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Interview: Junior Kelly

Interview: Junior Kelly

Interview: Junior Kelly

By on - Photos by Stella Magloire - Comment

"I don't think I should use any personal controversy to sell my music"


The world has been waiting for a new album from Junior Kelly, the grainy yet soulful voiced Spanish Town singer-deejay, whose commitment to edifying lyrics and daring vocal expression is second to none. In April 2010 he finally dropped his latest long-player Red Pond. Produced by Melbourne "George Dusty" Miller and the Firehouse Crew and named after the area he was raised in (tacitly referencing the violence poor Jamaican communities suffer) Red Pond is a consolidation of the best elements of modern roots reggae, absorbing (but not embracing) newer trends like hip-hop/R&B style rhythms and Auto-Tune. United Reggae dispatched Angus Taylor to talk with Junior Kelly while he was in Germany on tour. But be warned, he had a lot to say!

Junior Kelly

Fans have been eager to hear a new album from you since Tough Life in 2005. Was the five year gap intentional?

In part. Because some of the time, in music, I think - actually I retract that - I know - you can't rush a masterpiece. Music for me is more than just money and putting together some words on a track, then putting some tracks together and releasing an album. It's a process that needs to come to fomentation to develop a proper album. I've been approached many times to do albums and 45s and so forth but you can't force the energy. Music to me is not hype and jumping on stage and having a whole lot of people running behind you. It means more to me than that and that is why I had this hiatus.
But at the same time I've been doing a lot of tours and shows and putting together the album over that period of time and I think for me it's the right decision. Everybody has to decide as artists whether or not it's feasible to wait two years or five years before releasing another album. For me, promoting an album is a one year span and then the album is out there and people are enjoying and savouring the words and then you're ready to perform for them. Then performing an album of 15-18 tracks - depending on how wonderful the album is - can last you two and a half years. So one year of promotion, two and a half years of performance, equals three and a half years. That's my philosophy. And then the following year you start putting together another album for the fifth year. I never wanted it to be this long but sometimes things are out of your control and you have to just flow with it.

What sort of issues have held you up?

Getting the right people to do the mixes, getting the right producers for particular tracks (because that's what you're feeling). Getting this particular individual to sing on a particular track (because sometimes the timing is off and the person is on tour and you have to wait until they get back) and so forth. Sometimes you want particular harmonisers to work on a track and complement it properly and the harmonisers are off on tour or doing a couple of one off dates. So sometimes the coordination with my co-workers in the industry takes longer than usual.

Would you describe yourself as something of a perfectionist then?

(laughs) Too much of! I'm really critical of my work. For example I script 90% of my videos but I can't watch my own videos. To me, I'm not convincing enough and when everyone is saying, "Wow this is good!" I can't see it. The upside of it is it keeps me hungry. It keeps me at the drawing board. It keeps me wanting more and wanting to do more for the industry and therefore for myself. I always put the industry first. What can I do to make the industry better? What can I do to put out more work for what is still an underground music but still the most widely known underground music ever.

How would you say the reggae scene and industry have changed since 2005?

Well, I'm going to give it to you like this: I was in Berlin for a few days and I overheard three ladies who ranged from late teens to mid twenties to late thirties all saying the same thing. I couldn't believe a nineteen year old was saying, "the reason we came to this concert is because Kelly is one of the only artists left that is actually doing reggae". So for me, the difference between then and now is what they said. It's the creative juice. I've been to seminars and listened to promoters and booking agents from different genres speak and their main concern is that the creative process is becoming stagnant. I believe in melody, keys, chords and bridges. Orchestration, arrangement - I love that. I revel in that. It's my neck of the woods and I understand what they're saying. It's a lack of creativity and a disregard for what was set, for what we can do to complement it and make the evolved process something more of strength than weakness.
So I think from then to now there are a lot of artists who should have been standing firm and pushing and promoting reggae music to the core. They're weighing it up in their minds, saying, "I wonder if it's feasible anymore", "I wonder if I should do some more dancehall", "Should I mix it up a bit?" - and so forth. I think it's due to economics that a lot of individuals are not staying true to the craft. Wherever the wind blows they will go and I am not like that.

Are you saying reggae is in decline? What's the solution?

I don't think reggae is dying. What is dying is the creative process. I can only speak for myself but I work tirelessly to come up with something different. I listen to many different genres to hear their melodies. Not to copy or steal but to have an open mind and think outside the box and bring something to the forefront. But a lot of times when I have a particular project or song or melody which is not traditional to reggae but can fit on a rhythm, everybody looks at me weirdly and won't take a chance with it. That's where they're killing an individual's creative process. They're killing somebody's ingenuity when they do that as producers. So 50% of it comes from producers not having an open mind. Not allowing an artist to come out of himself or herself. I think it's a lack of creativity because everybody is watching the economics. Dancehall is going on and they feel like they should be over there. But I always say, as long as there is hatred, grudge, bigotry, racism, terrorism, famine, hardship and injustice, this music speaks for the people that have no voice. So I have to be there for them. Even right now with the global financial situation people need this form of medicine on a daily basis to help them get through their day. So I think what's changed from then until now is a lack of creativity on the artist's part and producers not having an open mind when it comes to the production side.

Obviously there are outside factors also affecting the music. The Jamaican government and the Broadcasting Commission has been trying to clean up the airwaves in Jamaica. What are your thoughts on that?

A wonderful question. It has its limitations in the sense of, "Be Careful". It can be a powder keg, not in the sense of censorship or anything like that but "If they fix it here, where are they going to go next in terms of telling us what to say? Hindering the creative process?" After they get that done how they want it are the government going to stop there?
But the Broadcasting Commission has done a wonderful job in a short space of time. I was wondering why they took so long. The music is very influential, there's no doubt about it. There's no function, whether it's a political or any other function, that can happen without music. It's going to be boring without. They have to use the music to draw in the people and then they can go up there and speak. Music is a very powerful medium and I don't think people should abuse it just because they have freedom of speech. They also have a responsibility to the development of the music in the right way. We are all students and teachers at the same time.
I think the government stepped in, and what they did is beautiful. They should know the limitations but so far they are doing a wonderful job and I'm not going to beat that down. If they're trying to clean up the verbal pornography, the violent lyrics and the disrespect to women as a whole in the music - it's a wonderful thing. Some artists figure it's the end of the world for them because of what the Broadcasting Commission is doing. But the radio waves must be clean and clear and wiped and sanitised of filth. It has nothing to do with me singing conscious music and beautiful love songs. Of course not. If I were an average Joe in society I would feel the same way. We have to call a spade a spade. It worked and it is working.

So you don't think banning extreme types of lyrical content limits creativity?

Well for the artists' part, "Come on! Be more creative! It's not the end of your career! You can create". What about all the beautiful songs that were being made in the seventies and the early eighties? Those individuals have done a wonderful job and it's our time now to evolve the music in a proper way - with melodies, keys, chords and orchestrations and so forth. The elders before did it so why can't we? The English language is vast and it has so many different words. There are so many different wonderful topics. So the Broadcasting Commission, in conjunction with the government, is forcing them in the right direction, which they should have seen as an option a long time ago. A lot of them figure that the only type of song that will appeal to the Jamaican population must have gun lyrics and disrespect to women. It's forcing them to clean up their act.
You can't go to the Sahara to a concert with some Bedouins and sing about bling. It doesn't work like that. Everybody as an artist wants to be international - there's only three million people in Jamaica - and you want your music to transcend a generation and outlast a generation. To come out from our borders and waters and go to places where everybody can relate and it's appealing to them. It's more work for you and more fame and more notoriety (and you know how these artists like the hype and the fame!). So why not do it that way?

What's your take on the whole Gully Gaza feud that happened while you were preparing the album? Was it a major distraction from the music?

Personally no. But I think overall, yes. It never lasted for long and I really liked that. I'm glad it's fading right now. Whatever started it is beside the point. It was there and it needed to be stamped out properly because the music is so much more vibrant than that. We don't controversy in that sense which I think is serious negative controversy because these individuals all over Jamaica were writing up stuff on their walls and other people's walls saying Gaza and Gully. I think they realised their influence and kept poking and poking and poking because they realised they have the power. But they don't - the music has the power. So I think the Gaza Gully thing was a distraction overall for the music but not for me.

You worked with "George Dusty" Miller back in 2001 on Black Am I on his None A Jah Jah Children rhythm. What attracted you to doing a full album with him?

We've been working on this album the whole time! It's wonderful. Even when I did the Smile album and all that I've been constantly working with George. George and Firehouse Crew work with Fatis at X-Terminator so they've always been on the radar. Whenever George came home from off the road he'd be like "Kelly, come let's link up". Because music is never too much. We've been working tirelessly in that sense but not knowing if we are actually going to do an album per se. We were stockpiling songs because I love to do that! I love to stockpile songs! I have tons of songs in many different genres but I am a reggae boy at heart so I just want to use the reggae medium and let people know what's inside of me. Because reggae music is the avenue due to my geographical position globally. I'm from Jamaica so it's second nature for me to do what I do and do it well - and that's what everybody over here is saying. We stockpile songs, we jam in the studio, we feel vibes. I think that's more natural. So then George calls me and says, "We have a lot of songs now Kelly. I think we need to sit down now, go through what we have, and see if we should talk to VP about this album". I have other albums from before now that are not released yet. They're still there and they're still good. So certain songs and melodies and chords are down to timing. So I said, "You know what? This album, Red Pond, is for now." So that's how that process went. Ever since None A Jah Jah Children No Cry, Black Am I, from that time we've been working, working, working. But not aimlessly. Just working, loving melodies, enjoying music and creating.

You also included some works with other production houses. You did Believe in Yourself for Black Currant Music which is not a conventional one drop rhythm. Tell me about why you included this tune?

The brethren I did Believe In Yourself for, Andrew Ricketts, he is also my roadie. We've always been on the road together so it was easy for us to come up with something. I'd always had that song in my head. I've been doing that song on the road long before it was even recorded and loving it. So I said, "You know what? Andrew, I need you to produce this song." I could have produced it myself, because I produced Smile, but it's about sharing. It's about spreading not only the opportunity but the belief. So he said, "Do you really think I can produce?" and I said, "Yes you can! You've been around music long enough. I want you to produce this one". And "George Dusty" Miller and Mr Ricketts are friends also so when that song was added it was not due to a lack of songs. It was about giving that song and Mr Ricketts a chance.

And obviously there’s Too Late your big hit with Queen Ifrica for Anthony Senior at Al.Ta.Fa.An. From a distance you and Ifrica seem quite well matched for a duet - would you agree?

Well, thank you for that compliment. It means it's a job well done. That song is weird, weird, weird. Every time I hear that song and think about the process it went through I have to scratch my beard! (laughs) Because, guess what, a year and a half earlier I went in the studio and said, "Listen. I have some ideas to create riddim. So Al.Ta.Fa.An, go get some musicians together". Because it's actually Firehouse who build 90% of Al.Ta.Fa.An's rhythms. So it was easy. We just went in the studio, George beat the rhythm, I created the melody and then went home and created the words. As I said, I am a perfectionist so I'm very, very hard on myself. Too much sometimes. I went in the studio about a day later to voice it and it was never slated to be a duet at all. It was supposed to be a single vocal. I wrote all the lines from start to finish. Then half way through recording it in the studio I stopped and said, "I'm sorry to waste your time Senior but I don't like it." So everybody's saying, "What???? It's nice! It's sweet!" but I said, "No, no. I need to think about this. I don't like it" and I stopped halfway. I stopped the session and we were there talking and then we went our separate ways.

So how did Ifrica come into the picture?

Well fast forward and Queen Ifrica came on the scene big time. But before that Senior said to me, "You know Kelly, I approached Queen Ifrica and we went in the studio and did that song as a duet. I want you to hear it and tell me what you think". And when I heard it I said, "Oh! I like the song now! That's what was missing and I never could figure it out!" That's why music cannot be rushed. That was what the song needed. It was supposed to be a duet. Now at the time when he did it that way and I approved it Queen Ifrica hadn't bust out yet. That was like eight months later. So then Queen Ifrica came to the forefront and Al.Ta.Fa.An said, "Kelly, you think I should release it now?" and I said, "Nooooooo! Don't release it now. Release it when she need it". Music is timing too and I don't want her to think that my brethren - and he is my friend - is some bandwaggonist that capitalised on her fame right now. So I said, "Leave it till she needs it" and he said, "You know? That's a good idea. I wasn't thinking down the line". I have to be sensitive about other people and what they might think too. I mean I really don't care but I try to have a good relationship with my co-workers male and female so I have to be vigilant of their approach. She had the song Daddy and other songs going on so we had to just wait a bit. So that's how that went.

You also did Papa’s Song with Ras Shiloh. Usually his style is compared to Garnett Silk – was it a surprise when he did a Sam Cooke type thing on the tune?

I knew he had that in him. Ras Shiloh to me is an individual that hasn't seen much notoriety. He is floating right now. It's the writing part of it and not the beautiful voice. So I was always saying, "Let's sit, let's write. Let me write some stuff for you" because I know he has so much more. I've seen him perform on tour in Europe already and I've heard certain things that have made me say, "That sound. I want you to bring out that sound to the forefront because that sound is different!" So it wasn't a surprise. It was something that I know he had in him.

Finally, in terms of tracks on the album, sufferers roots tunes like Stumbling Blocks and Waan Lef Di Ghetto – are these directed at black people in the ghettos of Jamaica or at a wider audience?

I'm speaking directly to poor people - be it black, white or yellow. Because it's not black people alone who are poor although they've been through a lot, yes. I am very sensitive when it comes to certain things and I love to clear the air so I'm glad you said it like you did just then. It's poor people everywhere. I've been to the slums in Brazil. I've been to the ghetto in Italy. I hardly saw any black people there! They are Caucasian but they're poor and I know they want to leave that situation or predicament that they're in. So I did it for poor people everywhere.

Over the years reggae and dancehall artists have been criticised abroad for the contents of their lyrics but you have not become embroiled in this to my knowledge - why is that?

I think it has to do with me and my upbringing. My mother listened to my music and my father and other people I have a lot of respect for. I mean, what is a man without his reputation? Whether it is bad or good you must defend it. For instance, a person can't say he's bad, be bad and have that reputation and then wake up the next day and decide to be good. Everybody is going to go, "Huh? I don't believe you". So I can't decide one day, "I need some controversy. I need to mix it up. I need to do blah blah blah". I know a lot of artists think down those lines and I'm not them and I don't want to be. There have been situations that came up that could have gotten worse. But because of my level-headed behaviour - which I got from my father - I manoeuvred myself strategically to the betterment of myself. I don't think I should use any personal controversy to sell my music. I don't need that. I don't like it. I hate that. There's something that bothers me about it. It's just being vigilant. That's what keeps me out of that arena so to speak. Another thing is good advisors and good friends. I don't regard people I have known over ten years as friends anymore. They're my family and when my family speaks, I listen.

Finally, what is the single most important driving message behind your music?

Hmmm... wonderful question. The single most important driving message. It's actually in my liner notes! (laughs) A symbol of hope, freedom, happiness love and strength.

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