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Interview: Clinton Fearon Part 1 - The Gladiator Is Here

Interview: Clinton Fearon Part 1 - The Gladiator Is Here

Interview: Clinton Fearon Part 1 - The Gladiator Is Here

By on - Photos by Catherine Fearon - 1 comment

"No matter the struggle, no matter the fight, the hardship, the rock and the hard place, I’m here."


Clinton Fearon (born on January 13th, 1951 in St Andrew, Jamaica), was a member of The Gladiators from 1969 to 1987, playing bass, singing harmony and sometimes lead on his own songs (Chatty Chatty Mouth, Richman Poorman, On The Other Side, Can You Imagine How I Feel, Let Jah Be Praised, among the most famous ones). After the split, he settled in Seattle, Washington, and put together Boogie Brown with local musicians. Today Clinton Fearon present his 8th album, 'Mi Deh Yah', which first release happen to be in France on the label Makafresh. His wife Catherine did this interview at home, in Seattle, at the end of May.
This first part is dedicated to 'Mi Deh Yah', from the creation process to the distribution of the album.

Makasound promotes Mi Deh Yah saying “There is no more album done like this one”. Press reviews also highlight the roots sound of the whole album. Why do you think Mi Deh Yah sounds so roots?

It is hard to say why it is so roots. I always try to stay as close as possible to the roots, I can’t forget the roots. During the period of time this album was being made, I went through some hard times which is translated in Mi Deh Yah, both lyrically and emotionally. There is a genuine vibe here, maybe this gives kind of a roots taste to it. I always try to maintain a roots vibes with my songs and my music, and I keep working at it. The more it goes, the more artists seem to be drifting from the roots. I try to go towards it, to stay real and to make sense within my lyrics.

I always try to maintain a roots vibes with my songs and my music, and I keep working at it

You recorded Mi Deh Yah at the Aleph Studio in Seattle, with sound engineer Mell Detmer (Clinton and Mell did five albums together, including Mi Deh Yah). How was it this time?

We went in the studio first to do Faculty Of Dub. Actually, about half of the riddims were recorded for Faculty Of Dub (released in December 2008). Nelson Miller, former drummer for Burning Spear and myself on bass, we laid down several riddims. I used part of them for Faculty Of Dub and got inspiration to write songs on some of them too, that I used for Mi Deh Yah.
Mell’s studio is a little roots studio she built in her basement. But it’s very much function able with an analog 16 tracks 2 inches reel machine. We put down all the foundation tracks, drums, bass, piano etc, and then dump it off on pro tool. That way you get a fat bottom and also warmth from the tubes of the amplifiers. And then we carefully put other tracks down and used old time effects units to enhance that natural ambiance. Keeping it roots!

You are probably the only one Jamaican artist to record reggae music in Seattle. Do you know about somebody else?

Not from Jamaica, as far as I know!

Why don’t you go in Jamaica to record your music?

Because I get what I want here. I’m thinking about going in Jamaica one day to do some recording but it’s not because I’ll get better sound there. The most important, I think, is to know who you are working with, what you want and how to get what you want. Good music comes from any and everywhere, you just need to know what you want and have people to work with you accordingly.
Mell is an excellent engineer, she is listening, you know, and she is also interested in giving her input into the project because she loves the music. In Jamaica, for the most part, I’m gonna get a current thing and it’s not necessarily going with the roots I’m thinking about.

The cover of Mi Deh Yah is quite different from your previous albums ‘ ones.

Yes it is!

How did you get this cover?

Jean-Marie Racon took the pictures in France. I remember we spent half a day taking several pictures, outside in a park in Paris and inside at Makasound’s place. My idea was like I’m looking at someone who’s looking at the album, so to correspond to the title: Me deh yah, I’m right here. Well, the idea kinda changed because of different people’s involvement. And I think it’s working. The story is told anyway so it’s alright.

Why did you choose Mi Deh Yah (I’m here) as the title track of your album?

I’ve been going at it for years with my music and at my age, after doing it for so long, a lot of us fell by the way side, stopped being productive. I think that I have a lot more to do. And so I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. Mi deh yah! I’m taking a stance for the good although the road is rocky and rough. Goodness swims like oil you know, so if you find yourself at the bottom of the water you soon gonna be on top, just like oil. I’m here pushing fort for goodness, equality and justice for everyone and for love. Love for humanity, love for earth, love for creation, that’s my motto. And I want to know that everyone understands that it is necessary to love ourselves, to love creation, to love earth, to take care of one another. No man is an island.

You play bass on every tracks of Mi Deh Yah and it is the first time you do so for one of your vocal albums.

Yes. I played bass on some tracks on Vision as well but not on the whole album. You know, some people just know I as Basie. They don’t even know my real name. Even those who know my name, they still see I as just Basie. I have this all other part of me that a lot of people do not know. I write, I see myself as a poet, as a writer, as a song writer. And I sing. I was trying to dispatch myself from the bass for a while so people can see this other side of me. Don’t get I wrong, being a bass player is good. I’m a bass player! Along with being a song writer. And I also play a little guitar, a little percussion. I do all of this. But I did not like the idea of people putting I in this box: Clinton Fearon, bass player. I think I do have something to say and so I wanted to take a break from the bass and let see the other side of what I do.

Clinton at home working on a new bass line. His instrument is a Taylor acoustic bass.

Why did you choose Mi Deh Yah to play bass again? Along with other instruments because you put a lot of yourself in this album.

It just happened! Earlier on, working with other bass players, I just come up with the lines and let them do their thing. Yes I’m a bass player myself but everybody have different taste so I have no problem giving them full ring, as long as it’s done well.
With Mi Deh Yah, I was exited a couple of years ago when Nelson Miller came in town. And I had this idea of a dub album and a dub movement. So we got in the studio, we did like 21 or 22 riddims. And I had fun playing them! After I haven’t done it for many years, you know, especially for myself.
After that I just thought, you know what, I should do an album for myself playing bass on all the tracks. It wouldn’t be a bad thing. And I think it does something to Mi Deh Yah. It’s not because I’m bad ass bass player but because I know the songs, I know what I want to hear, and I tried to put it there. And that kind of invited other avenues, like certain guitar licks, little plucks, little percussion taste, etc. To get somebody and do that, I would get something different. So I did it myself.
The next album might be a little different. Yes, I intend to play bass on the next album too as well but I might not do so much of the other things. Just for differences, you know what I mean. But I think I’ll be playing bass for a while for myself, until I decide, ok alright, let’s make it shift!

When did you begin to write lyrics for the songs presented on Mi Deh Yah?

Most of them are pretty fresh actually, not more than a year old. And some two, three years ago.

Where is your inspiration coming from to write the songs?

The first song of the album, Life Is A Journey, I wrote it after my mom died in November 2006. It was like a therapy for me and also an insight on to what life really is. You live today and tomorrow you are not here. I’ve been kind of thinking reality you know. And then one tough thing meets another hard one so I wrote the song Rock And A Hard Place, and that song was also a therapy for me.

And there is Feeling Blue too.

Yes Feeling Blue is right in that mix. But you know, all the songs, even though they have these blue parts, they also have the uplifting parts. Tomorrow we’ll see, the sun will shine. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

And there comes Better Days! This is part of your philosophy, looking for a better tomorrow.

Yes, that’s my philosophy, yes! Because you don’t want to give up. You don’t want to be naïve about what’s happening either, but you don’t want to go sink down. You want to live! Regardless of hard time, you have to keep your head above the water and that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Regardless of hard time, you have to keep your head above the water and that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’ve been doing

Are you ready for a change now, better days are coming you think?

I am ready. And I hope that the world is ready for the change that is to come. It’s my foresight, it’s my feeling that a change is coming, whether we want it or not. Are we ready for that change? We might have to be way more humble. For those of us who are too much on the high horse, we might have to get off of the horse and walk. Are we ready for this change? It might mean that hey, you are walking but you need to get on a horse and ride. Are we ready for that change? Whatever the change is, a change is coming.

You were in Guam in May for a festival dedicated to wildlife, the Fanihi Festival (Fanihi is the Chamarro word for fruit bat). You said there that What A World was inspired on the Island. Can you tell us the story of this song?

Guam was a primary inspiration for this song. My first time in Guam, which was like three years ago, when I landed, I enjoyed the warm weather, wonderful people, everything is beautiful there. Then I started to hear the stories of the Chamorroes, the native people there, I learnt stories about war and how people died off. Traveling around the island, we stopped at a spot where I was told that most of the combats went on and many people died. It was like, I could smell the blood, you could actually smell the old blood. It was an awful vibe. And then you observe the ecology. I was also told that most of the native birds are not there anymore, and how the fishes are suffering as well because so many things have been dumped in the ocean. Taking in consideration all of that, and my love for the island, I came back home and I wrote later on the song What A World. But that’s like an introduction to what’s going on around the world, it’s not just Guam, it’s happening all over.

Mi Deh Yah means I’m here in Jamaican patois, and you have other songs in patois…

Jamaican lyrics, Jamaican patois, Jamaican language, yeah!

… you also dedicated a joyful song entitled Jamaica to your country. You are living in Seattle for more than 20 years but Jamaica is still very present in this album.

Born and raised in Jamaica. I will always be a Jamaican, I cannot lose that. That’s my roots. I love Jamaican patois, I love the vibe. I also love communication. When I write, however the inspiration comes, I’ll write patois and I’ll do English, either way. In this album, I think there are a few songs that gone in a patois way. That’s part of holding on to the roots too as well! The song Jamaica I think is a nice one, spoken humor and in the same breath making fun of our politicians. It’s also showing love for my country and my people. It’s kind of all in one !

Do you go often in Jamaica?

I go as often as possible.

Do you work there?

I’ve not work there in a long time. That’s why I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the next album I might try to do it in Jamaica, at least some of it. We’ll see what happen, I’m not sure yet.
The other thing I would love to do there is to set up or to help setting up some kind of an institute, so as to help talented kids, whether they are soccer players, cricket players, musicians, writers, to help them to pursue what they are good at. But I don’t have the capital to do it yet. I hope I will be able to do that one day. Because in my time coming up, I watched several talented kids just get pushed to the way side because they had no help. I’m quite sure it’s not much different today and I would love to support something like that.

One of your daughter is living in Jamaica. She loves music. Actually your three children love music with their own perspective.

Yes! Sherine is my oldest daughter, she is a country girl, living in the hills of Jamaica. She loves music, she’s singing at church sometimes and she always get cheers. My son Ben is actually a good writer but I don’t know how serious he is with writing now. He is more on the dancehall tip. My youngest child Anita is at Berkeley College of Music in Boston, for two years now, and she is doing great there. She is a very good poet but I think she doesn’t know how good she really is in terms of poetry.
All three of them play a little bit of guitar.

What are your three favorite songs in Mi Deh Yah?

That’s a tough question! If I should check each one of them separately and look at them, they are all my favorites. Like the first song of the album, Life Is A Journey, is one of my favorites. Because, like I said, I wrote it shortly after my mom died and it was like a therapy for me. It also opened my eyes onto life and death. No matter how perfect we are, no matter how this and that, we move on to another place, and I want to think that we move on to a spiritual place, an higher plateau.
The title song Mi Deh Yah is also a very important one for what it represent for me. Again, Mi Deh Yah means that I’m here. No matter the struggle, no matter the fight, the hardship, the rock and the hard place, I’m here. And I’m making my stance, I’m surviving, I’m living and nothing is gonna stop me except when I can’t live anymore. I’m doing what I love, I love what I’m doing and I do it to the best of my ability, with love in my heart for creation and everyone.

I’m doing what I love, I love what I’m doing and I do it to the best of my ability, with love in my heart for creation and everyone

So what is the last of your three favorite songs?

I can’t say which one is the best because everyone hits a little different from the next one. I love Feeling Blue because the song makes you stop and look at yourself, to see where you are at in life. What do you do when you are feeling blue? How do you handle it? Do you run down the road and cry for mercy or do you take your life into your hands? Do you lay down your arms or do you top in your resources? It makes you think.
Rock And A Hard Place is another one again, and a personal one because it’s actually telling part of my own story. The song is saying: Coming from the country with my little guitar / I found myself between a rock and a hard place. My first guitar, I made it (when Clinton was about 10 or 11). Later on, when I came to Kingston, I thought that the music business was a little bit easier before realizing how tough it really was. Luckily I got myself into a group that was already established, which was the Gladiators. I spent eighteen years there, some were sweet moments and other were tough. There were time I thought I could grow and then I realized I wasn’t able to grow. I grew to a dimension and it was hard to pass that. I wanted to grow way more than that, so it became hard: a rock and a hard place again!
Well, if I should top into each of the songs, they all have their weight.

You are an independent artist, with your own publishing company (Jammin International), your own label (Kool Yu Foot), your own band (Boogie Brown), you write, you compose and you sing your songs. How do you manage doing all this by yourself?

Bwoy I don’t even know! I don’t think I really manage but I survive doing it. To manage is a hard one. Actually, I remember when I left Gladiators. We were touring in the US and after the tour we had some extra time on our visa. So we decided to stay here and to put a group together we called The Defenders. It was members of Gladiators, Clinton Rufus, Winston Carty, Alric Forbes, myself (but without Albert Griffiths), and one or two more persons from here in Seattle. It went well for a while, just to realize that there were problems there just the same and we couldn’t manage anymore.
Then I put Boogie Brown together and we did a first album, Disturb The Devil. I wanted to check record companies and the first person I checked was Coxsone Dodd, because that’s where I’m coming from. Also because I admire Coxsone doing his own thing. So I figured that he would appreciate this and I checked him, sent him twelve copies of Disturb The Devil and told him: Hey man, one for yourself and the other for distribution. I was waiting for a little change, but until today I got nothing for it.
More and more I realized that I just got to take my stuff in my own hands. Each time I figure somebody will do something, I realize I do it better myself. And so I end up being this really independent person. Luckily I have some good musicians and friends around I and people who love and respect what I’m doing. I love and appreciate them so much for this!
But it hasn’t been an easy one and it is still not easy today in the music business. Because of computers, a lot of musicians and singers are doing things by themselves, all digital. I can’t do that! And then record companies are crying, they don’t sink money into something that they figure, they can’t make a bunch of money out of. Plus I’m an older cat now, they probably want to deal with somebody who is young and more naïve to what’s going on in the music business, so they can eventually manipulate him. I’m a little harder to manipulate now because, again, over the years, I learnt things and it’s hard to knock me out of my track. It makes it even harder for me to be dealing with a company.

Makasound is distributing Mi Deh Yah in France and soon in other countries in Europe.

Yes and I really appreciate Makasound stepping in and putting some energy behind us. They are blessed and they will be blessed for this. Because the work I’m doing, honestly, I don’t own it. It’s an energy that flows through me and I get joy, support, guidance and all the good things from this energy. I want to share this energy with other people and I want to survive serving it with my music. It’s nothing more than that. So who ever can help to push it out there, so that people can gain something from it, hey, they will be blessed. I’m certain of it.

Because the work I’m doing, honestly, I don’t own it. It’s an energy that flows through me and I get joy, support, guidance and all the good things from this energy

It is the first time an established record company is distributing one of your albums. How did this happened?

The story is kind of a long one. I remember I was introduced to them by our friend Jerome Levasseur (French promoter). He was saying that Makasound’s people are good and that it would be nice if I link up with them. So when I released Faculty Of Dub, I brought it to them. At that time they thought it would be a hard one to sell, considering the size of the dub market and also the situation of the music business. Records are kind of taking a dive you know. But we did not give up there. After we’ve done Mi Deh Yah, we presented it to them. They were very busy I think so it took them some time before listening to it, but they finally came back to me saying that they like Mi Deh Yah and they are willing to do something. And here we are today!

What do you expect from the distribution of Makasound?

It’s not even an expectation. It’s what I hope for. I hope that, with their expertise and with the strength of the album, Mi Deh Yah will be wide spread. Wide spread enough as to reach the right ears, reach as much people as to spread it even outside of Europe. I honestly think that it will do really good in Europe. I think that Europe have a great respect for art. Especially in France I do know. And if it does well in Europe, it will do well in other places too because the word will spread.

Right now, a month before Mi Deh Yah is about to be released, we can already download it for free on the Internet. How do you feel about that?

On one hand it is a good thing because people get to know about it. The bad side is that people just get it for free while it is so costly to make a record! I spent a lot of time and money doing it, booking studio, paying people, not even counting myself. And Makasound is also putting a lot of energy for pressing and distribution and all of that. People should consider this when they download it. I hope most of them will still choose to buy the album, after they listened to it.

A couple of years ago, you recorded two songs (Songs Of Praises and Sleepy Head) with the French band Tu Shung Peng (the songs are available on their album Trouble Time, distributed by Makasound too). How did you work with them?

It was a good vibe. I remember I first listened to the two riddims. I have to laugh every time I remember the story! I listened to those two, I listened to the others they did with different artists and I’m saying to myself: man, they gave me the riddims that they don’t want anymore! I let them know that and they were kind of shocked, saying that they’ve choose both specifically for me! So I looked at it again, thinking that, if they say so, there must be something here I need to look at. The thing is, I really don’t like the idea of singing here and there, do this and don’t know what will happen with the material. But I commited myself to do it so I did it. I literally wrote Songs Of Praises while I was on the plane flying to Paris. Studio time was booked for the day after my arrival! But everything turned out very well for both songs, Songs Of Praises and Sleepy Head. Which I felt good about because, if I’m doing something, I love to do it well. And who knows? We might do something together again down the line, but it’s farfetched right now because I’m focusing on Mi Deh Yah, on my own work more so than somebody else’s right now.

Do you work with other artists in the US?

Usually I don’t. I might help someone out here and there but not like working with someone that way.

Read part 2 of this interview where Clinton is looking at the past, talking about the Gladiators, his time at Studio One and Black Ark. He is sharing his hard time starting all over when he settled in Seattle, the creation of Boogie Brown, his work with musicians and his interest for acoustic music.

Photos copyright Catherine Fearon 2010
Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and Catherine Fearon is prohibited.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by Miz b on 08.16.2010
We went in the studio first to do Faculty Of Dub. Actually, about half of the riddims were recorded for Faculty Of Dub (released in December 2008). Nelson Miller, former drummer for Burning Spear and myself on bass, we laid down several riddims. I used part of them for Faculty Of Dub and got inspiration to write songs on some of them too, that I used for Mi Deh Yah. I was there too, layin' down keyboard rhythms! Was very much a part of the session with Clinton and Nelson!!!

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