When Junior H wrote “La Bestia” over a year ago, he was going through a roller coaster of emotions. “I was struggling emotionally, living far away from my family,” the Guanajuato-born singer-songwriter tells Billboard. “So, I spent my time writing.”
The guitar-heavy and melancholy ballad, which gives off emo vibes and puts Junior's deep and hoarse voice at the forefront, is the first single off of his forthcoming album SadBoyz4Life. The set is scheduled to drop Feb. 12, and follows his 2020 psychedelic corridos albums Atrapado En Un Sueño and Cruising With Junior H -- both of which scored top 10 placements on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart.
When most listeners think of regional Mexican music in 2021, they think of uptempo banda tracks, hard-hitting corridos that tell of exploits and dramatic stories, and subgenres like weed and trap corridos, which have been defining a new generation of artists. But ballads have always been an integral part of regional Mexican, with artists such as Joan Sebastian and Juan Gabriel becoming leading icons of the genre.
Now, up and coming acts are espousing a new wave of ballads, tinged with sadness. The new style is often referred to as sad sierreño -- with melodies powered by traditional acoustic guitars (a bajo sexto, requinto and bajo quinto) in addition to an electric bass, for a contemporary twist. The end result is an alluring downtempo musical canvas, for lyrics about love and heartbreak.
Inspired by the late Mexican singer Ariel Camacho, who popularized sierreño in 2014 with hit songs “El Karma” and “Te Metiste,” rising regional Mexican acts such as Junior H and teen trio Eslabon Armado are placing all bets on achingly personal and emotional ballads to collectively reflect their generation’s anxieties.
“The current state of the world has brought an amplified need for connection, and artists such as Eslabon Armado and Junior H are providing that connection,” says Krys DeLuna, Latin music programmer at Apple Music. “The difference between past generations and now is the world we live in. Vulnerabilities are subject to our culture, and these new artists are writing about the pains and reflections of their current world.”
After scoring two consecutive chart-topping albums in 2020 -- all featuring deep and dark tracks penned by frontman Pedro Tovar -- Eslabon Armado’s lyricism goes deeper and gets a bit darker on their latest album Corta Venas, which debuted at No. 1 on the Regional Mexican Albums chart in January. “It gives me a Fifty Shades of Grey vibe,” Tovar told his more than 300,000 followers on TikTok before its release.
“I believe in horoscopes, and I’m a cancer -- so according to that we’re very emotional, and feeling emotional helps to write good songs,” Tovar tells Billboard. “I didn’t pay attention to lyrics when I was younger. Until one day I started listening to Ariel Camacho’s sad and romantic songs. They inspired me, and from then, I realized that those were the types of songs I wanted to hear and sing.”
Angel del Villar, founder/CEO of DEL Records, the independent label home to Eslabon Armado previously told Billboard that Eslabon “represents a new wave of regional Mexican artists that aren’t singing corridos, they’re singing ballads – and ballads will always penetrate.”
Ballads also open doors for artists to get more airplay on radio stations than if they were to perform in more niche styles like urban corridos, says Pepe Garza, programming director at L.A.'s Que Buena 105.5/94.3 FM station and founder of Premios de la Radio. “Ballads have always had a place in regional Mexican radio, and sad sierreño will be no exception," he explains. "In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start hearing Junior H and Eslabon on Spanish pop stations such as K-Love. Their fusion of contemporary and traditional sounds will propel its crossover."
Garza adds, “every musical movement will either end or evolve. That’s true in regional Mexican. Artists typically start singing violent songs, then danceable ones -- but they’ll always end up singing ballads. It’s a natural part of the process and strategic too because by singing romantic songs, they reach a wider audience.”
In June 2020, Spotify launched the “Sad Sierreño” playlist, after noticing the movements of “sad boyz” and “sad cuhs" (cuh is slang for friend or brother) on social media, and the preponderance of hashtags like #sadcuhhours.
“[We] noticed a rising trend of young artists creating a blend of acoustic and desertic-dry Sierreño that incorporated the minimalist quality of bedroom pop of a 'sad generation' of gen Z Mexican and LatinX indie-pop and folk artists such as Ed Maverick and Cuco,” Uriel Waizel, editor lead Mexico at Spotify Billboard. “These artists have taken a regional Mexican sound and have now created a movement. Eslabon Armado’s “Con Tus Besos” currently is the most streamed regional Mexican song in the U.S. on Spotify.”
Ed Maverick, Mexican folk singer who began his career playing for norteño and sierreño groups in his native Chihuahua, Mexico, released his debut album Mix Para Llorar en Tu Cuarto (Mix to Cry in Your Room) in 2018. He says he first understood (and felt) the power of lyrics thanks to Alex Ubago’s sweeping '00s ballad "Sin miedo a nada" (often identified as “me muero por conocerte").
“When I was like 7 years old, my brother played that song for me,” the now 20-year-old says. “I remember when Ubago would sing the chorus I was like, no mames. That’s the first song that made me feel something.”
In a genre that’s been intertwined with toxic masculinity, the self-described norteño sensible says he’s never let machista stereotypes define the world he lives in or his ultra-personal and heavy-hearted lyrics. “I don’t care about any of that,” says Maverick. “Sure, you have those artists who play into stereotypes -- and that’s great too because sometimes you’re in the mood to listen to corridos that make you feel like a badass -- but then you have someone such as Junior H who is proof that there’s no need to be such an extremist or intense. It’s so beautiful to allow yourself to feel.”
Feeling is exactly what guides Junior H in his creative process. “I am exactly how you hear me in my music, vulnerable and sensitive. I’m not trying to sound poetic or find the right words, I’m just being direct," he adds. "How cool that my fans feel connected and have embraced my sad songs. At the end of the day, we all have feelings.”