On a recent Saturday night in May, cowboy hats of the vaquero variety filled Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Men in embroidered western shirts and the women wearing denim skirts took their seats and, as the lights in the venue dimmed down, the phones in the crowd shot straight up. In Spanish, a booming voice heralded the coming of a “regional Mexican music revolution.” After what he calls his “mariacheño” band took the stage — that is, a mix of mariachi and norteño music — 20-year-old Christian Nodal emerged in a black cowboy hat, matching leather jacket and tight leather pants. He wasn’t just ready to entertain the roaring, sold-out crowd — he was suited and booted for the task.
A few days before his big L.A. show, Nodal spoke to Rolling Stone by phone about the impressive span of his nascent music career. He first broke through with 2017 album, Me Dejé Llevar, which translates to “I Got Carried Away” — a phrase he now has tattooed on the throat region of his neck. Then Nodal got the attention of Universal Music Latin execs when he released “Adiós Amor” in January 2017: To date, his legion of fans have garnered the music video over 778 million views on YouTube.
“I started with social media,” Nodal says. “Never did I imagine that the public and all these girls would get close to my song.”
He’s the new, dimpled-face of regional Mexican music: a catch-all term in the U.S. that lumps together genres from south of the border such as mariachi, norteño and ranchera music. At 18 years old, Nodal conveyed the heartbreak behind “Adiós Amor” with a wide vocal range akin to one of his influences, the late Mexican great Juan Gabriel. “Adiós Amor” eventually hit Number One on the Billboard Regional Mexican Songs chart; then a year later, Nodal won the Latin Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Song, for “Probablemente,” his duet with Spanish superstar David Bisbal. “I never felt I would get an adult audience either,” Nodal says, obviously thrilled that his audience is evolving.
And as if the institutional support isn’t convincing enough, his songs are also thriving in the age of streaming. At a post-concert press conference, he was presented with three plaques from Billboard, for three songs reaching Number One on the Regional Mexican Songs chart. (This includes his 2019 single, “Nada Nuevo,” which has been a fixture on the Hot Latin Songs Chart for 12 weeks straight.) The city of Los Angeles also presented him with a key to the city, for “continuing to represent Mexican traditions to the new generation.” Nodal most recently scored a special plaque for his latest album, Ahora, which went platinum in the U.S. and gold in Mexico in less than a month.
Ever humble in the face of his accolades, Nodal jokes about the Ahora plaque: “I’ll ask my mom if she wants to put it in her room.”
Nodal grew up in Caborca, Sonora, a Mexican state that mostly borders Arizona. Although he self-describes as a self-taught musician, it took a village — or in this case his neighborhood — to build that foundation. “There was always music in my house,” Nodal says, alluding to musicians on both sides of his parents’ families. “My neighbors, they took me house to house and taught me a little [bit] about how to play the guitar and the trumpet.”
Nodal also cites Mexican icons like Joan Sebastian and Los Bukis’ Marco Antonio Solís as inspirations. On his new album Ahora, which winkingly translates into “now,” he says: “It’s 100-percent the essence of my mariacheño style. It’s the school of regional Mexican music from before with the new school, right now.”
Nodal is one of the few regional Mexican music acts charting alongside the Latin heavyweights of música urbana, or the Latin trap and reggaeton-centric movement propelling Puerto Rican artists Bad Bunny, Ozuna and Anuel AA. This disparity in representation motivates the young artist to push the bounds of his genre, mostly by collaborating with some unlikely allies. Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra features on “Esta Noche,” a collaboration Nodal calls “chingona” — or, fucking awesome — that blends his signature sound with Yatra’s Latin pop flavor. He also reveals that a duet is coming soon with pop group Piso 21, another Colombian act who has dabbled in reggaeton music. “With my music getting on that level and reaching people in other countries is a blessing,” says Nodal. “It can always be a mix of both genres, because my voice doesn’t fit well if it’s only a reggaeton song,” he adds, with a laugh.
Throughout the interview, Nodal is soft-spoken; but onstage at the Dolby, his voice resonated with a passion so profound, his whole body quaked. He has a knack for organically emoting the pain and sadness behind hits like “Perdóname” and “Nada Nuevo” in real time. On the more upbeat numbers, like “No Te Contaron Mal,” the Mexican crooner seamlessly flipped the switch to cowboy casanova: he stomped across the stage, shaking his hips Elvis-like while recounting a drunken hookup. When covering Mexican singer Ramón Ayala’s “Rinconcito En El Cielo,” he bust out the cartoncito, or a dance in which a man grabs onto his partner’s backside. Nodal dancing it solo provoked screams from the girls in the crowd, desperate to fill that empty space between his arms.
Throughout the concert, Nodal shouted out his country with a hearty “¡Arriba Mexico!” Despite coming into fame in the United States, especially during a time of widespread bad hombre tropes and political tensions at the Mexican border, Nodal remains optimistic. “I believe people will have the opportunity to not give merit to everything bad that’s shown on TV and all the rumors,” he says. “I believe a majority of the Mexican people are working hard toward their dreams and fighting in the best way possible to make them happen. I have always tried to show my audience that you can achieve your dreams.”
As his music begins to reach beyond Mexico, Nodal also hopes his songs continue to touch people both young and old. “As a writer,” he says, “it’s magic to see the feelings that we give reflected in other people because they can identify. Every verse I compose, that’s what I try to think about — to make something that the people can connect with. Lately there’s been a lot of computerized music and I respect that, but what we make is music from the heart.”