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Interview: Etana (2013)

Interview: Etana (2013)

Interview: Etana (2013)

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"This is 2013, and back in the days women in the industry were afraid to have children"


No one sounds quite like Etana – first lady of radio-friendly roots reggae and modern soul (whose vast voice can dwarf all but the most cut-through combination tune partners!). With the release of her third long-format for VP Records, 'Better Tomorrow', that sound has never been so united or refined.

Partly it’s because she’s finally got to make an album with a single producer at the helm: Shane Brown, the man behind Busy Signal’s 'Reggae Music Again'. But it is also due to her maturing song-writing, increasingly toned-down vocals and lyrics informed by landmark life experiences such as becoming a mother for the second time.

Angus Taylor spoke to Etana at home about her new record, her disdain for current gothic trends in Jamaica, and how childbirth can be a political move…


On previous album Free Expressions you worked closely with producers like Curtis Lynch and Flava McGregor. Is working mainly with one producer where you want to be right now?

I think so. You get to tell a better story, and have one sound throughout, so it sounds like one complete album. Different producers mean you have some mixes all the way at one level and some at a lower level, so here everything is at one level. From the first album all the way up to this album, I think I’ve done reggae in so many different ways, but still managed to keep the message in there and keep the root reggae.

Shane knew where I was coming from and where I wanted the music to go

You’ve voiced rhythms for Shane before. How did you two start this album project?

To be honest I never knew what to expect from working with Shane. As far as I knew, Shane was manager of a dancehall artist and to me, a dancehall producer as well.  That was before I learned he did Romain Virgo’s two albums and worked with other people. It was not until I got in the studio, sat down and discussed with Shane what we wanted, and when he started the first production - which was, I think, Queen – that I realised he knew where I was coming from and where I wanted the music to go.

There’s quite a lengthy introduction to the album Spoken Soul. What is the concept behind that?

Neil [Diamond Edwards] the A&R, wanted to know where my mind was at the moment (laughs). It started off being something that I would write and they would insert into the album cover or little booklet. Then after I wrote a little piece he said “I think I’m going to put this on the album. They need to hear you say it”. It was weird because I don’t like to hear myself speak, so it was a little bit awkward for me; and now I get to hear myself speak over and over!

I don't like to hear myself speak

You talk about “These selfish, sexual and demonic days”. Is it really that bad?

I believe so because you’re hearing it more in the music. Most movies that have come out in the past year have been about nothing but evil spirits and vampires, horrible, loads of blood. The passing, or what we call transformation sometimes can be bloody, very hard to swallow or deal with, but it’s something we all must go through. I’m not calling the transformation itself, which is death to many other people, evil. I’m talking about the things that people do and sing about, like murders in songs, how they plan to do the murders. That is the demonic side that I’m referring to. And when I say selfish I mean everyone is all for themselves, even in the music. It’s all about the money, being the next big thing, and not so much about the message in the music or loving and caring, like we used to before. Even if they’re singing it, they’re probably just not doing it.

In terms of the demonic, are you referring to Tommy Lee?

I’ll tell you how I feel about his situation as an artist. When you talk to him he seems to be the nicest person in the world and he’ll tell you “I’m not that evil person, I’m just being an artist and giving the people what they want”. Yet still, he’s saying that he has an alter ego. To me he doesn’t realise. I think there’s some kind of evil working through him. He’s doing the work of evil without knowing what he’s doing. It’s so plain in his messages, especially when he says “Evil is my source” and “The children are my weapon”. Those words are very serious. The alter ego, to me is just the flip side; the evil side that he doesn’t really acknowledge or know is working through him to deliver that message. I don’t think he realises what he’s singing and saying.

Tommy Lee is doing the work of evil without knowing what he's doing

It’s also clear that listening to elders is very important to you. We’ve talked before about the influence of your grandmother. It sounds like you think the older generation has a lot to teach us.

The only way you learn a lot about life is to go through it. When somebody’s actually been through it and can tell you from experience it’s different from somebody just saying “Oh, I heard…” When somebody can say “In this time…” or “This happened to me” and can actually share that story, that’s wisdom and knowledge and that helps you to get through life. The older generation, to me, has that in them; so why not soak it up as much as possible because I’m sure it can help you in so many different ways in your life. The old folks, people before me like my grandmother and her mother, used to care a lot more with the little that they had.

One of the older generation who has an influence on the album was Shane’s father, Errol, who you recorded with at Tuff Gong. How involved was he?

I love him. Shane wanted to do the whole album on his own and then he came to me and said “My father said there’s no way I can mix an album like yours and he’s not a part of it”. I felt really honoured because I know how great he is and people love him from all over the world for the work that he’s done. I am really and truly honoured.

Shane came to me and said "My father said there's no way I can mix an album like yours and he's not a part of it"

There are some quite crazy 70s dubwise effects on Reggae, and Foreplay 2 Love.

I love anything to do with reggae. To me, music is so powerful that no matter what you’re going through it can change your mood and take you into another world. I think that’s what the dub does - at the end of the song it kind of keeps you wherever you are. That came about because we wanted to do real, original reggae. We didn’t want anything that would not remind people of years ago. That was the vibe captured years ago and we put it in 2013.

On All I Need you call the names of Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Beres Hammond. Jimmy just won a Grammy for his album. How do you feel about that?

EtanaExcited (laughs). I always liked him. I love the song One More, that song is amazing. Love him dearly. I love his style of music. It’s always happy and takes you to that mood where you just want to skank and smile. But I never watch it because, as you know, they don’t give the Jamaican winner the Grammy on television.

You’re on Freddie McGregor’s latest album. Would you like to be an artist with that kind of longevity?

Definitely! I’d love to be around for years like he’s been, and be able to release new albums, new singles, and people still be as interested and still have the same love and appreciation for him as an artist. To me he seems very happy, and to be happy is one of the greatest gifts that anyone can have.

You’ve talked in the past about wanting to hear more foundation music on the radio in Jamaica. Since that time Jamaica has celebrated 50 years of independence, Shane Brown and Busy Signal made Reggae Music Again album. From your perspective in Jamaica, do you see or hear a change, or are these albums more aimed at the international market?

More Europe and the rest of the world. UK too, as well. To be honest I don’t hear much roots music on the radio. Mutabaruka has a day programme [Irie FM] and he plays a lot of roots songs and once in a while you’ll hear something from Elise [Kelly], but that’s about it. When you travel outside of Jamaica you hear more roots music than you do here in Jamaica. I think they’re being reminded though, that they’re letting go of something that’s very valuable to Jamaica, and they’re trying their best to show their appreciation and love, but it’s just not enough. It’s not like it is outside of Jamaica.

It’s not always helpful to compare female artists with each other, but Jah9 and Queen Ifrica are releasing albums this year. What do you think of their work?

I admire both of them and they do keep a message in the music. One is more a dub poet, she’s more poetry and one is more what you’d call a deejay but it’s more roots. So for me as long as the message is in the music and it can help to uplift and inspire other females, younger females, then I’m happy about it.

There’s the sound of somebody giving birth in the album. Was that staged? Why did you feel it was important at this time to put that on the album?

(laughs) It wasn’t staged. Of course you had people in the studio working on the vocals and all that stuff in co-operation with the keyboard for making sounds. It’s not my birth. But somebody else, yeah. I did it because this is 2013, and back in the days women in the industry were afraid to have children. As soon as they would have a child they would just fade out of reggae and you wouldn’t hear from them again. You’d hear “Oh, it’s because of her man” or “It’s because she had a child” like it’s something wrong. So I wanted people to know it’s all right to go and be a woman. Not even a mother; a woman. Because that’s what women do; we give birth, we give life. Nothing is wrong with that, it’s a beautiful thing and that is what I wanted to portray, that it is beautiful.

I've always let it be known that I'm a strong woman, so maybe I'm a feminist

You’ve said that one of the things you had to give up for your music was spending as much time with your family as you would like. But you actually went on tour for nine months before giving birth, so in a sense you were spending time together.

Right, and I plan to continue. I don’t plan to leave her out. At least for my son I got to spend the first four years with him because I wasn’t in music then. This time I plan to spend the same amount of time with her, take her on the road and stuff like that.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

(laughs) In more ways than one, but I do respect the male figure. I recognise that it is very important to have a balance; male and female. But I think females have come a long way and we still have much further to go. Since I’m on my journey, I’ve always let it be known that I’m a strong woman, so maybe I’m a feminist in that sense.

Do you consider yourself a celebrity, and what do you think of celebrity culture?

(laughs) I consider myself a person. People say “You don’t even recognise or realise who you are as yet” but the difference between me and that person speaking is maybe I sing and they don’t? I do regular things that regular people do, that women do on a daily basis: take care of the house, the kids, talk to people in the street. It may not be 100% normal because people don’t see me as just a person. They do see me as a celebrity or an artist and they do consider themselves fans, so of course they’re not going to see me in the light of a regular person. So to the people I may be considered a celebrity; to myself I’m just Shauna or Etana.

I may be considered a celebrity; to myself I'm just Shauna or Etana

It’s early days, but where do you think you’ll be going with your fourth album?

My fourth album is solely, solely, solely going to be very, very spiritual. Because my fourth album seals the agreement with myself and VP Records, I wanted it to be very spiritual, with a lot of drums, a lot of chanting. Different. Basically a prayer. Chanting, being grateful and thankful, for everything; for how far I’ve come, for my people, for everything. It’s just going to be straight chanting all the way through.

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Read comments (3)

Posted by freddy muthusi on 02.27.2013

Posted by ANTONIO JOSE GOMES on 03.12.2013
ETANA , canta da jamaica para o mundo, um abraço.

Posted by Michele on 08.28.2013
Wow! Very inspirational. I have just been introduced to Etana's musical and I love it so to hear your speak like this, shows me that her heart is in the right place and her music is really a blessing

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