A lot of great songwriters and performers describe themselves as vessels; talents that are so natural the act of creation can feel almost automatic, or like the product of some trance state. While it may seem like a way to undercut praise, what it usually means it that the really good stuff comes from an intuitive process rather than a cerebral one.
"I always tell people the best songs are written through me, not by me," Medina says. "I've written a lot of songs and they suck, but the songs that come through you are the good ones. The ones that take sometimes five minutes to jot down."
Coming from a musical family, Medina has been playing music and writing songs since he began learning the accordion at age 7. On his new album El Cantador, he includes original songs from decades' worth of material alongside standards by mariachi icons, such as opening track "La Enorme Distancia" by José Alfredo Jiménez-Sandoval, a major influence for Medina and mariachi songwriting and performance as a whole.
Medina has been producing his own home-recorded music in several different genres, as well as performing as a comedic storyteller, for years. But when it came time to produce his first album professionally with the support of arts corp Meow Wolf, Medina wanted it to be an album dedicated to his lifelong love of mariachi.
"It was always a goal of mine to record mariachi music. I grew up listening to it and always had a fascination with it," he says. "So when the opportunity came, I picked this genre as my first real music project."
While there might be some preconceptions associated with Meow Wolf's psychedelic art banner flying overhead, Medina's album is refreshingly true to form; like a love letter to centuries of Mexican folk and string band traditions. This is partly thanks to musical director David E Valdez, originally from Española but now Albuquerque-based. Valdez is a longtime mariachi trumpet player who helped arrange, mix and master the album. The other players have been Medina cohorts for years, and their camaraderie comes through on the album in its tightness.
Similarly, Medina's bright tenor shines throughout alongside his accordion work, which adds Norteño flair and the occasional polka influences. On standout tracks like "No Le Digan," an autobiographical ballad Medina wrote more than 20 years ago, the band expertly accompanies his soaring lead vocals with an intimate two-step rhythm strummed crisply on guitar. The horns swell for punctuation, the strings lilt and the songs become a crystal-clear example of how Medina's style fits into the mariachi tradition next to the four standards he's included.
"It was cool to, in my own way, be able to mix in my music together with these other songwriters," Medina tells SFR. "At the same time, it's a way to introduce new songs in that same genre. Culturally and traditionally, [mariachi music] is one of the richest genres. It's world-renowned."
Medina's work as a comedian also drives his contributions to the musical canon.
"Songs are great ways to tell stories, and my comedy is also a great way to tell stories," he says. "That's what the comedy is based on: Growing up in Northern New Mexico. It's unique and specific. At the same time it's cross-cultural, cross-
generational. I'm really enjoying the
process of creating a broader understanding of my culture through my
comedy and my music."
Medina previews the vinyl release of El Cantador at a special listening
event at Los Padre Records this week, and the following six-state tour is meant to
present an experience to audiences Medina says might not
be familiar with mariachi music—adding that his stories are relatable, even if they come from his own specific life experiences.
"It's real; it comes from the heart, not from the head," he says. "That's what makes it resonate with people in and outside the culture."
In addition to New Mexico, he's scheduled to perform with his band across Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and California, often in venues that more frequently host rock and indie acts, in hopes that he can connect with new audiences.
"Overall, mariachi music is very well-accepted, but I'm reaching out to a different demographic to show just how cool it is in and of itself. [Mariachi music] is intrinsically cool, it's intrinsically valuable because it's culturally significant," Medina explains. "It's got tons of tradition. It's been around hundreds of years, so it's time to share it with another demographic."
Carlos Medina: El Cantador Vinyl Preview Party
6 pm Thursday Feb 14. Free.
Lost Padre Records,
304 Catron St.,