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For Latin Grammy Nominee Edgar Barrera, Mistakes Can Be Perfection

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At his home and studio in Miami, the Mexican American songwriter and producer Edgar Barrera doesn’t flaunt his 18 Latin Grammy Awards, or the Grammy he won in 2015, or the plaques for his dozens of gold and platinum singles.

“I try not to focus on awards and stuff like that,” he said in a video interview. “On my walls are just pictures of people that inspired me to become who I am.”

Behind him and down the hall, he pointed out Amy Winehouse, U2, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. Dre, Miles Davis, Queen and AC/DC. He’s still searching galleries for original photographs of Latin musicians he admires, like Juan Gabriel, José Alfredo Jiménez, Thalia and Luis Miguel.

Barrera, 32, is likely to gather even more trophies on Thursday night, when the 24th annual Latin Grammys are broadcast from Seville, Spain. He is the most-nominated musician this year, with 13 citations including producer and songwriter of the year. In some categories, Barrera is competing against himself. Two songs he co-wrote are nominated for song of the year, while three each are nominated as best tropical song and best regional Mexican song.

For more than a decade, Barrera has been a ubiquitous studio collaborator across the spectrum of Latin pop — sometimes updating a deep tradition, sometimes forging unexpected collaborations. A playlist compiled by Spotify, “Written by Edgar Barrera,” includes 293 songs, many of which have racked up millions — and sometimes hundreds of millions — of streams. He has collaborated with Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, Daddy Yankee, Becky G and Romeo Santos, among many others.

Yahritza Martinez of Yahritza y Su Esencia wrote “Fragíl” with Barrera, who then brought in the Texan band Grupo Frontera. “When you get into the studio with him, it’s like he knows already what you want,” Yahritza said in an interview. “He showed me how to love to write, to love the song. He showed me how to write with passion.”

Last Friday, Barrera also received a nomination for a 2024 Grammy Award as songwriter of the year, non-classical, reflecting his role in blockbuster streaming hits for Karol G and Grupo Frontera with Bad Bunny, and the way Latin music has been remaking the American pop landscape.

The hallmark of Barrera’s songs and productions is transparency and intimacy: the sense, sometimes illusory, that the singer is accompanied by only a handful of instruments, singing directly to one listener.

Barrera knows his way around electronics and digital enhancements. But hand-played, acoustic instruments are usually at the core of his productions. “I always try to have real musicians play, even if I found a loop in a music library,” he said. Even if a replayed part has mistakes, he added, “those mistakes in records make it feel more real and authentic. I think that in those mistakes is where the perfection is found.”

Where other producers deliver programmed beats and bombast, Barrera offers clarity. And he sees the snowballing popularity of regional Mexican music, with its horns and accordions, as part of a sea change in Latin music that had lately been dominated by the programmed beat of reggaeton.

“I think what happened is that people got tired of listening to the same type of songs,” he said. “I would go to sessions and co-write with other people, and they would always have the same rhythm pattern underneath.”

“Now,” he added, “I’m excited to have kids back learning how to play guitars. And it’s exciting to see 14-, 13-year-old kids playing tololoche, upright bass, the way they slap it. It got to the point where music went back to becoming more organic.”

Barrera holds onto a classic production credo: “If a song sounds good with a guitar and the vocal, it’s going to sound good with whatever instrumentation or rhythm you put around the song.”

“I try to be very simple with what I write, but different at the same time,” he said. “And I try not to be too complicated, especially because the audience who I’m writing to is a younger generation. We have a very short attention span. So I try to be very blunt and very honest.”

Barrera’s three tropical-song nominations are grounded in three different styles: salsa (“La Fórmula” by Maluma and Marc Anthony), bachata (“El Ambulancia” by Camilo and Camila Cabello) and merengue (“El Merengue” by Marshmello & Manuel Turizo). But they’re also international collaborations, pairing Americans and Colombians.

“Every day I try to think about how to make stuff more global,” he said. “But I think that the more authentic that it stays, the more global it can get.”

Barrera’s catalog includes longtime collaborations with two hitmaking Colombian songwriters: Camilo (with whom he shares a Latin Grammy nomination for album of the year for “De Adentro Pa Afuera”) and Maluma (nominated for record of the year and song of the year for “La Fórmula”). He has also written extensively with the Mexican songwriter Christian Nodal, whose “La Siguiente” is one of Barrera’s regional Mexican nominations.

Nodal’s music is rooted in mariachi, a longtime Mexican tradition, with strings and horns. Barrera and Nodal gave it an update that brought it to 21st-century pop charts. “Mariachi music used to be the music that my grandfather would listen to,” Barrera said. “What we did with mariachi was refreshing the top line, refreshing the melodies, speaking to a younger generation with lyrics and concepts.

“I didn’t see it as a disrespect,” he added. “I saw it as bringing it back to life. If we don’t take risks, the genre could be gone forever.”

Barrera is also the main songwriter for Grupo Frontera, an accordion-topped, cumbia-based regional Mexican band from his hometown, McAllen, Texas. He heard them playing for a handful of people at the opening of his brother-in-law’s tire shop in 2022. Barrera co-wrote and co-produced Grupo Frontera’s collaboration with Bad Bunny, “Un x100to,” a Top 5 pop single in the United States that got multiple Latin Grammy nominations including song of the year.

Like many of Barrera’s songs, “Un x100to” depicts romance in the digital era; the title is slang for “one percent,” the last bit of battery power in the narrator’s cellphone as he begs his ex for another chance.

“The generations are moving and technology is moving, and I think music should move with the culture,” Barrera said.

Barrera grew up in southern Texas, near the Mexican border, and he soaked up both American and Latin American music; his father was in a cumbia band and had a large record collection. Barrera named his own label and publishing company BorderKid because, he told Billboard, “I’m always in the middle.”

The first music Barrera played, in elementary school, was rock, and he started writing songs in his teens, recording them onto CDs and pitching them to musicians passing through town. Luigi Giraldo of the Kumbia Kings helped him get a studio internship in Miami. There, an unguarded moment got him his big break.

A Panamanian songwriter with a long string of hits, Omar Alfanno, was working on a new song. Hoping to reach a young audience, he asked the 20-year-old Barrera, who didn’t know who he was, for his opinion.

“I was brutally honest,” Barrera recalled. “I told him, ‘That’s not a song that I would dedicate to my girlfriend.’ He asked me why, and I told him, ‘It’s saying that I would write you a letter. And nowadays I don’t write letters.’ And he challenged me: ‘Do you think you can do something better than me?’”

Barrera came up with a hook; Alfanno liked it. With that, the intern was accepted as a songwriter.

“It changed my life right there, 180 degrees,” Barrera said. “If I had known who he was, I wouldn’t have said what I said, and I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.”

For a 21st-century producer, Barrera is surprisingly old-school. He doesn’t keep huge numbers of files on his hard drive awaiting a buyer; he makes a distinction between producing beats and writing songs. He prefers to work in person, in real time. “I try to have the artist in the room, or try to have the artist tell me what I want to write, to translate their feelings into songs,” he said. “At the end of the day, I consider myself a producer that is there for the artist I serve. I try to communicate what they want to say.”

Barrera will meet singers at his studio, at their homes or on the road; sometimes he carries a portable studio in a backpack. And he welcomes high standards. “I love to work with artists that are picky and also perfectionist,” he said. “They try to find the right key, the right tempo, everything that makes the song better. It’s everything we do — everything for the good of a song.”