Mateo Arias spent years of his young life acting in major television shows and films, so it’s no surprise that he views the music he makes as ¿Téo? with a highly cinematic eye. For Arias, the energy, and even the sounds themselves, come to him as colors, and the emotions always come straight from the heart. Never has this been more evident than on Luna, his third full-length album and the companion to his 2021 critically acclaimed album, Sol.
Drawing from a vast well that includes hip-hop, alternative, reggaetón and even Brazilian bossa nova, ¿Téo? has organically developed a unique, neo-American sound ever since the release of his 2017 debut single, “Uno Dos,” which featured longtime friend and collaborator Jaden Smith. With its hypnotizing vocals, cutting-edge production techniques, and vintage song structures and instrumentation, ¿Téo?’s music is modern yet nostalgic, enveloping the listener in a cloud of familiar warmth.
And while Sol possessed a spontaneous, bright and airy feel in keeping with its concept of literally encompassing “everything under the sun,” Luna is more dark, sultry and mysterious – much like the moon itself. “What can nighttime mean? What are all the different things that can happen when the moon is out?” ¿Téo? muses of the theme behind the project, which was executive produced by John Blanda (fka twigs, Khalid) and ¿Téo? himself. Both albums include 12 songs, and when paired together, tell the story of 24 eventful hours in the life of this multi-talented artist who grew up fully immersed in American culture while being raised by Colombian parents in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Perhaps unconsciously inspired by the variety of music played around his childhood house, ¿Téo? fell in love with the piano in the lobby of his family’s Los Angeles apartment complex as a pre-teen. Even though he didn’t know how to play it, he dutifully sat and tickled the ivories every day until someone at the front desk politely asked him to knock it off. Soon, his mom bought him a keyboard of his own, which he says “was a great way for me to translate my feelings. I’m a very emotional creature, so I’m very familiar with the color blue, which is why Luna is close to my heart. It’s easy for me to make a sad record, so I’ve challenged myself recently to explore some turned-up stuff. I make those records too, but the sad songs, it’s like I don’t even have to try. They just come, because that’s just my nature.”
Songs such as “Don’t Stare Too Long” illustrate the honest places from which ¿Téo? conveys those feelings. Over a late-night beat and languid acoustic guitar melodies, he chronicles the inherent blurry lines between love and lust and truth and fiction, especially when the stakes are high: “It’s heavy on the eyes / And it’s hard for me to say no.” “I think that’s my favorite songwriting that I’ve ever done,” he says of the track. “That story comes directly from my personal experience, but I think anyone can relate to those uncomfortable moments with a partner. It’s hard to stare at someone in the eyes when you’re dealing with something really rough.”
The first taste of Luna came with the late 2022 single “In the Essence,” which thrilled fans with its reggaetón feel and positive message. “The inspiration really comes from the ability to get lost in the presence of life, whether in love or creativity,” says ¿Téo?. “Creativity, for me, really stems from being in touch with that essence. I always liked the idea of making an all-English song inspired by reggaetón. I was happy that this song naturally fulfilled that concept, especially within the world I’m creating for Luna.”
At the other end of the spectrum are songs such as the trap-leaning hip-hop of “Final Step” and “Chances” and the sexy R&B of “Ashamed” and “Me and Ur Maker” featuring Maesu, which were borne from material originally written around the time of Sol, but didn’t quite fit the flavor of that project. “It’s really beautiful to see the way that we transformed those songs,” ¿Téo? says. “We’ve elevated them, and I’ve evolved as an artist since they were first written. I love that process of discovery.”
Luna also finds ¿Téo? singing each song in only one language, rather than offering a hook in Spanish and the other lyrics in English like many other artists with Latino heritage. “I treat my music like the way I live my life,” he says of the decision, which showcases his natural ability to move back and forth between the cultures that run in his veins. “If I’m in a room with my mom and brother, I speak to my mom in Spanish and my brother in English. I’m separating them here, almost like a yin and yang.”
¿Téo?’s connection to his ancestral culture is further heard on a gorgeous rendition of “Bésame,” inspired by “Bésame Mucho,” an 83-year-old standard recognized as the most recorded and covered Spanish-language song of all time. His rendition features accompaniment by the Budapest Scoring orchestra, and he calls the finished product “one of the most special songs on the album and a complete dream come true.”
On the heels of opening 42 shows for Justin Bieber’s 2022 Justice tour, ¿Téo? will soon embark on his own Sol & Luna tour, which will culminate with appearances at both weekends of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April. The significance is not lost on ¿Téo?, particularly in a year where Bad Bunny will become the event’s first Latin headliner. At Coachella, he will also be part of a bill featuring longtime friend Willow Smith, with whose brother Jaden he is the co-founder of the clothing company MSFTSrep along with his own brother and creative director Moises Arias.
“I’m ecstatic,” he says. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. I came out with Jaden at Coachella during his set in 2019, and I will always remember that sea of people. The thought of me being able to have a ¿Téo? set at a festival like Coachella is a sign of where things are going.”
“I really care about making great music,” he continues. “Yes, for the fans, but for my own sake as well. Making a great record is the end unto itself – there’s nothing I want to get out of it beyond that. That feeling I get when I hear a great song is unmatchable. That’s why I’m so passionate about music and why I want to take it as far as I possibly can.”