Alex Cuba and the joyful beauty of simplicity

Like so many others, Alex Cuba has found hope and inspiration in music to help him get through tough times.

The Juno-winning and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has been recording songs at his home in Smithers, B.C., throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a trio of singles that have received international attention.

The latest is Concéntrica Canción, an acoustic bossa nova tune with beautiful, velvety, breezy vocals that make you think of summer days. The song focuses on “the concentric circles in life are the repeating patterns of our actions that we go through each day and experience as time,” as Cuba explains.

Before that, he shared Diablo De Un Segundo and a cover of Bill Withers’s famous song Just The Two of Us. The singles series follows Cuba’s latest full-length album Sublime in the fall of 2019.

Cuba joined Café Latino for an in-depth conversation about his approach to music — putting complex ideas into the simplest terms.

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How are you handling the pandemic? I’m imagining that in Smithers, B.C., it’s probably not as crazy as it is in Toronto.

Of course, we have a lot fewer people here. It’s different here than in most places. I’ve never felt luckier to be living here before, let me tell you. Everyone’s respectful, everyone’s doing what needs to be done, and I’m grateful for that.

You’ve actually been really busy recording.

Yes, I’ve released three singles since March, and I’m working on some new music. My next move is going to be to release an EP that I’m preparing, [with] five songs. The first one is coming out in October, and then we’ll go from there. I’ve been having a lot of fun recording myself at home … Music is something that’s so necessary in our lives. It’s so wonderful to remain creative and to remain optimistic. That has kept me focused. It made it easier. Open up that mind and remove all of the negative thoughts you might have, because once in a while we ask ourselves the hard question: Is the world ever going to get back to how it was before?

I think the world has changed permanently. There’s a different consciousness. If anything, I feel that people are going to value music more than ever, because it’s been music and the arts that people have turned to. Your music definitely has positivity and hope.

For a few years, I started developing a little bit of a complex. Whenever I was going to say, “My music is happy,” I thought that maybe people were going to think that I didn’t want to see the world, to see life, for what it is. It took me a little while to realize that that’s who I am. Once, I saw an interview with Manu Chao, and he said that music was like therapy. He would write songs whenever he was feeling down, feeling upset or angry. He said it was harder to write a song when he was happy.

When I need music to heal me, I write.

When I’m not at peace with myself, when I’m not happy or excited, when I’m angry or upset, in that moment, I really don’t like to sing. If somebody hands me a guitar, I will probably smash it on the ground. In that very moment, I hate music. Now, if something happens [that makes me] happy, a song comes rushing from me. I don’t know why — that’s how I am. So, I can’t lie to my fans. I can’t just write a sad song or an angry song just because I want to try. Nothing happens. It is what it is. What I aim for is authenticity.

You have a level of sophistication in your music that always keeps it interesting and makes it exciting to listen to, but at the same time it’s extremely accessible. 

I once read a quote: “Talent is the ability to make the complicated sound simple.”

It’s a very fine line to walk, but you do it beautifully.

It’s been a lifetime mastering that. It’s a secret to nobody that in Cuba, musicians are very advanced, very talented. But one thing that has happened in Cuba — such a small country with so much musical talent — is that we’ve become very competitive as musicians. That competition has gone in very wrong ways, because what it does is that people are overplaying. You go to see a band, and you don’t hear songs; you hear incredible arrangements and incredible chops, but the song gets lost.

My first album, Humo de Tabaco, 95 per cent of it was done in Havana. I put together a band of musicians that I used to play with before I left Cuba. We started doing our thing, and every song would take us forever because we’d have to stop and tell the musicians … to be more tasteful, more soulful, more simple. Until they finally got it, there were moments of frustration, because if you ask them to change the way that they’re used to, that takes some time.

[The same] even with Chucho Valdés, who played on a song. He came in and the day was so busy that I didn’t have a chart for him. He said, “No problem. Come to the piano with me. Play it.” I was playing the song [on guitar] and I stopped, and he said, “Keep going! Don’t stop.” So, Chucho was writing down what I was playing without stopping. When I was finished, he placed his hands on the piano, and he played exactly the same chords I was playing on the guitar. And when I mean exactly, I mean the same voicings. I just couldn’t believe that. And then he does the first take, he finishes it and he goes, “Any comments? Do you like it like that, or was it too aggressive?” And I was biting my tongue, because he was too aggressive. I said listen to the song, be tender. Two takes, and the second one was amazing. So, we ended up finishing the album, I came back to Canada, and then I went to England where we finished it and mixed it. Six months later, I went back to Cuba, and I was able to put together the same band just for a listening party. They were like, “Is that me playing? I think you hired somebody else. Is that me? I sound amazing!” They didn’t believe themselves, what they heard back.

From that point forward, it’s been a journey to the essence and the root of what I am, and removing everything else that is clouding my art. [It’s about] realizing that music is not for musicians. Music is for the general public. You have to aim for people who are not musicians. How are you going to reach their souls? By being honest, by being simple, by being essential. That’s what I’ve done with my music.

Your songs are all very different, but there is that style that you have. There’s your voice, your guitar playing, and your Cuban roots that make it very unique.

Something I like is that people can’t guess my chord changes. I don’t write music thinking of familiarity. I am so proud that even my chord progressions can talk for me. The trick is to do it in a way [in which] the song is still catchy, it’s still easy to sing, but the harmony over the chord changes — part of the DNA of the song — is unique, and you can’t guess it.