Interview with Jah9 [Part I]
09/01/2016 by Angus Taylor
Like many representatives of Jamaica’s recent reggae movement, Jah9 has not been in a hurry to put out music in the traditional fashion.
Following her triumphant debut New Name in 2013, there was speculation as to whether she would release her shelved project with Beres Hammond or a second record with Rory Stone Love. At one point Jah9 became frustrated by the anticipation, stating she was too busy with her life, her yoga, and community works to think about an album.
Now, three years later, one is finally on the horizon – without Beres or Rory’s involvement and distributed by VP Records. It is called ‘9’ and comprises nine songs, five of which are produced by Jah9 herself. The remaining four are collaborations with Jamaicans Franklyn Ben Up Irving and Kevin Campbell, St Croix’s Laurent Tippy Alfred, and Belgium’s Puraman Bregt.
Jah9 sent Angus Taylor an exclusive preview of the nine tracks so they could discuss the circumstances that inspired them.
Your album release was originally planned for the summer – how come it’s being put back until 9th September?
It’s the symbolism of the date. Because I am already making a fuss about the year being the year of nine. September 9 is the ninth of the ninth. As well as the fact that it will give us some time. I am starting a new relationship with these people [at VP]. They have channels that they need to fully exploit so that we get the best reception when we finally do put it out.
In the past you have said you were too busy doing other things to think about the circumstances of your next album. With a big company like VP will you be under more time pressure to put out music?
Well for me I am ready. I wouldn't even be getting involved with anyone now if I wasn't ready. I have quite a catalogue of music that I have put together because I have been not releasing so much music before. So I put this record together and there are other records that are already put together. Because I don't just write a song in abstract. I will write a set of songs are all themed together. That makes it easier for me because I think in terms of records.
And everything am going to do is going to be nine tracks. So there isn't a lot of pressure to do 18 tracks. Arbitrary tracks. It is very purposeful, songs put together as albums and I am think I am prepared to shoot forward. Because I did tell you “When I'm ready, I will be ready” and I am just going to release some music now. There is more music coming. The music is going to come much faster than it did before.
What's happening with the Beres album which we've talked about many times before?
That is one of the possibilities for the next round coming. But there is also new music, so it is to assess the vibration and see the impact that is made. I don't like planning too far ahead. And so while I will be prepared with things that I can do next, I really want to see how this one works, how the relationship works, to see if this is something that I would or wouldn’t want to share in that space.
And is there going to be a separate Rory album after this one?
I don't know. Everything is possible. Rory is my family too. But I think where my mind is right now is that I am making this music. These are my projects. I am producing most of the tracks. I think there is more experimentation I want to do, in terms of production. There is lots of life to live, everything is open. But what is for sure is I will be producing more of the music that I am creating.
How did it germinate that you wanted to produce the majority of this record?
It unfolded that way. I started out with an idea in my mind of how it would go and then things just changed along the way. First it was going to be just another EP with a few songs that I did with Rory and then it evolved into me doing most of the songs myself. And I think it is important because of this record and especially entering into this new relationship. Although I didn't know I was going to be entering into a new relationship when I put the album together and when I produced the songs. I didn't know who it would be but I knew somebody else had to come on board to supplement because it was just unrealistic for me to advance further without expanding my reach and my capacity. I don't have a big team so there were a lot of things where support was necessary.
Creatively, that is where I have the confidence. And as I started to make the music and ones started to hear the ideas and people who I respected in the industry started giving me positive feedforward it just kept increasing the confidence of “Hey let me try this. Let me experiment with this”. And nobody was fighting me on anything! People that I trust around me, brilliant musicians who I know, even if I am pushing them outside of the box, they are not going to fall. They're going to still be able to give me what I need.
So it was exhausting but it was a beautiful process. The first time really getting to flex my wings in in this kind of sphere. Where I am the one where everyone is listening to me and it is not just a rehearsal for the stage, it is in production. And people are giving me the space to experiment with things that are unorthodox that they aren't used to. Because I am coming not from a place where I am a musician or I have technical musical knowledge. I am coming to it from spirit. It was all spirit that guided me here. I have an ear, a well cultivated ear from since I was younger and so that guided me as well and it worked.
I have been letting some ones hear it who I respect their opinions too and they have been giving me overwhelmingly positive responses! That makes you a little nervous because I thrive on criticism, so every suggestion that I accept will be implemented even if it is down to the last minute if I agree. If I don't agree I am not offended because I have a very specific vision for the record. And for where I want my music to go. For what I want to do. This is just nine songs so there is a whole lot more that I have to get off my chest before I start going outside of myself too much.
Who are your team of musicians? I can guess Sheldon Bernard is on it because it has a lot of flute!
For sure Sheldon is on it. Sheldon is on flute mostly but on keys as well for some parts. I have Chinna Smith of course. There is Bubbler, Aeon Hoilett who played bass on my first record and who has been a member of my band for a while. There is Jalanzo from Dubtonic Kru! Yeah that was awesome. And Unga who plays with Notis Productions.
He is someone I have had my eye on for a while. He's played with me before on the Beres record. That's when I really started to pay attention to him and I have seen him grow and I am like “Yo, I need to get on a track with you. And I want you on this record.” I just set a studio session and laid some tracks and it worked out. I really liked what he we came up with, so I ended up putting that on the record too.
In the old days a producer was someone who discussed music with musicians and gets the music out of musicians. Today in the digital time most people think of a producer as someone who sits on their own making beats using a digital editing suite and is kind of the engineer as well. What kind of producer are you?
I am a little bit of both because it is all about the relationships I have with the musicians. You may not see a lot of featured vocalists featured on that record because it's more like the musicians are featured. Especially because I'm producing it and so the musicians that I will choose to work with are the people who I have relationships with, who I know can interpret what I want because I don't speak the language of music.
But I can tell them exactly what I want to hear. I can play the bass line with my mouth. Or I can play the horn's phrase on a DAW that I have on my phone and do multi tracks of what I want the horns phrase to be, then bring it to the session and then play them one by one in so they know what I want. I'm really specific about what I want, like most of the skeletons.
Another person I worked with on this is Bregt Puraman from Lost Ark Music, who provided showers of blessings. He's just such an incredible person to play with because he was so humble, he will do whatever you need. He will just be a conduit for the music. When I was in Belgium I started working on some tracks with him. He plays every instrument so whatever was in my imagination I could literally give it to him and he played.
And I got to come back to Jamaica with those experiments and changed up some of the instruments and have musicians that I rate come in and put their own interpretation, as well as give me what I want but put it in a way that a musician would frame it. So it was working together and sometimes it was “What are you doing? I don't understand” but they just allowed me to do it and it just worked out. I just think everybody had a good time even down to the engineers because it's been done in such an unorthodox way. Usually the artist isn't so involved. And especially as a female you have a different kind of energy in the studio. The creation process because I'm definitely in charge when I'm in the studio! (laughs)
Could you tell me a bit more about the d.a.w. on your phone that you used to do the horn parts?
It's a multitrack recorder. It's kind of like ProTools but stripped right down so that all you're doing is you load the track, you trigger a track and you play the phrase through the whole song. You can import the audio from iTunes and put it in as one track and then you can do the horns phrase over the track and do the trumpet, trombone and saxophone.
For the track Hardcore I played the three parts that I heard in my head because I and I would think of horns in the same way that I would think of harmony. And so it is not necessarily what a hornsman would do but I did it and I called Clive Hunt and told him “I have this horns phrase in my head”. I wanted to see what he thought of it.
He brought me in but the session that he was doing before ran late and it turns out he had some top horns players in the room. And I was like “Okay are you guys going to play?” And he kind of left me alone with them. I thought he would listen to it first and then tell me what can work and what can't. But we didn't have any time for that so he just threw me into the fire. I was in the voicing room with Dean, Nambo and Dwight. I just played it for them and they heard me playing it on my mouth. But they just listened then said “That's interesting”. But they didn't fight it. They just did it, it worked out really nice and that was really cool.
The producers of the 1970s like Niney and Lee Scratch Perry used to communicate with musicians through the medium of the dance - do you ever do that?
I do that too. And I use smell too (laughs). There is one track on the record, In The Spirit, that has maybe five or six layers of flute on it. And in order to get what I wanted to do with that I ganja’d up my flute player! I put him in the booth and we did one set of tracks and then I aired out the room and I used a different smell in the room. I burned a particular type of wood that gives off this particular kind of smell the gives you a particular kind of feeling. And then I did that in the whole room and then I laid another track so that I could get another vibe with another flute from him. Then after that I re-recorded another set of flutes so that he could put the harmonies on it and we used a different set of smells again. So that is some of the magic that we do too. Some of the little things that are not necessarily related to music but they related to vibe and spirit.
Some of tracks on the album have hand percussion and some have kit percussion. The ones with hand percussion seem to be more introspective and the ones with drum kit percussion seem to be more warlike and outward.
Really? That's a very interesting observation. That wasn't intentional, well, that wasn't consciously intentional if you get my meaning. (laughs) But sometimes you are feeling the song and this is what you feel as well. Like there is one song in particular Baptised where the percussion is spirit percussion. I went to Saint Thomas to get the drummers. My drummer in my band comes from Saint Thomas and he plays Kumina as well. I wanted to get some actual Kumina drummers to come in and left that spirit in the studio and that is how the bridges in Baptised rise up and become that that bridge and then come back down to the water. So there is that in that quite intentionally where there is more introspection and you are right there is a more aggressive approach to the percussion in those other songs.
Those are the songs that are going to get played more on the sound system. Do you think about sound system at all? Because you didn't come up through sound system - you came through live performance.
Well I don't think about the sound system first. I just do what I'm going to do first. Then I can listen and hear "Okay this sounds more like it is leaning here" and I can overdub to fit the vibe. But that wouldn't be my immediate thing in the creation process to do that. It is afterwards that in listening. Because I know that Unafraid is a sound system tune. Unafraid will go play nice in a dance. And the songs that are heavy bass - yes I can hear them. But I am not even the best judge of what will play well in the dancehall so I will always defer to other people who have more experience where that is concerned.
I guess when you did your first album with Rory, he must have taken some of those songs and tested them in the dance? Have the songs been tested in a sound system situation?
This is the time is coming up now where that testing is going to happen. Because we have that kind of community here where we can test it. Even though I don't want them to leak, I might carry a CD to a session. I can test the thing now that some of the tracks are done. I don't really like to test something is not finished.
I would also test it in terms of singing some of the songs on rhythms. So a song like Unafraid, I have seen what Unafraid can do because I have performed it live when Midnite was here a few weeks ago. And I also performed it at a Dubwise Wednesday. So I have seen the impact it can make and I knew that it could make. I wasn't intending to make it a song. It’s just something that happened that I was really upset about and then during the putting together this album I thought I needed one of those kinds of songs on the record.
What was it that upset you?
An incident that happened with my nephew. It was not as much as the creative licence can take it but it just brought those things to mind. The fact that there are so many people who take out their issues on children. The children just not being protected. Just constantly seeing the number of missing children in the news is something that weighs on you and is something that makes you connect with that fire energy, so that you think "This is just ridiculous. This is so avoidable".
This is just taking better care of our children. Families and community taking responsibility, so it's not just a mother or father. It is just conversations that need to happen. So I think by putting out a song like this is going to spark the right kind of conversations and give people the confidence to speak up about things that are taboo. To let them now feel their power and say "No - talk about it". In particular the women.
Do you think people in general and women in particular feel under pressure to keep silent about things like that?
For sure. For many reasons. For economic reasons. For social reasons. Like it just being taboo because people feel it at any end of the spectrum. Poor people go through it for economic reasons. One might not want to lose the breadwinner in her family when he is the one who is molesting her child. She might be less inclined to pay attention to it.
Or people who are wealthy. I know people personally who come from affluent families who have been abused by family friends and just don't talk about it. Sometimes when you have these venting sessions where people are just talking and not really doing anything about it I don't necessarily believe that that's the way to go. I think we have to take the conversation to a larger platform, make some noise and make some people uncomfortable because this is one of these things where if you don't talk about it, it won't stop.
More and more people these days feel able to speak up on social media and admit that they're depressed or complain that their going through a rough time. But if something bad is happening in their family they might feel under pressure to keep quiet about it.
And those are the things that we want to put some light on. Say "Don't be ashamed or embarrassed about it". "You don't have to go through this. It’s not worth what it will cause". And this conversation isn't even a social media type campaign. Because it’s spaces in Jamaica we want. Spaces where daughters can come and reason about these things. Going on the road and leaving spaces open as I always do for gatherings and reasonings with the community. Where we can talk to each other, we can feel comfortable. Especially the women because in a lot of spaces women feel like they don't have a voice in the public.
I saw the impact when I went to Kenya, being a dark skinned woman in a group where people are looking at me and listening to me. Just representing myself with confidence, speaking the truth and still staying humble and not overpowering, still representing the feminine. And it made an impact on the daughters that were there. Just to see a woman expressing and standing in her power. Without going into any long preaching to anyone - just being assertive and singing these songs and screwing up your face and letting them see and know I am not being coy about it. I am being direct about it. These things are crucial right now.
By the time that song comes round on the record you are supposed to already feel empowered. Because you listen to three other songs that are showing you that in the world there are so many things going on that are bigger than you and yet you still have the power to control the environment. And you must use that and still be humble. Identifying to you what Hardcore means and showing the men how they need to be. The idea is that by the time you reach Unafraid you'll feel empowered. So that is the science of it too.
Tell me about the concept of 9. There are nine tracks but it's obviously much deeper than that.
It is symbolic. It is what nine represents on a mathematical level. And how you can kind of use that as a metaphor for what it represents. Nine is the number of change, because after nine it starts all over and a new cycle begins. Even in its shape it’s also similar to the Fibonacci spiral so nine represents the goddess energy, the feminine energy. It contains a circle as well as representing the spiral. It represents changing rebirth. It moves in a similar pattern to a hurricane or a whirlwind. So there is destructive force in it as well. And it represents in the Kemetic Tree of Life and represents Auset which is the feminine principle that is right before you enter the dense physical state of humanness of a human being. So that is where you have to send. You have to send upward from nine. But towards zero. And that same spiralling and on that same regenerative energy.
I could talk about the mathematics of it as well. The relationship that nine has with other numbers. Because every number that is multiplied by nine, the digits will become nine when you add them. So if you multiply 2 x 9 it equals 18 and 8 +1 equals nine. If you do that with any number it is going to equal to 9. And any number that you add to 9 will reflect itself. So I have had entire discussions on just what that means. In terms of even who I am.
Because I have taken the number nine very personally over the years ever since I started calling myself Jah9 as a child. I identified with it. I observed the cycle of nine years of my life. Personal significant things happening every nine years. I just identified with it and saw it as a challenge. As African people our names are supposed to mean things towards our purpose as well. So even in looking at the number nine, seeing how it affects other numbers, and how it is affected by other numbers helps me to understand some of the purpose that I have been given.
Choosing Jah9 as a name, these are some of the reasons why I even chose to hold on to the 9 even more than the Jah. Because the Jah is representative of I. It is me. It is a part of me. It isn't even so much a religious thing where Jah is the name that you call whoever. Because even within the serious Rastafari community they don't use the term Jah. They burn all terms used to denote what God is supposed to be. So Jah is still representative of the letter I as in I as in the individual, as in the ninth letter of the alphabet - you see me? So it all ties forward together! (laughs)
Because what is life other than the search for meaning? So I wanted to make this record personal. This record is 9 for all that 9 means. For all that I am as well. That is what I am called by my peers and even some of my family now. So this record is made. These are the things I am thinking. These are the things I have experienced and I have witnessed. These are my productions. Any song that is not produced by me is co-produced by me and is very much specific to how I would have wanted it. So it is really I. So it is a great exposure of myself on this record in terms of musically where I am taking it. It is not necessarily something you could just fit comfortably into a box or genre. It is roots because it is I - and I am Rastafari. I am black woman. I am human being. I am all of these things and I am expressing that. I am the feminine as well. I am the yin. I am the darkness. I am the unapologetic chaos that has to happen in order for life to spring.
Let's talk about the opening song Humble Me – co-produced by Puraman from Belgium. Who supplied the male harmonies? It's almost like a South African style of harmony.
The male voices are members of my band. We did it before and it was just my voice doing the harmonies and Puraman had some harmonies on it as well. And then towards the end I decided to put some more voices on it to make it sound richer. It's an idea I had in the beginning but it didn't materialise because I didn't have time and I wasn't sure how it would sound. And then the engineer working on it said "This really needs some more voices". So I just took that to mean "Okay I am going to make it happen". So after the rehearsal I just packed up all the brethrens and came to studio and they just did it. Also that's my band right there. Everybody singing!
I am interested in the lyric "I used to be so sure of things then life began to change. The world became a smaller place."
At every stage of your life when you're growing up, you think “I have reached that point where I understand this now”. “I understand school” and then you reach a different level of school where there is a different approach to teaching you. You learn about life and love and then you realise there is a different thing from what you thought it was. And especially for me because I grew up in such a protective environment where I spent a lot of time cultivating my spirit and my mind. I was not exposed to a lot of the things that people in the outside world were. But I was protected by people of integrity, my mother and father and my family. There was no family drama. So I had to learn the hard way about how man stays, how woman stays, how people stay. Greed and selfishness and pain and hurt. These things.
And then even my own career is just a constant learning curve. It's just constantly seeing the potential expand and thinking "I can do this" and feeling confident and then realising there is so much more you can do. Even learning my own spiritual journey and moving from a place where I used to express my spirituality through Judeo Christianity because that is what I and most of us expatriates were given (laughs). And then you continue on that spiritual journey until you eventually outgrow the container of religion and you will search and see for yourself. And the more you learn about this world in this universe is the more you realise that you know nothing. So the journey can't be about knowing. The journey has to be about becoming.
Has the world become a smaller place for you as you have become a famous artist?
I don't even think I am a famous artist. But it has definitely become a smaller place because people have way more access to you now. And me I will notice that because I entered this whole game very late. My aspirations were not towards this. I was not preeing all of this that would come along and I’d be able to share and create the music and that fun part.
There is the other part - having to deal with people and their opinions and the industry and other people’s standards. You don't have to let them affect you but just have an awareness of that. Because all of this is just starts to feel tight. It just starts to feel constrictive and sometimes feels like a small space.
Let's move onto the track Prosper – which you produced entirely yourself.
I did that track originally on a different rhythm with a different approach to it. Then it turned out that it wasn't really being organised well. I wanted to do the track because of these people - I loved doing it. But at the same time I couldn’t get access to it and make it happen the way I wanted to. If it is going on my record there are particular things I would want to have access to so that I can make changes to it. It just wasn't manifesting in the way that I would like so I opted to produce a version of it myself.
Tell me about the line that says "Do it with all your heart and prosper, do it with just a part and fail".
It's one of those songs where if you can imagine somebody having the headphones on and working a punching bag or running, it is one of those songs that is supposed to put you forward. Is one of those songs that remind you that "It is the effort you put out that is going to determine what you get". And effort can mean many different things. A lot of times if it is physical effort but sometimes it is discipline. And sometimes it is love too. So it's just "Don't half arse anything". "Just put your all into something and have the faith and let your passion and your purpose drive you." "Follow your vision. Follow your spirit."
And that is connected to the line "Service is the worship".
Yes I. Because there is no God outside of yourself. There is no man in the sky. It is all within that you are going to find the strength to do anything you need. Yes it is good when people are around you. We are social creatures so it is good to have that. But when it comes down to it, you are the one who has to really pull yourself up. Nobody can help you to evolve.
So if you're going to do well you have to see God in yourself. You are the saviour that you are looking for. Or you will always have to be led and somebody will always have to give you something at the end of the month or do something for you. So it's really a challenge in the same way that a song like Jungle is a challenge to step up. To say the worship is yourself. It is what you do. It is your service.
Read Part II of our interview with Jah9 here!
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