Cruz Contreras photo by David McClister
Cruz Contreras Goes Solo With The Magical Cosmico
Cruz Contreras has been making Americana music for over 25 years and has always been very band-oriented, whether it was with Robinella and the CCstringband, which ran from 1998-2007, or with The Black Lillies, spanning 2009-2019. That band mentality ran pretty deep and was part of why he has only now stepped forward with his first solo album, Cosmico, which also marks the debut of his own label, Cosmico Records. It took a mental shift, a life shift, and a series of magical experiences to create the songs we find on Cosmico, but it was a series of new beginnings that Contreras embraced along with other major developments like marrying and becoming a father.
I spoke with Cruz Contreras while he was about half-way through a 2,300 mile drive home from touring in Washington State to arrive in Nashville in time for his record release show for Cosmico. It was an excellent backdrop for rumination on all the little steps that led to milestones for him as an artist and why Cosmico has such a warm, soul-searching, and at times, mysterious mood.
Americana Highways: This record is momentous for a lot of reasons, I feel. The music itself has an expansive feeling, like it expresses a step forward.
Cruz Contreras: I think now is the right time for the type of music and the type of recording that it is. It’s been incredibly rewarding to begin playing under my name, introducing my new music. This is also my first record on my own record label. That was a big part of the decision. It was all part of the mom and pop operation, but that was the last question: Do we shop this to a label? While we were busy thinking about that, we just did the things necessary to release your own music. I’m thrilled to have my own machine in place, and I’m already looking forward to helping other artists in my music world.
AH: I wasn’t aware of you launching a label. That is so cool! What have you called the label?
CC: It’s called Cosmico Records after the first album, Cosmico.
AH: That’s a great name. Thank you for sharing that story. I know that with The Black Lillies coming to an end trying to move forward with solo work, particularly during the pandemic, probably felt like the rug was being pulled out from under you over and over.
CC: I’ve had an interesting life and been involved in music for a long time, so I’ve had the rug pulled before, multiple times. This was one of those life moments, though, when everyone wants to hold onto their “blankie” but this was one of those moments where the universe said, “You’re going to let go of all of it.”
AH: Did you ever feel like everything was just too much to move forward?
CC: That’s a complicated question. I’ll say this. Of course, I was saddened for my band to end. It was precious to me, perhaps over-precious. But then I said, “Well, I’ll do my solo thing.” In early 2020, I was doing festivals in Mexico and touring in California, and I had this eerie feeling.
Everything seemed just a little too easy. I thought, “I better just enjoy this, I have a feeling this is not going to last.” And it didn’t. But I’m definitely an optimist looking for opportunities, and for multiple years I’d been wondering, “How do I make a living from home making music?” Because I’m so reliant on touring. It’s kind of like an addiction that makes you feel good, but it can also make you sick, depending on how you go about it.
So actually, when the pandemic happened, I already had some things in place and immediately started live streaming. I was excited and ready to go because I’d spent a couple of years setting it up already. I was very energized and proactive. Occasionally, I’d get down and confused because ending the band was a little more complicated than I realized. But also I went from being a single, touring, traveling musician to having a family now and responsibilities. The question was, “How do I continue to pursue music and be a good husband, father, and provider?” The challenge has actually been good for me and made me think deeply. It’s made me think more about how I work. Which is how we landed on, “Let’s do this ourselves and create our own record label.”
AH: The challenges are about new beginnings, I think, and that’s a helpful perspective, rather than just looking at endings. New beginnings can be brutal, but in an upward-trending way, at least!
CC: Yes! The record was made in 2019, so the songs predate some of the actual changes that happened, but there’s a great sense in the themes of the songs that changes need to be made. That was personal to me, looking for inspiration, and trying to keep the band together. The songs “Stop Giving Your Heart Away” and “Breaking a Habit” are about that. I was only smart enough to know that I needed to change my patterns, but I didn’t exactly know where to get there. The first step was acknowledging that I needed to slow down and be still.
The pandemic and life really created the urgency in that. Here I am on the other side, and I think Cosmico is just a reminder of that. “Hey, if it’s not working, take a deep breath. Make space. Be open to what the universe has to hand you.” One of the singles is “Let Somebody Love You,” and it’s the same thing. You have to be open to these blessings and not afraid. I was like that for a long time, thinking, “I don’t want to commit to anything and get hurt.” But there you go, that’s all you’re going to get, then.
AH: That’s the danger, also, of doing something on your own with your name on it. Being a business owner as you are now, you are then on the block yourself. There’s more vulnerability to that. That’s the other side of all the freedom that brings.
CC: I definitely shied away from that for most of my life. I had a band in my 20s called Robinella and the CCstringband, and I played the mandolin. We were with Columbia Records and Sony, and I had my initials on there. I had seen Robin experience being the name and the face, where people saw her walking down the street and treated her differently, and I actually didn’t want any part of that! I wanted to be in a band. The jury will forever be out on what a band actually is, but I definitely hid behind that and had a romantic notion of being in a band. It’s definitely taken all those years to share my name, and it’s not just my name, it’s my family name. It’s your name and reputation. I probably had some self-worth issues, but it took to this point where I could say, “I can be open and honest. This is who I am.”
Actually, I’m not a stagnant person when it comes to genre, either. My style could change between the morning and the evening, and I think Cosmico captures a lot of that. It’ll be interesting to hear what kind of music people think it is. It’s more of a conversation.
AH: I would say there’s something to the specific mood for this collection of songs, and I’m sure that might be different for each collection of songs that you might create. At the same time, there’s a reflective, meditative feeling. I can see a little of the Psych Rock vibe, but I don’t think it’s about genre so much as mood. The album has a sense of unity.
CC: Good! I have to give a lot of the credit for that to the producers Ethan Ballinger and Megan McCormick. They are both long-term friends of mine, and Ethan and I grew up in middle Tennessee. He had a band called The Clusterpluckers and we went to all these family picking parties as kids. We played at his parents house with Chet Atkins. We have a language that we understand amongst each other that you can’t recreate. Megan, who’s originally from Idaho, by way of Alaska, is someone I met through an East Tennessee band, and we’ve been friends all these years. We had a chance encounter in 2019, and we just kind of realized it was time to make this project. Part of the agreement was that it was going to be both Megan and Ethan because they have similar sensibilities and can do everything.
The style of the record, with the unity of production and mood, is something that they were really able to solidifying.
AH: I think it’s great that you worked with people who you’d known for so long because it is such a personal thing to do a first solo record.
CC: It is so very personal. I said to them, “I love you and I trust you.” And that was the whole foundation of the project. I think it’s really important to have that understanding between the Producer and the artist before you start because then you have a safe, encouraging, welcoming space. We had that.
They wanted to do two things simultaneously: One was to move me forward stylistically. They were like, “Hey, buddy, you’re not sitting in a bar.” They wanted me to calm down and just sing, and use my voice. Also, there was a full circle feeling, thinking, “Get back to your true, authentic self.” So it was creating something new and getting back to the “real you” at the same time.
AH: How much of each of the songs would be written when you went into the studio with Ethan and Megan?
CC: The formula would be this: I’d walk into the studio and Ethan and Megan would be sitting there with their guitars. I’d have something in mind, a chord, a lick, a form. But when I’d walk in, they’d be playing something already. They’d never heard “Time Stands Still” before, but one day, they were playing something that sounded very similar to it. I usually would shuffle through my papers to see what song might fit what they were doing, but in this case, I thought, “Lord, that’s almost the song!”
I started singing it and kind of already fit. We just made some adjustments and there it was. That’s how synched-up we all were. It’s why I called the thing Cosmico in the first place. The Cosmico thing works on a lot of levels. It wasn’t called that because I set out to make a Cosmic Country record or a Psychedelic record, but because the sequence of events that led up to making it were mathematically absurd! [Laughs] It was crazy. We knew that we must be doing the right thing and that it was meant to be. It was just one thing after another.
The first night, after arranging “Stop Giving Your Heart Away,” we were on a float house on Lake Pend Oreille [aka Lake Ponderay] in Idaho, and they said, “Hey, do you have a title for this record?” I stood looking out the doorway, and it just popped into my head and I said it out loud. “Oh, Cosmico.” I didn’t even know what it meant and was laughing at myself, being a person of Hispanic descent, and I was making up Spanglish words. There was never another title or conversation. That was it. There was no other thought process.
AH: It’s almost like a magic word that initiates things, like the Big Bang.
CC: It is! For me, I have a Spanish name, and my great-grandfather was from Mexico. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, but it’s part of who I am.
AH: I understand that you’ve also played a lot of these songs live already. Does the venue and the location affect how you set up the songs?
CC: Absolutely. We did a blues festival out in Washington State recently. It was outdoors, and people were camping and dancing. It was a rager, even though it was the same music. We were on a big stage and played it like a rock band. Then we also played a little turn-of-the-century, wooden hall, Trout Lake Hall, and it was like playing in a studio. You can play to the space and these songs are totally flexible in that way. I can also do them all solo! I do a lot of solo shows.
AH: How do you decide to play them solo?
CC: I play acoustic [guitar] or piano. There’s a song called “Time Stands Still” and I’ve played a hundred or two hundred times over the past few years. It just took me that long to get the hang of it. I’m playing it on the synthesizer or keyboard. Now what happens is that people say, “I like the version where you do it by yourself!” It’s not a bad problem to have. I feel, moving forward, that I want to keep a good balance of solo and band shows going.
Thanks for the chat, Cruz Contreras! Fans can find more details here on his website: https://www.cruzcontreras.com/