“I’m not just making music for Latin people. I’m making music for everybody,” singer-songwriter Cuco says. That diverse appeal, then, is how the 21-year-old has become a bit of a star. His fans are young, engaged and hail from all over the planet, and his debut album, ‘Para Mi’ – a trippy journey through bedroom-pop and beyond – will no doubt pull in the remaining Gen Zers yet to latch on.
“I feel like that the success and attention hasn’t hit me yet,” he tells NME sat in a swanky restaurant in London, flanked by an entire tables worth of people. “It hasn’t hit me for shit,” he says swigging from a glass of red wine. It may not feel like it, but he’s light-years away from his Cali bedroom where this tale began.
In 2016, Cuco uploaded a video of himself to Twitter playing Santo and Johnny’s ‘Sleepwalk’ using the classic slide-guitar technique. Like most successes today, it went viral, gained him a loyal fanbase, and he released his schmoozy 2016 mixtape ‘Wannabewithu’. Now, he’s one of the rising artists creating music that extends beyond traditional static language and cultural boundaries.
He’s a first-generation immigrant and grew up in coastal town Hawthorne, California, with his parents moving from Mexico before he was born. Their hard-work and embracing of music from around the globe has changed his approach to music – the world is now giving back.
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“I’m a super music geek,” he explains with a glass of red wine in hand in London’s Dishoom. “I learnt to play every other instrument and I taught myself how to produce.” First off, he was gifted a Flamenco guitar when he was eight by his parents and mastered the initial chords and theory, but Cuco was keen to experiment. Now he can confidently play the drums, bass, trumpet, keys and French horn as well. His inquisitive mind has led him to amass quite a collection, and now quite a diverse sound. “I just got into and acquired shit,” he says. “I love doing that all by myself. As a solo artist, I want to know how all of that sounds like.”
Cuco’s music is a jumble of stoner romanticism, bedroom-dream-pop and psychedelia, and is an album packed with heartache and emotion. Want proof? On ‘Para Mi’s finest song, ‘Keeping Tabs’ he repeats the phrase, “I’ve been tripping off the tabs in my room / I don’t know why baby but I’m feeling blue”, and eventually finds solace in shrooms instead of facing reality.
He floats between genres with confidence, with his honeyed, warbled lyricism in both Spanish and English. There is a certain ease to which ‘Para Mi’ washes over you within 13 tracks – its perfect for lazy, sun-soaked afternoons. “The album is different,” he explains. “It’s a lot of new styles.” Arranged, composed and mostly produced entirely by Cuco, it’s more sonic experimentation than anything else. He’s also landed major recording deal with Interscope (Billie Eilish, Juice WRLD), which, he says, has allowed him to experiment at his own pace and make ‘Para Mi’ is a playground for him to wander off and explore.
Making the album was a great exorcising of his current mindset, too. In October 2018, his tour bus was involved in a road accident, seriously injuring himself and many of his touring band and crew. It forced him to cancel the rest of his tour dates for the year, and he’s still living with injuries sustained in the incident. The after-effects are something he’s still trying to work through, but, understandably, it’s not a topic of conversation he wishes to revisit.
The universal themes of friendship and love (both good and bad) seen on the album have landed him a fanbase with international appeal. For example, fans from Thailand chanting along to Spanish lyrics, is something he still can’t get over. “It’s fucking wild, man,” he says in surprise. “They don’t even speak the language there,” he laughs.
A punishing tour schedule hasn’t given Cuco much time to absorb his fame and his success, but it has allowed him to rub shoulders with the likes of Billie Eilish and other pop stars redefining genres for a new generation. “I’m representing, influencing. Creating a platform for kids like me,” he says, knowing how important it is for him to be on the platform that he is.
Cuco’s relentless work ethic is one of the ways he wants to ensure he can continue his success. He reckons he has enough material ready for two more projects. “It has nothing to do with anything I’ve made before. It’s super different. It’s more traditional styles with more intense transitions and switch-ups,” he explains.
With a desire to delve into trap production, Cuco has started tinkering with the genre while also “working on new metal projects.” The California native is blessed in that he seems to make whatever comes to his head. “I just make the music and I put it out,” he explains with a simple shrug of his shoulders. “When it comes to it, I just want to have fun making music.” It really is that simple.