascended to the same lofty heights as her musical.

She Wasn't Afraid To Take Control 

Don't be fooled by Aaliyah's softly spoken vocals and coy demeanor. The star was never afraid to tell it like it is. Just ask A&R executive Jeff Sledge, who guided her early days with Jive Records. "She was shy but when she would speak, you could tell she was a real artist," he told The Guardian in 2021. "She had her ideas of what she wanted to do and say — she wasn't a puppet."

Although her talents lay as a performer/interpreter rather than a songwriter/producer, Aaliyah continued to exert creative control throughout her discography. While promoting sophomore One In A Million, she told MTV, "I was very confident in my convictions and what I wanted this time around." 

It's a mindset reflected across her lyrical themes, too. On "If Your Girl Only Knew," she hits back at a player whose attention she's unwillingly caught, while on "Are You That Somebody," she insists on keeping her new beau a secret until he proves his worth.

She Helped Launch Missy Elliott's Career 

Although Missy Elliott had started to make waves in the music industry — firstly in short-lived girlband Sista, and then as writer/producer for Jodeci and Aaron Hall — it was her partnership with Timbaland and Aaliyah on 1996's One In A Million where she truly established herself as an R&B game-changer. Elliott co-penned nine tracks, including the singles "Hot Like Fire," "4 Page Letter" and "If Your Girl Only Knew," her sensual melodic hooks the perfect foil for Timbaland's innovative beats.

By the time their crowning glory, "Are You That Somebody," dropped in 1998, Elliott had become a star in her own right: maintaining the synergy, her debut album, 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, also boasted a guest appearance from Aaliyah. But as Elliott told Entertainment Weekly in a tribute to Aaliyah after her passing, their connection went far beyond the studio: "It was more of a family vibe than just work. We could tell each other anything." Over the next few years, both established (Whitney, Mariah) and emerging (702, Tweet) female talent would follow Aaliyah's lead by utilizing Elliott's production skills.

She Gave The Youth A Voice 

From SWV and En Vogue to Brownstone and Jade, the mid-'90s R&B scene was dominated by ladies well into adulthood. Aaliyah, however, was just 15 when debut Age Ain't Nothing But A Number hit the shelves. Subsequently, a generation of young girls immediately latched on to who they saw as a kindred spirit.

Although Aaliyah always sounded more mature than her years, her debut often reads like a schoolgirl's diary entry. (She even opens the title track by noting one: "May 5, 1993/ Aaliyah's diary/ Got it," goes the often-omitted intro.) Songs about crushes, hanging out with her friends, and partying on the weekend certainly reflected the teenage experience with authenticity (Aaliyah was still attending Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts).

What's more, "Young Nation" essentially finds her spearheading a new youth movement, "keeping it smooth with a jazz attitude.""There were so many messages in her songs that guided me and became the soundtrack to my childhood," British singer Kara Marni told The Guardian, proving that Aaliyah's generational influence extended far beyond her homeland.

She Had A Timeless Sense Of Style 

"There doesn't seem to be a current streetwear trend that Aaliyah didn't sport first," Vogue's fashion editor Janelle Okwodu recently claimed, no doubt referring to everything from bandanas and baggy jeans to sports jerseys and ski hats. From the moment she first graced MTV in overalls, a tracksuit and the chunkiest of leather vests in "Back & Forth," the New Yorker made it crystal clear she wasn't interested in appealing solely to the male gaze.

Aaliyah could dress up for the occasion; see the Roberto Cavalli ballgown she wore to the 2000 VMAs. But her sense of style always leaned more toward the casual and tomboyish end of the spectrum, empowering the next generation of R&B performers to wear exactly what they wanted. British singer Nao was one such follower of her fashion: "There was a part of Aaliyah that made me feel comfortable in rolling out in my denim trousers or in an oversized jumper and knowing that my music can be enough."

She Proved Female R&B Could Think Outside The Box 

TLC's "No Scrubs," Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Amerie's "1 Thing." Think of the most innovative R&B singles of the pre-streaming era and it's likely a female act is responsible. And thanks to a sonic palette that still sounds like it's been sent from the future, Aaliyah undeniably paved the way.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number first established her innovative ways, her mellifluous vocals gliding across Timbaland's progressive beats and bank of avant-garde sound effects. But it was 2001's eponymous LP that truly pushed the genre into various weird and wonderful directions, from the snake-charming classical sample on "We Need A Resolution," to the warped Nine Inch Nails-esque guitars on "What If," to the squelchy sci-fi funk of "Try Again." 

Even when she went classic, as on gorgeous slow jam, "I Care 4 U," she practically invented alternative R&B. Musical boundaries might now be a thing of the past, but in the early '00s, Aaliyah was one of the few breaking them down.

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Photo of Carlos Vives wearing a black shirt, black leather jacket and a silver necklace.
Carlos Vives

Photo: Natalia Gw

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Carlos Vives Named The 2024 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year: What To Know About The Latin Music Icon

Vives will be honored at a star-studded gala leading up to the 2024 Latin GRAMMYs, which this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Latin GRAMMY Awards.

GRAMMYs/May 22, 2024 - 01:53 pm

The Latin Recording Academy today announced that 18-time Latin GRAMMY winner and two-time GRAMMY winner Carlos Vives will be the 2024 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year. He will be honored at a star-studded gala leading up to the 2024 Latin GRAMMYs, which this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Latin GRAMMY Awards.

The heartfelt tribute concert will honor Vives' celebrated career, which spans more than 30 years as a multifaceted singer and composer, and will feature renditions of his renowned repertoire performed by an array of notable artists and friends. In addition to his achievements in music, the 2024 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year gala will honor Vives' continued commitment to environmental and social initiatives.

Details about the coveted event, which takes place during the 2024 Latin GRAMMY Week in Miami, will be announced at a later date.

An architect of Latin music's ongoing evolution and global expansion, Carlos Vives is one of the most respected artists in Spanish-language music around the world. He helped pioneer a new Latin American sound, redefining traditional Colombian vallenato by incorporating pop and rock. The first Colombian to win a GRAMMY Award, he boasts more than 10 billion streams on digital platforms, 20 million albums sold, and enduring hits like "La Gota Fría," "Pa' Mayte," "La Tierra Del Olvido," "Fruta Fresca" and "Volví A Nacer."

Vives has become an ambassador of Colombian and Latin American culture around the world, and his commitment also transcends the musical realm. In 2015, he created the Tras La Perla initiative to promote the sustainable development of Santa Marta and its ecosystem.

In addition, he created the Escuela de Música Río Grande to offer artistic experiences to children and young people and founded the record label Gaira Música Local to promote new Colombian talent. As part of his ongoing commitment to music education, Vives has been a strong advocate and generous supporter of the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation since its inception and sponsored its annual Prodigy Scholarship in 2018.

"Carlos Vives is one of the most prolific and beloved artists of our time, whose commitment to Latin music and support for the new generations truly personifies the values of our Academy," Latin Recording Academy CEO Manuel Abud said in a statement. "We honor him as our Person of the Year for his vast contributions to our musical heritage and for his many philanthropic initiatives."

"I am honored and moved to have been chosen as the 2024 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year. It is the reward for an authentic journey, for a wonderful team, and, above all, it is the recognition of the musical spirits of our Latin American diversity," Vives said in a statement. "These spirits taught us to love and enrich our language, to take care of it, and to respect it in order to exalt humanity with it."

The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honors musicians and their artistic achievements in the Latin music industry as well as their humanitarian efforts. The past honorees are Laura Pausini (2023), Marco Antonio Solís (2022), Rubén Blades (2021), Juanes (2019), Maná (2018), Alejandro Sanz (2017), Marc Anthony (2016), Roberto Carlos (2015), Joan Manuel Serrat (2014), Miguel Bosé (2013), Caetano Veloso (2012), Shakira (2011), Plácido Domingo (2010), Juan Gabriel (2009), Gloria Estefan (2008), Juan Luis Guerra (2007), Ricky Martin (2006), José José (2005), Carlos Santana (2004), Gilberto Gil (2003), Vicente Fernández (2002), Julio Iglesias (2001), and Emilio Estefan (2000).

Net proceeds from the Latin Academy Person of the Year Gala will go toward the charitable work of the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation.

The 2024 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year gala will take place days ahead of the 2024 Latin GRAMMYs, which take place Thursday, Nov. 14, in Miami at Kaseya Center, in partnership with Miami-Dade County and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). The nominations for the 2024 Latin GRAMMYs will be announced Tuesday, Sept. 17.

This year, the Latin Recording Academy will introduce two new Latin GRAMMY categories and a new field: Best Latin Electronic Music Performance, housed within the new Electronic Music Field, and Best Contemporary Mexican Music Album (Regional-Mexican Field). These additions also include several changes, including additional category amendments, to be added to the 2024 Latin GRAMMY Awards Process.

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Tori Kelly
Tori Kelly

Photo: Sarah Morris/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Tori Kelly Gets “Unwrapped” For 'TORI' At GRAMMY U Event Showcasing Production & Recording Techniques From Her New Album

The singer stepped out for GRAMMY U's first "Unwrapped" event to give fans a look deep inside her new record, TORI. Joined by producer and collaborator Tenroc, the pair walked guests through the making of several tracks including "missin u" and "oceans."

GRAMMYs/May 21, 2024 - 10:11 pm

GRAMMY U members got a special treat from Tori Kelly when the singer (and Sing-er) took the stage for the first ever GRAMMY U "Unwrapped" event on May 15. Held at The Novo in downtown Los Angeles, the event brought together fans, music industry professionals, and students for a night that dove deep into the creative process behind Kelly’s brand new record, TORI. Amazon Music and Mastercard were presenting sponsors for this event. 

Joined on stage by producer and collaborator Tenroc, Kelly took fans through a journey of several tracks from her new record, from inception to completion. Kelly discussed each track, aided by a video presentation and using stems to highlight special production techniques, musical intricacies, and cool little Easter eggs. The showcase was followed by a round of live questions from the audience, where Kelly dished about everything from her voiceover work to her pre-studio rituals, before grabbing a guitar and performing two new tracks: "High Water" and "Oceans." 

Here’s a glimpse into all the songs Kelly and Tenroc featured, from "Missin' U" to "Spruce."

"thing u do”

When it came time to make Tori, Kelly told the audience that she wanted to focus on "songs that make [you] wanna dance," and "songs that [anyone] can belt out in the car." Mainly collaborating just with Tenroc, Bellion, Clyde Lawrence, and Jordan Cohen, Kelly put together a record that's strongly influenced by late '90s and early '00s pop, with references to chirping Sidekick phones and plenty of nostalgic vocal effects. 

"missin u" in particular is interesting, not just because it was inspired by Craig David and the U.K. Garage sound — with Kelly taking special care to pronounce "garage" in true British fashion at the live event — but also because it was released in both its original form and as an R&B edit. The latter version is the one Kelly and Tenroc highlighted at the event, going through Kelly's vocal tracks, and really digging in on the remix's bridge, which Kelly wrote just for that track and recorded in her home studio.

Getting to see Tenroc's Logic Pro work on the big screen seemed to mesmerize everyone in attendance, with most marveling at the ease he seemed to have flicking through the dozens of stems, layers, and plug-ins. 

"missin u"

When it came time to make TORI, Kelly told the audience that she wanted to focus on "songs that make [you] wanna dance," and "songs that [anyone] can belt out in the car." Mainly collaborating just with Tenroc, Bellion, Clyde Lawrence, and Jordan Cohen, Kelly put together a record that's strongly influenced by late '90s and early '00s pop, with references to chirping Sidekick phones and plenty of nostalgic vocal effects.

In particular, "missin u" is interesting, not just because it was inspired by Craig David and the U.K. Garage sound — with Kelly taking special care to pronounce "garage" in true British fashion at the live event — but also because it was released in both its original form and as an R&B edit. The latter version is the one Kelly and Tenroc highlighted at the event, going through Kelly's vocal tracks, and really digging in on the remix's bridge, which Kelly wrote just for that track and recorded in her home studio.

Getting to see Tenroc's Logic Pro work on the big screen seemed to mesmerize everyone in attendance, with most marveling at the ease he seemed to have flicking through the dozens of stems, layers, and plug-ins. 

"shelter"

Talking about "shelter," Kelly described a sort of shorthand she'd developed with Tenroc, after working closely together over the past few years. She said they're at the point where they can communicate with "sounds" and "telepathy," a benefit she attributes to not switching producers throughout the making of her record.

Tenroc and Kelly used "shelter" to talk about the comping process, or the act of combining the best parts of different takes into a single track. Kelly said she typically does about five takes of a vocal track, all in different personas: one normal, one shyer, one wild, one with a lot of vocal runs, and one that's sort of a wild card. She can keep each take separate in her mind that way, remembering how she recorded a vowel slightly better in one take or gave a line a little grittier vocal texture in another. It's not something everyone can do, though, and Tenroc said it's truly amazing to witness in person — a fact the live audience could attest to. 

For Kelly, a lot of making TORI, was about exploring different tones and textures of her voice, she said. She'd sometimes start by doing an impression of a singer like Rihanna and Willow in one run, and then blend the inspired version with her own, stretching herself vocally. She demonstrated that kind of thing live at the show, doing off-the-cuff runs of bits of "Shelter" to talk about how they changed the way the word "plate" in the chorus. 

Tenroc also showed off how he used the Little Alterboy plug-in to alter Kelly's voice, turning the rap in "shelter," as well as the "you, you, you, you, you" bit into what sounds like a deep masculine voice, even though those lines were originally laid down by Kelly herself. 

"spruce"

When "spruce" was first being envisioned by Kelly and co-writer Casey Smith, it was a song called "truce" about making up with your loved one before going out on the town. Kelly had been wanting to make a "getting ready, girly song," though, and Bellion came into the studio one day with the idea of merging the two ideas in what became "spruce." 

Written over a loop made by Tenroc, "spruce" — featuring Kim Chaewon of K-Pop group LE SSERAFIM — is emblematic, Kelly said, of her effort to let go, change, and try new things in the studio. The production was inspired by Jai Paul and uses sidechain compression, which is when the level of one instrument or sound triggers a compressor to control the level of another sound. The crowd clearly seemed taken with the sound when Tenroc played examples of how it was used in the track, which he said he made in part with the Serum plugin. Kelly said the result feels fully "3-D," like you're "inside" the track rather than just listening along.

"same girl"

The last — and most personal —song on the record, "same girl," was mostly written by Kelly while she was on a plane. She wanted something that felt like it could close the record, and she recorded it live with Tenroc in her studio, where he also played piano. 

Kelly said the song was inspired by her love of various music styles and genres. She explained, "Coming up as an artist, I always felt a little insecure about trying to stay in one lane and be in one box. I love so many different genres. I'm inspired by so many different things." She continued, "And so finding my sound I always thought that was a bad thing... But I'm grateful for all these different genres I've been able to dabble in. This song was me being overwhelmed by people's opinions and letting it get to me a little bit while thinking of my career as a whole."

Kelly said that while she worried when she was writing that the lyrics would be too personal and too specific, she's had great feedback about the track, something that reminds her that, "Anytime you write about your own experience, someone else out there is going to be able to relate to it." 

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Grupo Frontera Press Photo 2024
Grupo Frontera

Photo: Eric Rojas

interview

Grupo Frontera On 'Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada' & Fully Expressing Themselves: "This Album Was Made From The Heart"

With their second album, regional Mexican music stars Grupo Frontera aim to honor their roots while showing their wide-spanning musical interests. Hear from some of the group on the creation of the album and why it's so special to them.

GRAMMYs/May 16, 2024 - 08:12 pm

In just two years, Grupo Frontera have gone from playing weddings in their native Texas to joining Bad Bunny on stage at Coachella and performing on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." No matter how rapid their rise to fame has become, the Texas sextet has held the same ethos: celebrating their Mexican heritage while embracing the American culture they were born into.

Embracing that balance has helped them transcend cultural barriers with their modern take on regional Mexican music, which incorporates a wide range of musical styles. That holds true on Grupo Frontera's second album, Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada, out now. 

With bright accordion lines and a high-energy blend of urbano party anthems, cumbia-inspired ballads, and forays into pop, the album is a masterful display of the group's mixed cultural background. It retains the same Latin cowboy spirit of their first LP, 2023's El Comienzo — which had roots in the norteño genre, a traditional style originated in Northern Mexico — while tapping into the music they grew up listening to in the States, like hip-hop, corridos tumbados, and country music. 

While El Comienzo introduced Grupo Frontera as loyal traditionalists, Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada aims at speaking to younger generations. It's a fitting approach for the group, whose ages range from early twenties to early thirties across its six members — Alberto "Beto" Acosta, Juan Javier Cantú, Carlos Guerrero, Julian Peña Jr., Adelaido "Payo" Solis III, and Carlos Zamora — that also speaks to their evolution amid their whirlwind success. It's proof that they aren't afraid to create music that is completely true to them — and that's exactly what makes Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada special.

Below, Cantu, Guerrero, Peña, and Solis speak with GRAMMY.com about their cultural roots in South Texas and the making of Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada.

The last two years were a very prolific time for Grupo Frontera. What was it like to create Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada after everything that's happened to the group?

Adelaido "Payo" Solis: Last year we were working a lot, playing four or five concerts a week, and that didn't give us time to structure El Comienzo as well as we wanted to. Now we made time to record all these different types of songs. It was amazing to have time to work on the album cover and all the songs the way we wanted to, and have everything set in a certain way to represent the new album to its highest potential.

Between 2023 and this year, were you able to take any time off to work on this new record, or was it done in between touring?

Juan Javier Cantú: There were times when we were touring El Comienzo that we would record before the people got inside the theater. We would record onstage. We'd be like "Wait, don't let the people in — 20 more minutes, we have to finish this session!" That happened with our new songs "Quédate Bebé" and "Nunca La Olvidé."

Solis: It's a little bit of both because those were recorded live, but then two months ago, we locked ourselves in the house for a good four or five days, and out of that came, like, 15 more songs.

You mentioned that, for this new record, you had more time to work on the order of the songs. What's the general feeling behind this track list? Starting with "F—ing Amor."

Solis: The general feel of this album is literally the album's name, Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada [which loosely translates to "pretending everything is OK"]. Since we had more time to think about it, we tied many things to that name, to that phrase.

Everyone, at some point, has pretended everything is OK when in reality, it's not. You can see it in the album cover — the truck is on fire, but our character, who represents Grupo Frontera, is sitting in the car as if nothing is wrong. So the idea — and I know everyone experienced this — is that when you get in your truck, you can play our record and you can drop the act. You can stop pretending everything is alright. You can get in your feelings.

So the way it's structured, starting with "F—king Amor," is that you don't want to know anything about love, then in the middle, you have "Ya Pedo Quién Sabe," which says "maybe I miss you," and then by the end, "Quédate Bebe" [which translates to "Stay Baby"]. So it is a ride, an experience, which starts with you being hurt, or left behind by someone, and you being sad about it, then slowly wondering how is she doing, then saying "I miss you," and finally "stay with me."

Cantú: More than anything, we are playing with genres. In this record, you have our traditional cumbias, country music, and then songs like "Desquite." So that was also the goal, for people to know more about our music and the music we like.

Solis: Each member of Grupo Frontera listens and plays different styles, so starting from that, we each had a big say in the genres we wanted to play and styles we wanted to record on this album. 

More than anything, we were thinking of new generations. The Latinos of newer generations that don't speak Spanish, or don't get to come back often to Mexico or the countries where their parents are from. They don't want to hear just cumbia, so in our album, we want to make all these styles for them to find, in our songs, the genres that they like.

You mentioned that each of you has different styles and genres you brought to the new record. How did you work in the studio to generate these new sounds?

Solis: Grupo Frontera doesn't really use a lot of computer sounds, most of the music we play is through our instruments. We used to work on our songs starting from guitar and voice only, but now because we had more time to work on things, we each took a song and would listen to it for days. Then we'd meet again as a group and work on it in the studio: everyone's opinion counts, and no one's opinion takes precedence over the other. That's how, slowly, each new song took shape.

When you talked about the moment in which you get in your car or truck, and finally get to stop pretending everything is alright — does that car culture come from your upbringing in Texas?

Julián Peña: That culture is definitely from where we are from, from the Valley [the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which spans the border of Texas and Mexico], where there are a lot of troquitas tumbadas [lowered or customized pickup trucks]. You'd hear la Raza zooming by, blasting our songs, with the bass booming, from their trucks. So it's kind of like a relief, your safe space.

Like the album's title says, "pretending everything is fine"... you're pretending to be fine and then once you get in your car and you pass yourself the aux, you turn that up and you start bawling, or feeling whatever you're feeling. Then the album's over, gotta get back to work, clock back in, and go back to pretending everything's fine. It's like an escape that we know many people have, it has happened to all of us; you go on a drive to decompress, turn the music up, let it all out, and feel better. That's what we wanted to capture with that image.

What songs did you each play when you needed that kind of moment?

Cantú: When I broke up with a girlfriend, around 2012, my go-to was Drake.

Peña: Mine was "Then," by Brad Paisley. I was just sad and going through a country phase. [Laughs.]

Solis: I would listen a lot to a song by Eslabón Armado called "Atrapado."

Cantú: When I feel a little trapped by this street lifestyle I go, "I Should've Been A Cowboy"! [All laugh.]

I read some of you grew up raising cattle, or come from families of farmers and ranchers. What aspects of that lifestyle do you miss, in contrast with being in a city like LA, and actively involved in the music industry?

Solis: Juan had his ranch around General Bravo [a municipality in Mexico], and I was born in the States, but I would go every weekend to Mexico, to my parent's ranch, where they had cattle. I know Juan can relate to this — when you are at the ranch and play a song, and can sing out loud without anyone around listening or judging you, that's a really nice feeling. When you are on stage, in the industry, you're not singing only to yourself, but to make the audience's day better. So no matter what you're going through, when you're on stage, your job is to make people happy.

Cantú: Going to a place — like a ranch, an open space — to disconnect, it's like a reset. I feel a lot of people have not experienced that, they don't know the power that has.

Through your lyrics, you adapted old love songs and romance to modern times. Some songs even mention emojis, DMs and texting. Do you have any favorite emojis?

Solis: Oh man, I love the black heart emoji because it can mean many things. A dead heart, or that you're not feeling anything. It can mean your heart is broken and needs mending to go back to being red. I think it's super cool.

Carlos Guerrero: I like the thinking face emoji.

Cantú: Sometimes he uses it out of context and we don't know if he's thinking, or he's mad. [Laughs.] For me, the one I use the most is the "thanks" [praying hands emoji].

Peña: I like the heart hands emoji. Like "Hey what's up," and throw a heart hands emoji.

Going back to your music, what's your favorite part of making songs?

Solis: I'm not sure if we all have the same answer, but for me, my favorite part about being able to sing, record and write these songs is to sing them with all the feeling in the world. And that is amazing, to be able to let that out.

Cantú: The simple fact of creating something and getting to test it out, seeing people sing it, it's like, Wow, we made that.

Peña: Yeah, that you do something and then put that out there right and you're like, I wonder if this feeling is gonna get translated the way we want it to. And then, like Juan said, when people go to concerts, and sing it back to us, or we see people post stories of them singing it and going through it. It's like, we made that! We got that point across, and it feels good for all of us.

How do you navigate being an American band with a cross-cultural upbringing?

Cantú: It's really cool. We were lucky to go to Puerto Rico, Colombia and Argentina, to collaborate with artists like Arcángel, Maluma, Shakira, and Nicki Nicole. That helped us understand their culture and meditate on what it means to be Latino, not just Mexican. Latino identity entails so many cultures in one, and even Mexican identity is vast. Latinos are from everywhere.

How was it to collaborate with all these other artists, and open your group to collaborate with them in Jugando A Que No Pasa Nada?

Solis: Basically, we are like a group of brothers. We sometimes spend 24/7 together. We see each other every day, and we spend all our time together on the tour bus and at home, even when we don't need to see each other. So when we collaborate with other artists, like Morat, Maluma, or Nicky Nicole, they sense that vibe — we carry that with us. I feel that carries through, to the point where we can all have that vibe together.

When we are collaborating with other artists, it feels as if it was a friendship that has been around for a while. Like, have you ever felt or had that friendship where you can go like a month without seeing each other and when you see each other is like you had seen each other? That's basically how it is when we collab with other artists.

I know it's hard to pick a favorite song from the new album—

Solis: It's not that hard! My favorite is "F—ing Amor."

Why?

Solis: Because before Grupo Frontera started, that was more the style that I listened to. I got into the music of Natanael Cano, Iván Cornejo, and others. I grew up listening to old cumbia songs that my parents played for me, but in high school, I started listening to new stuff and new genres, so I think that's why my musical style is more versatile. So "F—ing Amor" is more Sierreño, has more bass, and the congas and percussion; the vibe of that song reminds me of how, in high school, I would drive my truck listening to Natanael Cano. 

Peña: Mine is "Echándote De Menos." Ever since we recorded it, it has that rhythm in the middle where we all drop, on that note… I like all of them, but that one, in particular. 

Cantú: I have to go with two. When I first listened to them, "Los Dos," our collaboration with Morat, and "Por Qué Será" with Maluma. That song, when they first showed it to me, I felt chills down my back.

Guerrero: Mine is "Los Dos," with Morat, because we liked Morat before being with Frontera.

Cantú: To make a song with them is an achievement for us because our big song ["No Se Va"] was a cover of theirs. So making a song together is pretty cool — not many people get to do that.

Solis: We had people tell us that we were stealing their song! We get that Morat is some people's favorite group but we were like, bro, it is our favorite too, that's why we did that song!

What is your dream for this new record?

Solis: We were talking about this yesterday in the van. We don't want to expect anything out of it — success, or big numbers — because this album was made from the heart. We are just so happy and proud to be releasing it into the world.

Guerrero: I just hope that people like it, because, as Payo says, we explored a lot of different genres, so we hope people dig that. We put our best into it.

Cantú: I want what Payo and Carlos said, but also, to go to Japan to play our songs.

Peña: I want what the three of them want, but for people to really connect and identify with the songs. Even if they connect with one or three, what I want for the album is that — to connect with people.

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