A ‘rebirth’ for the reggae icon
by Blair Jackson
More from Jimmy Cliff on recording and his new album
Had you been working on songs and planning for an album before you got together with Tim Armstrong?
I had been working on material and actually had a few things recorded, songs like “One More,” “Rebel, Rebel” and a couple of others. So Tim said, “These are great songs, why not let’s work on them?” And we also wrote some together.
Do you have a studio of your own?
Yes, I have a home studio in Jamaica. It’s a state-of-the-art studio, right up to date; Pro Tools. We didn’t want to go the analog way we used to do back in the day.
Do you tend to make elaborate demos?
No, I like to make demos with just the song and my guitar, or on a piano. I call my engineer and ask him to record it.
Before you hit it big with The Harder They Come, you’d done some recording in both England and Muscle Shoals. Did those recording experiences affect how you made records once you got back to Jamaica?
No, not really. It didn’t affect my outlook and the way to record in Jamaica. It just added some new experiences in recording in these various places. Of course in those days, it wasn’t much different in one place or another. In England they were doing it the same way we did it in Jamaica, which was sitting in a room with five or six, seven musicians and laying the track down live and putting the voice and everything on at the same time.
Although the studios in Jamaica weren’t as sophisticated technologically, were they?
No, but gradually, the studios started to upgrade their stuff. I started out in a studio that was only 2-tracks and everything had to go on that way. Then it went to 4-, then 8- and 16- and 24-.
Was the song “The Harder They Come” done on 16-track?
Yes, we did that ay Dynamic Sound in Jamaica. There’s a song on this new album in which I talk about that, called “Reggae Music.” We grew to the point where we overdubbed vocals, but I still love the process of recording live with the band. That’s how I did a lot of the things on this Rebirth album.
What are newest songs on this?
Most of the songs are new. “World Upside Down” is a song that was written by [reggae great] Joe Higgs and I re-wrote it in my way for this time. There’s another song called “Afghanistan” we might put on there.
I love the version of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”
Yes, that came out well. It was nice to get that on there. I knew Joe [Strummer], of course.
Why do you think the UK embraced reggae so much?
There are a couple reasons for that. One is that there was a really big, concentrated population of Jamaicans and West Indians in Britain. Secondly, Britain is a smaller country than the U.S. and their radio format was much different, so you were exposed to all the different kinds of music, including ska and then reggae. People would lock into new forms; they were very open to it.
You recorded the new album in a few different sessions a few months apart. What happened in between? Were the songs being polished?
Because I don’t live in L.A., if I go out there and do one session, then I’d go back to Jamaica or go back to Paris and then we’d say, “Let’s continue.” When you’re recording, there might be something I want to polish up, so I’d fly out again. That’s how it went. But we did in just a few sessions.
Was the horn section part of the backing tracks?
The horn section came in after. We did the rhythm tracks with everybody together.
What influences you or excites you these days musically?
I listen to music for two reasons—one, just for my own pleasure, and two, to stay abreast with everything that is current. So I listen to everything from pop to reggae to rap to rock, just so I’m in the loop with everything and everyone that’s going on. But I was never really a person to be influenced by anything. I’m more inspired by people and things. So if I hear a good song—say something by Katy Perry—I can enjoy it. She’s written some nice songs. And if I hear something from a rapper like Nas I can think, “He’s making some good statements here.”
You still like to put messages in your music and staying current that way.
The world is changing in so many ways. That’s why I re-wrote the lyrics to “World Upside Down”—to make it relevant to today’s world. But when I look at a song like “Many Rivers to Cross” or “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” they are really kind of timeless anthems that help people along today in their lives. I think I have some songs like that on this new album—like “One More”—that I hope will be like that.
Does the album feel like a statement of you today?
Absolutely. It represents a chapter that was not completed in my career, because when I originally came out and made an impact with reggae, I kind of left that music for a while and went to record some other things in Muscle Shoals. Then people were saying, “Why has he gone over there?” So that was an unclosed chapter, and this album represents completing and closing that chapter. The message in it is relevant today.
The song “The Outsider” has a classic soul feel—it’s very Otis Redding-like.
Well, I used to work in the clubs in England and at least 50 percent of my show was soul music, so Tim thought of the idea: “You know, you do soul so well, why don’t we do a song to get back into that spirit?” If you listen to some of my earlier albums, like Hard Road to Travel, you hear some soul music there. So that’s what that track is all about.
Do you know your way around the studio pretty well? Do you say: “Yeah, let’s put some extra reverb on this vocal,” like on “Rebel Rebel,” which has the deep reverb?
If I’m producing myself, I do sometimes have those ideas and I bring them forward to the engineer, or I can turn the knobs myself. But, if I’m not producing… like on this one I left the producing to Tim, and he’s somebody who has really studied me over the years and knows what directions to go.