The No. 1 songs on all four Billboard Latin genre charts this week are all different titles, performed by different artists. But they all have a common denominator: Edgar Barrera.
The Mexican songwriter had a hand in Camilo’s “Vida De Rico,” which tops the Latin Pop Airplay chart (as well as the overall Latin Airplay chart); Maluma’s “Hawai,” which tops the Latin Rhythm Airplay chart; Marc Anthony and Daddy Yankee’s “De Vuelta Pa’ La Vuelta,” topping the Tropical Airplay chart; and Christian Nodal’s “Dime Cómo Quieres,” topping the Regional Mexican Airplay chart.
The prolific output and diverse chart success is certainly attention-grabbing. And so is the story of how Barrera, now 30, rose through the ranks as an unpaid studio intern -- honing his chops and earning goodwill and crafting one of the most successful contemporary songwriting careers today, with a little help from his friends. Below, he takes Billboard through his journey to get here.
You learned music from your father, a cumbia producer, then got accepted into Berklee. Before that, though, Andrés Castro, one of Latin music’s top producers, gave you your first job. How in the world did that happen?
When I wrote Andrés, who I’d never met in my life, I said: I’m a composer, I know a little engineering, I got into Berklee, but I don’t have money and I want to make sure I really want to do this before my parents get into debt. Andrés said, "Come on over. I can’t pay you, but my door is open."
I got in my car and drove to Miami in January of 2011. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know anything and I was scared to death. I started working as Andrés’ studio runner. I was the guy who served coffee and went for take out.
When did you get your big break?
I was part of Carlos Vives’ projects; not as a composer or producer, but as an intern. And little by little, they started to give me opportunities. One day, Omar Alfanno [the fabled 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 said, “Well, what would you like, then? Do you want to write with us?”
They practically spun the chair around, and I went from intern to composer. The next day we took the song, it was called “Ojalá,” to Sony, Thalía said she liked it, and it became my first recorded song.
So did you end up going to Berklee?
I never did. When I started to write, I told Andrés I ran out of money and I needed to get a college degree to make money. He said, “What are you doing after Berklee?” I said, “What I’m doing now.” And he said, “But you’re doing it already. People would kill for this. What do you need to stay?” I told him I needed money. So Andrés and Omar took me to [president/CEO of Sony ATV U.S. Latin/Latin America] Jorge Mejía, and he signed me on the basis of a single song and gave me an advance. It was a risk for them.
Andrés and Omar actually went with you to Sony ATV? That’s very generous….
Yes. This was back when new songwriters and producers were signing exclusive deals with big producers. In fact, I told Andrés and Omar that I would sign my publishing with them. And, instead of taking advantage of me, they did the exact opposite. They taught me how to create my own publishing company. Omar’s wife, Carmen Alfanno, used to head Sony/ATV U.S. Latin, and she guided me and got me a lawyer. I know all these young writers that have horrible, restrictive deals they can’t get out of. What happened to me was incredible.
So, Andrés was mentor to you?
Andrés is the master Jedi. He was best man at my wedding. Working with him was a schooling. Thanks to Andrés I met Maluma. Maluma used to go to the studio to write with Andrés when he was just starting. Walter Kolm had just signed him. I told Andrés I had an idea for Maluma, he showed it to him, and he liked it. We worked together and our first song was “Sin Contrato.”
You’ve become very essential to Maluma and have cowritten many of his greatest hits. How do you guys work together?
We’ve become very good friends. I would go on tour with him and build a studio wherever he was: In his hotel, the buses, airplanes. Wherever we happen to be inspired, we write and I record. I do it all the time. With Christian Nodal, for example, I’ve never recorded him in a studio.
How do you record in those circumstances?
It’s a process. Had I not spent five years with Andrés, I wouldn’t know how to record vocals. I had to really learn. With Christian, for example, the week of the Latin Grammys, we wrote in the East Hotel. I have my little backpack where I carry all my studio equipment. I take that with me, I record the vocal guide, put some cushions around us for the sound, and we record. With these artists, there’s a 20-30 minute window of time, and you need to do it right. You have to capture it in the moment.
You’ve been working independently for the past five years. How do you run your business?
I think I’m the only Latin music composer who doesn’t have a manager, but I believe a songwriter needs a direct relationship to the artist. I send the songs to Shakira on WhatsApp, for example. It has to be one-on-one, without a filter. Once you have someone in the middle, you lose the energy, the vibe.
Your songs are topping four different charts in four different genres. Unprecedented. What’s the secret?
What I always say is, the song has to be pretty, regardless of the dress they wear. I’ve studied Juan Gabriel’s songs; Marc Anthony can record them in salsa, and Luis Miguel in mariachi, and they both work. It’s a business of songs. If it’s good, it’s good in any style. And that’s cool because not many composers write for salsa, for mariachi, for urban, yet this is an example that it’s possible. Last year I went to the studio with Ariana Grande and we did “Boyfriend,” so now I’m also in the Anglo world.
Your lyrics are very on point for each artist. Do you write specifically for a person? Or do you shop the songs?
I’m always thinking about the specific artist. Beyond being their composer, I’m their friend. I know what’s going on with them. You have to be honest. I have artists who tell me, "I want to sound like Maluma, or Camilo." And I say, "But you’re not Maluma or Camilo."
So, who are you?
At the end of the day, I’m the artists’ chameleon and driver. I use those words because I feel I’m the one who says, I have this idea to take you there. And they say, how about this route? The problem we have now is, many producers want to be artists. I’m an artist because I make art. But I believe the artist is the artist, and the producer is the producer.