What is a rose without a thorn? Or love without a pinch of poison? Or a Mexican ballad without a dash of melodrama?
On an overcast day in late May, inside the Exposition Park Rose Garden in Los Angeles, I follow the lush, sunken labyrinth that leads me to the Chicano singer-songwriter, DannyLux — identifiable by a curly mop of brassy hair that stands tall above the yellow blooms.
It almost comes as a shock that the soft-spoken 19-year-old before me is responsible for haunting cortavenas like “Jugaste y Sufrí,” the 2021 hit he wrote and recorded with Eslabón Armado; or the telenovela fodder of “Tristeza y Traición,” a corrido from his indie days.
“I’m not really getting into drama like that, though,” he assures me. “I’m just that chill guy who makes music!”
As regional Mexican stars Peso Pluma, Natanael Cano and Fuerza Regida achieve prominence with their rugged, streetwise corridos tumbados, a more introspective subgenre known as “sad sierreño” has bubbled up from YouTube and TikTok. Acts like Eslabón Armado and Yahritza y Su Esencia have amassed millions of fans by broadcasting their moody guitar ballads — named “sierreño” for the style, which originated in the mountainous regions of Mexico — from their teen bedrooms in the States.
Daniel Balderrama was only 16 when he joined their ranks as DannyLux. (“Lux is short for Luxury,” he explains.) He was a high school senior when he landed the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Latin Songwriters Chart after penning “Jugaste y Sufrí,” then signed a record deal with Warner Music Latin.
In 2022, DannyLux opened several nights for Coldplay on the Mexico leg of their “A Head Full of Dreams” tour, and by April 2023, he made his debut at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. A half-hour from his hometown, his immigrant father was often employed by the festival to pick up trash, but this year he got to join his son onstage inside a Sonora tent brimming with hundreds of fans.
“What means more than anything to me — more than money, fans or anything like that — is just having my parents around and making them proud,” DannyLux tells The Times.
Featuring collaborations with Eslabón Armado, Cuco and Pablo Hurtado of the Latin Grammy-nominated Mexican rock band Camila, his debut full-length album, “DLux” — pronounced “Deluxe” — is the latest feather in his cap.
Having studied cumbias and corridos all his life, as well as the works of bands like the Beatles and Maná, DannyLux cultivates an eclectic Mexican roots sound that traverses indie pop, dance, psych-rock and Caribbean sounds in 17 evocative love songs.
“I think regional Mexican music is so romantic,” says DannyLux. “I mean, of course, I listen to corridos, dudes singing about drugs and stuff like that. I like those songs, but I thought, ‘Damn… do I want my music to bring in dudes? Or girls?’ By making romantic songs, I think I can bring everyone together.”
As a testament to his skill for bringing people together — and winning over a new generation of young regional Mexican music listeners — we’re sitting in a gazebo when a class of rowdy seventh-graders, who have just come barreling out of the California Science Center, swarms us. They clamor for selfies and autographs on their Hello Kitty and Pokémon backpacks; DannyLux patiently obliges each request, scrawling his name in Sharpie pen and sharing his thoughts about anime in the same mellow timbre he sings.
In a genre long dominated by men’s men sporting cowboy hats and five o’clock shadows, I think to myself, there’s something subversive, however endearing, about DannyLux’s teen idol status. Finally, as if to answer my prayers, one seventh-grader deputizes himself to the role of security.
“Excuse me, everyone,” he says gruffly to his classmates, “Mr. Lux is doing an interview and you are invading his personal space!”
Standing on the sidelines is his band documentarian and bassist EddyJae, as well as guitarist Victor Hugo Ramos, who seem to trail DannyLux in all his adventures. His mother, Patti Balderrama, is perusing the garden nearby.
“He was always sweet with the kids,” she says of her son, the youngest of her three children.
DannyLux’s parents met as teenagers in Mexicali, Mexico. His father was 16 when he crossed the border into the United States and took up work picking produce on various farms. After six months of romancing his mother from afar — “He used to call my mom up on a pay phone,” says DannyLux, marveling at the novelty of 1980s courtship — he returned to Mexicali to ask her to marry him. Together they started a new life in the Coachella Valley, where the Balderrama family resides to this day.
“My mom became a secretary for our church,” he recalls. “My dad ended up working in sanitation, and he’d bring home toys for us that people would leave in the trash… I think I was 7 when he brought home this really cool guitar, with a speaker built into it.”
Despite his knack for songwriting, DannyLux struggled to keep up his grades in school, preferring instead to practice guitar chords he learned from his music teacher at their local Catholic church. After a low GPA got him kicked off the soccer team, and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown that followed, DannyLux spent his last two years of high school in isolation.
DannyLux immersed himself in boleros from the 1950s, and learned about romance vicariously through films like “The Notebook,” and the 1969 Italian classic, “Amore Mio Aiutami” — which translates to “Help Me, My Love.”
“I was literally the saddest kid ever,” he says. “My siblings left the house when I was 11, so I was alone a lot. My parents were so disappointed in me. I would cry and pray every night for something good to happen… Things changed after I started posting covers on TikTok.”
During the pandemic, DannyLux grew to confide in his thousands of TikTok followers, who often requested him to perform cover songs. He eventually garnered the attention of Pedro Tovar, band leader of Eslabón Armado. DannyLux stayed up late one night writing “Jugaste y Sufrí,” which translates to “You Played and I Suffered,” and ran it by Tovar over a Facetime call.
“He was all over it,” says DannyLux.
However harrowing the subject matter of his first hit song, DannyLux can laugh about it now.
“I was talking to this girl in high school, for a good long while,” he explains of the song. “But one random day, I went on my phone and clicked on her [Instagram] story, and saw that she was with another guy. I realized she just didn’t care.
“But it’s because of that heartbreak,” he adds with a smile, “that I am where I am.”
Whereas the great Mexican balladeer Juan Gabriel captured the zeitgeist from the border town of Ciudad Juárez — an urban, working-class Mexican romanticism, adorned with rhinestones and rust — DannyLux channels a yearning spirit that wanders neither the city nor the country, but instead, the hall of mirrors that is the internet.
“I think phones ruin a lot of the feeling nowadays,” he says of looking for love in the era of social media.
“Maybe it sounds stupid, but I think we’re very disconnected on our phones. People rip off their personalities based on what they see or who they want to interact with.”
In his orchestral rock ballad, “Zafiro,” the crown jewel of “DLux,” guest guitarist Pablo Hurtado unleashes a torrential solo as DannyLux cracks at the façade of a girl whose eyes are as frosty as her heart. (“Esos ojos zafiros/Brillan y mienten,” he sings, “Creo que ni sienten.”)
Yet for all the talk of dashed hopes and disappointments in his work, DannyLux’s soft power lies in how he frames his fantasies. Venezuelan indie-pop starlet Maye joins him on “Mi Hogar,” a bachata-flavored slice of heaven, in which the two envision glamorous lives in Paris; and in the jazz-corrido fusion of “Ambición,” he manifests a bright future with his lover in silky dulcet tones. His song, “Ferxxo 100,” is a crafty guitar cover of the song by the Colombian reggaetón idol, Feid.
“Every song I write starts with Mexican roots — then I build upon that,” he explains. “I taught myself how to play reggae drums for the Feid song, then learned how to make EDM beats for ‘House of Lux.’ I want to be unique with my stuff, but I never want to let go of that original Mexican essence.”
Now with his full-length album out in the world, DannyLux is gearing up for a massive tour this fall — which includes dates opening for New York post-punk band Interpol, along with fellow SoCal natives the Red Pears. DannyLux will regale the sad paísas of Los Angeles on Oct. 30 at the Greek Theatre.
“I find this all crazy, to be honest,” he tells The Times. “I know I’m not showing a lot of emotion right now. But on the inside? I’m exploding!”