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Interview: Reggae legend Ali Campbell

As founding members of Britain’s biggest reggae band UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue topped the UK singles chart on three occasions and sold 70 million records as they took their smooth yet rootsy musical blend to all corners of the globe. Now with ‘A Real Labour Of Love’ the trio give us a fresh take on the legendary series of albums, putting the focus primarily on reggae tracks from the 1980s.

We got to talk to Ali and we started out by asking him about the inspirations behind the new album.

idp: First of all congratulations on a fine new album. It’s got the real classic UB40 feel – a bit cheeky, a bit sly, a bit chilled, a bit romantic. It’s going to be very popular with the fans, I’m sure of that. And it sounds like you were all having a lot of fun in the studio.

Ali Campbell: Well yes, we loved it. It’s a delight to go into a studio to record songs that you already know and that you love. That’s why we called them the Labour of Love albums. We’ve called this one A Real Labour Of Love just to differentiate it but they were very successful albums. We sold more than 21 million of them and some of our biggest hits came from them including Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.

What made you decide that the time right for a new version and what’s special about the songs on this one?

They’ve been asking us for a long time to do another one so we thought that enough time had passed and we should give it a go. The songs that we cover on this album are all over thirty years old now. They’re the songs that we listened to when we were on the road with the first Labour Of Love album. When we made that album we were we were just covering the songs we grew up listening to – the songs that made us love reggae in the first place – whereas this one takes us into the 80s. These are the songs from when I was in Jamaica.They’re all classics and big hits in the reggae world and we’re trying to bring them to a new audience.

I’ve spent a long time on YouTube and elsewhere tracking down the originals of some of these songs and it has reminded me just how powerful great pop can be. How were the songs for this album chosen and did they bring back a rush of memories for you of the time when you first heard them?

Well most of them are reggae classics that I was listening to in the 80s like JC Lodge’s Telephone Love and Strive by Shinehead which is a great record. And then of course there’s She Loves Me Now by the great Dennis Hammond which is the first single from the album. There’s a really nice and funny little film to go with it and you can find that online. These are the sounds that made us love reggae in the first place and when me and Astro sat down and started to draw up a list we were like all we got to have some Dennis and we’ve got to have some Gregory. It really is a joy to do these albums. It’s always nice doing your own material but it’s a lot easier and more fun to cover songs that you love. It’s only what The Beatles did and the Stones and The Who but they loved blues and we love reggae. Their hero was Bob Dylan and mine was Bob Marley.

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It sound like you’re still as passionate as ever about making music.

It’s the best job ever and i think I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world right now. I think this is the best thing we’ve done in 25 years.

How does your approach to a covers album differ from making an album of original material? It must be important to avoid doing anything like a note for note copy.

If there’s a secret to it, it’s that you have to stay true to the melody because that’s why you liked the song in the first place but then we do our take on it and we try and make it more accessible to a pop audience. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do really, When we started the band in the first place my main idea was because I loved reggae music I wanted to promote reggae music.

Just like I loved dub and I wanted to spread the word about that. There’s a song by Goldie Lookin Chain and one of the lyrics goes “I wouldn’t know what dub was if it wasn’t for UB40” and hearing that for the first time was one of my proudest moments. The first dub album we did was our third album I think. Present Arms had gone in at number two and we thought this is the perfect time to do a dub album and show people what it’s all about. A lot of people brought the album and then took it back to the shop saying it was faulty. No vocal and some strange echoey sounds. But if you look all around the world at pop music today so much of it is informed by reggae beats. People like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande even The Script. I saw them the other day doing a reggae track. The Sly Dunbar beat, the Bogle beat, that’s what contemporary dance music is at the moment. So reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been which makes me happy.

There’s some excellent artwork with the album and you’re auctioning some of it for charity. It’s nice to see performers taking an interest in the music as an artefact for a change. We used to love reading the album sleeves and looking through the racks at the record shop but now it’s all electronic, living in download world as we do.

It can be a bit soul destroying when you spend a year or two of your life making an album from its inception to the point where it’s finished and you spend all that time and all that money and all that effort and then you see people listening on little white headsets coming out of their phones. It’s like why was I worried about getting the bottom end to sound just right and trying to marry the bass drum and the bass guitar perfectly; it all seems a bit futile but it’s what we do. When you go back and you’re re-recording tracks that you remember as classics they always seem a bit rougher than you remember them. So it’s nice to go in and do a clean version and try and reduce it as best I can.

You act as the producer on the album. Is that something you’ve always done.

UB40 have always produced their own around music and I like to be there at the mix because there’s nobody else who knows better than I do how I want it to sound. We had Sly and Robbie mix for us but even though they’re geniuses and we love them it’s never been exactly what we wanted out of our own music. We believe we’re the ones who know what it’s meant to sound like.

Any particular favourite tracks on this album that you’d recommend we go listen to?

I think people should go and have a look at the funny little movie that goes with She Loves Me Now. It’s a terrifying thing to follow in the footsteps of Dennis Hammond I felt the same way when we did Many Rivers To Cross. It’s a tall order. I had a lot of sleepless nights and worry because he’s one of my favourite singers. It’s a bit like taking on Stevie Wonder. That’s got to be one of my favourite tracks on the album because it’s one of my favourite songs of all time anyway.

You’ve got lots of festivals lined up and an arena tour as well so you’re going to have a busy few months.

We’re doing mostly festivals in England and Europe this year. I still love touring and playing live. As I said I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment we’ve we’ve had Morgan Heritage play with us, and Inner Circle and and Jo Mersa Marley. Raging Fyah too, they’re one of my favourite bands of the moment.

Well thanks for the chat, congratulations again on the album and we’ll hope to catch one of your summer festival shows.

Thank you.

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Interview: Jess Clemmons

 
Jess Clemmons first came to the attention of British music fans a couple of years ago with the release of Here We Go Again, her debut album with The Bandits and one of the most exciting country rock albums we’ve heard in recent years. Many of the people who now count themselves fans first heard of her when her version of “Wichita Lineman” was played by DJ Terry Wogan, who afterwards declared it to have been even better than the Glen Campbell original. Praise indeed.

Since then she’s been a regular visitor to the U.K., touring all over the country and winning a large following. Last year her second album, Smoke and Mirrors was released. It was selected as one of the highlights of 2017 by Country Magazine and the lead single “Sister” received extensive airplay from the BBC.

She’s back on tour in the U.K. in February, kicking off at Fruit in Hull on February 6th and if you’re a fan of top notch country music then we’d highly recommend a trip to the north bank to catch the show. We got to talk to Clemmons about music, marriage and the perspicacity of small dogs, and we started by asking about the distinctive change of sound on the material on the new album.

idp: Let me start by congratulating you on Smoke And Mirrors. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and it’s an excellent thing. It has a distinctly different sound to Here We Go Again. A little less country rock, a little more pop and gospel. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just happen, like a natural progression?

Jess Clemons: It was absolutely deliberate. The last thing that we ever want to do is to try to recreate something we’ve already done. There’s a kind of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” it trap and some performers and bands fall right into it. It’s easier but it also means that you don’t grow as an artist and you don’t give the audience something new. Making a big change to your sound involves taking a chance and that’s why we spent a whole year working on the songs for the new album to try to get the best of both worlds – still recognizably the established Jess And The Bandits sound but with plenty of the new in there as well.

Jess And The Bandits By Sam J Bond

idp: Did it feel like a risk?

JC: Well there were certainly lots of times when I was in panic mode because much of this was so different from anything we’d done before but that was mostly before I’d really started living with these songs, sharing them with friends and colleagues. Gradually it came to feel less strange. I would take the old album and choose a song to play at random, and then I’d play one of the new ones and I came to realize that there was a coherence between the songs – a big similarity in the body of work, which is exactly what you want. I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together because when you’re in a club playing live you don’t want it to sound like you’re performing songs that don’t belong together. So I’m really glad that I went with my gut and that my management team supported me and I decided to take a risk and go for it.

idp: There’s a lot of gospel influence on the album. Is that something that you grew up with? You seem to drop into the groove very easily.

JC: I did grow up singing in the choir and the gospel feel as always been a part of me. It used to hurt that whenever I would get a solo in church I was always given the gospel part and I used to say, “I want to sing the pretty little songs,” but soon I decided that I’d embrace it. When I decided to use the gospel sound on the new album it felt really good because I felt I was getting back touch with the gospel tradition within myself that I had not made use of for a long time. It was like I was going back to my roots and to being a little girl again.

idp: There’s an extensive list of writers who contributed to the album, many of them working with you as co-writers. Do you enjoy collaboration?

JC: I love it and I got to work with some fantastic writers on Smoke and Mirrors. Femke Weidema, who co-wrote “Sister”, is actually the producer of the album and it’s great to work with a producer who is also a songwriter because you can see a song go from it’s very beginnings to being almost complete in just a few hours. Having her as a producer with such gave me such an advantage. And there’s Emily Shackleton as well. She wrote “Every Little Thing”, which was a big hit for Carly Pearce and she’s fantastic to work with.

idp: So you work in Nashville but you live in Houston?

JC: I’m in Houston now and I think I have been here for longer than I’ve ever been but I’ve taken full advantage of the downtime including getting married. I’m Mrs Peavey now. I’m getting used to that but it still feels a bit weird writing it down. I’ll get used to that soon.

idp: I understand that your dog told you that he was the right one.

JC: Unfortunately my puppy died a couple of months ago but he was always very protective about who was around me. He was just a little dog but he was one of those little dogs who think they’re very big dogs. But when Chris was around he would just cuddle right up and I thought that if I hadn’t already figured out that he was the one then maybe I should just pay attention to the dog.

Jess And The Bandits By Sam J Bond
 
idp: I think you were also hit by hurricane Harvey.

JC: Oh yes that was precisely why we had to postpone the U.K. tour last year. It was scheduled and I had been in the U.K. for a month getting ready and everything was all set and then I got the word that my parents home and been severely affected. It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed especially from thousands of miles away. I spoke to my mum and she said, “Do what you have to do,” but I could have hear the pain in her voice so I asked, “Do you want me to come home?” and she just burst into tears and said “Yes.” I said, “Right I’m going home, people will understand.” She’s okay now. She’s back in the house and it’s coming together slowly. They don’t have a kitchen yet but they do have a bedroom and a bathroom.

idp: You also issued an old fashioned Christmas CD which has lots of U.K. country performers on it and a song by Gary Quinn. What do you think of the current U.K. country scene?

JC: I’m a big fan. I’ve been touring the U.K. since 2016 and I’ve seen the country scene develop so fast. I love the way a lot of U.K. country artists are using their own heritage to make authentic British country music. It’s not just a question of copying the U.S. music anymore.

idp: Are we expecting a mixture of new material and old when the tour comes round?

JC: Absolutely. It’s good to be starting in Hull because Fruit is an excellent venue and we’re hoping for a good crowd. I’ll try and put in the songs that people really love plus some from the new album and hopefully people will have had time to get to learn some of them and sing along.

idp: I’m sure they will. Have a great tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Hull.