Rising Tejano star A.J. Castillo does not shy from a challenge. As a 10-year-old in a musical family, he gravitated toward his grandfather's button accordion, a complicated and demanding instrument. And although he was frustrated by the long, steep learning curve, he stuck with it right into his teen years.
'Sometimes when you're a young musician, you hit a wall, and it's tough to grow, tough to get past it. I expected I'd start playing, and I'd pick it up in a year and be ready for the stage. It didn't happen like that,' says Castillo, relaxing on the white leather couch in his parents' stylish South Austin living room. 'But one day when I was about 16 years old, I woke up and something clicked in my head, and I had the formula to play the instrument. It just came to me. It's hard to explain.'
Castillo, who turns 25 in October, first took the stage with his dad, Arthur Castillo Sr., and his uncle in the Austin band Rumores and honed his chops at weddings, quinceañeras and other events. By his early 20s, Castillo was fronting his own band, showcasing his appealing vocals and strong stage presence as well as his instrumental prowess. He was fortunate in finding such mentors as Grammy-winning producer Gilbert Velasquez, and he now has two albums out, last year's 'Who I Am' and the brand new 'On My Way.' Tejano stations across the country have been playing his latest songs, including 'Es La Misma Mujer,' featuring David Lee Garza and Mark Ledesma, and 'Llorar y Llorar,' on which his younger brother, Sergio, joins him on vocals. He's nominated in the best Austin band category for the Univision Premios Texas competition and is playing the event's Concierto Bajo las Estrellas in Austin on Wednesday .
And Castillo already scored three times last month in twin competitions at the Tejano Music 2010 convention in San Antonio, winning the best accordion and best emerging artist awards from the Academy of Tejano Artists and Musicians and best new male artist honors in the 30th annual Tejano Music Awards.
It's the accordion award that meant the most to him, he says.
"I want to make the instrument cool," proclaims Castillo, who plays Hohners customized with distinctive flair ¬- one a sparkling '60s-retro shade of lime green, for instance, another emblazoned with Louis Vuitton logos, yet another encrusted with enough crystal bling to make Liberace weep with envy.
He loves it when fans tell him he altered their image of the accordion.
'You think "accordion," what do you think? You think a big accordion, heavy, I guess a geeky instrument. But it's really not! It's a beautiful instrument.'
Castillo has worked hard to develop his own, more contemporary and urban style, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources. The songs he plays range from traditional polkas and cumbias to Tejanized zydeco and R&B, and, at a recent show, he obliged the audience by playing a country song followed by a cover of 'Brick House.' Typically, he uses a jazz tuning to make his instrument sound a bit like a sax, and he adapts licks from artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and smooth-jazz guitarist Norman Brown. Within the Tejano genre, his idol is accordion innovator Esteban Jordan.
'What makes him a great artist is he's not afraid to be himself,' Castillo says. 'He puts his music out there, regardless of what people think, and he loves what he does. He's a monster!'
Jordan doesn't always get the respect - or the airplay - he deserves, Castillo says.
'When I was about 15, 16, 17, I'd stay up learning all his music, and I would find myself actually falling asleep while I was still practicing,' Castillo says. 'The reason why I was so attracted to his music was because it was hard, it was complex - not your normal type of music.'
Innovation is what's needed to re-energize Tejano music now, Castillo is convinced.
'Our genre right now is really tough. It's tough for bands, people have a hard time finding gigs. At one time, the genre was huge, you had Selena, Emilio, lots of big-name artists.'
Castillo, who has a business degree from the University of Texas-San Antonio, said Tejano radio stations need to loosen up their playlists and allow the genre to rejuvenate.
'You listen to hip-hop and country stations, they always have new artists, versus this genre that's stayed playing the same music from the '90s. We're in 2010, and still hearing the music from 1993, 1994, so how can you expect new fans to come along? The music has to keep moving to keep generating new fans. You have to keep rolling, have to think, "What's next, what's next?"'
A suggestion that a lot of Tejano radio does seem to be filled with cheesy keyboard sounds redolent of the '90s caused Castillo to crack up and assert: 'You should put that in your article! That's San Antonio's fault! Make sure you put that.'
Castillo is proud to be making it in Tejano as an Austin artist with a distinctive approach and perspective.
'We've been truly, truly blessed, we really have, in the way they've accepted us, especially at the awards in San Antonio. You never really hear of anybody from Austin coming out and winning in our genre. The only one who ever got out of Austin and had success everywhere is, like, Ruben Ramos, and he's been playing for years, he's a legend. For us to come out - we've been at it a year, and we're already getting recognized everywhere - it's great. I have a lot of friends from San Antonio, and they think San Antonio is everything!' Castillo says with a laugh. 'It's good to come out from Austin and really show these people, "Wow, these guys can play."
'I want to bring it to Austin. We're coming out with the sound that is really known as the Austin sound, especially with the (Tejano) radio station now, the new 95.1 (KTXZ). They really are giving younger artists a chance and trying to play new music, and it's doing great, and they're doing great for us.'
Naturally, crossing over to other formats is a goal for any ambitious young artist, but Castillo wants to be careful about taking that step.
'I have to make sure it's something we really enjoy doing as well,' he says. 'We'll never leave our roots - that's the whole reason we started is because we love the music that we play now. I love playing cumbias, polkas, rancheras, love to see people dance and laugh and smile. It's the music that we grew up with. But I want to continue to help the music evolve. I think it's a great thing and we have to keep it going for the next generation that comes along.'
Aug 11 : A.J. Castillo is among the performers scheduled for the preview concert on the terrace of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive. 5 p.m. Free and open to the public.
Aug. 12: Univision's annual local music awards, also at the Long Center. Tickets are not for sale but can be won:Through one of Univision's Austin platforms, including Univision 62 Austin, Univision Radio's La Que Buena 104.3 FM and La Jefa 107.7.At premiostexas.com .On Twitter (twitter.com/premiostexas ) and Facebook (search for the Premios Texas 2010 fan page).During Wednesday's concert and the red carpet Aug. 12 at Univision's station booth at the Long Center. Drawings will be held during breaks at the concert and the next day at the red carpet.Information: premiostexas.com