Gramps Morgan inna Positive Vibration - The Interview
07/30/2021 by Gardy Stein
Morgan Heritage. A name inextricably linked with Reggae for decades, a family as dedicated to Jamaica's music as the Marleys. Initially groomed by daddy Denroy, the Morgan offspring have released some of the most beautiful Reggae hits, have toured the world, won a Grammy and successfully put the third Morgan generation on stage.
Next to their involvement with the band, however, the individual Morgans have always pursued solo-careers as well. Una, Mojo and Peetah have each released an impressive string of singles, and Gramps has just given birth to his third solo album, Positive Vibration.
It is special in that it combines Roots Reggae and Country, two genres that seem very distinct but actually share common features. What these are and why Gramps chose to join forces with Johnny Reid for its production, he tells us in our Reggaeville interview. Read on to find out about what this album means to him, how he linked up with the featured singers and what other projects this bustling artist juggles:
Greetings! How are you, how is the family?
Everybody is good, just making the best of this Covid, you know.
How is the current situation in Nashville?
Well, we don't have curfews anymore, that's gone. They are closing a little early, maybe 9, 10 o'clock, but that's almost normal. And you don't have to wear masks anymore.
In Germany we still have to wear masks in the shops and in public transport, and the clubs are still closed. But slowly things are improving.
Oh wow, ok. They are doing concerts and tours here in America already.
I know! I'm jealous (laughs). Before we talk about your album, I'd like to ask about some other projects of yours, because when you google Gramps Morgan, there are many things popping up. A charity for example, that you founded in 2010. Is it still active?
The Gramps MOM, yes. It means Gramps Music Orchestrating Miracles. It's my charity that I use for anything that I do to help people. I've done a lot of things, helping with education, helping to get school supplies in Uganda, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago... it's set up and I work under that name. We are working on a homepage right now, so all these things will be in place very soon.
Great! Also you are doing some farming, can you tell us about that?
Yes, the Gramps Farms is for my jerk sauce. I grow scotch bonnet peppers in Jamaica, in Trelawny. We make our own Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce, cause you know we island people love spice (laughs). So we have a jerk sauce, mild and hot, those things are coming together at the end of the year and then it will be available all over the US and the UK. I launched it when I was on tour with Stephen Marley, Damian Marley, Tarrus Riley and Morgan Heritage, we all came together for the Catch A Fire tour in 2015.
I saw that you have been part of the Jamaican Music Conference last year. What was that experience like, to really be, not on stage as an artist, but on a panel discussing Reggae music as an expert?
I find it my duty. It's not everyone that is willing to do it, who has done so much within the space of Reggae and Dancehall, to share what they've experienced and learned with the next generation. For me, I find it my patriotic duty for my country Jamaica to say, 'Hey, this is how you should do it, this is why you should do it...' There are so many reasons why we should speak out in order for the next generation to keep the consistency and the quality of Jamaican music, because we cannot afford for that to die, dont, because this is the land of Reggae music and Dancehall, so it's very important that conferences like that are held. The last one that I attended, I was there, Shaggy was there, Beenie Man was there, it was very important for us who have experienced so much in the business, to give younger artists a chance to listen, so I'm looking forward for the next staging of that because it's very much needed.
Yes indeed! What were some of the subjects discussed?
Publishing, the music business in general, how do you get your songs in movies, songwriting, the quality of our music, the format, the distribution, just everything concerning the music business.
Talking about you as a solo artist, your new album Positive Vibration is the first in nine years that you bring out, apart from the singles that have consistently been released, of course. How long was that project in the making?
Well... it wasn't in the making (laughs). There was no making! Of course, it was business as usual, we were about to come on tour again as Morgan Heritage in Europe and America, and then the pandemic happened, for everyone. And I always said, if I ever get the chance, I wanted to become a better songwriter, to work on my songwriting. I learned this a long time ago, but there are levels to this business, there are levels to songwriting and production which I learned on this project. It's not every artist that's a songwriter, and not every songwriter can be an artist. Whitney Houston didn't write most of her songs, maybe 75% of her songs were written for her! I Will Always Love You, The Greatest Love Of All, How Will I Know... she didn't write any of those songs!
So, on a certain level of music business, you bring in songwriters, that is their everyday life. Some artists have been blessed that way, but when you talk about to write amazing songs, go and work with a songwriter, you can collaborate to get the best product. For me, this project is one of the most amazing projects that I've done in my entire career! Mainly because of the quality of the production. I make this reference to compare the difference of singing in a microphone that costs $3,000 and another microphone that costs $25,000. It's that kind of a differenc, and a lot of the stuff we used is European technology. We talk about mics like Sennheiser, Neumann, Telefunken, these are some of the best quality mics. For we in Jamaica, the quality of recording is not focused on that. I want to highlight that and show them that if we improve on those things, Jamaican music will probably take over! Everybody is influenced by the Jamaican music industry, everybody, and it always has! But there are some of the things I see that we have to become better at.
How did Johnny Reid come in as producer of the album, do you have a long-standing relationship with him?
Well, the relationship with Johnny Reid came with the pandemic. I met him when everything shut down and everything was on hold. I met him at the hockey game in Nashville, Tennessee. We were both there talking, and he was telling me about the recording studio he had which was owned by a legendary country star, and that the studio was bought by him and he built it from the ground up, brand new! He told me to come by and that he had some microphones that Johnny Cash had sang on and Willie Nelson and the Scruggs Family, and I said 'Wow, I would love to see these microphones, just to hold them, a piece of history, it's like a museum!'
And then, shortly after that, we went inside the studio and he started to play some songs, and I said 'That's my song!' and we both started laughing because it literally sounds like my song! For many many years I've had the dream to show people how much Country music has influenced Reggae music. If you know that these... the Jamaican artists and the Jamaican public, we have a very exquisite taste for music. A Jamaican, he loves his Reggae and Dancehall, but he also loves Andrea Bocelli, he loves Celine Dion, he also loves Air Supply, he loves Kenny Rogers, we love music! We love Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige, so the pallet of music has always been broad. That's why somebody like Lionel Richie can come to Jamaica and do a concert and it's big, massive, because we love music!
That's why, for me, I always wanted to blend the two, because Country music has always influenced Reggae music, always! Even Dancehall culture, we watch the Country and Western movies, the cowboy movies, that's why we have names like Josey Wales, John Wayne, Tony Lickshot, it's the whole cowboy-badboy thing! So, I'm happy that finally I got the chance to do this album, because it's a reflection of Jamaica, a reflection of the islands, and it feels positive, it feels fun.
A lot of the instrumentation is also influenced by Country, like, you have the banjo, the steel guitar... did those musicians come in through Johnny Reid?
Oh yeah, all of those, when you hear them, that flavour, that's coming from Nashville, the fiddle, the banjo, the harmonica. So most of the musicians come from Nashville, from Toronto, Canada and from Kingston, Jamaica. It's a blend of Stephen Marley's musicians, Shaggy's musicians, Morgan Heritage musicians, Buju Banton musicians... these are all friends, this project is just a lot of friends and family.
That's amazing, I think you hear the vibes on that. You already mentioned Shaggy - how did you pick those artists who now feature on the album?
Again, it was just friends and family! Shaggy is a friend of mine, and when I got to about ten songs on the album, I was in Jamaica and me and him always hook up. He's been my friend for 25 years, and I said 'Shaggy, you gotta hear this project. I'm trying to do something special.' And he listened to it and said 'Gramps, wow, this is incredible! Do you know what you're doing here? This is gonna change music forever!' And I said, 'Well, I'm having fun, and I wanna know if you want to go on one of the tracks, cause I hear you on this one.' The song that I heard him on wasn't the one he heard himself on, he picked another song and he started singing! If you listen to Float Ya Boat, you'll hear Shaggy go 'Smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish...' (sings in Shaggy voice). It's something that I always wanted to do because he can sing, different from DJing.
With India Arie, she's been my friend for almost 15 years now. Almost every album that she puts out, I Gramps Morgan is on. And every solo album that I've put out, India Arie has been on all of them, so this is my third solo album, and she had to be on it. As I said, just friends and family! And my dad came on it, cause my son was in Jamaica, he went to go see his grandfather and the farm in St. Thomas, Jamaica, and my father saw my son recording and I said 'You go on it too, Daddy!' and then you have three generations of Morgan family, which I think you rarely see, maybe it's never been done before, father, son and grandson on one record.
Yes, and also the song, it's one of my favourites, Secret To Life. It has amazing lyrics. Did you write them together?
Yes, that was written by myself and Johnny Reid. It's just a fun song reflecting on life. Cause we are in a pandemic and everyone is home, right, so it's like, 'Oh, let me see, what am I going to do?' and you are just thankful for life.
For sure. And that's also reflected in the album title, right? Positive Vibration is something that immediately puts you into this mindset. Was that your intention when calling the album that?
It just felt positive for me, you know. A lot of what I see going on in the industry, everybody is a tough guy, everybody is a bad boy, it's like nobody wants to smile anymore. So I want to bring the sunshine back to our music, the smiling, the fun. There's a lot of dancing going on in the music of course, funny dances, but I wanted to bring the sunshine and be the soundtrack for us going back to normal life and having fun with each other. But most of all, learning from our mistakes as the human race, so that we can come together more. So I just want to be the soundtrack to coming back to real life, to the islands. Cause when you get to the islands, or you want to go there, you can just play Positive Vibration and feel good.
Great. That's what Runaway Bay is all about, too, especially when you watch the video. Was it shot in Runaway Bay?
Yes it was shot there, actually. I wanted to show the beauty of Jamaica, because when it's time to show the fastest man on the planet, we show Usain Bolt. When we wanna show you some of the best beaches in the world and food, we show Jamaica! (laughs)
Which other songs are planned on video?
Well, A Woman Like You is out on video, and up next is If You Are Looking For Me. This is a song about just going away, to one of my favourite places in the world, which is Lindau, in Germany.
Yes, I fell in love with that place many years ago on tour with my family, and I said, 'Lindau is so beautiful!' I went up into the mountains in Austria because it's very close, the three countries, Austria, Germany and Switzerland on that lake... So it's about really escaping to your favourite place and enjoying that, so that's what this song is really about. If you're looking for me, I'll be down by the lake or in the Blue Mountains or on the China wall, wherever you find your peace, you know.
Another song I wanted to ask about is Water In My Whiskey... is that a saying, a proverb, a traditional song, something like that?
(laughs) No, we wrote the song! Water In My Whiskey is like... don't give me bad vibes! It's the songwriting what I was telling you about, you can say something but in a different way, you understand? So when you say 'Don't put no water in my whsikey, man!' (sings), you are saying don't kill my vibe... when the Dancehall is feeling nice, in Reggae Sumfest or Reggae Sunsplash or wherever, and somebody comes with bad vibes and fighting in the party, you are putting water in the whiskey! Whiskey and alcohol is something pure, the purest part, so I'm trying to say let's keep the music fun and the vibes pure. That's the songwriting!
Interesting, I haven't heard that before. You already said that this album is about bringing the good vibes, making people smile, so now let's talk about the dancing tracks on there. The Peacock and the Conkytonk, maybe you can tell us how those came about. Is there really a peacock dance?
(laughs) Well, the peacock dance has been created by Orville Hall from Dance Expressionz, one of Jamaica's top dancers. He's taking the Dancehall culture and the dancing all over the world, from the Phillipines to South Korea to Japan to Prague, to Romania, to Russia, to Germany... he's a legend! I just wanted to celebrate and highlight him and give him his flowers. I wanted to do my part to give him that respect. So I said, 'Hey, this is the peacock dance, but I need YOU to create it.' That was done almost a year ago. I contacted him and knew that this record was gonna be a fun song and he got it done. So Peacock is a fun dance, talking about a guy on the beach, and he's dancing around naked, he's just free, we have to control him and tell him 'No, no, behave!' you know. That's the peacock dance.
And Conkytonk now... here in Nashville we have a culture, a music that's called Honkytonk (sings and claps). And I said I'm gonna create the Conkytonk based on the conk fish, the conk shell that comes out of the sea. That's where the name came from. It's basically a mindset in a place where you can come feel good, have your favourite drink whether it's lemonade or water or whiskey or rum or Red Stripe, whatever it is, just come to the Conkytonk, get some hydration, quench your thirst and have it good with friends and family. So your house could become your Conkytonk, my highschool dance, wherever you want to become the Conkytonk, it's a mindset.
Ah I see. Then of course you have a few love songs on the album, like Paradies, My Love and All About Love. Who is the inspiration behind that?
Paradise is just expressing the love, knowing that you haven't got the chance of expressing your feelings to that special person in your life. It's just saying 'I don't need to be in a special place to express myself, I shouldn't have to be in a special frame of mind to tell you how I love you and how much you mean to me.' It's like that inspiration to say, let me express myself, and I want a lot of Jamaican men who find it hard to express themselves, I want them to be able to play that song and say 'Baby, listen to Gramps, listen to this song, this is how I feel!'
That's sweet. The album has been out since last Friday - what are the reactions so far?
I call my fans the Gramps Tribe, and the tribe is just so excited. They are like 'Oh my God, you did it again, this is so fresh, this is so uplifting, this is so fun!' They are happy. And even the music industry, everyone is calling me, saying 'What is this you have done? This is incredible!' If you listen to the quality of the production, to the songs, the instrumentation, every musician from the top Reggae acts in the world, the soundsystems, people like Tony Matterhorn, Red Rat, have given me a call or messaged me saying 'This is incredible, I've never heard anything like this!'
Will you get a chance to play that music live, is there a tour planned?
We are hoping so! First of all there are some Morgan Heritage acts that we have to fulfil, but I'm sure there will be a couple of Gramps Morgan shows also. It depends on what the world wants! If they want the Gramps Morgan experience, they can get it.
Last question, is there going to be a collaboration with Buju? You performed with him on the Long Walk To Freedom concert, is there something cooking maybe?
Great, something to look forward to again! Is there anything you wish to add from your side, anything you feel we've left out?
You covered it all really, you did a great job!
Thanks for your time, I wish you all the best for your album, may everyone get it and dance to it during this summer. Hopefully we see you on stage in Germany again soon!