The songs on Alex Cuba’s new album, the aptly-titled Sublime, were created in both the warmth of Mexico and the chill of northern B.C., where he lives. On a recent promotional trip to Toronto, the JUNO, Latin Grammy, and SOCAN Award-winning singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist explains that “the inspiration for this album began on one of my writing trips down to Mexico.
“I’ve been finding good audiences down there, and I also have a publishing contract with Universal,” says Cuba. “The A&R for Universal Music Publishing Mexico do a great job in putting me with some amazing talent. I started writing songs there, and finding incredible inspiration. A few of the songs from that trip, about 18 months ago, ended up on the album.”
Further writing took place at Cuba’s home in Smithers, B.C. “There, I would go into my garage/studio, until 3:00 a.m., in the cold,” he says. “The studio has a gas furnace, but it’s sometimes too noisy, so I put on a small electric heater. It is still very cold, though!
“I do love that moment of creation, with just myself and the guitar. I was a musician for a long time before I became a singer and songwriter, and Thank God I’m fortunate enough when I write a song to immediately hear the arrangement. Then I go right to the studio and record it. I call that the moment of truth. That is something I pay a lot of attention to, so the music doesn’t come out over-produced or over-arranged.”
The resulting material on Sublime is warm and personal, a mood Cuba was determined to capture. “I knew from early on, when I started to craft my demos, that this album had something different in it. I wanted it to be more intimate, naked, and more vulnerable,” he says.
“I do love that moment of creation, with just myself and the guitar.”
To achieve that, Cuba decided to both self-produce (alongside acclaimed engineer/mixer John “Beetle” Bailey) and play every instrument on the record. “I had the way I wanted it to sound so clear, I felt it would be best this way,” he explains. “You can have amazing musicians, but in communicating what you want, sometimes things get lost. Some instruments I recorded [myself playing] for the first time in my life, like congas, but John made it so comfortable for me.”
The music on Sublime is fully DIY, but the album does have a strong collaborative component. Four of the songs are co-writes, and Cuba recruited some notable Latin artists as guest vocalists on six tracks, including emerging star Silvana Estrada, Pablo Milanés (a founder of the Nueva Trova sound), and Cuban legend Omara Portuondo, of Buena Vista Socal Club fame.
“I’m so proud to have sung with one of my heroes,” says Cuba of Portuondo. “She’s 89, and almost had more energy than me in the studio!”
Sublime is Cuba’s seventh solo album, and he’s proud of the fact he’s never made the same album twice. Earlier records have drawn upon rock, funk, pop, and Latin styles, making the Cuban-raised, Canadian-based artist impossible to pin down stylistically. “It took a lot of courage to get to this point,” he says of the new release. “I’m coming out with a somewhat quiet and very melodic album. That may not fit this climate of music, but it’s exactly what I wanted to do, and perhaps it is something that sets me apart.
“I want people to feel the honesty in what I do, and to know I do music because I love it, not from any desire to be rich and famous… I’ve never seen myself as an urban Latin music artist. For me, it’s about staying loyal and truthful to who you are.”
He’s pleased, however, to see that sound break big internationally, especially in the wake of the global smash-hit juggernaut of “Despacito.” “I never thought I’d listen to Latin music while having coffee at Tim Hortons in Canada,” Cuba laughs. Then adds, more seriously, “The game has changed, and this is our moment!”