“I suck at skating,” Nicolas Muñoz aka Boy Pablo laments over Zoom from his bedroom in Bergen, Norway. It was a tour hobby he’d enjoyed on the road, rolling around like any other 21-year-old would in empty venues worldwide, but that’s off the cards for now. “The only thing I can do is ollie,” he says. Now in lockdown, has he got any better? “I’m so frustrated with it,” he adds. “Here in Bergen it rains about 200 days a year so I can’t skate outside, I’m also really afraid of breaking something. I’m a pussy, to be honest.”
In his defence, Muñoz has a little more going on in life than most other amateur skaters. In 2017, a YouTube algorithm placed Boy Pablo’s music on autoplay after clips from similar bedroom pop wunderkinds, breaking the music video for his own breezy home-produced love song ‘Everytime’, a chilled dream-pop anthem for right now. The clip depicted the ascending pop star and his Mac DeMarco look-a-like pals hanging around on a Norwegian quayside in the sunshine – heartthrob status was inevitable. As of 2020, its view count stands at a modest 30million.
It’s easy to see just why Boy Pablo strikes such a chord; listening to his blissful pop, you can almost forget that the world is falling apart. Muñoz finds beauty in simplicity, big glimmering guitars paired with day-dreaming vocals and warm production. It couldn’t be a better time, then, for his upcoming debut album ‘Wachito Rico’, which doubles down on such romantic and care-free sensibilities, showing that his viral success was no one-off.
But with millions of kids across the world making music in their bedrooms just like he was, how did it feel that he was the one that found fame with a video that was posted with little expectation? “I thought my manager was buying me followers on Instagram,” he replies, shaking his head in disbelief. “I opened it and had 800 followers, then I picked it up again and we were on 1,500 just like that – I was like, ‘What’s happening?’”
Looking back on the period with a smile on his face, Muñoz is still in awe of this magical moment: “My plan before that was to go and study Psychology at university. I went to one class and found out fast it wasn’t for me. So I’m glad I had the chance to make a career out of music. There were so many things happening at the same time that it was kind of a blur, but I’m glad too because that’s the way many young talented people get discovered and can live off of music.”
Nicolas Muñoz was born in Bergen after his Chilean parents emigrated to escape the right-wing military dictatorship in the ’70s under Augusto Pinochet: “I’m very proud of my parents because they came here for us kids; they wanted us to have a good life and a better education. My dad didn’t support what was going on there and everyone who didn’t support the regime couldn’t get any jobs or have any social status, so I definitely have a better life than I might have had.”
Despite this, he holds his background close to his heart. “The whole of South America, Mexico and all the Spanish Latin countries are very proud of their heritage in general,” he says. “I guess it’s because they come from a cool place. Latin culture can be very open, chilled and laid-back.” Hearing bands passed down from his dad also contributed to the soaring romantic tendencies that come through his music. “The pop culture in the ’70s there was a new wave of indie bands – they were the stars at the time in Latin America and they only wrote about love.”
It’s no surprise, then, that a vibrant Hispanic pride runs through his upcoming debut album. He often sings in Spanish, and the album title itself translates as slang for ‘Handsome Boy’, nodding to something of an alter-ego throughout the record, a character who stumbles his way through love. Embracing his roots on this record came organically: “I speak Spanish every day with my parents so it was natural for me to start writing and singing in that language. I’ve always felt Chilean even though I was born in Norway – I notice my roots by the way we are as a family and the way I behave with my family.”
Growing up in a country with a predominantly white population came with its challenges for Muñoz. “There was definitely some racism,” he says. “When I was seven, I was playing football and there was a queue to kick the ball and one kid said, ‘You have to go last because you’re poop’ – he was referring to the colour of my skin.” Even at such a young age, Muñoz didn’t let this get to him: “I didn’t care because I was a lot better than him.”
While he was by no means a complete outsider, we all know that teenagers also have a habit of being cruel and excluding peers from certain groups. In the current era, a social media trail of your mates hanging out without you can sting. “I had really bad friends in 10th grade so they hung out without me all the time,” Muñoz says. “I wasn’t a normal kid in a way because I didn’t like to party; I thought it was boring because people got drunk and stupid but I didn’t drink and that’s the only thing that kids do on the weekends here. I would mostly spend time with my family, practising music, playing video games, or hanging out with friends who didn’t drink.”
“Who the fuck knows what algorithms are, man?”
It led to him slipping into a familiar route for kids not in step with the mainstream: “That was when I discovered Bon Iver and I did a cover or two and recorded them at home instead. The times when I saw them hanging out on Instagram or Snapchat, I was like fuck it, then I went into my room and made a song or did a cover. I used my time wisely and made an effort to record.”
It’s ironic that his songs of intimate romance came to the fore in such a sterile way, thrusted on listeners via streaming platform. But in a world of dating apps and social media, Boy Pablo still considers himself an old romantic at heart. ‘Wachito Rico’ is stuffed with lovelorn ballads – take ‘Honey’, on which he croons, “Baby, you are really something else / cause I don’t think I have smiled like this before / when I spend my time with you it tends to stop.”
Innocent romance has been a fixture of Muñoz’s music throughout his short career, from his 2017 debut EP ‘Roy Pablo’ right through to its 2018 breakout follow-up ‘Soy Pablo’. ‘Wachito Rico’ is a conceptual and autobiographical hybrid. There’s a whirlwind of teenage angst on the choppy and buoyant lead single ‘hey girl’ with sultry sweet lines such as, “Please I’m scared as hell / I’ve never been in love before, I don’t know what to do”. The Beatles were a family favourite in the Muñoz household, and so it’s little wonder that his own music is influenced by the Fab Four’s penchant for a gooey lyric.
It’s not all rosy, though the jangly instrumentation might have you think otherwise; tracks such as ‘leave me alone!’ features the musician tackling some of the more tiresome dramas of love. Writing through the alter-ego of ‘Wachito Rico’ has helped Muñoz open himself up more this time around as well. “The songs that I’ve written on this album are more honest and personal than the EPs I’ve put out before. It helped a little bit making this character and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s about him’.”
Muñoz runs his own label, 777, through which he releases his own music. Staying fiercely independent has offered Muñoz complete creative control over this album, and it was paramount for him to have the right people around him during his viral breakout moment.
“All the Spanish Latin countries are very proud of their heritage”
“When the labels came knocking, that was when I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is really blowing up for me now’,” he says. “We just kept our cool because I think a lot of people just rush into whatever seems OK or good. We knew that we wanted to do this on our own. We’ve been doing this on our own and we don’t want anyone to take over what we’ve built up until now.
“I think it’s the best decision we’ve ever made because now we’re in control of everything. I always hear these stories of artists who don’t own their own creative activity. I think that’s a weird position to be in.”
Running his own ship as well as focussing on the music has also brought challenges that haven’t been helped with the current pandemic. Live shows are off for him for the foreseeable future, despite Norway’s relatively competent handling of the coronavirus outbreak (thanks to strict lockdown conditions, there have been no ‘excess deaths’ in the country, meaning the death toll has been no higher than that of an average year).
“It’s more work being independent right now, definitely,” he says. “We have to do everything ourselves and there’s nobody to pay the studio rent, the mixes or the mastering for me. It’s a lot more information to take in but also that’s what I want, even though it can be stressful at times, because then I’m in control of everything.”
Being propelled into the limelight and yielding complete control at such a young age has had some adverse effects on the young songwriter. Muñoz has suffered from anxiety and insomnia in recent years, something referenced in the new album’s hazy jam ‘Rest Up’: “I keep forgetting these things / that are important to me / darkness gets stuck on my mind / and I get blinded / I wish I could get a break so I can rest up / and I could finally see what really matters to me.”
The sudden fame also quickly led to accusations that he was an ‘industry plant’, a derogatory term – usually thrown at non-white or non-male success stories – that suggests that Boy Pablo was not the brainchild of a loved-up teenager, but a marketing ploy created by record label committee. For him, it’s nothing. The attack has also been levelled at modern icons Billie Eilish, Clairo and Tyler, The Creator, suggesting he’s in good company.
“I did experience racism growing up. I didn’t care”
Muñoz shrugs his shoulders and smiles when I bring it up: “I understand why these theories come up and it doesn’t bother me because I know that I’m not. I hated the word algorithm, everyone kept saying, ‘Yeah he broke through the internet because of the algorithms’. Who the fuck knows what algorithms are, man?
“I knew my worth before, so I didn’t let it define me. People were like, ‘You’re the star now, you’re up there and we’re down here’, I was like, ‘No, I’m just still Nico.’”
He’s also deflected attention where possible. “I was pretty careful with telling people what was going on because I didn’t want to seem arrogant,” he says. Muñoz also sees such anxious feelings are natural for someone in his position. “I thought I had it under control but I guess not because I was really dealing with stuff and it was stressing me out.”
Trying to remain a normal teen while travelling the world to perform in front of obsessive and adoring fans, he realised just how big he’d become: “Going to play in Asia was crazy, that was like, ‘Holy crap – people here are singing along to my songs’. I dreamed about this, I also felt very small and it humbled me. That’s such an honour to see people dancing to tunes that I’ve been making in my bedroom. It doesn’t make sense.”
At times, though, the obsessive attention both online and on the road has been overwhelming – especially when thousands of fans across the world are rampantly trying to get to him in a good old fashioned Beatlemania-style scrum, be it in Europe, South America or Asia. He recalls one particularly terrifying ordeal in Malaysia: “We had to have bodyguards because people were trying to touch us on the way backstage. I heard screaming and one of the bodyguards had to fight one of the fans breaking through.
“I feel sometimes that things are too much, some days I’m grateful and the next day I’m like, ‘Damn, can we go home now?’ I always try to keep in mind that people are really excited to see us play and to hear the songs, they try to talk to me or reach me, not because they want to bother me but because they’re actually interested in what I do. And that’s something to be grateful about.”
But Muñoz occasionally uses his platform for kicks. Having also spent the early days of lockdown binge-watching trashy big-cat documentary series Tiger King, he roped in the show’s grizzled journalist Rick Kirkham to narrate the football-themed video for ‘Hey Girl’. Kirkham tees up the video with his nasally and absent voice, “This is Wachito Rico, he’s getting ready for a soccer match, but what he doesn’t know is that today’s match will be an important one. This particular soccer match might just affect his love life.”
“The songs come from my heart – they’re very personal”
“We were inspired by Wes Anderson and he always has a narrator,” he says, “so we wanted to do that. My manager suggested Rick and we thought it might be a bit of a long shot, but he actually lives in Norway and he really wanted to do it.” Muñoz adds with a laugh: “He was so fed up with the whole Tiger King thing.”
Here he swiftly changes the tone. “The songs come from my heart, though. They’re very personal. It might not seem that way because I know my image is a kind of happy-clappy little dude that plays guitar, but when I mean personal, I think also the way I’ve made the instrumentals have a say in the matter.”
Seemingly devoid of the ego that can grip someone in a similar position, and with the songs to prove it was more than a one-off fluke, Muñoz has an elegantly modest take on all of these things: “I don’t see myself as an extraordinary 21-year-old, I’m just a normal dude that got lucky. At the moment I like the carefree image my music has because I like to cheer people up, but I’m not going to make music like this forever.”
Boy Pablo has been dealt a hell of hand in his short career thus far, and played it smartly. He’s listened to both his head and heart to be a business-savvy heartthrob with plenty of talent, manifesting the career he wanted to have. All he needs now is for the YouTube algorithm to serve him up a tutorial to help with the skateboarding.
‘Wachito Rico’ is out on October 23 via 777 MUSIC