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Interview: Sweet Lizzy Project

Sweet Lizzy Project
24 February 2020

Photo by Alejandro Menendez

Sweet Lizzy Project frontwoman Lisset Diaz is exuberant when she calls from Nashville. And why not? After becoming one of the most popular groups in their native Havana, Cuba, Sweet Lizzy Project were discovered by Raul Malo of The Mavericks when he was in that country filming a music documentary with PBS – and he promptly helped the band get U.S. visas, move to Nashville, get signed to his own Mono Mundo record label, and record their U.S. debut album, Technicolor (out February 21). The cinematic, melodic songs – sung mostly in English – are uplifting and intelligent, and should appeal to audiences far beyond their original Havana fanbase. It’s a modern day fairy tale of sorts, and Diaz clearly still can’t quite believe her luck. Here, with an endearingly mischievous sense of humor, she discusses her unlikely road to becoming a professional rock musician, and the culture shock of leaving Cuba for Tennessee.

It’s interesting that you mainly sing in English. Isn’t that a lot harder than singing in your native Spanish for you?

LISSET DIAZ: Actually, it was not hard for me to do it this way because most of the music I listen to is written in English. So when I started making my music, that was the language I had in mind. I did not think that people were going to hear what I was doing. I studied biochemistry and molecular biology – I was going to be a scientist. And I loved it! So at some point in my career, I started writing my songs, but it was for myself, like, “No one’s going hear this, ever. I’m not going tour. None of this is going to happen.” And then it happened! I met Miguel Comas, who is my partner, and he’s a terrific guitar player and producer. When he heard the songs, he was like, “We need to record this.” ‘And also, he had his own songs. Then we were getting gigs and we didn’t have a band, so we put the band together, and the rest is history. The whole band, we’ve been together for six years now. This is like a family. Every person is just such a character. We live together. When we got here [to Nashville], we decided it was going to be easier if we all lived together, so we live in the same house. I’m here in my bedroom, and next door is the drummer, doing his drummer things. It’s really annoying! [laughs] So we rehearse here, and going to tour is easy because we have our vehicle here, it’s way cheaper than having different places. We can record here, as well. It’s cool. And we’re never alone.

What themes are you trying to express in your songs?

LISSET DIAZ: Every song is different. “Technicolor” is the first single. That song is about our complicated relationship with technology. From a personal point of view, when we were in Cuba, we didn’t have Internet or Guitar Centers or any other music store. So it was really hard, always, when we were creating, when we were making music. The instruments or the equipment was not working great, either because it was too old or refurbished. So that’s what the song is about, how technology can let you down. But then, when I think about it from other people’s point of view, technology is supposed to create this illusion of better communication, and it actually sometimes doesn’t. People get so distracted with their devices and all the shiny and bright things that technology brings that they actually forget the human connection and how to actually create this communication with other people. That’s what the song is about.

It must have been very frustrating to not have your gear work, but the fact you kept trying means you must be doing music for the right reasons.

LISSET DIAZ: Yeah, but you don’t have a choice, if you’re there. And also, I never had to work in the music business outside Cuba [until now], so it’s not like I knew how different it would’ve been if I was outside, you know? When I was there, this is all I know, so this is the way it is. I was born in Cuba and I was there for 25, 26 years. That was my experience in the music business. You get used to living like that, in Cuba, with the struggle. But I think – and this is a very optimistic point of view – but I think it makes you more creative and resourceful: “OK, I don’t have this, and I don’t have that, but I need to do it anyway, so let’s find another way.” But yeah, it could be really frustrating sometimes!

How did you meet Raul Malo of The Mavericks?

LISSET DIAZ: Three years ago, PBS went to Cuba because they wanted to film this documentary called The Havana Time Machine. It was in Havana, of course, and it was all about the music scene in Cuba. And we were one of the bands that performed on this show. And Raul Malo was the host. So at the end of the documentary, it shows a final concert, all the Cuban artists plus Raul Malo and The Mavericks. So as part of the documentary, they thought it would be really cool to show everybody the way we recorded the music, because we had this super little apartment – like, literally that apartment is smaller than my bedroom [here]. We used to record there, and when Raul Malo saw that, and the producers from PBS saw that, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this needs to be in the documentary.’ Raul Malo was really impressed by how we were able to do so much, the music we were doing, with old gear and that space. And he thought it would be great to sign a Cuban band because of his Cuban roots – both his parents are Cuban. He was leaving but he said, “We’ll make it happen.” And right after he walked out the door, we were like, “We’re not going to see these dudes again! You know this industry – there’s a lot of people, and they say a lot of promises, and then they don’t do it!” But Raul Malo was totally different. A month later, he was calling: “You need to come here to Nashville!” And then we came here, Miguel and I, just making sure this guy is for real and not a psychopath! Once we made sure he was a really nice person, we went back to Cuba get the visas for the rest of the band, because we are a band and we travel together. When we got here, we had the appointment to go to the American embassy to get our visas, and the embassy was [permanently] closed. Like, the day before our interview. I thought I was going to die. Literally. I was crying and crying, “This can’t be happening to me.” Miguel and I were OK, we could come, but the rest of the band was going to have to stay there, and that was not an option for us. Thank God, since our case had been already filed, they managed to complete some of the pending cases, and that’s how they got their visas and we came all together. But it was one of the most stressful situations. We were doing great in Cuba, we have a lot of friends and followers, we love them all, and we miss them every single day. But this opportunity was huge. All of the sudden, going back to reality and to the previous crappy plans you had? No – I was not OK with that! But thank God, everything worked out.

It’s like you’re musical ambassadors, since you’ll probably be the first Cuban rock band most people have ever heard.

LISSET DIAZ: I’ve never called myself that, and I doubt I’m going to do it in the future! [laughs] But I understand what you’re saying. No, I don’t know another Cuban band, like a rock and roll band. Doing this, no. I’ve never seen this before. And now I know why: because it’s really hard! [laughs] I wouldn’t say “ambassador,” but I hope whatever I’m doing right inspires other bands, especially Cuban bands. There’s a lot of talent in that island, and sometimes they don’t get the support they deserve, because it’s rock and roll, and a lot of those bands write their songs in English, and that’s not cool in Cuba – they tend to support more traditional Cuban music, and this is definitely not traditional Cuban music. So yeah, I hope that whatever we’re doing inspires them and makes them feel like, if you work hard and you’re a little bit lucky, you can make it, you can keep working and making your music, which is what we want.

What are your live shows like?

LISSET DIAZ: I don’t know, I’ve never seen them! [laughs] I really enjoy it. I love the interaction with the audience. I think that I have a lot of positive energy when I’m performing, just because I love it so much, and I think that people get that. And I love that they get that, because that’s the whole point. Last year, we opened for Heart and Joan Jett, and it was so cool. It was the happiest moment in my life. Seriously. And I had never been to an arena before, not even as part of the audience. It was so cool! It was scary, but cool. And then the audience was so great. But we’ve also played every shitty club. We’ve been going everywhere. A year and a half ago, we bought an old minivan, and we were like, “OK, we’re tourists here, we need to know the country, we need to play our music everywhere, just the old-fashioned way.” And we did it! We’ve been to 19 states so far. It’s been really interesting. I would say that, if you go to our shows, it’s going to be fun. You’re going to be happy by the end of it!

Did you always have a strong connection to music?

LISSET DIAZ: I don’t come from a family of musicians. I didn’t grow up surrounded by a lot of music. Also, because we were very, very poor, I don’t remember having CD player. It was later on when I started listening more to music. I remember, as a kid, I loved female artists, because I could sing along. So I loved Celine Dion. I remember singing along with the early stuff of Shakira, stuff like that. And then I discovered more rock stuff, and I loved it. Right now, I really love Florence + the Machine, and Of Monsters and Men from Iceland. But mostly American music. And I think the old Cuban music is great, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that.

Is there anything else you want people to know about your album?

LISSET DIAZ: We started this record in Cuba, so one thing I love about it is that the old sound of that little apartment is there, and then the amazing polished sound of [Nashville’s] Blackbird Studios is there, as well. So when I listen to this record, there’s three years of my personal story and the story of the band is there. So I hope people can get that it’s the story of the band.

Technicolor by Sweet Lizzy Project was released on February 21 by Mono Mundo / Thirty Tigers.