Rising Talent Pepe Portilla Finding His Roadmap at Berklee

Mike Keefe-Feldman
December 12, 2013
Pepe Portilla
Pepe Portilla
Pepe Portilla

When Pepe Portilla found himself at a clinic inside the Berklee Performance Center with an opportunity to perform one song for the biggest name in Latin pop music, Alejandro Sanz, there was just one problem: the 21-year-old Portilla, who is majoring in music production and engineering (MP&E) at Berklee, is a pianist, but there was no piano on the stage with Sanz. Portilla was undeterred.

In addition to his coursework at Berklee, Portilla has been studying guitar informally with fellow students. So despite picking up a guitar for the first time only about a year ago, he took to the stage, grabbed a guitar, and performed an original song, “Perdona,” for the first time. In doing so, he caught the eye of at least one audience member: Jesus Lopez, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Latin America. The clinic performance was not the first bold move to yield positive results for this vibrant young songwriter, performer, and producer.

A Portrait in Persistence

Initially inspired by music from Disney movies, Portilla began playing the piano at age 10. At 15, he moved from his hometown of Cordoba, Veracruz to Xalapa to study classical music at the University of Veracruz. A year later, he began writing his own songs.

“I’m super romantic and I started writing songs for girls,” Portilla says with a laugh and an easy smile. “My first songs were not good, but when I was 17, I had a period where I wrote music every day starting at 6:00 a.m.” Equipped with a newly minted canon of 40 songs, Portilla and two friends formed a band, Kadenza, and before long, one of its songs, “Ayer,” was atop the charts in Mexico. Sony Music wanted to take the band to the next level, but with the stipulation that Portilla was not to sing. Portilla didn’t like that edict, nor some other tweaks that the major label demanded.

“They were changing our style, so I rejected the offer and my friends got crazy,” Portilla says. “They were like, ‘Hey, this was our opportunity. We were going to be famous.’”

Portilla left the band, a move that upset Kadenza’s fans so much that Portilla had to close his Facebook account due to the negative reaction. Meanwhile, Portilla was working as a production assistant at Holy Bear Records in Xalapa and one day, an artist that the label was recording mentioned that he liked Kadenza’s hit song and asked Portilla to sing something for him. Portilla played an original, “Si La Conociera,” and both the artist and the producer in the studio that day suggested that Portilla do something with the song.

Listen to Pepe Portilla's "Si La Conociera" here:

Soon after, Portilla recorded the song and, aided in part by Kadenza’s success, it received quick radio airplay in Mexico. After that, he began recording an album featuring a song, “Era,” that is now crisscrossing the pop airwaves in Mexico.

Watch a music video for Pepe Portilla’s “Era” here:

Portilla began plotting to parlay his success into a professional songwriting career and traveled to Mexico City to approach Universal Music. “I’m really persistent,” Portilla says. “I was waiting for the guy at Universal outside of the Universal office in Mexico City for three hours, because I wanted to talk with him but they wouldn’t give me an appointment. I even waited next to his car, because I saw the sign that said ‘general manager.’ When I finally saw him, I said, ‘I came all the way from Veracruz. This is my album.’”

Soon after, Portilla got a phone call—and an appointment. Now, a number of artists in Mexico are recording Portilla's songs through Universal Music.

Getting Ready for the Road Ahead

One would think that between recording and planning the release of his own album and writing—and now producing—songs for other artists, Portilla would have little time for anything else. Yet somehow, Portilla finds time to attend his MP&E courses, work in Berklee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, and host two radio shows on the Berklee Internet Radio Network (BIRN).

But the opportunity to perform in front of Alejandro Sanz has been a highlight of Portilla’s Berklee experience so far. Following the clinic, at Alejandro Sanz’s Berklee Performance Center concert, Jesus Lopez of Universal Music Latin America called out to Portilla. Portilla recounts that Lopez said, “When will I see you in my office in Miami?’” Stunned, Portilla replied, “Are you kidding? Whenever you want!” According to Portilla, Lopez said, “I know that you have the potential, but I need you to be ready. Shoot me an email when you’re ready.”

“Those words are really present in my life now,” says Portilla. “It means that I still have to work a lot, and I’m conscious of that, but that’s life, you know? I’m young and I have a lot of road ahead of me.”

Fortunately, in Berklee, Portilla thinks that he has found the ideal roadmap to get ready—not just as a performer, songwriter, and producer, but as a person.

“In Mexico, even though I had performed at some really big venues, I wasn’t sure of my identity and I was not 100 percent confident in myself,” Portilla says. “When I came to Berklee, I just changed. I’m more humble and I realized that I’m super blessed and really lucky. Being here has been the best experience I’ve ever had."