Common Vision: A Conversation with Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Saul Young

Local music lovers will remember Cruz Contreras from his days in Robinella and the CC String Band, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based outfit that performed in Birmingham on several occasions. These days, Contreras fronts The Black Lillies, a quartet that is set to release its new album, Stranger To Me, on September 28. On Thursday, September 13, The band – Contreras, Sam Quinn, Bowman Townsend and Dustin Schaefer – will perform at Moonlight on the Mountain. Recently, Contreras spoke with us by phone from his Knoxville home.

Birmingham Stages: Cruz, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of Stranger To Me. Are the songs newer compositions, older songs or a mixture of both?

Cruz Contreras: Certainly a combination, but I would say mainly it’s pretty fresh and new material. We just put out a single yesterday called “Earthquake” and that was probably the first one written – I wrote that probably two years ago. That was the impetus for, “Hey, we’ve got a new song and a new sound that’s going to focus on three-part harmony.” For every record, there’s a song that’s written that lets you know it’s time to make a record. Through the process of that, we were solidifying the lineup and we went from a six to five to four-piece group. We have three lead singers, three songwriters, four arrangers and every song on the new record has a different combination of writers. I try to avoid one formula – I like the idea of being open-minded and supporting each other.

Birmingham Stages: A steady flow of energy must permeate through your band with that amount of creative input.

Contreras: Yeah, and it takes a while to get to there because you’re dealing with big personalities and these are guys that could all front their own bands. It’s really cool to get to that point where you have that common vision and dedication.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs continue to evolve even as you’re in the studio recording them?

Contreras: Of course! The more you’re prepared, the more you have the luxury to edit and change and be spontaneous. If you  go in there just hoping for the best, you’re not going to get to that point. This record is the first Black Lillies record that is exclusively Black Lillies members. This is really us and we went in there and performed the songs live together. We sang at the same time – we didn’t sing lead and then add harmonies.

Birmingham Stages: The press material for Stranger To Me states that a tremendous amount of writing took place in preparation for recording the album. It seems that you already have enough stored material for several additional albums.

Contreras: We’ve talked about doing a five-song acoustic EP of our favorite five songs that didn’t make it or something like that. I’ve heard people say that one of the tunes that got cut is their favorite tune. The title track got cut! We have a song called “Stranger To Me” and it didn’t make it [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate? Some artists say it’s a great time as you can do things on your own terms. Others say the current model makes it difficult to separate yourself among the crowd given anyone can record and distribute their own music.

Contreras: Yeah, good question. It’s the reality. I’m sure every industry deals with changing times and changing technology. The cool part is that information is available to everybody and everybody can get their message out there. We tour a lot – we’re not selling out giant theaters or amphitheaters, but we can go anywhere and we have a fan base and we have this really complex network of fans and friends and supporters. It’s why we’re able to make a record like this without a traditional record deal. If it bops along like it is, we have a career in music and we have a great life. This [new album] is a big step – it establishes the band and lineup and the next record may sound totally different and our fans understand that.

Birmingham Stages: Today’s climate seems favorable to a band like yours in that genre lines are blurring more than ever. For example, the “Americana” term encompasses a multitude of styles and sounds.

Contreras: I love it and I think it’s the future. People come up with genres so they can sell and market – there’s no other reason. But everybody at their fingertips carries a little machine that can play any song in existence at any second. You can’t just put out a record every two to three years and expect to be relevant. Really hot artists are putting out something everyday, even if it’s a photo or a statement. To me, music is music and I like the diversity of it.

Moonlight Presents: The Black Lillies at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, September 13. Advance tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $15 and $18 day of the show. For more information, visit