A bootstrapping DIY musician and comedian, Carlos Medina is no stranger to life lessons learned on the road. But now, Meow Wolf’s first recording artist announces his debut album, El Cantador (out March 8th), his five-state tour, and talks about the lessons he learned right here in northern New Mexico.
In the Beginning
Although he is the son of a miner, Carlos Medina has been a musician for 35 years. “I’ve been performing since I was 7,” he clarifies. Yet, despite decades of playing in little bars around the region and honing his abilities, the born-and-raised northern New Mexican never anticipated where some of these songs would take him.
Of “No Le Digan,” Medina says of his first single off the album that you can hear today, “I wrote that song probably 20 years ago. Just to see it become what it’s become now is pretty cool.” True enough, until he let go of the production reins for El Cantador, leaving them in the hands of mariachi trumpeter and producer, David Valdez, Medina had been a self-made music man — down to the liner notes of his homemade CDs.
El Cantador is the first album produced in-house by Meow Wolf, currently available on vinyl. “It’s straight-up mariachi, says Medina. “Songs written by somebody that was born and raised here.” But outside of his traditional musical influences, though, there’s not much “traditional” about Medina’s career path.
So, how did this seasoned mariachi artist from Las Vegas, New Mexico become the face and voice of Meow Wolf’s first music production? To hear Medina tell it, the path was fated, and it started with comedy. Medina is, at the least, a double threat.
When Opportunity Strikes, Calls, or Comes to your Gig
While living in Portales, NM, Medina had just finished self-recording a music project when a rare, albeit brief stint of boredom led him to try something new. “Around that time I had started recording these skits based on a couple of characters I created.” The skits played off of the Spanglish quirks of northern New Mexico, featuring characters Graviel de la Plaga and Domanick, and they “were not something I created with the intention of becoming anything,” says Medina.
However, in 2010, one phone call from a promoter turned into an unexpected stand-up comedy gig. Although Medina had never attempted stand-up before, he agreed to perform 10 minutes. When arriving at the venue, a massive line of fans greeted him, and Medina remembers being told, “There’s a change of plans. It seems like all these people are here to see you. Can you go last, and can you do 30 minutes? I was like, well, yeah! Let’s do it. That night I became aware of this guy named Vince [eventual Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek] who was working on something crazy, too. So, that was it. My fate was sealed that night.”
The next couple of years were marked by several professional flirtations that never materialized, but Medina continued to create music and comedy while simultaneously establishing roots in Santa Fe. He also continued to keep in touch with Kadlubek and “this thing going on in Santa Fe. This Meow Wolf.“
The Language of Letting Go
Meow Wolf Santa Fe opened its House of Eternal Return in 2016, and after years of collaborative overtures, Carlos Medina was finally tapped to create promotional videos featuring his comedic characters — an effort to connect to the Hispanic community. He remembers being told, “We just want to make sure that everybody knows that Meow Wolf is for everyone. It’s not just for artists.” This struck a chord with Medina, who began to feel a kinship with Kadlubek. Medina told his girlfriend, “This is somebody I want to work with. He’s got a bigger vision...this is not just a funhouse. I feel good when I’m around him.”
Little did Carlos know, this kinship would become much more literal. After the promo videos were made, he continued to meet with Kadlubek about further collaborations. One such meeting ended with Medina excusing himself to visit his girlfriend’s uncle...who just happens to also be Kadlubek’s uncle. Upon this small world realization, Medina told himself, “This is it. That’s a sign. That’s the universe telling you this is where you need to be.”
Despite his comedic contributions — along with all of these figurative arrows pointing to Meow Wolf — it was Medina’s original artistic pursuit that would inform his first major collaboration with the company, the production of El Cantador. “I was a musician first. When I came on board, that was one of the things that Vince and I talked about.” In order to bring this album to fruition, though, Medina would have to learn a new skill: letting go. This meant putting these songs, some of which had been decades in the making, into the hands of Valdez.
The idea of creative collaboration, however — the “letting go” — is what Medina credits with being one of El Cantador’s greatest boons. Of Valdez, he says, “He literally knows every breath between each word. In a million years — even though I wrote those songs — I could not have accomplished what he did, because that’s his talent.”
“Probably the hardest thing to do,” muses Medina, “is let go of your ideas so others can work with them and make them bigger.”
The Future is Bright
When Carlos Medina speaks about the upcoming tour to support El Cantador, the newfound purpose he’s found for his artistic talents is readily apparent. “We’re going to 5 different states to showcase the music on the album, and we’re collaborating with some local musicians to give it a good flavor...letting go again.”
Whether it’s his selection of touring musicians, his ideas for future projects with Meow Wolf (there are talks of a children’s album), or the reverence he holds for the subjects that inspire his comedy and songs, Medina’s passion for his work and community demolishes any hint of self-service. “This is what we need to be teaching kids: how valuable art is in all of its forms.” Perhaps it’s easy for an artist to talk about serving others when they’re the face on the cover of the album, but for Medina. . . he just seems grateful.
“What a story!” He says looking back, with eyes wide. “One phone call.”