Ivan Cornejo doesn’t feel famous. Even amidst the sold-out North American tours, the screaming girls around every corner, and the record-breaking streaming numbers, he refuses to give in to the descriptor. “I have a cool little following of supporters, but I wouldn’t say I’m famous,” he tells LA Weekly’s sister publication, PAPER. “I feel like I’m still coming up.”

We’re sitting in a secluded lounge at the NRG Arena in Houston, Texas. The Mexican-American crooner has just played a headlining show at the Houston Rodeo to more than 72,000 people. “I’ve never done something like that,” he says. “It was cool being able to see the whole 360 and all the fans.” For those unfamiliar with the Houston Rodeo, it’s like the Superbowl of lasso’ing cattle and riding roller coasters.

The concert series is a highly coveted slot that has been graced by the likes of Elvis Presley, Selena and Dolly Parton. But even having been given such a high honor, Cornejo carries himself with a shyness and ease that doesn’t necessarily match the madness that just ensued.

This nebulous aura is what’s made Cornejo one of the most exciting rising stars not just in the Música Mexicana space but in pop music in general. “He’s an old man in a young boy’s body,” his publicist tells me as we’re wading through the backstage area of the Rodeo, where a combination of concrete, cowboy boots and horse manure makes you feel like you’ve entered an old Western.

It’s true — Cornejo’s voice doesn’t match his body. On his breakout single “Esta Dañada,” the now-19-year-old sings with an eerie, aching tone that makes it feel like his voice and the guitar are battling it out to see which can feel more pain. If “sad sierreño” music is all about heartbreak and feeling emo, then the genre has found its poster boy in Cornejo. Born in Riverside, California, a primarily Mexican sub-community of Los Angeles, the artist has become a therapist for his fans through his music, even naming his 2023 tour “Terapia.”

“I feel like my fans just have a lot of love for me and vice versa. Every show I do, they always show tremendous amounts of love. It just means the world to me,” he says. As the rodeo portion of the show concludes, the lights dim, and the geometric rotating stage is rolled out into the humongous arena of dirt. The screams when he comes on stage are unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, piercing my eardrums on a frequency so high that it almost feels meditative.

Cornejo is wearing a custom suit by legendary designer Manuel Cuevas, whose fingers have fitted fabrics over the arms of Johnny Cash and Elvis. For the next hour, he performs his sad songs to a mostly Hispanic crowd who show off their merch on the big screens and sing along to every word, teary-eyed. He leaves the stage in a Ford truck throwing roses out to fans in the stands, a nod to Selena’s famous rodeo moment in 1995.

It feels like a turning point. Through all of the Regional Mexican music boom of the last couple of years, there’s something about Ivan Cornejo that stands out. On stage, his small frame takes up very little space, yet he looms large. Though he doesn’t say much in between songs and looks down when he smiles, the big screens flash to fans losing their minds. “I’m not the most photogenic, I guess,” he tells me when I ask about posting photos on social media and promoting himself. “It’s not that I’m lazy, I just find it hard. I don’t know why.”

He’s got this guardedness that somehow makes fans even more attracted to him, an analog soul in an increasingly digital world that feels like gold for young music listeners eager to find some sound to feed their souls. His new single “Baby Please,” out this week, is a bit of an evolution of his sound, with bass and drums added to the mix rather than just straight acoustics. He even plays violin on the track. It’s the first taste of a looming full-length project.

After our interview, Cornejo is whisked away by his management, but an older Hispanic security guard asks if he can take a picture with him. Cornejo obliges. It’s a sweet moment. Even though he may not feel famous, it’s safe to say that Cornejo is shaping up to be one of the most influential young artists of our time. For him, it’s all about authenticity — and it’s something that his audience can feel deeply.

Given the wise-beyond-his-years maturity and calm presence, I wonder how online Ivan is. “I lowkey lay back on social media,” he tells me. “I’m to myself. I keep things private sometimes. But here and there when I need to communicate something with my fans, I post.”

Photography: Juan Tejada

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