Sweet Lizzy Project has quickly risen in popularity by opening for legendary acts such as Heart & Joan Jett. Electrifying vocalist, Lisset Diaz, producer and lead guitarist Miguel Comas, keyboardist Wilfredo Gatell, drummer Angel Millet and bassist Alejandro Gonzalez round out the band. The band is currently on a 15 date tour up and down the East Coast & as far as Texas. Their new album dropped on October 7th, Pirate Radio/Radio Pirata and I recently spoke with Lisset about their new album and journey on how they go there.
Q: Now that you have started the tour, what can fans expect to hear from the band, in terms of song selection, from you during the tour?
Lisset: We can’t be more excited to finally go on tour with the new record out. Technicolor, (our previous record), release and tour got frustrated due to the pandemic in the beginning of 2020, so we are now taking all that excitement with us on tour. We are gonna be playing all of the new songs from the new album Pirate Radio and we will include some of the old songs, as well as some covers that we love.
Q: You’ve released 2 albums, Pirate Radio (English) and Radio Pirata (Spanish). It’s not often a rock album is released in two languages at the same time. How proud are you to finally release this album? What does it mean to you and your band?
Lisset: Extremely hard, indeed. There was a lot of “first times” for this album. Even though Spanish is my first language, I’ve always written mainly in English, so writing a full album in Spanish was definitely a challenge for me. Also, the inspiration for this album was quite peculiar. For the first time, I was not talking about a personal love story or life in general. We wanted a concept album inspired by the story and the suffering of our country Cuba that has been under dictatorship for over 60 years. So, for the first time, I wanted to make the message clear and understandable as possible, especially for our Cuban people. This is why we decided to make the album in Spanish as well. However, we also wanted the songs to resonate with everyone, even if they had no idea about Cuba or its history. In terms of song writing, most of the songs were written in English first and then kind of translated into Spanish. This was by far, the hardest task, I’ve ever faced as an artist. During the process of writing a song, I repeat the same melody and the same words over and over again, make changes, find better words etc. until the song sounds perfect to me. To write these songs in Spanish was like forgetting everything I was already happy with and starting all over again. New sounds, rhymes, metrics…everything was different. Things would sound really cool in English were just tacky in Spanish and vice versa. It was a lot of work and quite stressful at times but we can’t be happier or prouder of the final product. The album is something of our own from start to finish, from the conception of the songs and recording them, to mixing and mastering. We did it all ourselves in workshop that we turned into a studio. The themes and emotions are relatable to anyone who has ever been in love, sacred, angry, sad or inspired to change their worlds. Realizing this album is not only our contribution to a cause that we consider fair and necessary which is the freedom of our homeland but it’s also a way to unburden ourselves by putting into songs the personal thoughts that we were never allowed to say them out loud.
Q: The band is based out of Nashville but originally emigrated here from Cuba in 2017. In the early years in your country, Cuban radio had banned anyone perceived to be anti-Castro to have their music played on the airwaves…some of those artists included Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan…this ban was finally lifted in 2012.. When you were performing music there, did you find it difficult to not being able to create a type of record that was true to the band, talk openly about issues that were personal to you? And how does this new record compare to being able to speak freely with no repercussions?
Lisset: There’s a lot you don’t think about when you are in Cuba.. Most of us were born and raised in a country without internet, no chance to travel outside the country, with the official press being the main, if not the only, source of information and the fact that you are not supposed to talk (or even think) about certain things is public knowledge. It takes you a minute to realize that things are wrong and that everything they have been telling you is a lie. And even when you notice that something is off, again, you can’t talk about it cause you can get in trouble. Instead, you keep moving forward as best as you can until you get the opportunity to change things in your life. In my case in particular, I don’t come from a music background. I was at school during my childhood and teenage years, studying to become a scientist. I studied Biochemistry for three years. When I was 15, my mom gave me a guitar that a family member brought from Spain and I learned how to play. I also enjoyed singing as a hobby. It was not until my fourth year at the University when I started writing songs and thought it would be cool to record them just to have them for myself. That’s how I met Miguel Comas, who was a full time musician and producer, and together we recorded a first album with his songs and my songs and put a band together to be able to perform that album. The songs were mostly about love, past relationships and life in general. We were not writing about political stuff, just because our heads were not there. Then the problems started..putting a band together in Cuba and starting performing is not remotely as easy as it is here. All the music venues were somehow connected to the government and for an artist to be able to perform live, you have to go through an audition to get into some sort of management agency (also controlled by the government) that basically allow you to work. You can’t do this independently, it is illegal. It didn’t matter that I was not talking about politics. My songs were written in English and the music genre was not traditional Cuban music. It had a clear foreign influence and they didn’t feel that. There was a lot of red tape involved and the band was banned for a while. In 2017, we got a record deal to come to Nashville and record our second album, Technicolor. That’s when we left Cuba but even while working on this album, I didn’t feel the need to talk about political issues. I was not even thinking about it. My mind was not ready yet. Freedom doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process and it’s different for everyone. November was a very unsettling month for us. The dissident San Isidro Movement had started a hunger strike in Havana as a protest against the Cuban regime’s oppression. I had never seen anything like that. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of such a consolidated dissident group on the island. It was very touching and enlightening for me to realize that there were brave Cubans on the island fighting for basic rights. On top of that, one of the protestors had been my Immunology professor when I studied Biochemistry at the University of Havana. This made it even more personal for me. In that context, I remember when Miguel first talked about a new album, “Pirate Radio”. He came up with the perfect way of putting our next project where our hearts and our minds were at the moment. We wouldn’t only be voicing our solidarity but it would be a way to unburden ourselves by putting into songs the personal thoughts that we never never allowed to say out loud. We turned our house into a recording studio (one of the perks about having the entire band living together) and for the next nine months, the idea and the story of “Pirate Radio”, were my first thought when i woke up in the morning and the last one before I went to bed. That’s how “Pirate Radio” was born, a concept album that describes the story of a fictional character living in Cuba in the 70’s, when foreign music genres such as Rock and Roll were banned by the communist government. Admirers of these unauthorized forms of music created illegal antennas to secretly tune in to radio stations from different parts of the world, which made it possible for them to listen to bands such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. If caught at this activity, these music lovers were socially marginalized because they did not conform to the oppressive expectations of the recently triumphant Cuban Revolution. Frequently, they suffered arbitrary arrests, abuse and imprisonment, which ultimately forced thousands of Cubans to emigrate, legally or illegally, from the country. Many of these immigrants never reached the shore in the United States, but instead tragically lost their lives in the deep waters of the Straits of Florida. Pirate Radio is our tribute to this generation of Cubans with whose we are United by respect and love for music. It is an ode to freedom of expression and thought. It is an anthem to those who dream of change and struggle against oppression. It is our cry for, and commitment to, the end of fear, censorship and silence.
Q: How did your life change after being featured in the PBS documentary, Havana Time Machine?
Lisset: Because of the documentary, we met Raul Malo of The Mavericks, who back then was starting a record label, MonoMundo Recordings. Because of Raul Malo’s Cuban roots and the fact that he loved the music we had already recorded in Cuba under such difficult conditions, he offered us the opportunity to come to Nashville to write and record the next two albums of the band. Our lives changed 360 degrees. It was a huge change professionally and personally. Very challenging. As much as we were enjoying our time at a nice studio recording new music, our tour all over the US and the experience of in a country with resources and infinite opportunities, it was hard to start from zero, far away from our friends, family and everything we knew. Different language, different culture, different life. We have learned so much and we are so grateful.
Q: So the band released a new single this month, “Shake The Walls”. Give us some insight on what this song is about. (Since this interviews, the band has released the single, “Slip Away”)
Lisset: Since “Pirate Radio” is a concept album, we wanted all songs to be connected and kind of telling a story from beginning to end. For the purpose of writing the songs, I created a fictional main character. He is a 17 yr old boy born and raised in Cuba, who wants to put a band together and play rock and roll like the bands he secretly listens to on the pirate radio. His ideas take him to start fighting against the censorship till the point that he has to escape the country to avoid fatal repercussions. “Shake The Walls” is the very last song on the album and completes it with a message of hope and a rallying call to speak out “loud and proud” in the fight for freedom. This song expresses our desire that in the future Cubans will be free, and those who sought freedom all around the world will be able to return to our home country.
Q: I love the album of covers released last year, SQS Vol 1, it’s quite a mix of genres. How did you choose the songs for the album? Has Brandi Carlisle heard your cover of The Joke? Will there be a Vol 2?
Lisset: During the pandemic, we started a series of shows at home that we called Sweet Quarantine Sessions. It would go live on Facebook and YouTube from our living room. It was the way we found to entertain our fans during such hard times and also to entertain ourselves. We played a show every night for months and then every weekend for almost a year. We played our songs of course but needed more and more songs to be able to have a different show every night. We learned over 300 songs over the 80 something shows we played. At some point, we were waking up in the morning and spend the day rehearsing learning 5 or 6 new songs to play that same night. Each show was different. We did theme nights like, the 80’s, 70’s, 90’s, acoustic night, British night, classics, jazzy, Latin night….So many!!! It’s all on YouTube (Best of Week 1). At the end of the pandemic, we chose the songs we liked the most from our performances and put them on an album so the fans could have something to remember our nights together during the pandemic. I don’t think Brandi has heard our version hahaha. We had plenty of material to make Vol 2, 3, 4.. but then we started working on the new album and that consumed all our time and energy.
Q: Tell your fans how they can support local record stores and how to purchase your latest album,.
Lisset: The physical product, vinyl and CD, can be purchased directly on our website, Sweet Lizzy Project Merch, on Amazon or at a local record store. And of course, we will have them with us on tour.
Q: Where else can fans find your music online? Where can they buy your merch?
Lisset: everything can be found at https://www.sweetlizzyproject.com
Thank you Lisset and The Sweet Lizzy Project. I really don’t know much about Cuban history except what we read in the media and to hear about the oppression first hand is eye opening. We shouldn’t take our freedoms in the US here for granted.
I have a couple of interviews in a few weeks from Nordista Freeze and The Westerlies… working on some others so stay tuned.
Until then, I’m Your Music Stylist.