He’s only 21, but singer-songwriter Cris Cab can still sound like an old soul, or at least a jaded one. Three years ago, with a self-produced album, a slate of successful online videos and mega-producer Pharrell Williams as his artistic godfather, this young Miami artist seemed poised to blow up. But ignition has been more elusive than it seemed when he was 18.
“I’ve been in such a tug of war with labels and companies and people who want to get involved,” says Cab (real name Cristian Cabrerizo), who was born and raised in Miami. “It’s almost to the point that I can’t even believe it.” He laughs and flaps his elbows. “I’m finally gonna take off! Almost got my feet off the ground!
“The music business is like anything else, there are good people and bad people, and the bad people can be really bad. They’re almost like mirages. They seem like a beautiful paradise, but they’re not.”
But the shimmering prospect of success seems to be solidifying. On Tuesday, Island Records will release Cris Cab’s major-label debut, Where I Belong, an album of melodically seductive reggae and tropical pop. Its launch gets a major boost via the video for Liar Liar, which has gotten more than 31 million Youtube views, thanks in part to cameos by superstar Pharrell, the song’s co-writer and co-producer. He’ll celebrate with a release party and concert Saturday at SLS South Beach Hotel in Miami Beach.
The presence of Pharrell and two other potent names who worked on Where I Belong, Wyclef Jean and producer Dallas Austin, is indicative of the high-powered attention that has swirled around this young artist. But the last several years of slogging in the trenches of ambition have been good for Cab’s resolve — and his music.
“The whole album for me speaks to finding your way as a young adult, as a teenager,” he says. “Everyone will try to pull you and push you … let’s have him sing ‘baby baby I want to party.’ Oh, let’s have him sing ‘throw my hands up, oh yeah.’ And I’m like, no way. For me, music is something that I love and comes from a place of amazement and awe. … I speak from my heart, and I can honestly say I sing what I feel.”
Cab has been feeling music since he was an infant, when he startled his mother by humming along with the lullabies she sang to him. He cajoled his parents into getting him a guitar at age 11 and mostly taught himself to play, idolizing and emulating older artists like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and Jerry Garcia.
Photos of Dylan, Garcia, James Taylor, Ray Charles and other classic acts — as well as one of a punkish, pre-diva Madonna — decorate Cab’s Coconut Grove recording studio. The studio is the most visible aspect of the ample support he gets from his father, a Cuban immigrant who is a successful developer and entrepreneur. (Forty percent of Belong was recorded here by Cab and his producing partners, while rentals help pay for the studio’s cost.) Cab and his brother and sister were raised in the well-to-do suburbs of Pinecrest and Coral Gables, and he got his love and feel for reggae partly from family vacations in the Caribbean. He has had the luxury of being able to devote himself full-time to music since he graduated from Christopher Columbus High School, a private Catholic school.
But none of that would matter without Cab’s own talent and drive. Eric Wong, executive vice-president and general manager of Island, which signed Cab in 2012, says the young singer’s focus and ability to marshall the multiple pieces of a music career — a social media following, songwriting, producing music and videos — were a draw. “Making music is his life, and you see it … this is where he belongs,” Wong says. And Cab’s mix of pop, rock, soul and reggae has appealed to fans from Russia to France. “He’s multi-genre, and that’s reflected by everyone who’s shown up at his shows — he has a very diverse mix of fans singing along to every song.”
Though a family friend got Cab an audience with Pharrell when the aspiring singer was just 15, it was his ability to incorporate the star’s advice into his songwriting that persuaded Pharrell, a year later, to become a mentor and sometime collaborator. Although Cab did not end up on a label with the man behind Happy, Pharrell produced several songs on Belong and has continued to lend his star power — in July, for instance, he appeared with Cab on local station Y100 for the Miami radio debut of Liar Liar.
And he has given his Miami protégé invaluable advice on producing, songwriting and craftsmanship.
“Pharrell is really a minimalist and focused — he chooses a few key sounds and really makes sure the audience hears them,” Cab says. His advice on songwriting was similarly meticulous. “Pharrell is so great about telling your story. Did you use enough descriptive adjectives? Did you say the red purse, the blue shoes, dark day, dusty room? He’s all about how do you take the listener closer to that world. What’s going on? What’s the room look like? Feel like?”
Cab has spent the last three years shuttling between Miami, New York and, for most of the past year, Europe — where Liar Liar has been a hit. He has opened for a string of major acts, including Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull, Gym Class Heroes, O.A.R. and Matisyahu; in September, he’ll open for Pharrell on a European tour.
But his personal and musical center remains in Miami, where he shares an apartment with his brother a few minutes from the studio (and his parents’ place).
“Miami is not only my home and my place of comfort, to me it’s a huge place of peace,” he says. “I come back here and I chill so hard. I love the sun. I sit outside. A lot of artists like to work late at night, but I’m a morning guy. I wake up, I’m fresh, fresh head, fresh ears. I have coffee, and I have several guitars in the room, and I just grab one and play for hours. And as soon as I come up with something cool, I record [it] on the cellphone and come straight to the studio.”
Several songs on Where I Belong reflect that sense of appreciation and reflection. “It’s your decision,” he sings in Fables, “this life you’re given is whatever makes you happy now.”
He says it’s about “making the most of life here on earth, make the most of your friends and do what makes you happy. Life is too short to play by someone else’s rules.”
The yearning Paradise (On Earth), about finding bliss in the here and now, was inspired by an argument with some people Cab describes as very religious. “This might be your heaven, there might not be a heaven after this,” he says. “Forget about the next life, let’s live this one here and do what makes you happy and find the things you love — create this world here.”
Liar Liar, on the other hand, is about betrayal — and despite the seductive women flashing through the stylized black-and-white video, Cab says he wasn’t thinking only of romantic treachery. “It’s not only people you’re in a relationship with, but people who are your friends or you think you know,” he says. “Time will eventually show you who that person is.”
But close relationships will have to wait for Cab, who says he broke up with his last girlfriend a year ago, as he was spending all his time on the road. “She was a great person, and she deserved more than that,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that guy who was just a text or a picture. But ultimately, it was my decision.”
In a way, the choice to focus on himself and his music reflects another of Pharrell’s suggestions. “Some of the first advice he gave me was, ‘Did you tell your story clearly enough?’ ” Cab says. “ ‘Do you listen to yourself? Is this a story to you?’ ”