Singer-songwriter Eva Cortés thrives on a multicultural mix: ‘I let it flow’

Eva Cortés brings together a world of cultural influence on her new album Todas las Voces.

With a Latin jazz style that’s tinged by flamenco, blues and traditional folk songs, the Honduran-Spanish singer-songwriter and composer delivers a range of originals and standards with her uniquely deep, full-bodied voice and an embrace of improvisation.

Working for the second time with producer, arranger and trombonist Doug Beavers, Cortés assembled a star-studded lineup of New York musicians for Todas las Voces, enlisting the talents of Christian McBride, Eric Harland, Elio Vilafranca, Luisito Quintero, Román Filiú and Luques Curtis.

Cortés joined us to talk about her upbringing and how it informs her perspective on music to this day.

Can you tell us about your life story, your upbringing and your country?

I was born in Honduras. My mom and dad are from there, but we ended up moving when I was 3 years old. When I was 4, we were based in Seville, and I grew up there and went to college there. At home, the tradition not only from Honduras but from all of Latin America was very present. My grandparents moved with us, and we used to eat food that they prepared, we used to listen to traditional music. That was in contrast with what we experienced outside the house, which was mostly flamenco. My stepdad was from Seville but he adored Latin-American culture. So, that mix made me see music from a different point of view.

You’ll always have a broader point of view of music and the world when you’re immersed in different cultures.

They were so integrated, I didn’t even see the difference when I was a little girl. I just enjoyed everything. I didn’t understand why people didn’t know what frejoles were in Seville, because they were so common in my household. It was all part of my experience. I loved growing up like this. My daughter is also a mix — she’s half French, half whatever I am, and we live in New York now. I think that’s the base of my songwriting. I let it flow. Whatever is inspiring or whatever comes to mind from my experience, that goes into my songs.

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I understand that you studied flamenco in Seville.

Flamenco was part of my education, but I didn’t intend to get that education. Music in Seville, in the south of Spain, is like music in Latin America. You open your windows and you’re exposed to whatever your neighbour is listening to. There’s a lot of verbenas, a lot of fiestas populares. Music and dance are so present, so part of everyday life. That’s how I came in touch with flamenco. I lived in a very small neighbourhood that was filled with gitanos. You saw the kids playing ball, and a few minutes later they had their guitars and cajón and they were playing music. That was very nice, and not strange for me at all. Then I went to college and I started something completely different. I studied German, literature, history and linguistics. I never worked as a teacher, but I think it helped my writing. I enjoy writing a lot, and maybe it’s because of these five years that I spent studying German literature. But music was a parallel thing that I had going on. My mother used to sing. My aunt, as well. My grandmother. Everybody on my mother’s side of the family sang or played an instrument. They never encouraged me to pursue that as a profession, so I was a good girl and I went to college, and when I finished I said, “OK, now I’m singing.”

What has it been like living in New York?

I feel very grateful to be on your program because it has given me the opportunity to identify myself with the Latin community, which wasn’t that strong in Spain. It’s more integrated, spread around, but here it’s like, “I’m Latin and I’m proud.” It’s so beautiful. I’ve had the chance to live and see things from a different point of view. It’s so beautiful that once you’re here you’re accepted. Maybe it’s because I’m in this big city. Maybe it’s not the same everywhere. But I’m enjoying this experience so much, and I’m very happy that my daughter is living this experience, too.

Toronto is also a very international city. It definitely accepts people from all cultures. That’s something that we have in common with New York. You do really feel accepted here.

We share experience, and through your work, you send this experience all over the planet. People can listen to your program. You can tune in and you open a window to a new universe. This is very nice. I appreciate your work a lot.

People love to learn. People love to feel connected. And there’s a beautiful kind of connection in the midst of all this trouble.

It really has opened a way to reflect on our reality, and what we’re dedicating our time to. I value other things that I didn’t pay attention to before. You always have to look at the positive side of anything — what a situation makes you learn about you and the way that you’ve been living your life.

What message would you like to send out to the world right now?

The winter we have ahead is going to be tough. It’s going to make us feel isolated. But there’s always a spring afterwards. You have to be strong. Talk to the people you love. Do the things you love to do. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s good or not. It just help your soul, to express your feelings. Spring is around the corner. That’s what I want to say.

This interview has been edited and condensed.