When your name is Alex Cuba and you were born and raised on a certain island 90 miles south of Florida, people naturally expect you to make Cuban music.
But the Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter isn’t a big fan of preconceived expectations.
The winner of the 2010 Latin Grammy for new artist, Cuba swings among various hybrids of jazz, funk, pop and traditional Caribbean boleros and sones, playing guitar and bass and singing in both Spanish and English with a gentle sincerity that never subsides into stickiness. One of his favourite collaborators is his fellow Canadian artist Nelly Furtado; they wrote nine songs together for Furtado’s 2009 Spanish-language debut, the plantinum-selling Mi Plan.
Cuba’s fourth album, Ruido en el Sistema (Static in the System), will be released in October. He played on Saturday at the H2O Music Festival at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, with a line-up that included Wisin & Yandel, Snoop Dogg, John Legend and Ozomatli.
Q: What did you want to do with this new record, which in some ways is quite different from your previous ones?
A: I think it’s a disc that expresses my essence more. I think it goes to a sound that’s much more “owned” by Alex Cuba, in a way. The point of view of the compositions and the songs is more catchy, the singing is more easy-going. It’s a disc perhaps more designed to be popular. After the Grammys two years ago, maybe my vision opened up a little more to all of Latin America. I think this record has more to do with all of Latin America.
Q: I’ve heard that when you go into the recording studio you always have about two-dozen new songs. Does songwriting come pretty easy to you?
A: Yes, it’s pretty easy. Thanks to something, I have the ability above all to believe that I am a songwriter. (laughs) It’s marvellous to have this confidence, no? There is a difference between those who have talent and those who believe they do. Many people have talent, but they don’t think they can do it, so they never do. It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most in my career: I can convert anything into a song. (laughs) But yes, I always try to write the most songs that I can before going into the studio.
Q: The title song, Static in the System, refers to the static that’s constantly going on in our personal lives as well as in the world at large. But it’s a very soft song that contrasts with this noise that’s all around us.
A: Absolutely. It is a quiet statement of what’s happening in the world today. I realise that too many musicians are punching you to say things that are happening today, but in a very aggressive way. I think not too many people are paying attention to being gentle in music, you know what I mean? Especially coming from a man, and especially coming from a Cuban man! (laughs) And something’s that’s very important is that it crosses the language barrier right away. People don’t need to [understand] it to be attracted by it. And it’s one of those songs that people are going to have a hard time realising their CD players don’t have any more volume!
Q: This album has some darker tones than your previous records.
A: This seems to be a more socially conscious album. Because I’ve never spoken openly before how I feel about war and peace and things like that. So songs like Creo, it’s an anthem against war. Unanime, the closing track, is — how can I say? — it’s a rhapsody or an opera, whatever, for peace. I ask God to give paz [peace], because we haven’t found it yet.
Q: Your friend Nelly sings with you on one song on this album.
A: We seem to have an incredible vibe when we work together. I actually just wrote her latest single for her, in Spanish.
Q: How do you try to maintain creative independence as an artist?
A: The world is changing now so rapidly, I think faster than ever. And things are speeding up at a pace that the only way we can catch up with it is by being 100 per cent yourself and by not letting anybody tell you what to do. So the old model of record labels, of how an artist is being served to people, that’s dying. People want to hear something real, and that there is no screaming intention in the background of, “I want a hit! I want a hit! I want a hit song! Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!” People are tired of that.