Acclaimed Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra remembers not knowing what to expect when he received a song recorded by Lin-Manuel Miranda titled "Dos Oruguitas," which means two caterpillars in Spanish.
After listening, he couldn’t help but wonder, "How am I going to make this even more beautiful than what it is already?" he told NBC News. "I thought about it a lot."
At a music studio in Los Angeles, take after take, Yatra meticulously perfected his interpretation of the song. He said changes in his tone needed to be purposeful and each word needed the right inflection to convey a complicated set of emotions in the most pivotal scene of "Encanto": The heart-wrenching backstory of Abuela Alma, the strict grandmother and matriarch of a multigenerational Colombian family whose children get magical powers on their fifth birthdays.
The heartfelt "Encanto" tune earned the composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda an Academy Award nomination for best original song, giving him a second shot at earning EGOT status — which is reserved for performers who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award.
Yatra will perform the song at the Oscars ceremony Sunday.
“That’s something I’m super grateful for,” he said.
Paired with a simple melody, the sentimental folk ballad uses the image of caterpillars turning into butterflies as a metaphor to address Alma’s need to let her family grow through changes — as well as the hope that life can be beautiful after enduring pain.
Peppered with croony high notes, the song feels conversational and emotional, even for non-Spanish speakers.
Yatra had recorded an English version of the song, in case Disney wanted to use it when it released the film in certain countries. But the movie studio decided to keep "Dos Oruguitas" in its native Spanish all across the world.
"It's crazy that the Spanish version had so much emotion in it. It depicted the story so well, and it just told the story in such an honest way," Yatra said. "You don't have to understand a song to feel the words — there's an emotion that you're conveying."
"Encanto" resonated with many Colombians who, like Yatra, felt an overwhelming sense of pride watching a Disney animated film feature their native country in an enlightening way.
While watching the film in a full theater at Bogotá's Teatro Colón, "I felt such a beautiful thing and so much satisfaction," Yatra said. "I just started crying like a little kid."
'It all feels new again'
The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is part of a growing wave of Colombian artists who are looking to showcase their country internationally through art and music.
Born in Medellín and raised in Miami, Yatra returned to Colombia to launch his music career, achieving breakout success in 2018 with the hit “Traicionera,” or traitor in English.
The artist released his third studio album "Dharma" in January, with 17 tracks spanning multiple genres and featuring numerous collaborations with artists such as the Jonas Brothers, Daddy Yankee, Rauw Alejandro, among many others.
The album effectively demonstrates his versatility as a musician — fusing pop and reggaeton, as well as some punk rock and Colombian music influences, a combination that for Yatra, “says more about me as a person than as an artist.”
The latest single, “Tacones Rojos,” or red high heels in English, quickly became a viral smash on TikTok earlier this month.
Yatra attributes the song’s popularity to “the amount of good energy” the chords and the lyrics inject on people.
“When I wrote ‘Tacones Rojos,' I knew it was special from the get-go," he said. “I wrote it with a first and last name in mind, it has a reason behind it and a lot of truth behind it. That’s something that gets transmitted inevitably.”
On Wednesday night, Yatra released a bilingual version of the song with the singer John Legend.
Yatra described his new album as therapeutic, honest and at the same time, fun.
"It's about accepting reality for what it is, accepting your life and accepting all these different emotions — that's why it's called 'Dharma,' which is the acceptance of your reality," Yatra said about the Buddhist term.
Yatra also made his acting debut this month, starring in Netflix’s first Spanish-language musical “Once Upon a Time... But Not Anymore,” about a cursed town where no one can fall in love.
“It’s like an anti-fairy-tale, which is going to be pretty funny,” he said. “But it’s also exciting because you’re doing something risky that gets you out of your comfort zone.”
Yatra kicked off his "Dharma" world tour in Mexico last month, an event that he said filled him with joy, particularly after being unable to perform live during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"After these crazy two years, you value everything so much more, so people are going to the shows and I see the crowd and it's like, as if it was their first concert," Yatra said. "It all feels new again."
During his tour, Yatra gets to show off his versatility on stage, playing multiple instruments amid modern visuals and choreographies.
The tour will stop in multiple cities in the U.S. between August and October.
He said his longtime fans should expect the unexpected from his upcoming shows, adding that "you don't have to know any of the songs, and still like the show."
"This is a show in itself, it's not about me at all," Yatra said. "It's about the people that are going to watch it."