By Jennie Tezak | Photo by Manny Espinoza
Wearing black frames and a soft expression, musician Johan Sotelo could be a twenty-first century Buddy Holly. With a distinctly rounded voice that reaches high registers effortlessly, Sotelo has quickly created a name for himself on the Monterey Peninsula, where he has played at venues such as Bistro Beaujolais, Forge in the Forest, Cypress Inn, C Restaurant at The Intercontinental, Affina, and the now-closed Jack London’s. He has also performed one-man shows at the Manny Espinoza Gallery & Photo Studio.
Sotelo has been interested in music since he was a child. His first memory is when his mother rented Fantasia when he was four years old. “It became my favorite movie.” He started taking piano lessons, and in fifth grade, joined a guitar program in school. Originally self-taught, he started learning songs by ear and on YouTube. The only musician in the family, Sotelo is grateful for having supportive parents.
Sotelo moved from Caborca, México to Yuma, Arizona with his family when he was a sophomore in high school. One advantage Sotelo has is that his father was an English professor, and that made learning English that much easier. After attending the University of Arizona, he transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston. While at Berklee, he was fortunate to attend the Latin Grammys and perform live on stage with legendary Latin sing/songwriter Alejandro Sanz. In Carmel, Sotelo has had the opportunity to perform for fellow Berklee Graduate and Three-time Grammy winner Mark Mancina.
Before moving to Carmel in April of 2015, Sotelo went straight from Berklee to busking in Santa Monica. “If you can stand that, you can stand anything,” he says. He obtained a performing license to do so after learning that playing at Los Angeles venues was nearly impossible without a reputation or tens of thousands of followers on social media. With a venue as ever-changing as the streets, Sotelo found himself surrounded by unique experiences and performances. “You have three seconds to get people’s attention. If you mess up, they continue walking,” he states, matter-of-factly. He busked for half a year while completing music internships.
During a performance at Jack London’s, someone asked him to play a Backstreet Boys song. He pulled up the chords for “I Want It That Way” on his iPad and sight-read the song. “While I was singing, I realized what the song was saying,” he says, sheepishly. “When I was a kid, I would sing or mimic the pronunciation of the words although I didn’t always understand what I was saying.” That time at Jack London’s was kind of like an ‘Aha!’ moment for him as he realized the song only was so familiar because it was the first cassette he ever bought with his lunch money.
One of Sotelo’s biggest influences is John Mayer. “When I started out, I would pause his videos and watch his finger placements to figure out the chords.” His cover of Mayer’s “In your Atmosphere” has nearly 30,000 views. Sotelos Camila cover “Colleccionista De Cancions” has over 68,000 views. His covers of Coldplay, Mayer, Sheeran, and Sam Smith can be seen among his many YouTube videos. With a smooth tenor voice that hits falsetto notes effortlessly, Sotelo makes fans long for more auditory sugar.
Sotelo plans to play music for the rest of his life. “It doesn’t matter what I end up doing. I will always come back to the guitar. It’s my passion,” he says. Sotelo has an album, Quédate A Mi Lado (Stay By My Side), and continues to play locally. Sotelo will always have a special place in his heart for Carmel-by-the-Sea. Residents and businesses welcomed him with open arms and have rekindled his music dreams.
Hear more from Johan Sotelo at johansotelo.com