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Interview: Michael Goldwasser from Easy Star All-Stars

Interview: Michael Goldwasser from Easy Star All-Stars

Interview: Michael Goldwasser from Easy Star All-Stars

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"It was instrumental in the foundation of reggae, ska and rocksteady. I want to pay tribute and bring it back home"

Sampler

Michael Goldwasser

Michael Goldwasser is a Thriller seeker

U.S. reggae act Easy Star All-Stars have become a worldwide name thanks to clever and innovative interpretations of classic rock albums. The latest album to get the All-Star treatment is Michael Jackson’s multi-million seller Thriller. United Reggae got a chat with Michael Goldwasser, renowned reggae producer behind the band and co-founder of Easy Star Records.

Covers have always been an integral part of reggae music, and some of the biggest hits in the genre’s early years were soul songs from the likes of Marvin Gaye and The Impressions.

U.S. band Easy Star All-Stars have taken covers to a whole new level with their concept of doing reggae reinterpretations of timeless albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead and now Michael Jackson.

“There’s a rich history of covers in reggae and it’s funny when people get surprised by this,” says Michael Goldwasser, producer, arranger, songwriter and musician over the phone from New York City where he lives, and continues:

“Unfortunately people don’t know the history of reggae and R&B. It was instrumental in the foundation of reggae, ska and rocksteady. I want to pay tribute and bring it back home.”

Unexpected background

By looking at his background you wouldn’t expect Michael Goldwasser to be a reggae musician responsible for some of the most successful independent reggae albums of the last decade, including Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band which debuted at #1 on Billboard and iTunes Reggae Charts in 2009 and Radiodread which debuted at #5 on the Billboard Reggae Chart in 2006.

Michael Goldwasser is the son of a rabbi and a graduate of Columbia University with a major in urban studies including sociology and urban planning. He always knew he wanted to pursue a career in music, but got a scholarship, an opportunity to good to not accept.

“The education has made me become a harder worker. I paid my way through school by working 30-40 hours every week. It was school during the days, working at night and playing music at weekends,” he explains.

Started Easy Star Records in the mid 90’s

Together with his friends Lem Oppenheimer and Eric Smith, Michael started Easy Star records in the mid 90’s because they felt there was a place for roots reggae made with live musicians and analog equipment, like it had been back in the 70’s and early 80’s. Some of the label’s early output includes material by Luciano, Frankie Paul and Sister Nancy and can found on the compilation Easy Star Vol. 2 Dancehall Culture.

Easy Star All-Stars

Over the years Michael has crafted and created his own reggae sound using vintage gear, tape machines and some of the best singers from the Caribbean and the U.S. He has also produced compositions for television shows CSI:NY, Ghost Whisperer, Prison Break and Medium as well as feature films Cassandra’s Dream, Failure To Launch and Goodbye Solo.

Coming home

Easy Star All-Stars Thrillah – Easy Star All-Stars’ reggae adaptation Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the greatest selling record of all time – is the fourth cover album from the band, and just like its predecessors it has made an impressive debut on the Billboard Reggae chart climbing directly to #1.

Michael describes the album as something of a homecoming for himself because of his R&B background. He grew up listening to Michael Jackson, the Isley Brothers and Donny Hathaway, and Thriller presented an opportunity to blend reggae and R&B.

“I want to cultivate, not repeat. Make it different than the original. This was an R&B and pop album, and not a rock album, like the previous ones,” explains Michael, and continues:

“It was not a goal to make it better than the original. I grew up on Thriller. It’s the best produced album I’ve ever heard. It was a cool challenge, and it’s different to do a dance album and to do it in a different way. Not so fast paced. It was a musical and intellectual challenge.”

To get it right Michael needed to separate himself from his personal views, view the album with fresh ears and eyes and be professional about the challenge. He listened to Sgt. Pepper when he was a kid, but Radiohead’s OK Computer and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon have never been personal favorites.

Seeking a challenge

During the interview Michael often comes back to getting non-reggae people interested in reggae and finding a challenge in what albums to reinvent. And with Thriller he has certainly found an album for the masses and a challenge for the singers since Michael Jackson was known for his versatility, skills and soulfulness.

“Michael Jackson was a phenomenal singer and he had like a five octave range. I’m amazed by his vocals, and I couldn’t just let any singer come in a sing,” he says, and adds:

“There are fewer and fewer real singers out there and I must be sure about who really can sing.”

But thanks to his previous work with some of the most talented singers around Michael found what he was looking for.

“There are so many great artists and I’m honored to work with people that I admired when I was a kid. It has helped me to know what would fit for each song. There are some phenomenal singers on this album,” he says, and mentions veterans such as Mikey General and David Hinds from Steel Pulse as well as up and coming Chris Martin.

A fresh take

Easy Star All-Stars - ThrillahMichaels aim was to create an atmosphere reminiscent of Kingston in the 70’s and 80’s. One of the best examples is Beat It sung by Michael Rose.

“I wanted it dread, so I slowed it down and made it relevant to Jamaica with that Black Uhuru vibe,” he says.

There are no one drop riddims on the album. Michael thinks it has been done too many times before.

“I wanted to do it different with different progressions,” he explains, and takes an example:

“Wanna be Startin’ Something has an African feel to it, so I made it in an afrobeat style. I wanted to bring it back to Africa.”

Hope to hear from Quincy Jones

At the time of the interview Thriller’s legendary producer Quincy Jones hadn’t heard Easy Star All-Stars version yet, but Michael had tried different channels to reach him. And has high hopes on his review.

“I have a feeling that he would enjoy it,” he laughs.

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