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Interview: Courtney John (2012)

Interview: Courtney John (2012)

Interview: Courtney John (2012)

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"The whole notion of people not buying reggae - I don't buy it!"

Sampler

In our third chat with Anoto Bay's present day "soul of Jamaica" vocaliser Courtney John we spoke to him about his new single It's Gonna Be Alright: a groundation rhythmed throwback to the days when the likes of Jimmy Cliff and Nicky Thomas cut eclectic songs of positivity in the face of struggle with international appeal. "How's the weather up there?" asks Courtney when he hears we are calling from London. The climate is typically sunny for Jamaica in January and all is sunny for Courtney John and his production company Fiwi Music too. Last summer his 2008 recording for Chris Peckings Lucky Man was licensed for a commercial for Lynx and Axe, to which he attributes an uplift in sales. The success of the song with its rocksteady Paragons rhythm sums up Courtney John's mixture of old school sentiment and modern marketing savvy. Angus Taylor quizzed him on all this, his new album due out in March 'From Letters To Words' featuring his prodigious producer (and cousin) The Wizard and Sly & Robbie, and how he could even be on the verge of landing a big festival date in London for 2012.

Courtney John

Your new track It's Gonna Be Alright deals with everyday hardships.

It's really one of those songs for everybody. Normally I sing a lot of lovers rock and people often say "Courtney, when are you going to sing one of them songs?" I always say "I have no control over what I sing. I'm just an instrument that the songs flow through" But I think I'm here for a purpose. One day I was just in a parking lot waiting to pick up my engineer and I was just watching all the people around me and I thought "Everybody looks sad" and the song just came into my head. We came back to the studio and put the track down. It's just one of those songs I had no control over but looking back, listening and getting people's vibe on the track I realize it's just one of those tracks that people can relate to everyone and most of what's going on in the world. It's just one of those songs that reminds people that, regardless of what's going on, things always have their purpose and it's always going to work out.

It's been hard times for a lot of people in the world - which news items have affected you the most?

For me it's really what's going on in the Middle East. It's weird because we just had an election here a few weeks ago. I got up early and the people in my office and everybody were so pumped to go and vote. I don't know who people voted for (laughs) but everybody was so happy that they could go and express themselves by voting. It saddens me to see that some people don't even have those basic rights to choose. And then, to think people would kill them to stop them from having those rights is a little bit disheartening.

I have no control over what I sing. I'm just an instrument that the songs flow through

What were your thoughts on the elections and what are your hopes for Jamaica's new government?

I've been a part of a few of them and I've seen the craziness that went on in the 80s and other times. I think the Jamaican people have evolved and have been more exposed. Back then we only had like one TV station and two radio stations so there were limitations to how we'd see how other people conducted their business. I think now Jamaicans see how other people conduct their business around the world and the politicians know that the people are informed and exposed so now everybody is really on the fence in terms of making things transparent and accountable. I can only look forward to those things happening because if it gets any worse in terms of the perception of our government and politics in the people's minds it could be a very hard thing to fix. But for the government in power now we are all hopeful and that's all we can be. In all my years of living in Jamaica this is the first time I've seen where I can honestly say people are really going through hard times and hopefully this government, based on that fact that the majority of people voted for them, will be the ones to make the process a little bit easier. It's a world thing. Countries in Europe are going bankrupt. But sometimes it's not about hardship - it's the comfort that goes along with hardship that makes the process work or not.

The first couple of bars of the song sound a bit like Love Of The Common People - is that the vibe you were going for?

I never thought about what the outcome of the song was going to be. Funnily enough, after I played and put down the initial guitar on the song, I have a friend James McCollum who lives in London and works with James Morrison - they have a little acoustic organic vibe going on down in Kensal Town - and I could hear my friend playing on the song. So I sent the song to London for the guitarist to play on and after it came back we did the drums, bass and vocals here. And when I heard what he did on it I just took my part out and let him do it in full! So it wasn't like I was trying to make it sound like that - what I really wanted for the track was just for it to be a song with a message and words and simplicity. Not trying to produce it in a certain way to fit in a certain area, to get played in the dance or get played on the radio. I just wanted it to be a song where when people listened to it and heard the message. Because once you try to go in a certain direction with a song, if it's not palatable for a certain audience they don't listen to it! Like if you don't remix it for the hip hop generation they won't listen. But what I find is when you take a song like a Sitting Here In Limbo or Many Rivers To Cross you can't put it in any genre. It's just a good song and everybody knows it. It cuts through all genres - and that's what I was trying to do.

Once again you showcase a lower register than your falsetto this time.

Yes. Because when I started out I never used to sing falsetto. The falsetto came when I kind of evolved out of my initial stage name of Yogi. Because Yogi got taken up with the more industry part of things, producing and writing for everybody I kind of got pigeon-holed as a producer and songwriter. So as we say in Jamaica: wheel and come again! That's when I took on the whole falsetto, that kind of vibe, and I found out that when I do the falsetto tone I hear things and picture things that are musically different from when I sing in a lower register for some reason!

When I do the falsetto tone I hear things and picture things that are musically different

Junior Murvin, who like you can sing in a lot of registers but is famous for his falsetto, told me that he has hit notes so high that has disrupted studio equipment and even lost consciousness [read his interview] - have you ever gone through anything like that?

It's crazy but I understand the whole losing consciousness! It takes you to places. Like I tell people, even my own management team, when they ask me to sing more low register stuff. When I explain to them that what I hear when I sing falsetto is different they don't understand! It's weird to hear that Junior said this because when I say it to people they don't understand it! The voice is so high and you're touching notes that the average singer singing in the regular register wouldn't be able to sing - it's obvious that the brain is moving differently! But in terms of disrupting equipment, no. These days when you're working with this high tech equipment there isn't really much to disrupt! (laughs) Everything is virtual so they just plug me into the Mac! 

So is It's Gonna Be Alright going to be on your next album?

Courtney John - It's Gonna Be AlrightThe song is out now on iTunes and it's off my next album which is called From Letters To Words which is due out at the end of March. I have more of the guitarry kind of vibe on it. It has some lovers rock, it has some of the classic stuff and some of the newer vibe. I have this new producer now the Wizard and she and I produced this track and lots of the album has her stuff on so it's a different flavour. I used to mentor her for a few years and then I decided me and her should go into business so she is now part of my production company. She produces for a ton load of people. Definitely one of the most talented people I've been around - talent on another level. And she's young, only early twenties yet she's doing a lot of great things.

Who else has worked on the album?

I have two songs from Sly & Robbie. Most of it was done in Jamaica in terms of vocals and stuff and now because obviously people are in different parts of the world and you can send a track from France and do the vocals and so on the process of recording is a little bit different because of technology. So I have some musicians from Boston who worked with other musicians from France and they have a track on it. I have three classics because I was doing a whole bunch of the Treasure Isle stuff which we've put on the record too and then a chunk of material that I did here in Jamaica with the Wizard. The single Love Is is on it because that track was not on an album. It's a good vibe. I'm proud of it. It's a nice easy listen. It's not too hard over the head!

What we're trying to do... is a different style of doing business but with the same music

It's been a great 2011 for you - with Lucky Man getting featured in the commercial in the UK.

That was due to the publishing company that represent me. They had a dialogue with the agency. Funnily enough we were supposed to do it a year before but it never happened and they waited until they could do it last year. But it was very good. I'm always telling people that there's something special and magical about the UK where reggae is concerned. Especially when I'm in the presence of mainstream record companies. I tell them that the UK is special because in the UK they will just want to know something is available and if it's good they will support it. And it's proven true because when I look at my record sales after the commercial there is no way I could have sold so many records on my own. It shows that if this music gets that kind of presence and exposure that it used to back in the past people are still willing to buy it. The whole notion of people not buying reggae - I don't buy it! I've outsold people who were on major labels off the back of one simple ad.

A lot of artists are trying to get that break now.

Courtney JohnAnd it's very competitive because everybody knows that that's the way to get the exposure. So they're fighting with the record companies and publishing companies and the issue that they have with reggae sometimes is that it's not easy to clear which presents other issues. But what we're trying to do with my team and people we work with is really reintroduce a different style of doing business but with the same music. Hopefully that will resonate and connect with people who make decisions and help the music. At the end of the day reggae has sold the most in the UK. That means it's there somewhere in somebody's house and we just need to remind people that there is a new set of people still doing the thing they really love!

Do you use the product in question? Did they send you any?

No, they didn't send me any! I should have asked! (laughs) But my little son is a big Axe junkie. He loves it!

I've heard rumours that you might be playing a big festival in the UK - is that true?

We have been approached. It's one of my better markets, if not the best, in terms of response to the music. I really want to come there with style and presence so we have to sift through and make sure when I come there that it's really good and the fans can appreciate the music. Not one of those things where I'm cutting songs in the middle of my set! We want to do a full set vibe. We're talking with people and we're close to being part of a big festival that's going on up there in the summer around the Olympics time and I'm really looking forward to that. We have been approached by the government to do stuff because last year I put out a pro-Jamaica song called Hey Jamaica. Now this year Jamaica celebrates its 50th anniversary since Independence so we've been approached to be part of the different activities that are going on in Jamaica. We're trying to wrap it up with the whole Olympics. This year is going to be a great year for reggae and Jamaican culture. I know definitely I will be in London this summer. Whether for the Olympics or a festival I will be in London for sure.

In 2012 a lot of my fans are going to be seeing me more

What else do you have planned for 2012?

In 2012 a lot of my fans are going to be seeing me more. One thing I always tell the people that work with me is we have to take on the philosophy of "Build it and people will come". Right now I'm experiencing a lot of that. Sometimes it seems a little bit bleak and you wonder of your music is actually creating anything out there because I can't comb all the different corners of the earth. But the year has started and it looks really good in terms of people reaching out from all over the world - people from Africa, Japan, China, South America. So I think this year is going to be one of those years where I'll be doing a lot of travelling and actually making that physical connection will the people who have been supporting me over the years.

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