Sweet Lizzy Project

Sweet Lizzy Project — Lisset Diaz (from left), Miguel Comas, Wilfredo Gatell, Alejandro Gonzalez and Angel Luis Millet — will perform Saturday at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville.

In many ways, the story of the Sweet Lizzy Project, a band that hails from Havana, Cuba, is the eternal tale about pursuing the American dream.

When Raul Malo of the popular Americana outfit The Mavericks discovered the band while sharing a stage at a musical showcase in Cuba, he found himself immediately smitten. A Cuban-American himself, he not only helped bring the band to Nashville, but also agreed to house some of its members at his own home for a year while they took time to get acclimated. Raul’s wife, Beverly, soon became the group’s manager and they were subsequently signed to the Mavericks’ own independent label, Mono Mundo Recordings.

It’s not that the group’s members didn’t already have credence and conviction. They had established themselves as local favorites while performing at any number of popular venues in their native Cuba. The group’s co-writer and band leader, Miguel Comas, was recognized as one of the country’s most respected producers and guitarists. His musical partner, lead singer and lyricist Lisset Diaz, had studied biochemistry in college but had begun writing songs on a whim.

“I never thought of doing this for real,” Diaz said. “I never thought of studying music because I already knew how to sing. I had composed this song, but I didn’t want to simply share it with myself. So I decided to record it, and that’s how I met Miguel.”

The duo’s demos eventually began attracting notice, leading Diaz to abandon her science career and join Comas in forming a five-piece band they dubbed the Sweet Lizzy Project. Although they lacked access to modern recording equipment, and their only exposure to current music was through thumb drives that were shared surreptitiously to avoid government censorship, the group — Diaz on lead vocals, Comas on guitar, drummer Angel Luis Millet, keyboard player Wilfredo Gatell and bassist Alejandro Gonzalez — eventually found the means to record “Heaven,” the band’s official album debut.

It was that series of scenarios that eventually led to the band’s inclusion on “Havana Time Machine,” a PBS documentary detailing the city’s thriving music scene. The program culminated in a live concert featuring not only Sweet Lizzy Project and other local artists, but the visiting Mavericks as well. For Malo, it was love at first sound, and the start of a bold new adventure that culminated with the group’s relocation to America in November 2017.

Still, the process wasn’t easy. With the arrival of the Trump administration in early 2017, the American embassy in Havana was forced to shut its doors. Because embassy officials already were aware of the band after coordinating the logistics for the PBS documentary, they agreed to work overtime to process the paperwork needed to expedite the group’s visas. After a series of temporary visas, the musicians recently received their green cards, allowing them to stay in the United States for 10 years. With residency now in hand, they’ll eventually be allowed to apply for full citizenship.

Even so, the musicians had to adapt to their new circumstances and surroundings. Likewise, Malo’s family also was forced to adjust, not only to having house guests, but also to mentoring and counseling them as far as dealing with their transition.

“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Diaz said of the move. “After the first month, all the things that were new weren’t new any more. It was like, OK this is it. Our bass player hasn’t seen his wife for a year and a half. That’s very hard. It’s the same for the rest of the band. Our families are still in Cuba. At some point, you start missing your bedroom, your street, everything else. Plus, there’s the language. If you want to socialize and meet new friends, it’s always hard to communicate when you’re speaking a different language.”

Nevertheless they’ve acclimated quickly. By Diaz’s estimate, they’ve toured to 20 states so far, and have opened for the Mavericks on at least a couple of occasions.

“We were used to playing three or four times a week,” Diaz said. “But when we got here, we had to stop because we were not legally allowed to work. We started from scratch. We had to start building it from showcases. The priority was to make a new album, so we had to figure that out by writing songs, booking studio time, finding producers. It was a full-time job. We were not used to working with other people. So now we had all these other people around offering opinions that required us to make changes to the music. You just have to get used to it.”

Until recently, Diaz herself booked the band’s gigs. Fortunately though, their diligence has paid off in other ways as well. A recent Record Store Day single “Back In Time,” backed with a Mavericks song “The Flowers in the Seed,” helped raise awareness. In addition, the group recently secured a distribution deal with Thirty Tigers Records, which will partner with Mono Mundo Recordings for the group’s upcoming album “Technicolor.”

The group sings in English and its sound reflects a variety of modern pop influences. Diaz herself has been compared to such expressive singers as Kate Bush and Natalie Merchant, among various others.

“Each of us has our own influences that we bring to the band,” Diaz said. “That’s part of our creative process and it shows up in the music we make. But we don’t have any boundaries. We do whatever we feel like, whatever we want.”

The group will return to Cuba for the first time since their move when they play three shows there this summer. The upcoming trip causes Diaz to reflect on the separation and sacrifice that have accompanied their journey thus far.

“It was never our idea to specifically go to Nashville,” Diaz said. “It was an opportunity that came to us through Raul Malo. But once we got here, we found it to be a beautiful and impressive city in so many different ways. We’ve pursued this project for almost six years now, and we realized that this was going to be the best possible opportunity to be able to grow our art. That’s why we just did it.”

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