Carlos Vara experienced one hell of a culture shock. Raised in a conservative town in South Carolina, he was seven when his parents went from running nightclubs to running Pentecostal churches, and he knew things would only get worse when he felt attracted to people of the same sex. Fast forward to his late teens, Carlos moved to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, which led to extended creative sessions in West Hollywood. He suddenly found himself in a new environment where straight-to-hell tickets like gay sex and smoking joints were actually celebrated.
The culture shock made Carlos feel insecure, and he compensated by pretending to be super confident. After a night (or two) of hard partying, he captured this inner-turmoil on paper with what became the basis for his breakout single, "Confident." When PRØHBTD met with him in Los Angeles, Carlos admitted that he still struggles, but he hopes his experience can inspire other young people facing their own cultural struggles.
"Confident" is poppy enough to appeal to a younger crowd, but the lyrics and video are aimed at an adult audience. Is that on purpose?
I've never thought about it that way, but that's a good observation. I don't want the song to be closed off to anyone, but I'm glad that people in their 20s like hearing it at the clubs, and I hope 16 year olds like it, too. That said, my little sister's 11, and my mom texted me, "Do you have a clean version of this for your sister?"
The chorus features a cannabis reference with "puff, puff, pass." Someone in the studio gave you a pen that inspired the line, correct?
Yes. Honestly, the entire week I was stoned, so I don't know if it was the same night or two different nights, but I was going out with my friends who are all songwriters and artists. We were at Flaming Saddles in West Hollywood, and there are naked cowboys, and I'm like, "This is amazing!" But I was also the new kid, so I was thinking, "Like me. Somebody be nice to me."
I started to combat that with an overwhelming sense of extreme confidence. Inside I'm still having a full-blown anxiety attack, but I'm going crazy doing shots with everybody just to prove that I can do shots. I remember somebody said, "I just love how you walk into the room. You always come in with a stride. You're so confident." I said thank you, but in my head I'm thinking, "These people perceive me as confident?" If that's what you think, I'm living a lie because it's not true.
I forgot what happened, but I got really upset about something, and I remember crying in the Uber on the way home. I had this super cheap keyboard in my Airbnb and wrote down, "Feels so good to be confident." Then I got into a session and showed them the initial idea and told them about my night, and they were like, "Let's write a song about it." [James Ryan] Busbee put out this track, and I started writing, and [co-writer] Skyler Stonestreet had this pen… a Bliss pen I think. We got stoned, and then I wrote, "Puff, puff, pass. Puff, puff, pass. Holy shit, I'm smashed."
Were you shocked to see what a major role cannabis plays in the culture out here?
It's nuts. In high school, I was bad as fuck in the sense that I always got in trouble for saying whatever I wanted, but I didn't drink, have sex or smoke. When I got signed, I came out here for three months to write. I'd smoked weed before, but not a lot, and it's everywhere here. Everyone's smoking weed, and then you're in West Hollywood, and everyone looks like a model. It's flashy, flashy, flashy, flashy. I was panicking all the time. I definitely utilized marijuana a lot, and I still do, but I think I know how to control my emotions a bit more now.
Does it help you creatively?
I don't want to say it makes me more creative, but when I write stoned, I feel like it gives my mind no boundaries for all of my random thoughts. Typically, my brain is thought, thought, thought, random thought, and it's torture because I'm always thinking. Sometimes when I write high, it's thought, thought, thought, thought, speak, speak, speak, speak. It helps me feel a bit more open to say what I want and how I feel, but then sometimes I get stoned and can't do anything. I'm just lying on the ground eating snacks or something.
What are ways you've learned to be more confident in your personal life?
Somebody once told me, "Whatever that person has, you can never have it, but they'll never have what you have." Once you stop comparing, you can start being happy with your own self. Life shouldn't be a competition. It should be about surrounding yourself with people you love and who love you, and just being kind and looking for the best.
Can you tell me about your conservative upbringing?
I was born in North Carolina and grew up in South Carolina. My dad's from El Salvador and my mom's Greek, and they owned nightclubs. They had a rough time when I was a kid. I mean, the nightclub lifestyle is crazy. My mom was over it and said, "I'm leaving." I guess my dad just started going to church and had this life change, so one day he just pulled over and baptized himself on the side of the road. The next day, literally all the clubs were closed. We also had a restaurant, but they stopped selling alcohol, so nobody came anymore. He became super, super Christian and got ordained, and now he has a huge Spanish-speaking church in South Carolina and in El Salvador and a church in Mexico. My mom leads worship.
Are you considered the black sheep?
Oh, for sure. Since I was a kid in school, I was always the one who got in trouble for saying too much and doing what I wanted. I always went against the grain, I guess. The majority of my sisters are married with kids. I'm definitely the one who chose the alternative path. I would say I'm the black sheep with some sparkle on it.
You've had to overcome being raised in a strict Pentecostal home, coming out to your family and dealing with potential physical disabilities. Do you feel pressure to be a role model?
When you think about all the minorities that my life touches—we've got Latino, we've got Greek, we've got southern kid, we've got preacher's kid, we've got gay, we've got Tourette's, we've got mental health—it's like, "Holy fuck!" But really, I just feel like I'm a child of America. This is America, what it should be.
Now there are scared little kids who are gay and living in the South or kids who are Hispanic and don't feel like they really fit in. I come from an extreme environment, and I hope that I can be a light to the people who are in that now. I want to say, "I'm from the same place you are, I'm different, too, and it shouldn't be scary."
When many people discuss LGBTQ+ issues, it's often from a big city perspective, but you can share a southern, rural perspective for people who don't quite have a voice yet.
It's really hard, especially when you come from the South or from an ethnic background that tends to be more conservative by nature. I have friends who are the most wonderful people who grew up their entire lives in Los Angeles or New York, and they came out when they were 12. Their parents were like, "That's cool," and that's how stuff should be.
I didn't have that same experience.
People who grew up in liberal climates don't understand where I come from. When I was coming out, they would ask, "Why are you so scared? Why is this so hard?" They don't understand the pressure and the mental turmoil you go through un-brainwashing yourself. This is years and years and generations and generations of telling people the same thing, and it's hard to break out of that. My entire life I was scared of going to hell no matter what I did, and it was a real, real fear that ruled my life. I feel I'm able to understand people who come from that, and I hope that I'm able to be a light to them. I hope that I can help them break through.
How was it coming out to your parents?
My family is very conservative. With my mom, it was definitely rough at first. I know my mom loves me forever, but it's like, "I'm scared for my son." In the past few years, I see us getting closer and her understanding more, and me being able to show her that it's fine.
Me and my dad... I don't know.
It's going to take more time?
Me and my dad have never really been... I don't know. He's him. It's a bit harder for him. It was really rough for me. The coming out experience wasn't a cute YouTube video. Not that that is bad. It's amazing that people are able to come out online and celebrate it with the people they love, but that wasn't the same experience for me. It was very terrifying.
You previously got attention for the song "Numb." What was your mindset when you wrote it?
I wrote "Numb" the first week I moved to Nashville. I was 18 and still in high school, and it was my first time being in an environment that wasn't home. I was like, "I'm meeting all these gay people, and they're good people. I met a Democrat, and they're great people, and holy shit, I think I'm a Democrat."
My mind was changing, and I was just overwhelmed. I was feeling everything, and at the same time, I wasn't feeling anything at all. When I wrote "Numb," I just started playing chords in the middle of the night and feeling it in a weird séance-type vibe, and I just started singing stuff: "You make me go numb. You make me go numb." I guess the song is about the emotion of that experience rather than a story.
How important is it to be honest and transparent in your music and interviews?
I've always worn my heart on my sleeve. It's important for me to be open about my life and my experience so people can know where I come from in case they come from a similar place. Of course, sometimes you have to hold a little back so you don't get hurt, but as a person, I don't ever want to change who I am. The second my heart becomes hateful or I become somebody I'm not meant to be, it's not worth it. I just want to be a good person and love people and write my music.
Photo credit: Marcus Cooper.