An Interview With Alex Cuba

Photo by Chelsea Brooke Roisum
Photo by Chelsea Brooke Roisum

There’s a reason it’s difficult to define Alex Cuba’s sound, and it’s because he’s a true original. Alex’s father, Valentin Puentes, is a well-respected musician and music teacher. By age four, young Alex had already appeared on national television in his native Cuba, playing claves under his father’s direction.  He later learned to play guitar and then moved to electric bass, sometimes practicing eight hours a day. Though Alex knew his love for playing music was strong, he didn’t fully discover his passion for singing until the age of 24, when he moved to Canada to “creatively spread his wings.” His fearless, out-of-the-box style paid off, with a cross-cultural sound that earned him a Latin Grammy in 2010 for best new artist. He has since released five solo albums, including his most recent record, ‘Healer,’ which he is promoting on tour with Sheryl Crow. Speaking with Alex confirmed that he’s not only talented, he’s also humble. He’s grateful for every opportunity and he’s excited about the future. Read my interview with Alex Cuba below, and CLICK HERE to purchase his new album.

I noticed your effortless ease on stage. Do you think that playing at such an early age helps with your onstage performance?

Yeah, also I have lived in Canada for sixteen years which has made me comfortable onstage because the audience barely speaks Spanish.

Did you alter your performance style to accommodate the audience?

Yeah it was actually quite challenging in the beginning because I wasn’t that trained onstage, and I couldn’t communicate what I needed [to the staff]. I also tried to speak to the audience, but no one understood me because I had a thicker accent. I slowly built the confidence I needed to be comfortable on stage. I even joke in English now.

Because the audience doesn’t know the lyrics, do you think about your physical staging and inflection as you sing?

The goal has been to communicate with the audience, with every inch of my body, with everything we do onstage. The point is to make music that transcends the language. I hope that every time that I’m playing people sort of get it. I remember in 2005, I opened in Central Park, but the label didn’t get my vibe.  They got me a nine piece band and our act came across completely desperate. Jose Gonzalez played after my set by himself and he killed it. Then the main act, Seu George had a four piece band. I felt so stupid, trying to perform with so much going on while everyone else was so smooth. When I got this opportunity with Sheryl I wanted to feel the audience.

It worked. I could tell that the audience at The Hollywood Bowl really responded to your performance.

Johanna Rees also has a lot to do with that. That’s the work of a good promoter. I say this because I have worked before with other big stars in the past, and the fans don’t always cross over. In this case, people found a relationship between Sheryl Crow and I, and I take my hat off to her.

One of the songs you performed had English lyrics. Do you approach the lyrics differently as a songwriter when you’re writing them in English as opposed to Spanish?

I haven’t written an entire song in English by myself, yet. I’ll have an idea, but because English is not my first language, I’ll find people to write with.

When you return to Cuba now, do you feel differently about performing for people who do speak your language?

When I’m playing for an entire audience that speaks Spanish, I sometimes laugh at myself because I find myself translating from English to Spanish. It’s as if the stage has become something different in a way I didn’t expect. I guess I feel so inside the culture of America that when I go to a place like Columbia, for example, I turn kind of shy.

I know your father encouraged you to be more of a player than  a singer. At what point did you start to pursue a path as a singer?

When I moved to Canada I started to realize that singer/songwriters were way more appreciated, because people feel the soul of the artist. I recorded my first album in Canada with my brother, and I sang two songs myself. When my dad listened to one of songs that I recorded, he couldn’t believe it. My mom said that he was in shock. I asked him why it made him feel that way, and he said, “I don’t know. It’s a nice song.” I said, “Dad, open up a little bit more,” and he finally said, “It’s something special of yours.” [His reaction] totally touched my heart.

I know my father is a man of few words, so when I get a compliment I get very excited. Do you feel that way about your father? Was that compliment unique because it came from him?

It was a lot of that. I left Cuba, and I left my culture behind, so I understand that he might not get everything that I do, but he sure is proud when he walks down the street and people come up to him to say “I saw Alex singing on the internet, and he’s amazing, etc.” I know he is very proud.

How did your family react to your Grammy win?

That was a beautiful moment. When I won, my wife thought my parents were going to have a heart attack. [Laughs] They were screaming like kids. They were very proud.

What was your own personal reaction to the Grammy win? Was it important?

I was excited. I absolutely wanted it. I didn’t think I was going to get it. It was my first submission to the Grammys. We get two nominations and then all of a sudden we win the biggest one, which was new artist of the year. I always felt that my music has universal appeal, because it’s how Canada trained me to play. Canada is a melting pot of different cultures. I was the first Canadian to ever get a Latin Grammy.

I know you recorded with your brother in the beginning of your career. What made you decide to step away from singing with him?

It was a creative decision. That album was a celebration of our culture, and the fact that we left Cuba at different times and then reunited. We made something beautiful. We wanted to celebrate where we came from, our culture, and our roots. Shortly after that I realized I wanted to sing differently. I told my brother I need to follow my heart.

Tell me about when you first learned to play?

Our father started teaching us guitar when we were six years old. When I was fourteen I saw somebody playing electric bass in our town, and I immediately fell in love with that. And I said to my dad, “What’s that?” and he said, “That’s an electric bass”. From then on I was an electric bass player. That’s what I did until I moved to Canada. But I’ve now evolved more, so I don’t mind what instrument I’m playing. It’s about making sure the band sounds great.

You’ve written for other artists. Is the process different when you write for someone else?

Yes, absolutely. When you’re in a co-writing session with someone else, most of the time you don’t have the luxury or the time to say, “Okay, I’m going to wait for inspiration to come.” It’s sort of like create and respond. [When I write for myself], I record songs that I write strictly when they come to me, without really thinking about it. I have learned to enjoy both [processes], and to never put conditions on how it’s done. There’s always something [to learn from a co-writer] that could open up your eyes in a way that you wouldn’t learn on your own. I have learned to take that and run with it.

I listened to your new record, ‘Healer,’ and it’s really great. Was there a different goal in mind for this record? Did you have a different sense of inspiration?

Yes. I decided not to go to Cuba while recording. On this one I said, “You know what, I want to try to reinvent.” I went to New York City instead and recorded most of the album there.

How do you feel about it now that it’s done? Do you feel that it was good to change it up?

Yeah, we managed to make it very focused on the sound of my voice. It’s very soulful, and the songs breathe more without heavy arrangement.

Visit Alex’s website for tour dates, and stream songs from his new album by clicking HERE. You can get a glimpse of his unforgettable vocals by watching the video below.