Interview: Cruz Contreras on cosmic country and Idaho

Credit: David McClister

Mixing lo-fi with classic sounds and a Steinway piano to create a unique sound.

After 25 years playing music, latterly with his band the Black Lillies, Cruz Contreras has finally got around to releasing his first solo album, ‘Cosmico’, which reflects the eclecticism that Contreras brought to the Black Lillies while retaining the influence of their Tennessee roots. Contreras recorded ‘Cosmico’ in 2019 while the Black Lillies were still active, since then the world has experienced a pandemic, the Black Lillies have been put on hold, and Contreras himself has married and become a father again. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Cruz Contreras over Zoom in a car park at Wall Drug, South Dakota, which if anyone is curious is a massive drug store on the scale of a shopping mall. While ‘Cosmico’ may have been recorded in 2019, Contreras explains that he sees it as the start of a new phase in his life and career. For simply practical reasons it was recorded in Idaho with Contreras’s producers of choice Megan McCormick and Ethan Ballinger and while still rooted in the fundamentals of country music, it mixes jazz, psychedelic rock, country rock and other genres into a single whole which Contreras calls cosmic country. As Contreras is moving forward, he explains he has gone back to his love of the piano and keyboards and has dedicated ‘Cosmico’ to his father, who was a big influence on his piano playing. He also lets slip he now owns a house, a yard, and a dog.

How are you and where are you?

I’m well. I’m in a place called Wall Drug, South Dakota. I’ve finished up my summer tour and I’m heading home to release my new record. So, I’m driving from basically the Washington State/Montana area, and I’m lucky I got here because I’m out in the middle of nowhere.

What is the status of the Black Lillies?

There was a whole process for me to understand what is the state of the Black Lillies, what I will say is my whole emphasis, 100%, is to establish my solo brand so that when I show up and play under my own name people know something good is going to happen. That being said, the Black Lillies, that’s my band, that’s my music and my records, so I’m very interested in keeping that brand alive and healthy. I don’t have any specific plans for it at the moment, so we will just have to see.

What does it feel like starting a solo career after leading a successful band The Black Lillies?

Well, the timing of it was very interesting. We played our last show on New Year’s Eve 2019, and I thought I was off to the races with my solo career, I had a little honeymoon wind there but by March 2020 everything had come to a halt. So, yeah, it was extra challenging because the band ended and a lot of my self-identity was wrapped up with that band. You walk around and everyone goes, “Hey, you’re the guy from the Black Lillies.”, it’s your life day in and day out. It was challenging and difficult, but I was very grateful for that time, I was able to stop, slow down and reassess my life and then remove myself from that identity which can be pretty unhealthy because it is a persona to some degree. I’m not saying I put out a persona, but people decide who you are. I was able to slow down and take care of my health and meet my now wife, and we have a one-year-old and we bought a house and we have a fence, a yard, and a dog.

That’s a big change.

A very big change, like a 180 degree change. During that time period, I was like, can I just have a few things the same, and it was like, no, nothing, it is all changing. So, it actually ended up being an almost perfect way to re-establish my solo career,  just being healthy and not being on the road and focusing on my family. I have a nineteen-year-old son, I have a one-year-old son, and a seven-year-old stepdaughter, so focusing on my relationships with my family. Also, figuring out how I can release this new record, ‘Cosmico’, because in the past there might have been a question of how do I get a record deal and who do I work with? As I adapted to ways to keep making music through the pandemic, whether it was live streams or online, learning how to make money and music from home, or socially distanced shows, health concerts, really diversifying what I was doing, and when it was time to release this record I realised I was the record company. I had enough pieces in place to release it myself, and I’m already thinking ahead, I want to help other artists that are at my place in the industry get good music out there. So, I’m super excited.

You are heavily featured on keyboards on ‘Cosmico’. Was that deliberate?

The piano is my first instrument, a lot of people know me as an acoustic guitar-playing songwriter with the Black Lillies, which I love, and a guitar is portable. My brother is a fiddle player, and I played the guitar to play with my brother and his fiddle as we travelled around, but I grew up studying classical piano and jazz piano. My dad was very encouraging of me and my siblings, and he really wanted me to play the piano, and that is what he did. So I dedicated this record to my dad who passed at the end of 2018, and it made a big impact on me and my family. I knew literally when he passed that I was going to change up the way I was going about things, and one of them was I needed to get back to playing more keyboards. So the producers, Ethan Ballinger and Megan McCormick, encouraged me from the beginning to play more keys, to focus on my vocal delivery and to relax. They were like, “Don’t sing like you’re in a bar.” because I’m not in a bar anymore, and that was really nice. So I think my voice delivery has matured, and come back full circle to maybe where it was in the beginning in a healthy way.

I don’t know very much about Idaho generally. Why record there?

I recorded in the northern part of Idaho, and Idaho is a very strangely shaped state in the Northwest of the country, the bottom is big and fat and the top is really narrow, and it is between the states of Washington and Montana. It is mountainous and there’s not a lot of people and it has a mountain culture. Also, I would say the music there is very americana, it is very similar to music from Texas, it is almost like an outpost of Texas, and there is a connection there between the two. But the reason I was there was that I had some days off when I was touring in that area, and Megan McCormick, producer and guitarist, is from there, so it was really just schedules and logistics. We got together at a place called Lake Pend Oreille and we started the writing and arranging process up there. There just happened to be a studio called Cider Mountain just a few miles away, so it had a lot to do with Megan McCormick. She is an incredible singer-songwriter-guitarist, and she plays with artists like Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, she plays with Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell and she is based in Nashville and she is just a spooky, spooky musician. She has only one way of going, and when she plays you’d better record. I can thank Megan for making the record sound how it sounds, and she is the reason it ended up in Idaho.

Where did the songs come from and how old are they?

I’d been writing a song every week for a couple of years, and I would put them on my Patreon page. When I got together with Ethan Ballinger and Megan McCormick, and they are kind of like the boy and girl of the same person, they have very similar sensibilities musically, and Ethan plays with Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, and Aubrie Sellers. They are both very well-known in the americana music world. I wanted to work with both of them because they are very complimentary and one is like left brain and the other is right brain, so when you get them together you have all your bases covered. When I got together with them I basically brought all my songs. For example, the first song we did was ‘Stop Giving Your Heart Away’, they heard it and were like that one’s good, it was basically done and they just edited and adjusted the arrangement, like minimal arrangement. Beyond that, we rewrote songs, like ‘Flashing Light’  we kept one line, we wrote six songs and kept one, drastic. One of the very cool formulas that worked, and this was on multiple songs, was I would walk into the room and they would be playing electric guitars and they had the chord progression and a form, and I would look at my notes and think which one of my songs I’ve written fits approximately with what they are doing, and there was always something that worked. So, I might abandon the form or the chord progression that I’d written for my song, and I would take my lyrics and add them to their music. So, most of the songs are some form of cowrite, although I primarily wrote all of the lyrics and most of the music, but their influence was drastic. I couldn’t have created ‘Cosmico’ without them, no way.

It sounds like it was a very organic process.

Very, completely, it is pretty old-fashioned actually. People and instruments, conversations, communication, and people spending time with each other and just seeing what floats up to the top.

How much technology did you use?

This is interesting. A lot of the record is almost a lo-fi approach, but it is a real combination. So, they brought a little drum machine and a lot of the songs have this thread to them, it sounds like a heartbeat. It is a drum machine we recorded on our iPhones when we were arranging, and when we got to record the record we decided to use the original iPhone recordings instead of creating some fancy elaborate drum kit. The skeleton of it is very lo-fi if you consider lo-fi transferring through an iPhone. As an example, on ‘Flashing Light’ I’m playing a Steinway grand piano and Megan is playing her iPad, it’s $2.99 app called Chordious, she’s not even playing an instrument she is just touching the screen, and it mirrors chords that fit with what I’m doing on the piano, and I’m playing Floyd Cramer style country piano. I think that defines the record, there are some things that are old and classic and expensive on it, and there are some things that are very new and lo-fi that rely on technology on it, and we just merged all that together to get this cosmic country sound. It is classic and nostalgic, as well as very fresh and relevant and timeless.

It is a bit more than cosmic country, ‘Cosmico’ is eclectic with old-style rock & roll and country, country rock and rock, bluegrass, jazz, synth-pop, latin and even touches of psychedelia. How deliberate was this?

To me, it’s cosmic country, but I know what you mean because most cosmic country is pretty much cut-and-dried, my cosmic country is the Universe. That means psychedelic rock, jazz, fusion, it means anything and everything. I’ve spent my life digging into music, and the way I’m wired I don’t do very well with parameters, boundaries and genres, and that doesn’t attract me. In moments it can, and as I get older I can see myself getting more comfortable with that, but up to this point in my life, I’ve tried to push the boundaries because I want to know what’s out there, and I think this record captures a lot of the curiosity.

It all hangs together as a whole. How did you stop it from being simply a mish-mash of genres and sounds?

I think that’s why you hire producers, and you trust them. When I originally picked ‘Cosmico’  as the title it had everything to do with things lining up, it felt like a miracle that the stars lined up. It went so seamlessly and easily that we knew when the music was done something was up, and then all hell broke loose with the pandemic and it’s been three years. The continuity of the record is 100% Megan and Ethan, I think. We did bring in Craig Alvin as the engineer, and he worked on Kasey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’ and he’s worked in Tulsa and Muscle Shoals, and so he has a real respect for the history and lineage of the music which we all kind of geek out on. It was just a joy to make it, and when they were making it I overheard somebody in the studio say, “Hey, this is going to be the next big thing.” And I had to tell them that I didn’t have a record deal and I didn’t know what to do with it and while I thought it was a great record I couldn’t make any promises on where it will go. So here we are, it is us starting very small, it is just me and my wife putting this out on our own, but it is record number one on Cosmico Records and I hope to release many more.

What are you hoping to learn through releasing this record yourselves?

I try to manage expectations. I’ve been involved in big record deals, small record deals, and independents and for me, as life approaches this point you do what you can do with the time you have and the resources you have because you still have to sleep at the end of the night and not beat yourself up. I’m very fortunate in that I have a good fan base, I tour and do my own bookings, and I can do 120 shows a year, and everywhere I go I’m working with great people, I see beautiful places and I sing my songs. So I think we have a firm foundation, and every step we take with ‘Cosmico’ is a step forward. I’m much more concerned with moving forward, maybe the tortoise in this race.

How different are you now as a person given everything you’ve gone through recently, both personally and with your career?

Quite a bit. Sometimes I think if you want to make a real change you have to learn some hard lessons. With the Black Lillies, it became too precious, I got in a rut and I tried too desperately to keep it alive. It became very unhealthy for me, and it probably became unhealthy for people around me and there’s definitely a lot of lessons there. How do you live your life, do you go around trying to control things or are you open to whatever opportunities present themselves? So, I think that’s where I’m at, and ‘Cosmico’ was the beginning of that breaking point. I made ‘Cosmico’ in 2019 while the Black Lillies were still touring and at that time, I thought I could do both but it proved not to be the case. Also, personally, my family takes priority. When I get old and look back on it, I just want to make sure I was there for my family.

What’s the reception to the tour been like?

Great. It is a fascinating process, I’ve never experienced this before. In the past it has always been a much more concise process, create a record, tour, there is kind of a standard way to do it. This has been completely backwards because I’ve been gradually playing these songs for three years leading up to the release. It’s almost like my tour of the record precipitated the release of the record. That may sound absurd, but it’s taken me and the musicians I’m with that long to learn how to play the songs. It is very deceptive, they are not easy to pull off and create so they sound like the record. I’ve grown as an artist, and the musicians I’m playing with have grown with this record. It’s as if we’ve created this model, and then we had to figure out how to grow into it. Because I’ve been on tour all summer, I’m more interested at this point in getting home and figuring out how to share the music on media devices. I love touring and I will always tour, and summer is my big tour, but I’ve got to be home and come fall I do weekend and regional stuff, and there’s a little downtime in the winter. So, we’ll spend more time at home creating the record company, and figure out how we help ourselves and how to help other people as well. When I first started making records it was like the horse and buggy business and then with CDs everyone could burn them and it was like when the motor car was invented, that sense of freedom, and now with streaming everything is tracked, every performance is tracked, and the industry has a pretty tight hold on it again. That’s the reality and I’m just going to find my place in that mix and see if I can do it on an independent mid-level. At the same time, I want to reconnect with the industry in a healthy way, I’m gonna find the sweet spot.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’ve been listening to the 2021 Lord Huron album ‘Long Lost’, I’m a big fan of that. We’ve been in Washington State, and when we are driving around I like to listen regionally, like who lives here, and I’ve been listening to Karl Blau, and he made this record, ‘Introducing Karl Blau’ and it’s all cover songs. He has a very nice baritone-type voice. I was listening to Reckless Kelly, they’re an Idaho/Austin band, Calexico out of Tucson. Man, there are so many I can go on and on, I just love music.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I’m really excited to get music out under my name. I have toured the UK with the Black Lillies once, and it was a great tour. That was a few years ago now and I did assume I would have been right back. I did come back for some private shows, and I would love to get back and play live, sooner rather than later. I will probably come over solo at first and establish some new relationships, and then see if we can bring the band after that. I’ve got a website for anyone who’s interested, just click here.

Cruz Contreras’s ‘Cosmico’ is out now on Cosmico Records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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