After playing music for most of his childhood—including taking up trumpet in sixth grade as well as mastering guitar and piano—Reo Cragun headed off to Washington State University with hopes of becoming a doctor. But when his grandmother died unexpectedly, Reo had a change of heart that led him to drop out of school, give up his full scholarship, and dedicate himself to making music.
“I had my whole life mapped out for myself, everything was all in order,” says Reo, who grew up in Vancouver, Washington. “But after my grandma passed, I realized I didn’t want to live like that. When I dropped out I had no idea how I was going to get anywhere with music, but I did it anyway. It was really scary but also the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Less than two years after leaving college, Reo delivered his breakthrough single “Inconsiderate”—a summer 2016 release hailed by Pigeons & Planes as a “heavy-lidded alternative R&B track” that “takes all of his frustrations and puts it into somber lyrics over head-nodding drums.” With “Inconsiderate” amassing over 3 million streams on Spotify, the 23-year-old artist/songwriter/producer is now set to make his Capitol Records debut with a moody yet melodic mixtape called Growing Pains.
“Most of the songs are about all the changes I’ve gone through over the past couple years, which has been a huge period of evolution in my life,” says Reo, who’s now based in Los Angeles. “They’re about the pain that comes with those changes, but also about recognizing the fact that you’ve got to go through that pain.”
Reo created much of Growing Pains at home in his living room, working with fellow producers Apollo 7Ven and Onassis Morris and purposely sticking to a stripped-down, instinct-driven approach. “The mixtape’s mostly just me and two of my close friends making all this music and keeping it completely organic,” says Reo. “We pretty much did everything from scratch, with hardly any samples. It was important to me to create something that really represents who I am.”
On lead single “Night Crawler,” Reo opens Growing Pains with a darkly thrilling track whose woozy melody and eerie effects perfectly capture the isolation of the creative process. Atmospheric and quietly intense, “On My Way” matches its warped grooves with Reo’s reflections on restless determination. “That song is the story of why I came out to L.A,” he says. “It’s about not being content with where you are, and feeling some kind of hunger to really live.” And on “The Feels”—which Reo describes as “mostly a love story, just me being a softie”—hazy synth lines and hypnotic rhythms blend together in a brilliant backdrop to Reo’s shapeshifting vocal work.
Throughout Growing Pains, Reo shows a raw vulnerability that he traces back to his upbringing. With his father in prison until Reo’s high school years, he was raised by two single mothers (his mom and his aunt) and grew up with a younger cousin whom he considers his sister. “For most of my life it was just the four of us, which I think inspires the music in some way—just being around these powerful women,” says Reo.
Although his family isn’t musically inclined, Reo discovered a love for music at an early age and picked up various instruments throughout his first years of elementary school. “It was mostly just a hobby back then, where I’d play Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or Linkin Park covers on guitar,” he says. With his sights set on a career in medicine, Reo later put music aside and entered an accelerated academic program that included completing two years of college-level study while still in high school. It wasn’t until he’d dropped out of Washington State—after a year of studying biology—that he made his first attempt at songwriting.
“I barely knew how to make a song when I first started, so I was mostly just going off of pure creativity,” says Reo. As he worked on honing his songcraft, he simultaneously taught himself production and soon started recording on his own. Drawing from an eclectic musical palette—“I grew up listening to Green Day and Linkin Park, but I also grew up on 50 Cent”—Reo also brought a decidedly indie sensibility to his songwriting. “To me indie music is like a thousand-piece puzzle,” he says. “The lyrics can have a multitude of meanings to them, and it takes some time and some thought to put it all together.”
As he began posting his songs online, Reo made ends meet by working at a local Costco—a gig that inadvertently inspired his move to California. “I remember I was pushing carts one day and I just said to myself, ‘In six months, I’m getting out of here and going to L.A.,’” he recalls. That same day, thanks to a connection from a musical collaborator in nearby Portland, he ended up crossing paths with a manager who promptly signed Reo to his roster.
Soon after moving to L.A., Reo landed a record deal with Strainge Entertainment and released “Inconsiderate” to heavy acclaim. That buzz quickly led to his collaboration with Nipsey Hussle on “Lost,” a slow-burning early-2017 single that’s now racked up more than 226k streams on Spotify. With the follow-up release of “Peso” in March, Reo scored over 900k streams and earned praise from the likes of Earmilk, who noted his “captivating production” and a lyrical candor that “dives deep into a discussion about his personal drive and journey with music.”
For Reo, that deeply personal element is essential to all of his musical output. Pointing out that his most admired musicians are “the ones who are fearless about saying what’s on their minds,” he ultimately hopes to create songs that connect on the most intimate level. “Even if it’s really personal stuff about problems that I’m going through, it’s important for me to put it all out there,” says Reo. “I want to write songs that make people feel accepted and know that they’re not alone in the world. I want them to hear the things that I needed to hear when I was a kid.”