Q&A: Alex Cuba Chats About his New Album and Nelly Furtado

If you haven’t heard Alex Cuba’s warm voice and funk-flecked sound, you’re missing out. The Cuban singer-songwriter collaborated with Nelly Furtado on her first Spanish album, Mi Plan, and continues to redefine his native music on his latest stateside release, Agua del Pozo. I had a chance to talk to him from his home in British Columbia, Canada:

You started out playing with your brother in Canada. When did you decide to go solo?
Back in Cuba we hardly played together. I was a jazz player, my brother was a salsa player—we were on completely different paths. I saw the limitations. In Canada, the Latin music scene is very small. So you have to think beyond your country, otherwise you end up playing a weekly gig out of a local restaurant without any chances of going international. So in 2003, I said, "I’m going to pursue a solo career." I knew my music was different than what Latin music had been perceived up to that point in Canada. I knew it had crossover potential.

What do you think is the perception of Cuban music?
In my opinion, when people think of Cuban music, it only goes one way. They think of it as music for dancing only. I wanted to change that cliché. I believe I have a distinctive voice that needs to be treated properly. The less instrumentation I have behind me, the better. The simplicity in my music allows me to perform with a trio. Even though I’ve been venturing into other genres, the soul remains Cuban. You can dance if you want, and you can listen to it as well. Most Cuban music has a lot of flashiness but very little soul.

From where do you draw inspiration?    
I’ve realized my overall inspiration is the happiness for life. I almost have a mission of passing on a positive message to those who listen to me. A few days ago, I was watching an interview with Manu Chao. He said that he writes most of his songs when he’s sad or mad about something. It’s almost like a therapy for him to let that out. He said it’s harder to write when you’re happy. But I only write when I’m happy, when I’m excited. He said the world needs happiness. Thankfully, I see more happiness than sad.

I heard you’ve been compared to Marvin Gaye—who are some of your influences?
I was in shock when I read that. Not everyone is compared to Marvin Gaye. I think it’s the soulful quality of the music. When I was 11 years old, I started dressing up like Michael Jackson. I would dance like him. I was physically very similar. I still remember the feeling of listening to “Billie Jean.” Years later, I came across Kool and the Gang. I felt electrified. When I was 14, I picked up the electric bass and it was so natural to me. I had the same love for Cuban music as I had for funky American music.

You recorded Agua del Pozo a few years ago—why are we seeing the album release just now?
I decided after my first solo album to go independent and create my own record label with the purpose of keeping my masters and licensing the distribution to others. With Agua del Pozo, we went through a lot of options. It took a while.

What’s the best part about having your own label?
One of the most important things for artists is to maintain ownership of what they do. It’s letting me express myself on the creative side. Every decision behind the sound, the music, the production has been made by Alex Cuba.

Do you have a favorite song in that album?
I really like “Vampiro.” I remember Panamanian Ruben Blades talking about Alex Cuba on his website. About two years ago, he started searching the Internet looking for new music and he’d comment about it on his website. He said that my music was very original and he showed the song “Vampiro,” and he said that to him it sounded very Cuban.

How did the collaboration with Nelly Furtado on her latest album, Mi Plan, come about?
A musician that plays with her introduced her to my music and introduced me to her guitar player. I ended up in Toronto writing a song with her guitar player. He was a cowriter in the songs I wrote with her. After that, Nelly was working with him and she felt that the song had the vibe for Spanish lyrics. The guitar player said, "I’m thinking about Alex Cuba." She said, "Yeah, I love his music." He sent me the melody for the song that is now called “Mi Plan.” She felt very comfortable singing what I wrote. Without thinking twice, he said, "When can we write again?" We wrote about nine songs in a short period of time. Seven of the songs ended up being on the album. What’s interesting is that she had been trying to put together a Spanish album for a long time. Our chemistry was amazing, very natural; nothing was forced.

What about a duet with Furtado on your third album?
I showed her a song for my album and I played it for her and she almost had a heart attack, that’s how much she loved it. She wanted to do it with me. After that, she started recording her album and asked if she could record my song. In the end, she didn’t record it on her album because she felt the vibe was different. I’m thinking of inviting her to do it with me for the U.S. release of my album.

I know we’re supposed to talk about Agua del Pozo, but what can you tell me about the third album?
My best work to date. For the first time I’m singing in English. It’s one song. It just came to me, the melody and the lyrics. It turned out great. When you listen to the music of the new album, if you close your eyes, you’ll see nothing else than this dude over here. It looks and sounds like me. I’m having a hard time thinking we’re just releasing Agua del Pozo in the United States, and I’m working on a new album in Canada. It’s even more adventurous and to me it has musical freedom written all over it.

What are you looking forward to the most in the upcoming tour, which kicks off on Thursday in New Orleans?
I can’t wait to fill up the air with my music.