In just a few years, Cuban-born, Nashville-based quintet Sweet Lizzy Project has gone from its members never having been in an arena, to mesmerizing an audience of 20,000 people opening for their idols, Heart and Joan Jett. Along the way, the anthemic rock band earned a prime performance broadcast for PBS’s Havana Time Machine; an artist profile on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”; and a cover story in the Miami Herald.
SLP defected to the U.S. from Cuba in late 2017, just as the border doors were set to close once again. “We were one of the ‘pending cases’ before just before the Embassy was shutting down. It was the most stressful time of my life”, SLP vocalist Lisset Diaz recalls. She continues: “We had dreams and sacrificed for this opportunity by saying goodbye to friends and family. I remember when we got to the U.S. it was such a shock—it’s, of course, so different here, but the move has let us connect with much wider influences here in Nashville and made us more accomplished musicians.”
In addition to family and friends, the quintet left behind a creatively hostile environment. Back home in Havana, rock fans listen to music in secret via an underground pirate internet network called “El Paquete.” In the 1970s, you were jailed if you listened to Beatles records. In addition, Cuba is totally barren of musical instrument shops, and performance opportunities involve heavy, red-tape auditions and grueling questioning.
For its latest album, Pirate Radio / Radio Pirata (Thirty Tigers), the band collaborated with major songwriters such as Blair Daly, Zac Maloy, and Sam Hollander for a triumphant and empowering collection of rock fused with an accessible pop structure and some of the everyday heart infused by Nashville’s country sound. “On this album, I’m free, and I can say things I was scared to say before. People deserve hope, and this record spreads a message”, Diaz says. The 11-song album will be released in English and Spanish—a unique feat for a rockrelease.
Sweet Lizzy Project play electrifying big-stage pop-rock with a modern sheen and classic rock heart. Diaz is a lightning bolt of a frontwoman; her lyrics are boldly vulnerable, and her vocals span from seductive soft-tones to rafter-rattling high-tones. Her creative partner is world-class engineer/producer, songwriter, background vocalist, and dazzling lead guitarist Miguel Comas. Diaz and Comas are joined in Sweet Lizzy Project by virtuosic keyboard player and background vocalist Wilfredo Gatell; and the dynamic rhythm section of drummer Angel Luis Millet and bassist Alejandro Gonzalez.
Prior to relocating to Music City, Sweet Lizzy Project became the “it band” around Havana City clubs. SLP also won several music prizes, including two nominations for Cuba’s closest equivalent of a Grammy. However, everything changed for the band when they were spotlighted on Havana Time Machinewhich also featured traditional Cuban artists and iconic American roots-rockers The Mavericks.
During the making of the documentary, The Mavericks’ founder and lead singer, Raul Malo, whose parents emigrated from Cuba in 1960, became inspired by Sweet Lizzy’s music and story. He sponsored its five members’ U.S. work visas, and signed SLP to his band’s record company, Mono Mundo. Since then, Raul and Betty Malo, his artist, entrepreneur, producer, and tastemaker wife, have also housed and counseled the members of Sweet Lizzy Project while ushering them into Nashville’s finest studios and a world of music professionalism.
SLP’s sophomore American release, Pirate Radio / Radio Pirata, is an artistic and personal milestone for the group. It is a concept album that loosely mirrors SLP’s journey to be artistically liberated against a stifling government regime, and the story unfolds with theatrical grandeur. The album’s unique melding of ultra-hooky choruses with ethereal ambience and passionate vocals and lyrics recalls such diverse artists as Paramore, Muse, and Olivia Rodrigo.
The 11-song album is a sleekly modern rock record with explosive dynamics, ace musicianship, and powerful lyrics. Throughout, Diaz’s magnetism and conviction recalls the power and passion of late Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan. The album opens with the ethereal but rocking, “One Good Story”, which establishes the overarching narrative with scene-setting lyrics about secretly listening to forbidden music at the age of 17. It’s a one-two punch beginning as the fiery title track hits next, bursting with burly riffs, anthemic hooks, ambient textures, and defiant lyrics. Here, Diaz sings: You can stop the sound coming through my speakers/ You can’t shut the mouth of the true believers/ Last song plays, you can tell me no/ But you can’t turn off my pirate radio. “That song talks about the generation before us who built secret radios and cracked codes to listen to rock n’ roll”, says Diaz.
Sweet Lizzy Project’s story in Cuba was one of resilience and the quest for artistic autonomy. Before SLP, Diaz was a science student who grew up in a non-musical household. As a teen, she became fixated on the guitar after spotting a kid play one at school. Her supportive mom later precured her a guitar from a friend traveling from Spain. At 15, Diaz discovered she could sing, and, by college, she was singing and writing her own songs.
Early on, Diaz sang in English as the music about which she was passionate about was American hard rock, metal, and pop-rock. In 2012, while Diaz was a molecular biology student at the University Of Havana, she decided to record her songs as something of a sonic keepsake for future generations in her family. She first met Comas with the intention of having him produce those songs. The two had an instant artistically telepathic connection, and they’ve been romantically involved for nearly a decade.
Despite creatively suffocating circumstances, Comas somehow managed to establish himself as a producer and build a career in a city with few resources. He built a working recording studio in an apartment bedroom with computers and audio gear that had to be purchased in the gray market or traded among friends. Even with imposed travel limits, Comas’s bands were performing around Cuba and touring overseas, from South America to Japan.
It’s been something of a freedom fairytale for Sweet Lizzy Project, and one standout moment, so far, has been sharing the stage with Heart and Joan Jett. “As a Cuban girl, it was surreal playing with artists that you couldn’t readily listen to back home”, Diaz shares. “I was so proud of us, and I hope our story provides light and hope for others.”