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Interview: Clinton Fearon (2012)

Interview: Clinton Fearon (2012)

Interview: Clinton Fearon (2012)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"Sometimes a good song gets hidden by the plentiful instrumentation and electric devices"


On Clinton Fearon's eighth solo album 'Mi Deh Yah' (2010) during the song Rock And A Hard Place he sings "Coming from the country with my little guitar, I find myself between a rock and hard place". It's a line that sums up the situation for a lot of reggae artists in the so-called golden age, coming to Kingston, new to the business, with dreams of being on the radio. But Clinton's story is more specific. Born and raised in the hills of Jamaica, when he was 10 years old he built his own tools and carved his first guitar out of a cedar trunk, using the teeth of a fork to make the frets and even making chisels out of flattened nails. Arriving in the Jamaican capital in the late 60s he and two friends, Vin and Neville, formed a harmony trio called the Brothers. They shopped their music around to the big independent studios like Studio 1 and Treasure Isle without success until by chance, Errol Grandison of the Gladiators heard Clinton strumming and singing at his house, knocked at the door and asked him if he wanted to join him and Albert Griffiths in their group.

Two decades of reggae history later, Clinton decided he had had enough and relocated to Seattle, Washington, where he began releasing his own albums with his Boogie Brown Band, hitting what would become a signature sound, having linked with his lady engineer of choice, Mel Detmer for 2004's masterpiece, 'Give and Take'. Today his self-made original guitar is proudly owned by one of his school teachers in Jamaica - displayed as an example of what pupils can achieve if they put their mind to it. Angus Taylor spoke to Clinton while he was in France with his wife Catherine to promote his ninth album, 'Heart and Soul', an acoustic set of Gladiators covers, out now...

Clinton Fearon

Your last album Mi Deh Yah was saying "I'm here" - it seemed like a statement about where you are in the present. You are revisiting your past on new acoustic album Heart and Soul - is that fair to say?

It's fair to say that I was saying "I'm here" - meaning "I'm going nowhere", I'm here in the present. And this one, going back, is a totally different concept. What happened with those songs is basically a lot of people call me "Bassie" instead of Clinton and I wanted to clear that up! (laughs) Because I'm not just a bass player. I consider myself a poet and a singer as well. So I wanted to clear that up and in the same breath spell it out that sometimes a good song gets hidden by the plentiful instrumentation and electric devices and things like that. Sometimes the message gets hidden within the instrumentation. That's why on this one I tried to make the vocal and the lyrics at the forefront.

You've gone for much fuller arrangements than on your previous acoustic album Me An Mi Guitar. Did anyone else play in the sessions?

I did all the tracks myself. Absolutely everything on them except for recording and mixing which was done by my engineer Mel Detmer who worked with me on Give and Take, Vision, Me and Mi Guitar, Mi Deh Yah, Heart and Soul and now another one that's coming that I haven't even named yet!

The acoustic bass that you use has a sound almost like the old rhumba box from the days of mento.

It's a Taylor Bass. It's a big one but it's not a stand up bass. The box is very big and instead of plugging it in we mic'ed it so you get more of the woody sound rather than an electric sound.

You're not the only artist from Jamaica who is coming with an acoustic album. Tarrus Riley is about to release one too. What do you think about why reggae artists are going back to this organic sound?

Really? It's excellent. A few years ago when I did Me An Mi Guitar I thought I am coming with something no reggae artist has done as yet as far as I knew. But since I did that I discovered that Inna De Yard were coming into it as well. Now I am understanding that more are coming with it too. I think it's an excellent thing because I think we strayed too much from the root. That doesn't mean we have to go back primitive or anything like that - but we don't want to forget the root of the thing. A lot of artists today are singing on all these rhythms that musicians play and they don't even know where the rhythm is coming from. They even call it their own because they don't know any better! They don't know the history of the thing so they say "Listen my riddim" and they just pick up that lingua too and say "Hey this is my riddim" when it is an old Studio 1 or an old Channel One or an old Treasure Isle that a lot of us played on or created earlier.

Whereas this album is about songwriting - not riding perennial rhythms.

It's about songwriting. It's about art. It's about poetry. It's about going back to the cutting board. When musicians have to be musicians and singers have to be singers. You don't have the machine to do it for you!

What do you think about quantised digital music and the use of pitch correction software these days?

I think it's kind of lazy. I also think it takes away from the heart and soul of the thing. It is precise because it is a machine and it's not missing a beat and it's not going to miss the timing but the downside of it is there is no blood. So I'm just wishing and hoping that the thing goes back to when musicians really play their instruments and singers really sing. That's my hope. That way the music will live. It won't just play for one day, a week, two weeks, a month and then it's dead.

This album is about going back to the cutting board

One of the songs on the new album that almost everyone will know is Chatty Chatty Mouth. How did you come to write that song?

(laughs) That one was for an MP in our area named Dudley Thompson. He was running about making promises and things that he could not live up to but apart from that it was from seeing him alongside guys that he would give a little money and things like that to fight his politics for him. The whole thing looked sleazy to me and that was the only way I could combat it and the only way I could deal with it was to write about it.

Are you political at all?

Not really. I always think that the right person for the job doesn't want it. So it's hard for me to be on any side because none of them seem to be on it, and if they want to they just can't do it because there are the bigger cats round the corner telling them what to do and how to do it and what to say and things like that. The whole thing is kind of a cheat in my opinion.

As well as being a Gladiator, you spent some time in the 70s working behind the scenes working with Yabby You.

Clinton FearonI did lots of work for him and for King Sounds as well because Yabby You and King Sounds were working together for a while then. Yabby You used to come by when we were rehearsing and I was one of the main cats that would sit him down and rehearse him, harmonize with him, try to guide him vocalwise. Then he got a little money and took us to Scratch's studio where we did some songs, one of which was Jah Vengeance. That song in particular grabbed Scratch and he asked us to come back and do something for him. So once we did a couple of songs for him, he then asked me to come back and play some basslines for him outside of Gladiators, which I did steadily for about six months, almost every day over there for different artists and I must say I learned quite a bit! It was a learning curve (laughs).

What did you learn from Scratch that we can hear in your music today?

I learned how to be crazy with it! When I say crazy I mean in the sense where you think way outside the box because Scratch was like that. Also, I'd watch Scratch work. He would observe an artist and see where his tone is and figure "OK, what kind of vibe would fit that artist?" They'd sing and he'd think "This artist could step it up two tones" and it would be perfect for him. He was good at that (laughs). I remember one time we were playing some rhythms - not playing for any particular artist - and he came and whispered in my ear "Hey bassie, try this line... DOOM DOOM DOOGO DOOGO DOOM DOOM" and then he'd crack up and say "This is 21st century stuff... them no ready for this yet!" And percussions, I learned a lot from him about percussions and how to lay percussions in "question and answer". Rather than just stack things on top of one another it's more "question and answer". And I utilized that with other instruments too! (laughs)

You cut your first tune for the Gladiators, Freedom Train, for the producer Lloyd Matador Daley. Another artist who worked with Matador around the same time was Little Roy, who has done an album of Nirvana covers called Battle For Seattle. As someone who lives in Seattle could you see yourself doing a crossover into the grunge scene?

I know Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam and a few more cats. Stone is an irie youth! But I'm not too much in that world. But, yes, Seattle is kind of a little rock town and a lot of people ask me how come I'm there? (laughs) But the thing is, in my opinion, anywhere you go  you take your art with you. And if you trust and are confident enough, anywhere you are, you can do it.

Anywhere you go you take your art with you

Tell me about your experiences in Brazil which you've put into song?

About 10 years ago Gladiators were supposed to tour over there but they forfeited and weren't showing up so Fully Fullwood called me up and said "Hey Bassie, I'm in a big problem, can you help me out?" and I said "No problem. I haven't been there yet and I would love to!" I went over there and didn't even get time to rehearse! It was Sylvia Tella, U Roy, Justin Hinds, Itals and myself but they used up all the time rehearse and I had none so Fully said "I'll tell you say that... Just pretend you're in the studio and hearing the song for the first time!" (laughs) They were making up their own lines to it and we really did it that way. Then I met Fauzi Beydoun from Tribo de Jah and we hit it off as friends so whenever he sees there is an opening he takes me over there so I have been going there periodically ever since.

You call it "home away from home" - what do you like about it so much?

Visiting Brazil for the first time I loved the weather and I loved the energy. Then I spent some time at the house of a friend of mine, Fauzi Beydoun, and the treatment was wonderful, the weather was sweet. It was so wonderful - the fruits. I think me and my wife spent a couple of weeks at his house! I feel like I could really live in Brazil. If I had the money I would have a property there already!

Jimmy Cliff spent a lot of time out there. Brazil has a long history of welcoming reggae artists. What's the scene there like today?

That's what I learned. I think it's been strong for a long time. They really love it and they get into it! Because English and patois is a little bit hard for them they make up their own words! They have their own lyrics to the melody and they sing their own song along in the words they have made! (laughs) They have total respect for the thing and really love it. High energy!

Another country that has been good to both you and the Gladiators is France. You have released albums there in the 80s, your distributor Chapter Two is there, and even your wife is from there...

I remember we toured England, because we were signed to Virgin, we toured Ireland a few times but we'd never come to France. Then there was a promoter here by the name of Simon who took us to Guadeloupe and then to France. We were surprised to see the amount of people - eight thousand odd people showed up in a huge tent! I don't even remember the name of the place! But the energy also! I tell this story all the time that the energy of the people kind of reminds me of Jamaica - they're feisty! I could totally relate because Jamaicans are like that and they have that energy so I've been kind of hooked on France from way back when! (laughs) Also for their love and respect for art. And because my wife is French there is even more reason for that!

The energy of the French people reminds me of Jamaica - they're feisty!

How did you and Catherine meet?

10-11 years ago Guillaume Bougard licensed an album, I think it was Mystic Whisper, for me here and I wanted to do some PR on it. So I called up Guillaume and asked him to get me some journalists saying I would buy my ticket and come over and do interviews and whatever it takes to spread the vibe. So when I came over he presented me with some names and there was only one woman on the list of about twenty people. So right there I was thinking "It's kinda lopsided!" (laughing) so I was curious to see who this woman is! So I called her up and... hey! The rest is history! (big laugh)

Your music - past and present - contains deliberate references to the music of Bob Marley. Have you seen the Marley movie yet?

I don't even have a TV man! My TV is my guitar. My guitar, my pen and my book and my home, my wife and family. I have another album right now, 12 tracks, eight are written already and four rhythms are already laid. I just need to write the lyrics and find the content lyric-wise. When I go back to Seattle, sometime in June and go back in the studio I want to finish that this year and have it ready for the right time to release it, maybe late next year. I'm always working man, I'm always on new stuff. You know how it is as a writer, there are always several things to write about! And at the same time every song sums up as one song: saying "Hey, we need some equality. We need some justice. We need more love." In the true sense of the word - not just a pretend and a plastic smile - but a real smile. Real love. We need that. We cannot survive without it. We tend to think that we can but we can't.

I don't have a TV. My TV is my guitar

Will the next album be electric?

It is. Because I love both mediums. It's really nice when a good album is properly put together and you hear the drum and the bass pumping with good melodies on top of it with sweet guitar licks and nice piano skanks. When it's nicely put together it is beautiful. I love both of them and I think I'll be doing both for a long time.

Since your last interview for United Reggae have you had any further contact with Albert and the Gladiators?

(thinks) I've talked with Clinton Rufus and Gallimore Sutherland just before I came to France the other day. I haven't talked to Albert in a long time. I've tried to get a hold of him but because he is sickly and things like that it seems like he doesn't wish to talk to many people.

Finally, on the song Mi Deh Yah, you say "Life is rough but I know I'm not the worst". Does that sum up your philosophy of life?

Hey hey, it is man! I remember my dad told me a story one time when he was going through a hard time and we were living in the woods. He said "Son, hear this story. There was this man who had one ripe banana and that's it - nothing more to eat. So he decided he was going to eat the banana and hang himself after that. He got himself a piece of rope, climbed a tree, peeled the banana, ate it, dropped the skin and started fixing himself to put this neck through the rope and tying it to the tree. Then a man walked by, picked up the banana skin and ate it then kept on walking! So the man didn't bother to hang himself and came down out of the tree, saying "If someone is eating the skin my life isn't too bad after all!" "


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