Omar Banos' approach to music is simple: He just wants to make music he would listen to on his own. Most of the time, that method manifests in uptempo hip-hop beats, jazzy electric guitar solos and bedroom indie pop-rock.
His method is working: Banos' sensitive, dreamy songs, under the moniker Cuco, have racked up millions of streams on Spotify and Soundcloud, and he performed at 2018's South by Southwest at the ripe age of 19.
From the Los Angeles-adjacent city of Hawthorne, Banos, who released two self-produced albums over the last two years, has been aspiring toward music for as long as he can remember. He cites his parents as influential in his breakthrough: "I got the creative aspects from my dad, and the business management from my mom," he said.
He always had wanted to play guitar, and picked it up in high school before expanding his repertoire to include the trumpet and French horn.
"I'm very committed to my instruments," Banos said. "If an instruments is right in front of me, and nobody has time to teach me, I just teach myself."
The same is true for his dreamy production. At 16, Banos got his hands on his first music-editing software, and he's developed a range of techniques.
"I don't really follow genres," said the artist. "I have a bunch of really poppy tracks, and then another super low-fi, tape-recorded sound. It's actually really random."
What doesn't seem so haphazard about Cuco's artistry is his starkly romantic lyrics: "Every time I look for you / You're nowhere near, it makes me blue / I swear I need you by my side right now / Forever," he sings yearningly on his latest track, "Sunnyside."
Anyone who has spent time with Cuco's discography — 2016's Wannabewithyou and 2017's Songs4u — has likely suspected that romantic musings must come organically to the teen. He switches between English and Spanish, singing with his pleasantly warm lilt of love and desire.
"When I'm writing, I just kind of put myself in a place, in a certain time period in my life," he said. "Love songs just kind of come out very naturally, me being a very romantic person."
Though Banos' soft sound might inspire daydreaming, the independent artist is keeping his feet firmly on the ground during his breakthrough.
"I feel like I'm watching myself take off, but my brain is still on the ground," he said. "This all happened so quick. I didn't even have time to become a diva!"
Banos adds that despite his success, he's not always recognized as Cuco — even by those attending his gigs. "I will wear chinos and vans, and sometimes people will get confused. They're like 'are you sure you're here to perform?' " he said. "I guess [my band and I] don't look like artists."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
South by Southwest is wrapping up this weekend in Austin, Texas. That's the festival that brings thousands of musicians and music lovers from around the world for a week of musical discovery. Before it ends, of course, we had to bring you some music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNNYSIDE")
CUCO: (Singing) Every time I look for you, you're nowhere near. It makes me blue. I swear I need you by my side right now. Forever, baby.
MARTIN: That's the song "Sunnyside" by Omar Banos - or as he's known to his fans, Cuco. With trumpet in hand, the 19-year-old has been singing and playing to sold out venues with audiences - well, let's admit it - full of mostly teenage girls, screaming his name, drawn to his sensitive, dreamy sound. We caught up with Cuco as his first ever South by Southwest was just winding down. Omar Banos, Cuco, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CUCO: Thank you so much for having me. This is dope.
MARTIN: So you've been kind of an underground sensation. I mean, people have been checking you out on Twitter and checking you out on YouTube, and now you're on stage at South by Southwest. Was that something that you had dreamed about?
CUCO: Yeah. Actually, I had always wanted to come to South by Southwest. It's really fun.
MARTIN: So let me go back to the beginning a little bit. When did you start playing music? I know you're from Hawthorne, Calif.
MARTIN: How did your love of music start?
CUCO: I don't know. I just always wanted to play guitar. I though that was, like, really dope. And then in high school, I learned how to play trumpet and, like, French horn because if the instrument's right in front of me, I'm going to just teach myself. And then that's the same thing that happened with, like, producing. When I was, like, 16, I had, like, my first, like, bit of software and stuff. So then I started, like, making music and all that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR DE SIEMPRE")
CUCO: (Singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Have your parents been supportive?
CUCO: Oh, yeah. My parents love what I'm doing. Like, at first, they were so skeptical, dude. Like, I would be ditching school and, like, do music. And I'd be telling my parents I'd be in class. But like, I would sometimes just be in the parking lot of my school, making beats in, like, my car. And...
MARTIN: Your parents didn't get the call home from the assistant principal, saying, Mrs. Banos, your son is not in class?
CUCO: No because it was, like, college, so - it's funny, like, when my parents were actually cool with me dropping out of college, and I was like, oh, man, thank God because I've been dropped out (laughter).
MARTIN: It's all on the up and up now. Well, that's cool. So I'm trying to keep up - guitar, drums, French horn. I hear a lot of trumpet on your tracks so far. You just kind of are drawn toward something that - is it a sound that you want to master and you say yourself, I need to learn that? How does that work?
CUCO: I just always wanted to make music I kind of wanted to hear if that makes sense. Like, I don't really follow, like, genres or have, like, a bunch of, like, really poppy, like, tracks and, like, another, like, super, like, lo-fi, tape-recorded-type of sound. And then - so it's actually really random.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LO QUE SIENTO")
CUCO: (Singing) I found my perfect girl. I want to make you my queen. Time and time again, I can be feeling real sad because (singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Well, it's great to talk with you at this juncture in your career. I kind of feel like we are connecting with you just as you're about to really take off. Does it feel that way?
CUCO: Oh, man, I feel like I'm watching myself take off, but my brain is, like, still on the ground. This all happened so quick. Like, I didn't even have time to become, like, a diva.
MARTIN: Oh, you still have time (laughter). Well, let's hope that doesn't happen (laughter).
CUCO: No. I mean, I'm honestly not like that. Like, I will wear, like, chinos and Vans. And then sometimes, people will get confused. Like, they're like, are you sure you're here to perform? Like, they don't - like because I guess we don't look like artists.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us. It's exciting to talk with you. And you know, when I see you next, I still hope you'll be wearing your Vans and your chinos...
CUCO: Oh, yeah - no, absolutely.
MARTIN: ...(Laughter) And being regular.
MARTIN: That was Omar Banos aka Cuco talking to us from South by Southwest. Cuco, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CUCO: No, thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE AND ONLY")
CUCO: (Singing) Girl, I want to be your one and only. I want to be more than just a homie. I hope that you want to get to know me. Baby, hit me up if you get lonely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.