Illustration by Michael Houtz; photographs courtesy of Edgar Barrera
As regional Mexican stars like Peso Pluma and Grupo Frontera continue to scale unprecedented heights in pop charts across the globe, one has to ask: what’s in the sauce?
Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Edgar Barrera has left his fingerprints all over this electrifying new era of Latin American sounds, drawing inspiration from both the tropics and his home state of Texas. After wrapping up a winning streak in 2023—highlighted by regional Mexican-inspired numbers he wrote with Shakira and Bad Bunny —Barrera is now the lone Hispanic nominee for Songwriter of the Year, Non-Classical at the 2024 Grammys.
“I'm not used to being the frontman,” says the dapper 33-year-old, beaming in via Zoom call from his immaculate Spanish-style home in Miami. “I've always stayed behind the curtain. But I'm very excited and grateful for the Grammy nomination, because it's one of the few awards shows that focuses on the creators. In the music industry, everything starts with a song.”
Born in McAllen, Barrera was raised on both sides of the Rio Grande Valley. His family split time between the small Texan town of Roma and Ciudad Miguel Alemán in Tamaulipas, Mexico; his father, Luis Alberto Barrera, was a vocalist in the popular cumbia band Mister Chivo. It’s only in recent years that Edgar—a seasoned pop songwriter for acts like Maluma, Selena Gomez and Camila Cabello—has been able to channel his classic Tejano upbringing in the studio. In 2022 he founded BorderKid Records, a subsidiary label under Sony Music Latin, to help incubate the talents of fellow border kids and turn their tequila-drenched torch songs into worldwide hits.
“I come from a really small town, where being a writer is not a real profession,” says Barrera. “Not like being a teacher, an engineer or a police officer. I want to show people that you can dedicate your life to music. You just have to protect your work, your copyrights and royalties, because that is our income.”
Barrera won his last Grammy in 2015, when Más Corazón Profundo, the 2014 album by Colombian pop star Carlos Vives, received the honors for Best Tropical Album. He’s also the most nominated musician at the Latin Grammys, where he has collected 21 awards since 2012; in 2023, the Latin Recording Academy named him both Songwriter and Producer of the Year.
“If every artist wrote their own songs, I wouldn't have a job,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s important for writers to be respected.”
Barrera details what it was like to work with Latin music’s biggest sensations—and explains exactly what went down with Madonna in the studio during the making of her Spanish-infused album, Madame X.
"Un x100to" - Grupo Frontera & Bad Bunny (2023)
The story of [Grupo] Frontera starts with my brother-in-law, who opened a tire shop. The inauguration was a carne asada—a small party of close friends and family. He hired a local band to perform, and told me: ‘You should support this band. They're huge fans of your work.’ At first I was like, ‘What do you know about music?’ But I’d just opened a record label called Border Kid, and I wanted to support an act from my hometown.
“Un x100to” was an R&B song I wrote in 2021 with the songwriter Ríos. We pitched it to so many artists—one said it was too commercial, and [that] it wasn’t that good of a song. But the minute I played it for Grupo Frontera, they said: “Dude, this is our song.” They turned it into a cumbia song. When the singer, Payo [Solís], asked if we could get Bad Bunny on the record, I told him it was like shooting [for] the moon. It would never happen. Benito was busy working on a trap album. But fast forward a month or so, and I met MAG, Benito’s producer, at the BMI Awards. He asked to hear what I was working on, so I sent him the song—and the next day he called saying “Bro, [Bad Bunny] fucking loves it. He wants to record with Frontera.”
Karol G, “Mi Ex Tenía Razón” (2023)
I’ve never met somebody who is a bigger fan of Selena than Karol G. She told me, “I want to do a Selena tribute, but I want to use the exact same sounds she did.” I watched old Selena videos to figure out which keyboards they used; I bought a Yamaha DX7 with an expansion patch, and a classic Roland keyboard from that time. I also had to get my dad involved — he was in a cumbia band called Mister Chivo, which was popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was back home [in Texas] while producing the record, so my dad went into his garage and brought me the toms he used. The recording process really connected me with my roots. Watching Karol in the studio, recording the music of where I come from, was a full circle moment.
Peso Pluma and Grupo Frontera, “Tulum” (2023)
I like to show Grupo Frontera songs that are not specifically for them, and get my headspace into another genre [besides] cumbia. I think of a reggaeton or pop song that Maluma, or Rauw Alejandro could sing. “Tulum” was written like an urban song — it’s got that rapping, the chanteo part — which makes the structure different from how original Mexican songs are written. That’s how we made the genre become more global than before. We broke all the rules, and now everybody wants to do it.
Fuerza Regida and Grupo Frontera, "Bebe Dame" (2022)
We reached out to Fuerza Regida when Grupo Frontera only had one song, but it was becoming a big, big hit—it was their cover of the pop song [by Morat], “No Se Va.” Fuerza Regida came back to us with the song “Bebe Dame,” but it was… too wordy. The original songwriter, Miguel Armenta, asked me to restructure it and give it that catchy Frontera sauce. We all got together in Vegas after the Grammys in 2022. I wrote a new part for the song in 15 minutes. They rehearsed it once, then recorded it in one take. I didn’t realize they were shooting the video; I was eating pizza in the background. I was like “Bro, that can’t be the take. You got me eating pizza!” J.O.P., the singer of Fuerza Regida said, “Nope, let’s keep it.” What you hear is what you get: No edits, no overdubs.
Gera MX and Christian Nodal, “Botella Tras Botella” (2021)
This was the first regional Mexican song to [debut] on the Hot 100—a very important song for the whole genre. And we were just having fun during the pandemic when we wrote it! Nodal went live on Twitch and played it for his fans. Then somebody recorded the audio and put it on TikTok. The label didn’t think it was Nodal’s sound, but it was going viral. The day the [full] song premiered, one million people were watching it live. It got 23 million views in one day! We went crazy trying to reach Nodal, who was in Spain. Two days later he appeared and said, “Sorry guys, my phone’s broken. How’s everything going with the song?”
Manuel Turizo, “La Bachata" (2022)
I was working in the studio when my friend [songwriter] Ríos called me [and said] “Dude, where you at?” He had an hour to write a song, and asked if I could swing by. We wrote it in 30 minutes and sent it to another artist, who left it on hold. I try not to give a song away if it’s already been recorded, but when Manuel Turizo heard it, he wanted it. “I can move quicker than the other artist can,” he said.
For some reason I was writing a lot of bachatas that week, but none of them felt right until this one [I wrote] with Ríos. I was a pop songwriter-producer trying to make a bachata. I didn’t know this until Romeo Santos told me later, but [he said] what I did with “La Bachata” was magical because I completely forgot an element that is very important in bachata: the lead guitar. This hit came from me not knowing what I was doing… and it is [my] most-streamed [song]. It was one of those accidents that ended up being a blessing.
Madonna feat. Maluma, "Medellín" (2019)
I had no idea we were working with Madonna. Maluma called me one day and asked me, “Can you fly out to London?” I had never been to London. I asked Maluma what he wanted me to do. He told me, “It's a session with an artist, but I can’t tell you who it's going to be with.”
It wasn’t until I got to London that he told me it was Madonna. She already wrote and recorded “Medellín”… but when she played it for us, it was five minutes long. She asked us to write a verse and stepped out of the room to let us work. I restructured the song to make it shorter and get to the hook quicker, and then Maluma did his part.
When she came back and heard it…she got so upset. She said, “What happened to my song?” I said I took a section away because it was too long. She said, “No no no, this is my song and this is the way it’s supposed to be.” It wasn’t mean of her to say—not disrespectful at all. It was her song! So we went with the original way she wrote it. [Note: Barrera and Maluma also worked on “Soltera” and “B*tch I’m Loca” in this session.]
Maluma, “Hawái” (2020)
Maluma and I have had a lot of success together. We’re like brothers. I’ve spent a lot of time at his house with his family and his horses. [In] 2019, that I spent more time in Colombia with him than at home. I was executive producer on [Maluma’s album] 11:11. The original idea for “Hawái” came from Keityn, a songwriter in Medellín. We were at a camp, and people kept telling me it was too pop — Maluma does reggaetón, you know? But he is a good singer, and I knew when he’d sing this specific song, he’d pour his heart out.
Me and Maluma are very blunt and honest with each other… We work well together because we follow our instincts. He says I can be difficult to work with because I’m insistent about the way I want things to be, but I’m not a yes man. I don’t kiss artist’s asses. I tell them what they need to hear. But at the end of the day, the artist is the one singing the song every day and every night.
Ariana Grande and Social House, “Boyfriend” (2019)
It was all about being in the right room, at the right moment. I was working with Ariana's producer, Tommy Brown, in his garage. I was very intimidated by her, because it was my first time seeing her. She walked in after an interview, and [Brown] told me to give her space, because she’s very personal when she writes. She was just coming from Thank U, Next. So I left her in the room alone with the beat on loop. I was part of the production and writing process, but lyric-wise? She wrote it top to bottom, in 30 minutes. Then she recorded her vocals. Then she sat on the computer and cut-and-pasted her best vocal takes. It’s impressive, working with someone so dedicated to their craft. The song earned me a BMI Award.
Shakira and Fuerza Regida, “El Jefe” (2023)
Shakira has made me a better producer — and a more careful producer. If she asks you to make a change, she can tell if you did it or not. Even if it's like a small tweak, like lowering the kick or the snare by three [decibels]. She's a genius.
I worked with her on “Clandestino” [with Maluma], and I worked on “El Jefé,” the regional Mexican song that she just put out with Fuerza Regida. We have another song on her new album that's coming up, that excites me a lot. I was surprised when she asked me to be in the music video for “El Jefe” — she just said, “Jump around and have fun with me!” It is satisfying to feel that respect from an artist, when they show that they value your work.
Originally Appeared on GQ