Carin León is a man with great enthusiasm. The Latin Grammy-winning ballad singer is best known for his slanted cowboy hat and bluesy Sonoran singing. He carries himself with the steely gaze of a cowboy and the swagger of a rock star.
León caused quite a stir after taking the stage at the 20th annual Premios Juventud in Puerto Rico this summer. It was during the performance of their Norteño pop song “Ni Me Debes, Ni Te Debo” with Colombian singer-songwriter Camilo that he wore a T-shirt that read “F – Regional” — as in, f – regional Mexican music.
León, who won his first Latin Grammy in the Regional Mexican Music category last year, made that statement clear in a manifesto appeared the next day, detailing the pitfalls of consolidating all Mexican folk music under one label. “We’re much more than that — we’re banda, we’re corridos, we’re mariachi,” it says. “We are taste, we are emotion, we are revolution.”
“Mexican music isn’t regional anymore—it’s just become more global,” he tells the Times during a video call from Hidalgo, Texas, one of many stops on his current US tour. “Our music is now aimed at all kinds of people from all walks of life. We’re no longer just breaking ground in Mexico. We are also talking about Latin America and now the whole world.”
Born Oscar Armando Diaz de León – Carin is short for Oscarín, a nickname he has borne since childhood – says the 34-year-old singer-songwriter got into music “from the very first breath” and, by the age of 15, was born He started playing guitar years ago After a solid seven-year career fronting Norteño band Grupo Arranke, he broke up in 2018 to release a solo debut titled Desvelada con Banda y Mariachi. Since then, León has been known to play the role of “El Toxico” with Tijuana stars Grupo Firme and grew his fan base through songs with Spanish rapper C. Tangana and Colombian pop-reggaeton star Maluma.
That year, he landed not one, but two songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: “Que Vuelvas” with up-and-coming Texas band Grupo Frontera, followed by his own single “Primera Cita.”
León is currently touring the US in support of his album Colmillo de Leche, released in May. Written and recorded entirely with artists from his birthplace, Hermosillo, Mexico. He will perform at the Honda Center in Ontario on Thursday before heading to LA’s Crypto.com Arena on September 17th.
“I’m very excited and also a little bit incredulous about what’s happening in my career and in the future [Mexican] music,” he tells the Times. “It comes with a very big responsibility, but I’m ready to take it on.”
The following questions and answers have been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Can you tell me what inspired your F-Regional campaign on Instagram this summer?
Calling it “regional Mexican” is very limiting. And it’s not just the title that limits us, it’s also the mentality that keeps us from mingling with people [with] any other kind of music. We can work with any artist and we can do it well. What we know as regional Mexican music has a big voice and I think it’s time to tell the world what we’re made of and compare ourselves to everyone else we see. The genre will continue to grow and as a Mexican I am proud to carry that flag in our music.
As an outsider, the Mexican music I knew as a kid was pop or rock groups like Maná, Los Lobos and Molotov. I’ll admit that I’ve only started learning about Mexican folk music in the past few years, but it’s more diverse than people realize.
I grew up with Molotow, Maná, Los Lobos and also Caifanes! They highlight different parts of Mexico’s culture, which is made up of thousands of flavors. Something very interesting is how [Sonoran music] is no longer as marginalized as before, no longer divided by social class. Now that we’re all working together and combining sounds, our music can have an even bigger impact than ever before.
Her latest album Colmillo de Leche is a wonderful collection of sounds from her hometown. What was the best thing about growing up in Hermosillo?
I was talking to some friends about it yesterday – I don’t know why, but we love our city so much we don’t want to leave! To this day I still live in Hermosillo. We have a different culture that I haven’t found anywhere else. Maybe it’s the feeling of home, the feeling of belonging. At the core of [“Colmillo de Leche”]No one can match the fact of how authentic we are. I think the strongest weapon I have in my arsenal musically is the history of Sonoran music running through my veins. I think dedicating a record to our music was one of the most fun and rewarding things.
Natanael Cano is another Hermosillo artist who has made waves [with corridos tumbados]. Is there something musically in the water?
Oh, I think there’s something in the water. The truth is that we’ve always been very hermetic in our music. We never want to look like anyone else. In our culture we always have a little pride in that sense and look for what sets us apart from the rest. The music of my compatriots not only shows how talented we are, but also how different we are from the rest.
Which Mexican artists do you currently find inspiring?
I’ve been listening to the same music for many years, but there’s so much dynamic here, artists breaking and making very heavy music. What happened to Peso Pluma and Grupo Frontera is helping to put Mexico on the world stage. I see them in it as my comrades.
You won last year Latin Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Song for the song “Como lo Hice Yo” [with Édgar Barrera and Matisse]. How do you feel about Mexico’s representation in the broader Latin American music industry?
Latin music in general has gained a lot in strength and credibility. We’re selling more concert tickets than ever before, we’re putting on more shows, we’re playing almost everywhere. I think being authentic, searching for who you are, doing what’s close to your heart and not following the latest trend leads to success. Artists today are no longer trying to emulate what is happening in other parts of the world or to emulate whoever has been crowned by the industry. Today’s Mexicans want to be more Mexican than ever! In general, Latinos want to be more Latino than ever. I think we have a lot to offer the global music scene.
You can sing norteño and banda, but also blues and soul. There’s an R&B quality to your vocals on “Primera Cita” that really makes you stand out. How did you develop your singing style?
I see myself as a chef that I play with Flavors of blues, soul, flamenco and of course rock. I think the rejection of genre labels happened a long time ago for me. I can find colors in any type of music and take a direction from there. I am of course modeled after my father and grandfather; but no doubt José Alfredo Jiménez, the largest exporter of ranchera, played a major role. I was also inspired by singers like Alejandro Sanz or the Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez.
On this recent tour you sang an incredible live version of the country song “Tennessee Whiskey” in the style of Chris Stapleton. Last year you recorded the song “Fancy Like” with Walker Hayes. What moves you about American country music?
I’ve always been a big fan of country music. I learned so much from the Nashville scene. Chris Stapleton has one of the strongest voices and his performance of Tennessee Whiskey is the only one for me. He really takes it to another level.
Is it the cowboy connection?
We have that in common. But you know, roots music – not just from the US but from all over the world, like salsa, bachata or cuban son – I love music that comes from the roots, that comes from the raw feeling of people. And that’s what I love about country. It feels very natural, very intuitive and always gives me something to teach.
What is your biggest dream?
To move on with my life and break paradigms. Not so much being number one or being 100% current, but rather living my truth. I think it’s my biggest dream to go down in history as a positive force that changes music.