Diamond Girl

Cuban-born songstress CuCu Diamantes shines on a new album.

Cuculand, the solo debut by Yerba Buena frontwoman CuCu Diamantes, is at once a breath of fresh air and a nostalgic whiff of a more glamorous time. The Cuban-born singer/composer's disc shimmers with the glitz and glamour of an era when catching a show meant dinner jackets and hair tonic, evening gowns, and diamonds. But it also bares its teeth and bites down on the modern sounds of New York City's streets. If you close your eyes, you can imagine a faint smell of tastefully applied Chanel quickly intercut with the steam rising from the sewer grates down in the Village.

Producer Andres Levin, with whom CuCu formed Yerba Buena, says of the multifaceted artist: "She's such a complex entertainer. She's funny, she's sexy, she's glamorous, and she's ghetto."

All of which contributes to the songstress's charm, which, along with a sharp wit and a style all her own, made her such an integral part of Yerba Buena's success. The group enjoyed tremendous success over the span of eight years, including a Grammy nomination. But the time has come for the singer, songwriter, and actress to foray into solo work. And it's a role she assumes eagerly and effectively as she claims the limelight for herself with Cuculand. "Yerba was her project," points out Levin, "but there were 19 people in the band, you know. So this is the first time the spotlight is really on her."

It's a spotlight well deserved. Diamantes recently appeared in Miami, giving a surprise performance at the opening of the Viceroy at Icon Brickell. New Times caught up with her there to chat about Cuculand and her plans for the near future.

New Times: Let's talk first about the style of your record.

Diamantes: I wanted to do my cover in the style of the great cabarets in the 1920s in Paris and Berlin. And at one point, I said, "Wow, it's funny because we're close to a depression, and I'm doing a cover from that era."

After listening to the record, I think it's the only right way to go. It reaches back to that era, but still has modern grit.

Right. People who have heard the record seem to understand it's a mix of old fashion with new fashion. And my voice is very Cuban, so that's the Cuban flavor. But on the tracks I'm trying to bring all kinds of music. Like "Mas Fuerte" is a little bit milonga with a hip-hop beat, and 1960s guitars. And it has the feeling also of a bolero. So that was my idea, to bring together the old school with the new school.

It works well, and it's not forced. It seems very natural.

So, you, as a man, did you get the lyrics?

I think so.

The lyrics are a lot about heartache and love. I've fallen in love many times in my life, but I've had lots of fucked-up relationships too. Sometimes a person was in love with me, but you know, you may be in love with someone, but playing with them emotionally. And those things happen. So this was un pasaje por mi vida.

And then there's "Mentira", which is not about love. It can happen to anyone too, and it can be a man or a woman. Like when someone wants to live your life, and they don't realize they have a path to follow in life. And they have good luck too, but they're always focusing on your life. They tell you, "Oh, you have good luck. I don't." But when those people get opportunities in life, they fuck it up. Because when the good luck comes to knock, it may have left because they weren't paying attention. So the lyrics are about that. But mainly [the record] is about love and my love experiences, and it's a little bit tragicomic.

Was the approach to writing this different for you than your approach in writing for Yerba Buena?

I think it was easy because I was writing about my personal life. When I'm writing with Yerba, it's a collective and we have to share. So you have to put your ego a little bit behind.

But I'm a very independent artist and I believe in letting things happen organically. I never pushed or rushed to make this record. I waited for the right time, and then said, "Okay, I want to make my record now."

And you worked with Yotuel from Orishas on Cuculand.

We coproduced the record together — Yotuel, Andres [Levin], and me. I chose Yotuel because Andres kind of mentored him in producing. And when Andres [produced] El Kilo [for Orishas], we did the cover of "Candela," and the chemistry between the three of us was so amazing I said, "When I go to do my record, I'm going to call you, because I want to collaborate with you." It was fun. We were like three little kids in the studio.

You've also done a lot of work for social issues, appearing on the charity-benefiting compilations Red, Hot + Latin and Red, Hot + Riot. Tell me about your involvement in those projects and any others you may be working with. Why do you think it's so important for artists and individuals in your position to work for social consciousness?

Sometimes we live in our own universe, so we aren't aware of the reality. Our reality is not bad. There are realities that are really bad. And el granito de arena (the little grain of sand) that I can put, I'll put it.

I did a video for Amnesty International, where we took a song from Aterciopelados ["Cancion Protesta"] and several artists wrote lyrics. And it was Natalie Merchant, Aterciopelados, Julieta Venegas, Stephen Marley, and a kid who has become a rapper, but we were in Sudan and guerillas killed his parents and he became a guerrillero. So he was killing people from the age of 7 until 14, and Amnesty International rescued him and took him out. The song's called "The Price of Silence." Amnesty International did it for the 60th anniversary of United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. I'm also going to support women's rights, for abused women.

And you have a concert scheduled for Miami April 25 at the North Beach Bandshell. What can fans look forward to?

Surprises! I have a list of things I want to do. But I can't tell you because until they're a reality, you know, I don't want to say them. They're a work in progress. And I'm a woman under construction, every day learning more. So there will be plenty of surprises. Probably not the full list, because there are budgets and I'm not Britney Spears [laughs]. I mean, I don't want to be Britney Spears, but you understand. But I'm preparing a show. You can expect a live cabaret.

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