Get to know Cuba’s Sweet Lizzy Project! The five-piece rock band built a strong following in its native Havana with scant resources or infrastructure to support them, in a cultural setting where they could never be entirely themselves. The filming of Havana Time Machine served to transport the band to another time and place. The American PBS special surveyed the city’s music scene and culminated in a live concert featuring Sweet Lizzy Project, some more-traditional Cuban artists, and lauded American roots rockers the Mavericks.
Mavericks founder and lead singer Raul Malo, whose parents emigrated from Cuba in 1960, became transfixed by Sweet Lizzy’s music and story. He sponsored the band for U.S. work visas and signed them to his band’s record company Mono Mundo, starting the process in late 2017.
Malo and his family have housed and counseled the members of Sweet Lizzy Project while ushering them into Nashville’s finest studios and a world of music professionalism and abundance unavailable in Cuba. Sweet Lizzy’s musicians love Cuba and cherish its culture and traditions. But they’re clear-eyed about its problems and limits, and they are here to advocate for the best of both worlds with their music. They made the bold decision to uproot their lives and relocate to Nashville, starting almost from square one, since they had been well known in their native country.
The band’s U.S. debut album, Technicolor, which was released on February 21st, is a statement bigger and bolder than the gulf separating Cuba and the United States, or even than the album’s polychromatic, pulsing sound. It’s a musical bridge SLP hopes others will cross. The feisty, infectious album draws on several eras of rock and pop, adding subtle Latin undertones. Lead vocalist and lyricist Lisset Diaz has an unmistakable and expressive voice, a controlled passion that may recall Kate Bush, Natalie Merchant or Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Co-writer and bandleader Miguel Comas is possibly Cuba’s most respected record producer and rock guitarist. The band is rounded out by Wilfredo Gatell on keyboards, Alejandro Gonzalez on bass and drummer Ángel Luis Millet.
Production of the album Technicolor began with tracks recorded in Miguel’s Havana bedroom studio. Malo’s longtime recording engineer, the award-winning Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Melissa Etheridge), was impressed with those sounds and figured out ways to keep many of them in the mix. But the band also enjoyed the thrill of playing together in a studio for the very first time, and not just any studio but one of Nashville’s finest — Blackbird Studio. With time on their hands to rehearse, write and create, a somewhat new vision for the album took shape, one that will upend expectations for what a Cuban band is allowed to sound like.
The album opens with a clear, spacious atmosphere that lets Lisset’s voice make her opening statement, and before long the track swells into a rich chorale of voices and strings. Over an epic six minutes, “Technicolor” turns into a psychedelic rocket ride that conjures the orchestral chill of Pink Floyd, with lead guitar by Miguel. Moving forward, we find “These Words,” a song about striving to be understood, which opens like a ballad but blossoms into a throbbing guitar jam. “This album is about telling our story, about changes in our personal and professional lives,” Lisset says about including the track “Turn Up the Radio.” “It’s great to have a song that was part of our creative process back home in this body of work. All of these songs started in Cuba. They should stay together.” Two Spanish language songs are featured (“Tu Libertad” and “Vuelta Atras”) as well as a duet with the Mavericks, “The Flower’s in the Seed.”
Learn more about Sweet Lizzy Project in the following All Access interview:
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could all be in this group together? Do you find that your band name still represents you and your music today? Where did your name come from exactly? What other names were you considering?
As it was yesterday. Miguel Comas and I started this band almost 7 years ago. He called a few friends, and friends of our friends until we found the band. Some of us met for the first time at the first rehearsal and after practicing the first two songs I remember thinking “I think we could do something good here”. About the name, I don’t even think about that anymore. It’s like my name or the name of someone I’ve known for years. LIZZY, because of my name Lisset. In a beginning, it was just “LIZZY Project”. I was not a professional singer or anything like that. I was studying Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Havana when I started writing my songs. Then, when MIguel and I put our first demo together, I guess I was thinking about myself as a “project”, as an “experiment”. But then, there was a thousand “Lizzy Project”s out there. It was not very specific. We used to rehearse in my house, located very far away from the center of Havana, in a place called La Lisa. Every time my band mates had to move from their houses to my house (using the terrible Cuban public transportation), they would ironically referred to my place as “La dulce Lisa” or “The sweet Lisa”. And that’s how we chose SWEET as an adjective, I think.
How do you think your hometown has influenced the sound and how you all carry yourselves in this group? If not, why do you think that is?
When people listen to our music for the first time, they don’t think we are Cubans. The language, the genres, the arrangements, the style don’t match the stereotype of Cuban Music (traditional Cuban Music) most people have about the music is created in the Island. Also because, that’s the kind of music Cuba promotes the most. We love traditional Cuban music, but it’s not the kind of music we chose to express ourselves. Our influences come from a lot of different places. We grew up listening to The Beatles, Heart, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Shakira, Alanis Morissette, Benny More, Los Zafiros… The result is that we don’t sound like a Cuban band but we don’t sound like an American band either, because we are not Americans, our Cuban roots find their way out in times.
Let’s talk about your U.S. debut, “Technicolor.” What was it like finally releasing a collection here in the states?
It took us 3 years. We started working on Technicolor when we were in Cuba and we thought it was ready when we came here. Once in the States, a lot changed both personally and professionally. We had to readapt ourselves to a whole new country and those changes where reflected on our music and our record. Releasing the record was like setting ourselves free. It felt like “mission accomplished“ after three years. It was very special.
What was it like recording this collection? Did you approach the process any differently then your past ones?
It was totally different. For the very first time we had the chance to record all together, at the same time in the same room. And not any room…. BlackBird Studios. I remember the first time we visited Blackbird. It was like Holy shit! In Cuba, our studio was a very small apartment. Not even half the band would fit in the room at the same time. All the gear we had was either too old and/or refurbished. There’s no music stores in Cuba. Also, MIguel was the only producer of the first record Heaven. On Technicolor, we also had input from Raul Malo and Nico Bolas, we had songs by ourselves and other songwriters as well. For the first time we had a team working with us, guiding us with love and respect.
Can you pick out a few of your favorite tracks on this album? What inspired these songs?
One of my personal favorites is the song Vuelta Atrás. It was inspired by the story of musicians or artists in general who leave their native countries looking for a better life or better opportunities and how the path is full of difficult and challenging choices, sacrifices and several points of no return. To me, it describes a little bit how hard the life of an immigrant is.
Generally, how does this group go about writing your music? Do you write together or separately? What is the first step in your music-making process?
Miguel and I are the ones who write most of the songs. Then the band works on them and all together, we shape them. A year ago we started renting the house where we currently leave together. Now, it’s easier for us to share our ideas and create together. Our living room is our studio and rehearsal space, so every time someone has an idea for a song and starts working on it, then someone else jumps in and starts jamming or writing or whatever. In my personal case, most of the time I get a melody stuck in my head and that’s how it starts.
I always like to ask bands how much you hang out socially apart from when you are creating and performing music?
Honestly, not that much. We are still kind of new to the country. We have a few friends here in Nashville and sometimes we get together but the truth is that we don’t have a lot of spare time either. Last year, for example, we toured A LOT and after being so many days on the road we feel like staying home a little bit. Then if we are not touring, we are recording or making new videos (which takes a LOT OF time). We try to keep ourselves busy working on the band and the music.
How do you feel that this band has grown since you first started working together? What has remained the same?
Well, in the very beginning was mainly me and Miguel working as a duo and then we found musicians to play with us. After playing together for seven years we understand each other musically and personally in a way that makes a lot of things easier. Although MIguel and I are still the ones with more responsibility in the process of making decisions, each band member has responsibilities as part of the band and we all try to work together to make things happen. Seven years ago Miguel and I were the ones writing and putting the songs together. Now, the band participates in the creative process and that enriches the music.
Where do you think you are all happiest- in the studio recording new music, on stage performing or elsewhere?
I don’t think I can decide. Each space has its own magic. We love being on the road, discovering new places, new people performing live but after a while you feel like you want to create more music, record new stuff to put out. I think it’s a cycle and we need both.
What do you think makes for an ideal show for this band? What have been some of your favorite shows and venues lately?
For us, everything depends on the connection with the audience. And that is very subjective. Sometimes it happens more than the others and you just can predict it. But definitely, that makes the show super special or not that special. We loved opening for Heart and Joan Jett last year. It was two big arenas and the audience was absolutely amazing. But we also loved venues like Indian Ranch (MA), Knuckleheads (Kansas City), Cafe Nine (New Haven CT) or Bar Nancy (Miami).
Do you have any tour dates scheduled for this year? Have any dates been canceled yet due to the Coronavirus?
Our tour was supposed to start at SXSW, 3 weeks after our record came out. After that we had ACL, Sand Jam Fest, a full tour schedule coast to coast and everything was either canceled or postponed. And the dates that were postponed for like July or August, we think is still too soon to consider them “confirmed” because everything is still changing. That is why we decided to start our Sweet Quarantine Sessions. A series of online concerts every week to keep the fans engaged, promote our new album and entertain people so they stay at home, social distancing.
With all the different social media platforms out there, how do you balance it all? How do you think that social media has impacted this band? How often are you all on your different sites interacting with fans? How have you been able to utilize it through the years?
Coming from Cuba (where we didn’t have internet at home and very slow and difficult connection in public places) when we got here two years ago we were not used to work social media. We had a Facebook page but no Instagram or Twitter. It was a process to realize how important social media was and how to properly use it in order to reach more people and promote the band. We are still learning. We love to stay in touch with our fans and share with them as much as possible. Lately, it’s been specially useful because since we are not touring, social media is the only way we have right now to take our music out there.
Which of your music videos was the most fun to make? Do you still have a dream music video that you would love to make in the future?
I’ve enjoyed them all so much. It’s a lot of work and sometimes It could be very stressful, but it’s totally worth it when you finally see your own ideas coming to life. I think the one that I loved the most was Turn Up the Radio. We performed live for this video and we had a big team working together in Havana. It was the first video we made by ourselves so I think that is what made it so special.
What musicians have really been inspiring you all since you first started making music? Who would you still love to work with?
I love Alanis Morissette, Heart, Florence and the Machine, Foo Fighters, Of MOnsters and Men and so many others. I think I would die if I could work with Alanis, still one of my favorites.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
Being a Cuban band, that plays Rock and Roll in English (which is extremely difficult in Cuba) and that just put out a record in Nashville Tennessee, my message and the message of my music and my story is that EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. It takes a lot of work and sacrifices but dreams come true and you need to fight for whatever your dreams are, for your passion, for what you truly love.