Interview with Maxi Priest - It All Comes Back To Love
09/10/2019 by Gardy Stein
When talking about artists who managed to heave Reggae out of its nascent cradle isle and shaped it into the globally appreci-loved genre it is today, this man's name cannot be left out: Max Alfred Elliott aka Maxi Priest. Not only did he create a sound that found plenty airplay on mainstream radio stations and was thus embraced by a modern, Pop-oriented audience worldwide, but he also kept links with like-minded artists throughout his career. That he is still relevant after more than 30 years in the business is proven by his new release It All Comes Back To Love.
Catching this busy man on the move, Reggaeville spoke to the versatile artist about his formative years, the album's creation process, his friendship with co-producer Shaggy and future plans:
Greetings Mr. Priest! Where did I catch you?
You caught me on the Highway going to Philadelphia.
Let's start waaay back. You come from a big family, right? Would you say that this upbringing influenced your work ethics?
Oh, I come from a massive family, I have nine brothers and sisters. And yes, I was definitely influenced by that! You see, I come from a very hardworking family. As you ask me where I'm going now, I have to take care of business, cause that's how we were brought up. Work, work, work, work, work, as Rihanna would say (laughs). They influenced me a lot, definitely.
As a teenager, how can we picture your daily life?
Well, obviously we didn't have internet or anything like that back then, so every day was new. We wanted to explore and understand things, find out what's going on around us. The climate at that time for us, living in England, we were facing a lot of racism, a lot of strange difficult times. People not understanding the cultures, but at the same time there were some trying to understanding other people's cultures as well.
What was your routine after school?
After school, I tried to get home quick before my Dad got in from work, because if we got in after him, we'd have to do house cleaning or some form of work around the house. So we would hurry up from school and then run off to the park to go and play soccer, play football and stuff like that, and try to find time to hang out with friends. Because there was always a lot to do in the house, a lot of work to be done.
Did you already have the wish to become a musician, a singer back then?
I guess so, but not consciously. I never sat down saying I want to become a singer, I don't remember me doing that. I just did it naturally, because I just had something inside me that inspired me to sing. If I was happy I sang, if I was sad I sang, you know, I grew up in a household where we were always singing. My mother... she would always sing, so I guess from being inside of my mother I could feel that vibration. Everybody in my family sang, we all did, sometimes one would be in one room singing and the other in the other. It was just a natural thing for us.
When was the first time people started to tell you 'Wow, you should do that professionally!'?
I guess the word "professional" came later on, but from a very young age, my uncles, my aunts, my brothers and sisters, my friends, everybody that I grew up with always encouraged me to sing. My friends, when we were hanging out in the garden, they were like, 'Yo Max, I heard this new tune, sing this, sing that!' Everybody would always want me to sing something. My mother would always want me to sing Gospel music, my Dad always wanted me to sing some Country and Western, my sisters Michael Jackson and R&B stuff, my brothers some Burning Spear, Dennis Brown... a lot of Reggae music, and it just went on like that, as an everyday situation.
What was your first paid job?
From singing? (laughs) I think that was my uncle asking me to sing at Christmas time. Yes, that was my first official pay-day from singing. (laughs)
When you were a bit older, you started into carpentry. Why was that?
That was just after leaving school. We left school very early because my Dad died when I was just 14, so we had to grow up very fast and take on the responsibilities, the house and my mother, so I was working on building sites from a very young age. I started out doing demolition work and simple stuff which I was doing at home anyway, and I drifted from that into trying to find a trade, trying to find something that would sustain me as a person. That's where I worked myself into carpentry.
Do you still have a knack for handiwork today?
Well, I have a few guys which are working on my house, but of course I would pick up a paint brush and keep it going! You seem to take these skills into a new direction nowadays.
Well, some of that talent seems to linger. I read that you designed a shoe?
Yes, I have a sneaker out there at the moment with Alive Shoes. I only have one out there at the moment and we are pushing that, see how far we can go with it. I have a few more designs, but I don't think I'll put them out until probably the new year.
Ok. Is that something that you could see yourself doing? Fashion and design?
I've always been into some fashion, I always been creative that way. My mother was a seamstress, she was always sewing when we were kids. I remember she worked for a company that would do all these Batman & Robin kind of suits. And now imagine us as kids, running around with these crazy suits, trying to fly or jump off the bed (laughs) just creating havoc with that and also being creative in trying to sew myself. I have a split in my nail from sewing on my mother's Singer machine, I ran the machine over my finger! It was just how it was, you know, always wanting to... I always sketch and drew and try to create stuff, all my brothers and sisters were into creating stuff. It's not like today where you go on the internet, I guess, and spend a lot of time there playing games or whatever, we never had that! For a toy we wanted, we would have to be very creative. It's sad, really, because I think all this digital stuff takes away from a child's creative mind, I think a lot of that has disappeared. Of course, there are a lot of geniuses out there as young kids, but I think we are just taking that away from them, like, playing in the dirt, you know, literally plastering the dirt in their face and all that, I think it does something to you, makes you feel like one with earth, with life.
Are you still in touch with your siblings?
Any time! Most of them are still in England, in Jamaica and the States, but we are a very hardworking, very close, very tight family. Even before I picked up the phone on you, I was on our family WhatsApp sending some love. Anniversary yesterday and today, birthdays almost every week (laughs).
So you still have ties to Jamaica, the island your parents left before you were born?
Yes, of course! I just came back from Jamaica, I was there 2 days ago, I did a show for Appleton Rum and spent some time with family and friends in the beautiful St. Elizabeth.
Do you follow what comes out of Jamaica music-wise?
Definitely! It's my culture, my world, my life. It's my people, you know?!
What is your favourite artist at the moment?
Koffee! I really like that. And I like Chronixx, I love what he is doing. Romain Virgo too... look, I love all what is happening, it's evolving, we're moving forward, we are creating some new energies, some new artists, it's a good vibe!
You mentioned a showcase in Jamaica - what are other big shows you did recently?
New York, Jersey (laughs)... this is my life, this is my music, and I have a lot of people that are a part of the Maxi Priest situation. I have a road manager, I have a tour manager, it's like 'Max you have a gig this week in Boston or Atlanta!' or whatever, and I go, I do my thing, and the next day you come back and it's like... where was I for the last two weeks? (laughs) It's just my life... they say be careful what you ask for, you just might get it, but I'm happy with what I do, I'm blessed, there's nothing I would ever want to change.
The shows you do, are you with your own band?
Does it have a name?
What is my band called? I don't think we got a name... I guess it's Maxi Priest and Band! It's strange you would ask that because I never really thought about that. Maxi Priest and the top musicians! (laughs)
How long have you been working with them?
With some over 15 years. We have a very good relationship, we are a family and when we bring new people in, they come in a family.
What songs do you perform at these shows? Are any of the new songs on the setlist?
Yes, at the moment I'm doing I'm Alright, and we will be introducing a few more.
That brings us to the album It All Comes Back To Love. First of all: what a beautiful title! What made you choose it?
I guess the inspiration came from the song itself. No matter where we go and what we do, it all comes back to God, cause God is love and love is God. So, it all comes back to love, you know. We looked at the song's title and thought it would be a good title for the actual album. And everybody was like 'Yeah, great idea!'
The album is a co-production with Shaggy, an artist you have known at least since you did the combination tune That Girl in 1996. Do you consider him a friend or a colleague?
Both! We have a long friendship and a working relationship that's been amazing for many many years. It is always good when two artists can maintain a friendship and a working relationship like that. You know, when we are in a room together and an idea comes, we bounce off each other very easily. We created quite a few songs that we used to record in his studio, and one day Shaggy invited Steve Greenberg from BMG to come and listen to a few songs. He had met Steve at an event and for some reason my name came up, and then, like I said, he invited him to come and listen to some songs. So, he did, and said that he wanted to do an album with this situation. And I guess the rest is history.
Shaggy is also the executive producer of the album and most songs...
Yeah, we worked together on that along with two other guys, Shane Hoosong and Dwayne Shippy. They also live in the States and have produced for a lot of different artists.
Was the sound of the album a conscious decision? Or did it just happen along the way?
That's a good question... I guess the album just kinda unfolded really. For us it is about creating a vibe, or a good song. I don't think we even had the time to sit down and think 'This is what we want the album to look and sound like.' In saying that, the parameters existed already, based on the artists, I guess. Everybody knows that I like a wide variety of different music, I have a massive appreciation for different genres, and I don't like to be pitching the whole in one specific style of music. So I guess working with me, it's a kind of... a wide open sheet. And sometimes it's exciting, not to be able to know first-hand what it is that is going to be created. And that keeps a motivation and an excitement for myself, and an inspiration.
What were the first songs that saw the light of day?
That's a very good question (laughs). Cool Nuh... and I think the essence of If I Could Change It, too. Now that I'm looking at it, I never really considered which ones were in existence before! Some songs are produced by other people.
How did these links come up?
Those were some productions that I did before with my very very good friend Livingston Brown. The track that I did with Inner Circle at Circle House Studio, I'd done that around the same kind of timing. And also my good friend Carlton "Bubblers" Ogilvie, who did the title song.
I love that one! Have you known him for long?
Oh, Bubblers has been a good friend of mine for many many years. He's an excellent musician and producer, he has worked a lot with Aswad as well. Most of the guys working on the album, I've know for a very long time, except for Shane and Dwayne.
So, there are many producers, but also a lot of features. How on earth did you get Bounty on the track Summer Vibe?
(laughs) That's my very good friend, man! The song Summer Vibe was produces by my son Che Sav, and when he produced that song, I told him that I wanted to put a DJ on it. We were looking at a few DJs, but when I asked if I could get Killer on it, everybody thought this would be a great idea. When I sent it to Killer, he said this is one of the freshest things he's heard for a while, so he was in, he wanted to do it!
You mentioned your son - how long is he working as a producer already? Did you push him in this direction?
He's doing that for 3 or 4 years now maybe. I've always sung to my kids, you know, they've always enjoyed music, but at the same time I want them to go to College, do their thing, keep themselves in different feels. At the same time, I nurture their ability of being able to create songs and write and sing. But I don't really push my kids to do music, it's more... I want them to be rounded, you know, to have some education. Because the art and the entertainment was already in them, they've already been blessed to have that.
What about Anthony Hamilton and Estelle - they don't come from the Reggae universe?
Shaggy had the idea to put them on the song. We talk, you know, and come up with an idea and I was like 'Yes, I'm in, bring them on!' So we invited them and they were happy, they liked this.
And who is Noah Powa?
Noah Powa, he did a song with Shaggy, I think it's called Cash Money, and that's been playing in a lot of the Dances and stuff. We just thought it would be great to help him along and encourage him to do one of the tracks on the album.
A song you already mentioned when talking about your stage shows is I'm Alright. Can you tell us about the video shoot?
The video was done in New York, in a restaurant in Manhattan. The producer is just awesome, his name is Rock Davis. Awesome! You know, you do videos and sometimes we spend a lot of time at editing, twisting and turning and taking things out, but honestly, I didn't have a word to say, he did such a great job. I think it's one of my best videos!
Are any other songs going to be out on video?
I hope so! We were trying to do the Summer Vibe video, but we figured it will work better for summer next year, because obviously summer is closing down now. But it would be great to do the video with my son and Bounty Killer. And I would love to do the song with Anthony Hamilton and Estelle and Shaggy, that would be great also to find a concept for that.
Will you do an album tour?
Well, I'm always touring. I got shows almost every week. I go to Puerto Rico soon, Venice... we are always moving. I just came back from Jamaica, like I said. As we move along, we will introduce more and more songs. And then probably, when the album soaks in, who knows, maybe me and Shaggy will do a tour!
What is your focus for the next five years?
Opportunity comes but once, and I'm grabbing it by the horns. I wanna push that album as far as we can go. And hopefully we can get some awards for it, but more importantly for it is to sustain and bring me to another decade. We really feel good about it and we are looking forward to spread it across the world. Apart from that, I got a new label, Upper Level Music, you can look out for a few artists there. It just started earlier this year. I got a new artist out there, DeMoya, you can check her out, and a few more to come. You know, this is my life, I just keep moving!
Thank you so much and safe travels!
Photos by Shervin Lainez & Jeff Pliskin