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Interview: Romain Virgo (2012)

Interview: Romain Virgo (2012)

Interview: Romain Virgo (2012)

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"Busy Signal made a mistake ten years ago when he was much younger but he changed"

Sampler

Back in May when Penthouse prodigy Romain Virgo was publicising strong second album 'The System' he was forced to cancel a raft of press interviews. The reason: his friend Busy Signal had been extradited to face drug charges in the USA and the young singer was too broken up to answer questions on this or any subject.

Both men have links to Penthouse, whose sometime engineer (and fulltime producer-manager at his own Juke Boxx Productions) Shane Brown helmed Busy's 'Reggae Music Again' longplayer and a sizeable portion of 'The System'. This year, these records have gone some way towards answering the claims that traditional one drop reggae is in trouble in Jamaica - which made Busy's arrest, just as his album was getting rave reviews, all the more unfortunate.

Romain, who grew up in poverty with his mother as primary carer, shooting to fame via Digicel's Rising Stars talent show, makes no secret of the familial bond he shares with older industry role models. These include Busy, Brown, Penthouse boss Donovan Germain, and Beres Hammond - with whom he embarked a well heralded tour of England this autumn.

With Busy potentially due for an early release in November, United Reggae had the chance to catch Romain in a Wembley hotel: literally minutes before he was about make a triumphant London debut on stage - and duet with Beres himself. Angus Taylor discovered that singing songs that strike a chord with people is the key...

Romain Virgo

You've been touring with Beres and Tarrus Riley in celebration of 50 years of independence. How does it feel to sing with Beres, who was alive when Jamaica was still a colony?

This is the way that I always wanted to come to England. I always said to people whenever I did interviews that, if I am coming to England for the first time, I would love to come with someone like Beres Hammond or Tarrus Riley. It's like God answered a prayer to allow me to get the opportunity. The kind of fan-base that Beres has and the kind of fan-base that Tarrus Riley has - I do a similar kind of music to them so the whole vibe everywhere I go with them is just lovely, man. Beres Hammond is somebody that I grew up listening to. He is one of my favourite artists, so it's amazing to share this moment  and this whole experience with him and I look forward to more like this.

Both of you have a common link working with Donovan Germain. Are you close with Beres outside of this tour?

He is a man who is always asking for me and whenever I go around his studio it is just pure love. He is somebody who is always encouraging me to continue to do what I do - sing from my heart. So Beres has a father role in terms of the music - and I just give thanks for his support. I definitely want to live up to whatever he says so he can feel proud.

Beres has a father role in terms of the music. I definitely want to live up to whatever he says so he can feel proud

Your second album The System is like a football game with two halves - the reality songs up front and then the love songs towards the end. Whose idea was it to order it this way?

I'm around Donovan Germain, Shane Brown from Jukeboxx Productions, Dawin and Omar Browne from Vikings, and Dylan Foster from Pete Music. These are a set of talented producers who have the experience from way back like Donovan and Shane and then Vikings as young producers coming up in the business. So it was everybody's idea. Everybody came together and thought that this was a brilliant way to do the album. People class it as a more mature album because of some of the lyrics and songs that we're writing, so it's amazing to see that we could come up with something like this. I sing love songs and I didn't want to put out an album where people would say "Woah, we didn't get any love songs!". So even though the album is called The System that was the reason why we put in some love songs alongside some of the more serious social commentary songs. If you think about it, most things in life affect the system - so it can be from social commentary life to a love life.

And even your love songs are reality songs. A song like Rich In Love, in the tradition of Dobby Dobson's Loving Pauper, reminds us of how the great singers of old could sing romance and reality - and also bring them together in one.

It's very important for artists. Whatever love song you put out there... whatever type of crowd it is, must still love your music. So we just try to give the people things that we know are real, things that people can relate to. I have people come to me and say "Rich In Love, it's like you wrote that song for me and my girlfriend" or the ladies would say "Me and my boyfriend". That's good - you sing love songs and it's something people can actually relate to - so we just want to continue to do songs like these.

We just try to give the people things that we know are real, things that people can relate to

A lot of your songs talk about money worries. Does money rule whether you are a poor kid growing up or a famous singer?

(laughs) True. I'm from a poor family so I know what poverty is like. And I'm always trying to sing songs that let people know that there are so many other ways you can achieve whatever you want. You can achieve anything you want without doing anything negative. So sometimes we say Food Fi The Plate, where we say "Nothing at all nuh come easy" so I'm telling people to go out there and work for whatever they want in terms of a positive light - try to get your food in a positive way, don't really do it in a negative way. We always try to remember where we are coming from and try to represent for those same kind of people from the same kind of background.

Are those songs inspired by real situations? For example No Money from your first album - was there a specific person who kept trying to dip their hand in your pocket?

Romain VirgoYeah, this song was actually real. Everything we put in the song was basically how it played out. You have some people who will pressure you but who will never give anybody else a chance to ask for anything. You have some people who will just sit every day and never go out there and try to find something on their own. This is something that I know it is not just me going through, there are a lot of other artists that are going through it. And just people in general. I have people coming to me and saying "Whoa Romain!"

I can relate to it - and I'm nobody in the business.

On this tour there was someone on the bus saying they needed to get a copy of that song. I got my laptop and put it on his flashdrive and he said "Yow, this is my song because as soon as I step off the plane, I'm under pressure!" So  it goes back to the first statement I made - songs that people can relate to are very important. The song is not saying that I don't give away things. It's just showing people that they can't be always pressuring people. Some of the time you have to give people a break. You have to let them know you're not just there for what they're after but you're there to kind of encourage them at the same time. So instead of asking people every day you can encourage them too.

On the new album you devote two songs Mama's Song and I Know Better to the influence of your mother.

She played 150%. A very, very important role in terms of growing up with discipline and everything like that. When somebody plays a role like that in your life there is not much more you can do than to write songs. So that whenever she's home and listening to the music she can feel proud and feel good inside herself. That's one of the ways I thought I could reach out to her by just singing songs like Mama's Song and I Know Better. Mama love is important - a lot of people in Jamaica and worldwide are able to relate to it because a lot of people grow up with a single parent and most of the time it's mothers. Respect to every father out there who stands by their children's side. Big up to my father. Even though he wasn't there 100% like my mother I still love him because he was still there. But my mommy was always there so I have to show respect.

A lot of people grow up with a single parent and most of the time it's mothers. Respect to every father out there who stands by their children's side

You mentioned Beres just now and you described the fatherly role of Donovan Germain in a previous United Reggae interview. Have you looked for male role models in the music industry?

Definitely. I'm at Penthouse so whenever we talk about people who are there to guide us we have to talk about Donovan Germain and Shane Brown. It's like a family. You have Busy Signal who was always there, always saying something positive, always encouraging. He's somebody who is all about music so whenever you and he are in the studio there is no playing around - he just wants to record songs. You don't have to write anything because once you are there with him he is someone who will say "Just go round there and vibe" and at the end of the day you're going to end up with a song. You never have a day where you say "This was a wasted day" once Busy Signal is around.

Does this extend to the whole Penthouse family?

You have Busy Signal, you have D Major, Exco Levi, Sherita Lewis, Timeka Marshall, Sugar, RC, just a whole music family. Everyone just comes together to create music and we just live together like brothers and sisters. We have a lot of people around us who are very positive like the next young artist called Loyal Flames who is doing well and is a part of the family as well. We just continue to work hard and have one aim - positive music. We just want to see Jamaican music as a whole grow to a certain level where even the people who were here before passed and gone can be up there in heaven and look down and say "I'm proud of how far the music going and the direction the music is going".

How did you deal with Busy's arrest and are you glad he could be out by November 21st?

It was rough. Losing Busy was just like having your blood brother at home and then you can't see him anymore. It affected everybody at the studio. It was a very, very sad moment for us. It was a moment we never saw coming and it was very shocking. Everybody was crying because we know the kind of person he is. He made a mistake ten years ago when he was much younger but he changed and it was amazing to see the kind of person he transformed into. The direction he wanted to go to was all music so nobody now would ever see him in that light. So to see the kind of person he is and then this whole thing that came and surrounded him was unbelievable. But we were always there praying for him and we will be happy that he will soon be home. So we look forward and continue to pray for his safety and wellbeing until he comes.

Losing Busy was just like having your blood brother at home and then you can't see him anymore

Final question, and I hope you excuse the bad timing, but do you get nervous before you go onstage?

I'm always nervous. If I'm going on stage and I'm not nervous it's a sign that I'm not going to have a good show. Whenever I feel nervous it shows that "Yeah, this is real". You cannot just go out there and feel like everybody's going to enjoy it - I always want the feeling of "Nobody out there knows me. I need to go out there and sing until the people can feel the music". That's the kind of vibe I always go on stage with. Even in Jamaica where everybody probably knows Romain Virgo I always go onstage and think "Nobody inside this venue knows me so I need to go onstage and work hard so the people know the music and know the songs". Because the only way they are going to know most of the songs is if I go onstage and sing it out, and sing it with that feeling and that conviction that what we're singing is real and they can relate to it. That's the kind of thing I always go on stage with and it always pays off, so I like to feel nervous! (laughs)

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