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Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 2

Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 2

Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 2

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"You don't have to get a lot to give a little"


Read part 1 of this interview.

In part 2 of our exclusive interview with Duane Stephenson, we ask him about his new album Dangerously Roots and the global trends it responds to. While some of the topics of discussion are not as current as they were when it was conducted in late 2014 – they still give a flavour of Duane’s thought processes and concerns.

Duane Stephenson

You left three years between your first and second album and four years between your second and third album. There are some artists that record multiple albums every year. You’re not one of those artists, but you’re also not an artist that goes silent for a decade.

The truth is that each album to me is a process of searching and growth. I definitely always try to excel in the music. I don’t believe in just doing multiple albums that just kind of kill each other and then people don’t know the music, people don’t understand the music, and then people don’t get a feel for what it is. Music for me has to be a little bit more than just going up and just singing some form of crap. The process to me is a little bit more complicated. I can’t just write ten songs a month, that won’t mean anything. It’s hard to write one, so it’s a little bit longer.

Black Gold was an album about the time in terms of to reflect what’s happening as a part of the world. Because I like to be in the know generally and I like my music to reflect the time, so that it can be a little bit more than just a good vibe. I think the process for Dangerously Roots took a little bit longer than usual simply because I got seven tracks into the album and scrapped the album because I was in search of a new sound, a little bit more edgier sound. I wanted something that would reflect what drew people into reggae in the beginning, without the music sounding old. So I was in that searching process, and I still have those songs that I shelved for now, not that they’re not good songs or I didn’t like the work, but the sound wasn’t right for now, the messages I didn’t think were right for now. These songs that I’ve put together are definitely what I want to put out there at this point in time.

Each album to me is a process of searching and growth

How much of your time between albums is spent doing the music and how much is spent doing other things?

For the last album the first two years I was pretty much on the road all the time. After Black Gold I was doing the opening act for the Wailers band for a while, and that took me away from writing because I was constantly moving around. When I decided to seriously build up one of these ideas that I had in my mind and the next movement, I had to take myself away from the Wailers, so I was being a bit more low-key and trying to focus on that. I still do spot dates here and there but I refocused back to the music.

I realised when you have too many things doing, it gets burnt. Just like after leaving the Wailers when I started working on the project for the first seven songs I also started working on a project for Jah Cure. I got six or seven songs in and then I realised that all my focus was there and not on what I was supposed to do, so I had to leave. I had to walk away from that also, to focus. When I started focussing I realised that I wasn’t where I wanted to be with the music, we changed it around. But because of the passion for the music and all the things I like to write and focussing, it’s easy to take away from it if I do other stuff, so I try not to do too much.

Do you still find time for charity and good works?

Most definitely. I don’t get to do so much anymore with the World Food Program because it’s majorly linked to the Wailers. But recently I have been doing work locally in my community actually. I’ve been doing some work on basic schools here. I’ve done some work at three different basic schools over the past year. I still have the plan to do one or two more. I do what I can do at whatever level I am, because they say you don’t have to get a lot to give a little.

I got seven tracks into the album and scrapped it because I was in search of an edgier sound

Now you mentioned the project with Jah Cure. Are you still doing a lot of writing for other people?

I stepped away from that for a little, but I think now I’m being called to come back now that my work is done with me. It was an upcoming album for Jah Cure that I was doing that work last year. I think I can afford now to go and help him and finish up on everything. I will be doing for this album coming a little bit. I’m doing some promotional rounds, but it won’t get exasperating until early December into next year, so I’ll channel whatever time I have and try to get that project finished also.

Let’s talk about the Dangerously Roots album. There’s a Bunny Wailer cover on there. In the past you’ve covered Israel Vibration, Tyrone Taylor, Phil Collins. As a writer, but also someone that covers songs, what makes a great song? What makes you say “I want to cover that song”?

It’s a song that has to be a little bit more. It has to be a timeless one. Because it makes no sense taking a dated song and trying to sing it now. It has to be universal. It has to be something that everyone can understand and fall in love with. Because you’re basically reintroducing these songs to a new generation of listeners if you want to take it so wide.

Most of these songs that I do over are artists that will be forever relevant. Because if you look at the song [Rudeboy Shuffling] by Israel Vibration – they are just as relevant now as they’ve always been, if not more so now because they spend more time on the road doing appearances for the people. And a lot of us young artists coming up would like to be like them – even tourwise. Phil Collins is timeless and is a brilliant writer and musician in his own right.

Bunny Wailer – this song [Cool Runnings] has to be considered more of a tribute to Bunny Wailer than anything else because Bunny Wailer is as relevant today in our music business – if not more important now – than he was way back in the days. These songs are timeless songs so it’s an opportunity to introduce them to a new audience. Aside from the business of music, which affects publishing and whatever, it makes sense to do up to 12 original tracks and then after that you might need to consider mixing it up a little bit for the sake of the business of publishing.

Let’s talk about your writing process – are you a pen and paper man?

I am definitely a pen and paper man. Sometimes I buy a book with 100 leaves and I may end up doing seven songs in the whole book. (laughs) Because I might write this today and then tomorrow say “Try this” because it has to all gel together and make perfectly good sense – otherwise it doesn’t make sense! Sometimes you start writing songs and they become either boring or they’re just going anywhere and you move on to the next idea because I’m not going to force it, man. I give it time. Sometimes a song can take one night or a song can take one month. Sometimes a song can take three to four months depending on what you want or what exactly you are looking for. Because sometimes you just feel the energy going down in the song so I don’t try to voice because it’s just going to sound that way – because that’s how music is, man. You always know where the creativity ends in the song (laughs).

Sometimes a song can take one night or a song can take one month

Which of your biggest songs was the most memorable writing experience for you?

I think it was August Town simply because of what it meant to me. I wrote that song after a good friend of mine died. The album was almost done. The album was unnamed. I went to August Town and I was driving past when I saw a brethren of mine I hadn’t seen for years but the truth is he was a man who was involved in gangs and guns and things. So I came out of the car because I knew of some foolishness he was bringing up with – the murder of some don that happened a few months before and his name was the one bringing up. So I said “Yow, brethren how you gwaan? I heard you’d gone to England – when you come back?” and he said “Bwoy” so I said “Brethren, when you stop shoot people?” but in a joking way and he laughed. And after that conversation I went away and then two nights before I got back to Jamaica that man was murdered.

That’s how that song came about. That’s how I wrote that song. It wasn’t the easiest song to write but it was so true in terms of the experiences. The whole football field thing – that’s where my generation was first exposed to the level of violence in Jamaica, at a football match. All of a sudden guns were blazing and we were not used to that up until that point. It’s such a true song and always has been one of the most important songs I’ve ever penned.

You mentioned Tarrus – and like Tarrus you started with albums produced by Dean. Now you’re branching out into an album where other producers are involved but Dean is also there. Do you see any parallel between you and what Tarrus did on his third album?

I don’t necessarily think so. I think Tarrus is more steadfast in his own ideas but most of his ideas would have been stronger with Dean as the producer. In terms of where I wanted to go with this album it was a little bit different. It was a searching process which is why I brought in these people. One of the most important people I brought on to this project has been Phillip Winta James. What I wanted in terms of this album, I wanted Dangerously Roots, I wanted that drum and bass feel but I wanted a new age edge. I think he provided that for the album. But aside from that, people like Clive Hunt – Clive Hunt is a legendary producer in Jamaica.

And arranger.

Exactly! And arranger. He has a particular sound and I wanted that sound also. I wanted a bit of moving reggae – something a little bit more bouncy with a lot of energy and that was definitely Penthouse. Penthouse hasn’t been doing so much of that but they went back so they could accommodate me and what I wanted. Then, of course people like Birch, who maintains that identity which I’ve always had in terms of nice melodies and songs that can relate to different things other than just social issues and politics and such. I think it’s a good balance, and of course Dean is also there because Dean is the producer of tracks like Cool Runnings.

Tell me a bit more about the different ways these producers work.

Winta is like a serious drum and bass man. The truth is he is a keyboardist, that’s what he loves doing, so you find that he goes for a lot of those older sounds but it doesn’t sound the same. He has that new age thing and he’s deep roots and even in terms of his timing he is a little bit different from Dean and the rest of the producers. He pays a lot more attention. He doesn’t leave anything to chance.

Whereas Dean is a man who’ll say “That sound wasn’t what I wanted but it sound wicked”. Not Winta. Winta is “This is what I want. Not that. Yes, it might sound a little better now but in terms of the feel – that is not the feel that I want. Let’s go back to this”. He is that kind of a producer so his process is so much longer. He’ll pay attention to minuscule details that you wouldn’t even consider but he does that. Winta is one of those people who is like “I want this keyboard player to play on this track” and will wait four months for the keyboard player because the keyboard player is on a world tour. He is a keyboard player and he is not going to play it – or let anyone else play it! (laughs) Whereas Birch would just bounce in and say “Yeah man, it’s nice” and if it’s not working right he’ll just work through the night and then tomorrow we’ll have a grand song.

Each producer is a force. People like Clive Hunt, who is a little extreme in his ways where he’ll bring in hornsmen and cuss them all night until he gets what he wants and then falls in love again! (laughs) Everyone has their own processes but that is what I enjoyed about this album especially.

According to my promo copy of the album, and the song Nah Play, the first track on your second album Black Gold, is on this album again.

Duane StephensonYes and that was deliberate. I think Black Gold wasn’t promoted. VP were having their own issues and that is a song that would have been lost. If you weren’t in the business of reggae music and you weren’t paying close attention you probably wouldn’t have known, like many people, that I had a second album. This was because the record company was going through different phases and different personalities and it just wasn’t consistent. So I knew there was a loss. I never had time to promote the album myself because I headed off in another direction and went searching with the Wailers. So this song really fitted the mood and I think this is a song I didn’t want to get lost along the way.

Once again Mutabaruka joins you on this album for some spoken segments. How far back does your link go?

I have always known him. I had done some work on one or two Mutabaruka albums as a background singer through Dean. Being in the studio with him has always been an enlightening experience. I love what he’s about and even from a boy I loved Mutabaruka’s work. I remember once I went to my friend’s house and his grandmother threw both of us out of the house because we were walking up and down with a cheese pan singing “It’s one with my little butter pan them no understand”! Those were the days when older people never took a liking to Rasta ways. She put us out – her own grandson! (laughs)

I’ve always loved Mutabaruka and this time around I just wanted honest opinions. I gave him the album to listen to and said “I just want your honest opinion” because Muta is one of those man who you know you may be able to sway many people but not him. Mutabaruka is not going to put on a record that he doesn’t believe. He is not someone you can send a script and say “This is what I want you to say”. These were his honest opinions that we wanted and we pretty much captured.

They claim that this country is a democratic country but it is not run that way

Let’s talk about the lyrics to the song London Bridge. I’m in London right now and there’s some kind of fire going on over the road – there is a fire alarm and the fire brigade outside.

It’s a metaphor for more than that man. Because London Bridge used to be the symbol for oppression of many countries in the Caribbean.

Colonial oppression.

Yeah, colonialism. I guess it is the same thing Scotland is going through. Of course they are not having the same problems with England but the scars are still there and the mentality is still set in a lot of places. In Jamaica it’s government. Governments still have this oppressive mentality. They claim that this country is a democratic country but it is not run that way. It’s run like an autocratic kind of place where a few people make the decisions and the rest of us just have to work with it. So it’s that kind of thing with the song – it’s not literally destroying the bridge because that bridge was pulled down and sent to the US years ago!

There is another London Bridge now!


There are similar themes in the song Sorry Babylon. What kinds of things would you like to see change and replace the system we have now?

A lot of things are still affecting many a country socially because of the divides that were created back in those days. Those changes need to be addressed. Because even in a country like Jamaica you have people going around saying “Some people have this mentality and rey rey rey”. But this mentality came to us and was taught to us over a period of 400 years so you can’t expect it’s going to change in 50 years. Some people make it look like we just came about.

In Jamaica we don’t really have an identity. We are not sure what is our religion. We have a great disconnect in terms of what our culture was and what it is. Because as much as there is a lot of Africanism and Pan Africanism happening all over, there is always this confrontation and this tension between all of it and this is still going on right now. So I’d just like to see much more care taken to address these issues and to not make it seem as if “These people are just mindless and ignorant and like gorillas”. Because a lot of these social issues were taught to us over many years to separate and to class the greater from those that are considered not as important.

In Jamaica we don't really have an identity

So it’s more about changing minds and perspectives than toppling governments?

It is. Because governments are a very necessary process of what we are doing in the world in a civilised way. But in terms of how our government goes about what they do there is much to be considered. A democratic government is democratic to who? It works in the United States because they have all these different levels but in terms of the Caribbean not so much because we vote for these people and the minute they go in we have no control over what they do. It doesn’t come back to the average man again for any consultation until the next election.

Even how other countries view a lot of our countries coming out of colonialism. They think we are a little barbaric in our ways and that we think a little behind. But this is what was taught to us to keep us down. And it’s a little unfortunate that even the government nowadays that’s from us, of us, still don’t think like us but more the opposite kind of means to make themselves and their friends rich. So what I say about London Bridge it really doesn’t have much to do with London or England! (laughs)

Duane Stephenson

As someone who has spent a lot of time in the US what do you think of what has happened in Ferguson?

That was a very unfortunate thing. It’s good that the people actually stood up for themselves. Because I’ve been to many places in the United States and let me tell you something – there are a lot of places where, to give you an example, I get out of the bus and walk two blocks and then decide if I want to walk the other block to get dinner or just walk back, eat whatever we saved from backstage and get back on the bus. Because of people looking at you like you don’t belong there.

So there is still that divide in the United States. There is. And once again that same London Bridge situation. They are acting as if “These black people are the way they are because they are just that way”. No, they are socialised to be that way. Just like they are spending all this money on war when they should spend all that time re-educating and re-socialising these communities. The police in some places have the power of gods and the people have none. It’s a norm to think that if you shoot down a black man they are guilty because he is a big black man and he has on a hoodie. This is how the police are socialised. So it is good that people actually stood up for themselves this time and I think it will carry far beyond the borders of Ferguson.

The police in some places have the power of gods and the people have none

There’s been a lot of international news about the Ebola outbreak in parts of West Africa but there has also been Chikungunya in the Caribbean.

This thing we first heard about four months ago and then all of a sudden it has been taking over this place like joke business. A lot of Jamaicans are very ignorant of what the disease is even about because it kind of just popped up on us. It’s unfortunate because our government never took any precautions or had any measures in place. They were just as clueless as the citizens, which is quite unfortunate. They are supposed to be our first line of defence and now we know there is no line of defence.

In terms of the Ebola situation I think it’s quite hypocritical the way many other places are looking at it. It’s amazing how they can spend four billion dollars to bomb Iraq but still you as a government won’t put four million dollars towards saving the people in Africa. And then a private donor like Mr Microsoft [Bill Gates] can give 50 million dollars but these great governments are spending more time talking about bombing someone down there minding his own business and trying to get through their own country’s business. Not to say we don’t need some attention to those things because anywhere there is suffering then whatever means. But it seems to me like suffering in countries where there is oil to be gained is much more important than just suffering in a country.

Finally, you covered Eddie Rabbitt’s Suspicions on the Reggae Gone Country album. Country music is very popular in Jamaica – how does it fit into your musical background?

You know what? If you lived in Jamaica you would definitely be familiar with all the greats. The Kenny Rogers, the Dolly Partons and as far back as Marty Robbins. It’s Sunday morning music. It’s almost entrenched in our DNA. As a child growing up there was almost nothing to be heard other than gospel until nine and then country and western until six. Nothing else could be played on the radio. It wasn’t until Irie FM that reggae music could even be played on a Sunday in Jamaica. Which is quite unfortunate but it was not accepted. So it was gospel on a Sunday until nine and then right through until six all the great country songs.

It wasn't until Irie FM that reggae music could even be played on a Sunday in Jamaica

Musicologists and historians have argued that country has a lot more African influence than most people today realise.

Well that’s true because a lot of country music was taken from bars where black people used to gather because there was the separation. It was said that a lot of the music was stolen or whatever. Now we in Jamaica can’t say that it was 100% true but we have some level of proof in terms of some original versions of songs that Elvis Presley did. But I do think it has a lot of influence in those countries because in lots of places in the United States they had great black music influence in terms of what they call blues.

Yes, before music was recorded, country and blues were a lot closer together. When music started being recorded people started saying this is this genre and belongs on this side of the record store.

Yes! (laughs) Cynical business.

Segregation has always been a problem in culture as well as in politics.

It is. It has always been. It’s entrenched in our DNA. It’s in the music. It’s in the movies. We’re trying to move away from it now but there is still much time and much work to be done. 

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