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Interview: Courtney John

Interview: Courtney John

Interview: Courtney John

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"I'm like the Dr Phil of reggae !"

Sampler

Courtney John is a falsetto singer who deals in love songs with an old school sensibility. Born in the fishing village of Annotto Bay, he imbibed music from his uncles, including the great Zap Pow vocalist and lovers supremo Beres Hammond. After studying business in Canada, Courtney produced tracks for both Jamaican and international artists - including Nelly Furtado - under the name Yogi. Last year released eclectic third solo album 'Made In Jamaica', which yielded a smash with the Chris Peckings-produced Treasure Isle revamp Lucky Man. Angus Taylor spoke to him about his current run of success and his take on the big issues faced by Jamaican artists today...

You’ve put some big tunes out recently - tell me about them.

The two singles I have out now are Lucky Man and Win Some. Both are from my latest album Made In Jamaica. They're both a retro throwback kind of vibe from the Treasure Isle collection. They're really just reminding the fans of reggae where the music came from and when it was special and what it meant to both us and people abroad.

You did both those tunes with Chris Peckings in England. How did you link with him?

It was weird because it was a few years ago that I was in London and getting ready to board the train to France having tried to call Chris without getting hold of him for a week and a half! Then on the last day before I leave when I'm in the train station ready to go I finally get a hold of him and as a result we got those two tunes! Chris is cool man! Let me tell you now - Chris comes on like he lives in the fifties! (laughs) The man loves old music sir! But he's cool - he knows exactly what will fit my voice. The process was cool and he is one cool individual.

Let's talk about Lucky Man, which is based on the Paragons hit Worried Man. How did it feel turning such a classic sad song into such a classic happy song?

You know what's funny now is Lucky Man was the first line that came out of my mouth when I heard the rhythm! I'm really a sucker for the old stuff myself. To me Alton Ellis can't do any wrong. I'm really big on those old vocals that came through Studio 1 and Treasure Isle. But when I heard the track the first thing that came out of my mouth was "Lucky Man". And why do I speak about being so lucky? Well at the time I had a relationship I was working through and really the whole Made In Jamaica album was my up and down in that particular relationship. So on that particular track I figured, "Let me tell this woman how lucky I am to have her" hence that's how Lucky Man came about. To be honest I never thought about that fact that the Paragons did Worried Man on it until later - that's how the track spoke to me! But it was a great process. I later ran into John Holt and he told me that he'd heard the song and he loved it. He loved the fact that I can still deliver that classic vibe to the track. I grew up listening to John and those artists - so it was a good feeling.

And the other track we mentioned, also on a Paragons rhythm, is Win Some. This time it deals with what goes wrong in a relationship - tell me about that...

Yeah, it's weird because I left being the luckiest man to the lady slamming the door and walking out and we did the two tracks back to back! This one was not really my own experience, I was speaking of somebody else's. The original I believe was Black Bird, which was a remake of the Beatles which the Paragons sang over? But the vibes were just the same because we were doing them back to back. I did Lucky Man first and after singing writing and voicing that we moved on to Win Some but the same energy was captured in the studio. And for background vocals we had the Tamlins singing them. There was something special and magical about doing these two particular tracks because I kind of grew up on that kind of music hearing my uncle and my mama and the elders in the family listening to that era. So it was good to add my vibe to it and reintroduce it to a younger audience that probably doesn't know it exists. They'll probably go back and be like, "Wooah! I didn't know that the Skatalites played for Treasure Isle as the Supersonics" a lot of people didn't know that. I remember someone calling me and saying "did you know most of the musicians on Lucky Man and Win Some are not around anymore - how does that feel?" It was an eerie experience typing up the credits because you are typing up names of people who are long gone.

Did you feel tempted to record a whole album of these old rhythms like Bitty Mclean did with his On Bond Street?

Chris came to me with that idea a few years ago and it just didn't happen. But because we also worked with Sly & Robbie for this album - who came a little bit later, they were like eighties - I really wanted to just show where the music was coming from. The beginning, the middle, then dabble in something a little bit experimental like we did with the Lenky tracks, so we can give some different vibes and show how rich our music is and what we have to offer. I guess another time we could probably do a full retro thing but for this particular album I wanted to let the listeners get the vibe that even though it may be a little techno dancehall thing, it's still a Jamaican experience. The people who actually make that kind of music, when they hear it, they know it's not the real, they know it's something else. It's just to express how creative we are and where we are in terms of thinking about music. That to me is Made In Jamaica. I'm not big on "this person is into that" and "that person is into this" and “therefore it cannot be integrated under one big umbrella”. All the music comes out of the same experience.

I was just going to mention some of the electro pop hybrids like Float and Safer Place that got away from the one drop. Do you have an experimental side?

Yeah. Me, I'm a real artist. I take pleasure in being a real artist. It's something that I really love. I think our purpose on this land is to let people who are not artists get a chance to actually imagine and get away. It's like you go to the movies and for two hours you forget you have bills to pay! Or you're reading a good book and you read a couple of chapters a day - for those minutes that you're reading - you're in a different world. So I feel really good to know I can do that through music, through singing and through words and creating this picture. And because I know I am blessed with this talent I don't like to feel bound or pigeon-holed to do one thing. Obviously sometimes you things for the commerce part of it, business sense says you should stick to this because the fans will appreciate you better in this particular spot. But for me, I'm a non conformist so my next album might be a jazz album! But it would be a Jamaican jazz album - I wouldn't go to New Orleans to record it! Anything I do with music has to have the Jamaican element.

You've also got two other tunes out right now. One of them is Good Life, from your second album Unselfish, which again uses a classic rhythm - produced by Bulby but based on Augustus Pablo. And on top of that you sing an old Gloria Jones melody, Tainted Love. Where did this idea come from?

(laughs) Well I'll tell you something - I'm a big fan of the dub movement, of Tubbys and August Pablo. But when Bulby gave me the rhythm the only thing I could hear when it was playing was that track, which was made popular by the band Soft Cell but originally done by Gloria! That was all I could hear but obviously I didn't want to sing that song! But I just let myself go when I hear a rhythm and I don't want to restrict myself, so I said, "Bwoy, alright... Its badmind tune that run the place and I have to do a badmind tune!" I leave myself to be real with a purpose and a calling and when I heard that song, Good Life to me was like the closest I come to singing a badmind song! (laughs) Because I'm always thinking "Bwoy, there's so much! If I hear one more badmind song!" So I guess Good Life would be like my badmind song but in a good sense, saying, "let's celebrate the good life!" Nothing should stop you from the good life because your interpretation of the good life might be to just come home and drink a cup of tea! It wasn't like I went up in the hills and had to write a song named Good Life. It's funny because for that particular project there were two other songs on the rhythm that I wrote for Bulby and they had nothing to do with that subject. They were two very different songs. But for me as the artist that's what came to me.

You sing it in a much lower register than anything on Made in Jamaica. How big a range do you have?

Yeah, I think for that Bulby track, it wouldn't have resonated so much if I'd done it in that falsetto voice. The subject wouldn't have resonated. It was a conscious effort to say, "this song is a serious song - let’s do it in more of a chanting style where even somebody who can't sing can just sing along with it!" (laughs) The falsetto stuff is really the trademark of Courtney John but I still have different voices that I experiment with. I don't make it too far out but I do sing a lot in the chest register on certain things. I try to keep that for things that are a little bit more serious.

And the other tune out now is Magical, produced by Rick Warren on his Stonehenge rhythm. Tell me about the message of that song.

That song was written by me and my writing partner Nicky Sharp. It's really another woman thing. I mean, if someone was to ask me what is my purpose, then I would say it is to write music that women love! (laughs) Men listen because their women love it! (laughs) That's my niche. I'm like the Dr Phil of reggae or lovers rock! Magical is really the first song for a new relationship. Rick had been checking me for a while and when I decided to do the song I had moved on from a past relationship to a new relationship. This was the first song about the person I'm actually dating, giving my experience of how this person is magic and brightens up everything.

So how does working with a rising producer like Rick compare with voicing for Bulby or Peckings?

Bulby and Peckings have obviously been in the game much longer than Rick and have listened a lot more and are probably a little more exposed to a lot more music. But what I really enjoy about Rick is he is a young producer so he is coming with new ideas. He's a brilliant musician and an excellent engineer. So me as an artist who has been in it for a little while too, I like to support talent. It's not just about, "let's go get the biggest hit with Rick". It's like work in progress so we do it to support their cause because they're coming with a new element. So just like artists did before us, with Gregory supporting Sly & Robbie, and Beres supported Penthouse, we support the new and fresh ideas. Their things are different. Sometimes so different they become a shock thing! But nevertheless it's a different generation so we have to support what is new. Everybody is still great in their own right.

You were born in Annotto Bay on the North East coast of Jamaica. What was it like growing up there?

Annotto Bay is like borderline Portland. It's a fishing village that was a sugar plantation in the seventies and eighties. Sugar went and then bananas came in. I was - and still am! - the epitome of what you'd call a countryman. (laughs) I'm a countryman! I'm not the kind of Jamaican that you meet who comes from Kingston. I'm from Annotto Bay essentially. I'm exposed to the real organic Jamaica. You want some lunch and you go catch some fish. You go to the banana fields. You go to the coconut walk to get some jelly. You go to the cane field when you want a little snack. You go look for some mangos in the summertime when you want a bellyfull. So it's a real country like that real early Jamaica kind of country vibe where we weren't exposed to without so much of the ailments we have in this society now. You'd come home from school and you wouldn't see your grandparents until it's time to eat dinner. But you were safe because everybody was in charge of raising you. It was like the village community raised a child. Nobody went missing because there's always somebody in charge! You'd eat at five different homes before you reached home and by the time you reached home your bellyfull! (laughs) So it was that kind of vibe and that kind of love that I was brought up with. We weren't exposed to all the fancy TV and all those things but we didn't know that we missed it because there are so many other things going on. About this time of the day when we'd come in there would be a game of marbles. It was a different, real organic kind of vibe. That's what I was exposed to growing up in rural Jamaica.

The standard question here would be "how did you get into music?" but of course you came from a famously musical family...

The family is a very creative family. We give thanks for our artistic vibes. My grandmother is from the Maroons. She has the real rhythm and things in her blood. But I have two uncles who are both professional musicians who were both instrumental in getting me into music. My uncle Boyu was the one who first brought me to the studio to record. My other uncle Beres, once I went through that process of honing my craft, when I got to the States, he introduced me to the different producers so I could just kind of wet my feet there! So I kind of took it from there and evolved into my own personality and vibe.

How do their achievements affect your music? Do you collaborate at all?

Yeah, we did something on my first album. I'm a real individual but the only thing is when I'm around my uncles I'm always asking them, "D'you hear my last tune?" or they'll come to me and say, "Bwoy, mi love that vibe", "you sound really good this one" "the melody, that kind of vibe". So when I'm making music I'm thinking, "Damn! What Beres gaan think if him hear this?" (laughs) We toured together last year, Beres and myself, but it's usually more of a family vibe, we tend to do a lot more family things because musically he is busy doing his thing. He has new artists that are signed to his label and I'm kind of doing the same thing. But I think when the time is right we will do something musically again. For now, though, it's mainly meeting up at different shows and stuff.

So apart from your own family, who were your favourite singers growing up?

Alton Ellis is the boss! A boss man! I think Alton Ellis teaches everybody how to sing. You say Alton Ellis and no other singer can complain. They know that you're talking about the boss! (laughs) You know when you say something that's that good that they can't poke holes in it? You can't poke holes when someone says Alton Ellis is the boss. And then, obviously I don't think I would be in the business if it weren't for my two uncles Boyu and Beres, but I also listened to a lot of Curtis Mayfield.

I hear that a lot in your trademark style.

Yeah! I listened to a lot of the soul that made sense. Not the over fluffy stuff but the kind of soul where you couldn't tell if it was a love song or a social conscious one. Marvin, Curtis, I was heavily into the Al Green. The Motown and the Philly movement - when the soul music was really solid.

Do you think there are enough singers in Jamaican music today?

I think the business has turned into "just business". It's very tough for singers in Jamaica. The business is not very accommodating for singers because obviously our moods and personalities are different from a deejay. I mean everybody still has their purpose and their space and I've learned that the world is big so if a singer's fanbase is in Tibet that's where their fanbase is! He can go to Tibet and tour and then come back and live here! But the business is now more accommodating for deejays for some reason. I don't know how to explain that one!

You mentioned that your forte is singing for women. Is there a danger that singers are becoming typecast as for love and deejays are for other issues?

I don't think so because if there was ever to be a movement right now to rally anybody doing anything they're going to have to pull back for a singer's song. Be it a Dennis Brown or a Bob or whatever. I think if ever there was a deejay that came close to that kind of movement it would be Buju but to me the deejay music is really about what happens in more of an urban setting. People are into it and that's what it's about but I wouldn't say singers are for women because over the years, if you go back and listen to the Abyssinians and those sort of groups, they were very powerful in their music and what they sang about.

As a youth you went to Toronto to study business. Has this helped your career?

Yeah man I got a chance to fly out and go up in all the cold! Because in Jamaica they see you in a lot of trouble so they decide "send him up North and let him cool out a little!" (laughs) I learned that the world is round and there are more than one people on this planet so therefore we have to adjust ourselves so we can live. I wish for everyone who lives anywhere in the world that they can travel and see different things. Because I grew up in a Christian family and I remember the first time at school overseas when they were reading the Lord's Prayer and some kids weren't saying it! I was like, "What???" (laughs) I never knew they had people who never believed in the Lord's Prayer! Now to me it was a big thing but there was nothing wrong with them - it just wasn't their thing. So that taught me that if somebody is not into your thing, it doesn't mean they are bad or that your thing is wrong. They're just not in to your thing. It's the same thing with music - going back to what we were talking about earlier - I make music to appeal largely to a woman audience because that's just my thing. That's just my vibration. However, I support all of the other different elements of the music: I support the music that speaks about the political stuff and I echo it, I support the music that speaks about the urban stuff and I echo it. But if all of those people talk about all of that and then the women just get left alone - something got to go on in the Yard! Something has to go and balance it! (laughs) So those experiences from travelling and being exposed allow me to a better individual and speak and not be offended by what I speak about.

How about in terms of what you learned about business? You founded your own company Fiwi Music - how important is it to control your own music these days?

It's very important because at least you know you'll have something when you retire! (laughs) For me at least I know that if I had to retire say tomorrow or the next day I've done enough to see something for what I've worked for in terms of my publishing and my catalogue - stuff that's a valuable asset.

So you're getting your royalties? Are you registered with the right people?

Yeah man. I'm one of those artists that educates themselves about their business so whenever anything changes in the way the business is conducted I try to upgrade. Just like I upgrade my ProTools program, I upgrade my knowledge and try to surround myself with people who are probably even smarter than I am when it comes to making sure I am compensated. Often when I learn these things I share them with my peers who are willing to learn. A lot of people don't really care about it but there are people who are passionate and know this is the retirement package for the next 40 years. It's what your generation is going to live off. But it's just like anything else: if you are going to go into construction you have to educate yourself about, say, the thickness of the seal you're going to build your building with. I often find when people bitch about how bad the business is, it's because they didn't equip themselves with the knowledge it takes to really govern the business. I rarely ever hear of anybody forcing anyone to sign away their rights. Most of the time it's just money. Somebody shakes a couple of grand and you say, "Bwoy, I need some groceries. I don't need that publishing today so let's give it away" and then in the next 20 years your publishing is the biggest thing and you want it back! Tough luck you know? (laughs)

You are also a respected producer and remixer for big Jamaican and international artists. What perspective does working in the studio give you on being a singer?

I've done the producing for a few years and was successful and made some good money from it but the passion was always to get out there and be at the fore. Obviously it's a different drive. A producer gets paid whether the project works or not. The artist has more to lose but they also have a bigger gain. So it's all about weighing the opportunity costs. Producing was fun but it's a bit more draining because you have to give a little bit more of yourself. I remember having to write fifteen songs for one rhythm! (laughs) I think after the last one I said, "I'm not doing this no more!" Every song is like an out of body experience but when I was done I was like, "But wait - mi body look like it no deh bout!" I still produce but more on a project basis. People are still calling me about producing and writing. It's just that as an artist right now - especially a reggae artist where the resources are not like overseas artists where you have record company budgets and you can juggle both things - here you have to be really aggressive about making whatever works work for you. I have to be doing the Courtney John thing, making sure it is solidified and bringing in the fruits to take time out to do the things that I still enjoy.

Now your producer name was Yogi but your singer name is Courtney John. How come you have two personas?

Yogi is - and I still say "is" because Yogi is the one that pays the bills! (laughs) - the name that my grandmother gave me. I used to wear this T shirt with Yogi Bear on it and they couldn't get me out of it. So she just decided to call me Yogi and I decided to use it for good luck and a vibe. But then Yogi became the industry person, the producer, the one people would call if they wanted a hit song - it was all "Yogi, Yogi, Yogi"! So I kind of got branded as the producer and I didn't really think as an artist. So in an effort to change all that, I decided to come with Courtney John - Courtney is my first name, John is my middle name - to re-launch myself. I don't really do much producing now, I make sure I'm focussed on what I'm doing, which is being the artist. So on off-times when I'm not really busy I still produce as Yogi but as it pertains to Courtney John it's all about the forefront element of the business.

Finally, what does the future hold for Courtney John?

My mission is always to seek happiness first. I am blessed that the path I have taken to make a living is something that I really love and enjoy and the people around add to that good vibe. So it's all about making more music, which I do every day, and just to grow and be happy in the knowledge that my happiness will mean that whatever I'm doing is good and is working.

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