Courtney John is a singer-songwriter from Jamaica whose music spans the spectrum of reggae and electronic. With his new group, The Courtney John Project, he has created a new sound now known as ‘rootstronic’. Most recently an older song of his, Lucky Man, was brought back to life through the recent John Favreau movie ‘Chef’, which is when I first discovered Courtney John and since became a huge fan. He was kind enough to speak with me over the phone from Jamaica and share his insights into creating great music and living a good life.
Hi Courtney, how are you?
Are you in Jamaica at the moment?
Yes, I’m in Jamaica.
Thanks a lot first of all for taking the time to speak with me, it’s great to catch you.
No worries man.
I came across your music kind of recently and since then became addicted to some of your songs. Actually it was from the Chef movie that I first discovered ‘Lucky Man’. You probably got a lot of new fans from that, right?
Oh yeah man, it’s unreal man. It’s every day.
That song was in a Lynx ad a few years ago too, right?
Yes, it was.
How does that kind of collaboration come about? Someone just discovers your song and a movie producer calls you up and asks to use your song?
Yeah, actually it goes through my office, you know? I think it is a little bit of both. A serendipity kind of moment, you know?
Sure, that’s when all the best things happen.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your background, that you are from a musical family and started writing very young?
Yes, I grew up in Saint Mary, which is on the north-east side of Jamaica. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Jamaica, but it’s the parish that is bordering Portland and Saint Andrew. So, you know, I grew up living the typical what you would think is Jamaican life. If you envision what life is like in Jamaica, I grew up living that. The river, beach, the mangoes, the coconuts. It’s almost that, the stereotypical island man kind of lifestyle (laughing).
Is Jamaica very much like that? It’s a really rasta place and very chilled out sort of thing?
It is very much like that. I think a lot of the time people get confused with the urban lifestyle and that gets echoed bigger than real Jamaican lifestyle, which is really reserved, very chilled, very respectable, very hard working, you know?
Yeah. Is that kind of environment very conducive to creative output like writing and music and other artistic endeavours?
It is. Depends on what you seem to want to write, you know? Because obviously living in a place like Kingston you are exposed to so much because everybody is trying to ‘look it’. You know, the educated, the young, the old, everybody, it is really the place where the jobs and the opportunities are. So you see everything that exists in the society in Kingston. You see the rich, you see the poor, you see the crime, you see everything. While in the country, you are not exposed to everything that goes on in Kingston. Because you still have places in Jamaica where people can sleep with their doors and windows open, you know? So an artist that is based in the country will not have the experiences of an artist based in Kingston. So therefore the writing could be different, you know?
Sure. It influences your whole life experience and what you can write about.
And when you were growing up yourself did you have a focus on songwriting alone, or was it with friends and guitars, or…
When I was younger writing it was mostly just writing in terms of song and melody, melody and lyrics. Because we weren’t privileged to instruments and those sorts of things, which would have been a little more towards a certain thing of money, right? So it was just mostly lyrics and melody, and as I got older… a friend gave me a guitar, I taught myself how to play, and then I bought myself a little Roland keyboard. Normally I would go to the studio and I would sing just the song and melody, but most times when they’d play a progression I normally wouldn’t like what they played to match my melody. Because obviously it is two different energies, two different vibes. So after I invested my time into learning guitar and playing the keyboard, then I started writing like full songs. In Jamaica we have a culture where we write to what we call rhythms, or overseas they would call it beats. So we still have a lot like that that we do, like say you know, I just did a project with some French producers and they would send me beats and I would write topline to them. But primarily I focus on writing, depends on the vibe, I write with the guitar, or I write with my keyboard.
Okay. Would you say you were influenced by any particular musicians when you were coming up yourself? Was it a kind of traditional influence like Bob Marley, and The Toots and the Maytals, or the American funky sounds, or what do you think?
Well it started out with home grown talent because obviously this is my home. It’s home first. I’m still a big lover of that rocksteady era, it’s one of my favourite eras of Jamaican music. The Cornel Campbell, Slim Smith, Paragons, you know, all of those singers. And then obviously branched off into the whole reggae vibe. But because roots reggae didn’t place much emphasis on singing, it was more about message. I was more captivated with the singers, the projection of the voice, the harmonies, you know? I was more intrigued with the singer singers. The Altan Ellis, the Dennis Brown, you know? And then, because in the country back then we didn’t have cable, so it was only two TV stations, so the radio was really like the epicenter for entertainment. And then we listened to the BBC, and the other dude from American, Dick Clark, they would have the top 40. So I got introduced to a lot of American music, soul music, the motown era, the Philly sound, you know? Curtis Mayfield is also a very big inspiration. I like the social commentary with music. So even if it’s social music, the Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’, those kinds of stuffs, you know?
And then you are trying to keep your own sound to keep music progressive I guess. How do you balance creating something very new while also taking music from previous decades? How do you make something old become super fresh again?
First thing I try to do as an artist is just to be honest. I be honest about what I’m writing about… Because I’m always writing. I pretty much write every day, so I try to be as exposed as possible. So, whether or not I’m in touch with what’s going on around the world, what’s going on in Jamaica. And then you know, I kind of lend myself to those topics. I don’t write songs because I think ‘okay I have to write this and this because it’s gonna be successful or this is going to make it to the top 40’, I just try to be honest. And I do a lot research. I listen to a lot of music. I listen to all the artists music to get inspired and see what they are doing. And I think right now where I am as an artist and what I see all the influence technology has in daily life, I try to coordinate that into the music. It’s pretty much trying to create an even balance. So even though you are doing something new you still try to keep some of it nostalgi and, you know? And remember where you’re coming from.
I would say maybe a theme of Jamaican music is that it has a balance of being chill but also always has a positive note. All of the music is very upbeat in nature, in general.
Yes, we do have that about us in terms of the approach to music. Because, a lot of people here do have the freedom to be expressive, you know? Most artists are not signed to any major entity so there is not one who is saying ‘listen you have to make an album that speaks about this, or you can’t be political, or you can’t be sexual’, so, Jamaican artists do have that freedom to be expressive. And it’s good, and it can be bad (laughing). Because some people go overboard with it, but it’s good for the most part and that’s what I think the world really love about Jamaica.
And in your own writing process, do you let the songs come to you unconsciously, or is it a more organised process? Do you suddenly hear asong in your head or is it very structured?
Ah, I let it just come. Most time I will just open a track and just mumble, or sing, you know what I mean? When I’m listening back on those different takes and those mumblings then I hear lyrics. Somebody who’s just listening with a fresh ear don’t understand, it’s like a code. But then once it’s played back I start to pull lyrics from those mumblings. I be like ‘okay, hanna… hansa… hands down’, you know, that sort of thing. And then I start to do the lyrics. I rarely ever go into a songwriting session saying ‘okay here’s a topic, here’s what I’m gonna write about because it’s the topic of the day’. Unless it’s something that is really disturbing that I think I need to make a point… rarely ever happens.
Sure. It sounds a little like the hip-hop generation of ad libbing until they hit the right combination and it all starts to come together.
Yeah, maybe it’s a little of that. For me it’s a little bit more preparation still. I kind of have a sense of what I will be writing about for the next few months, based on what I’ve been exposed to. What’s going on around the world, you know? I will know when I’m gonna write a lover’s rap album, when I want to something that will appeal on a social level, you know? Because I lend myself to those exposures, yeah? You know, based on what the artists are that I’m listening, coming up, writing, recording. But once I’m in the studio I just allow the different elements to come out organically. I don’t force… I don’t say ‘well, I’m gonna write something about this today’. I just lend it, once it’s out, I just take fifteen, twenty takes of mumbling, and then I just listen what I hear in those mumblings and I take those lyrics out and I construct the song.
Cool. What was the background to ‘Lucky Man’?
The background to ‘Lucky Man’ was an original song done by The Paragons, ‘Worried Man’. Coincidentally I’d never heard the song to be honest. It’s just coincidence that my song is ‘Lucky Man’ and their song was ‘Worried Man’ (laughing). It was when finishing the song and we were doing a deal for the song that it was brought to my attention that the original song was called ‘Worried Man’. But it was done in the sixties, it is the original song done by Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. They were the original musicians, they were in the band The Satellites, but as session musicians they were Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. So The Paragons did the song ‘Worried Man’, so we just kind of used the instrumental and reworked it and created ‘Lucky Man’.
Cool, nice. And would you say there is any song from your whole collection that the public might not be familiar with but is one of your own favourites?
Oh, man. There’s so much. I mean, the good thing with music is that you just make it and it flows and flows until it reaches the ocean, you know? But there is a period, there is another song that I did called ‘So Beautiful’. There is another track that I really love called ‘Love Is’, that we did on the old melodeon track. Those songs are pretty much in the same line as ‘Lucky Man’ because it’s the same period. It’s the whole Tommy McCook, Supersonics… And I really enjoyed doing those songs because, like I said before, the rocksteady era was one of my favourites eras of Jamaican music.
Okay, right. Yeah, I’ve been listening to ‘I want to get next to you’, and ‘Love Is’, and they are great.
Yeah, thanks. Give thanks, give thanks. You know, it’s funny, rocksteady lasted only two years! It was a very short period of music but so much was made, you know?
Yeah, it’s a really cool funky sound. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about the Courtney Love Project, and how working as a group differs from being a solo artist?
Well, it’s interesting I should say (laughing). As a solo artist you have full autonomy right? Once you get into any group setting, you’re pretty much less precious about your creative ideas. So I don’t recommend it for artists who just want to hold on to what they want to do, you know? But nonetheless, it’s very… it has been great because I am also sharing a space with some very creative people. And so I allow myself to learn and see what other creative people are doing. It’s definitely worth the… it’s worth it I should say.
Cool. I read the Infectious Magazine breakdown of a lot of your songs, and I thought that was really interesting insight into the reasons behind the songs and how they are put together. Each song has a different process almost.
Yes, like I said, it’s a different way, it’s a different style so it takes a different process. Normally with the pure reggae material obviously you go in and run the song a few times and then you do… all the musicians take a cut and you go back you do vocals and you do overdubs. With the electronic stuff it seems easy but it’s a lot more intricate. You can do voice, you can do a song and then certain frequencies just don’t match. Once you put the vocals it doesn’t match, just the feel, the mood, there’s so many different elements that you have to play with when you step out of that acoustic vibe where basically a base is gonna sound like a base, a live drum is always… an open snare is always gonna be an open snare, you know?
Yeah, so it’s fun. I’m having a lot of fun with it I should say. Yeah, yeah.
Cool. And when you write songs do you want them to have a certain effect on people or do you prefer people to interpret it however they want?
Ah, it’s a little bit of both. There’s some things that I do where I’m like ‘Okay, I’m gonna mess with your head now. I’m gonna say this but I’m not gonna say that’, you know what I mean? Or, you know, because I do believe in making music that is thought provoking you know? That’s the fun behind it. There was a period when it wasn’t that cool but I think it’s getting back to that place where the indie bands and the cool music now is the in thing. Because there was a time when my management used to tell me that my music was too intricate, it was for intelligent people and I should dumb it down a little. But now, there’s so many bands out there that are making some real cool music that you have to think when you listen, you know?
Yeah. Usually when I listen to music myself, the first few times I listen I am more in the rhythm of the music and after a while I start to hear the lyrics. That was probably something I took from listening to hip-hop some years ago, how the beat can be really cool and after a while you realise that the lyrics are very clever as well.
Yes, yes. I do find that a lot of older hip-hop songs had that about them.
And on a personal level, I was wondering how you view yourself and what your own motivations and inspirations are behind your music?
Em, you know, the more I do it the less interested I get in terms of trying to make my music one direction in terms of message. I like to stay open to whatever is happening and what I think. Like I say, I’m not gonna… let’s write a song about ebola because it’s the biggest thing. But if I am writing a song and ebola comes up in it and it makes sense then I let it go, you know? It’s art, and oftentimes we don’t know the meaning of it until it interacts with people, or in my case the business and people interested in music, you know? I just want to make sure it’s done good. And all the elements that Jamaican connect is there, you know? Then the rest is just really up to… take for instance ‘Lucky Man’, right? I did that song in ‘09, and a lot of people because they are just discovering it, it’s almost like a new song. So if I had any reservations about, ‘are we doing this song… we need to make a million in the next year’, it would have seemed like a failure right? But because we just allow it to be, and it just goes, it is now reaching the ocean. So that’s how we make music. Obviously we do it for a business so I try to do as much to make sure it can take care of me and my family but a large part of it is really just do it great and allow it to have it’s own time with people. For me I’d love to enjoy it, don’t get me wrong (laughing). I believe in mortality (laughing). So I’d really love to enjoy some of the fruits from it. Whatever, you know? I just want to make music when people go back to it they can say ‘man, it was done properly’. So I’m not under that stress to say okay, write a song and if it doesn’t go into the top 20 tomorrow it’s…
Sure. Things get interpreted differently at different times.
Is there anything you could tell us that the fans might be surprised to know about the real Courtney John, something about the man behind the music that people might not be aware of?
Well, when people hear the music first without seeing my picture, they do think I’m a part of that 60’s (laughing). A lot of people when they do see the picture are surprised that I am a contemporary artist, and I’m relatively young, I’m not in my sixties, they are not discovering an artist from the 60’s you know (laughing)? I don’t know… with all social media thing there is not really much more to add as an artist, you know? People sort of, based on your tweet, based on your post, kind of sum up a whole idea about what an artist is like. They know what you like, they know your movies, they know your kind of food, you know? I guess the only thing with music and artists a large amount of people still have that perception that most of it can be centered around the aesthetics of the music industry. I’m very much loyal to the whole family life. I like the whole family… music is my life, but the business… family is first. So, I’m really family, I’m very chilled family, kind of relaxed.
Cool. I was wondering if there are any life lessons that have stuck with you throughout your career that you share with people?
For me, now, it’s always stick with the gut. I have diverted a few times from the gut and I have to come right back to the place that the gut was telling me in the first place. Mannnn, trust me. I’ve lost years because of going with different tides when you should really just follow your gut, you know?
Okay, cool. The last thing I was going to ask you is if you have any international tour plans for Ireland or Brazil?
Well we are looking into doing Europe next year in the summer. Festivals next year. I don’t hear anything about South America just yet. But we are in a very dynamic business where suddenly things can just happen. In another week we could have a number one song and it’s a whole different thing, you know (laughing)? But we will definitely be back out in The States for next year. We were supposed to do it this year but we are in the studio doing the next rootstronic album, we pushed it back… So, top of next year we will be back out west doing the tour, and after that we will look into doing Europe in the summer.
Cool. Do you put on shows in Jamaica too?
We do, we do. There’s not a lot of live shows that goes on in Jamaica. Obviously there is a recession now and live music takes a fair amount of money to produce. So when the opportunities do come up we play them, but they are not as much as before when times were much better.
Okay, cool. Well I hope to catch you somewhere soon. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you, thanks so much for your time.
Thanks for having me, and all the best.
Thanks a million.
Thanks again. You take care. Bless.
For more on Courtney John you can find him here:
Facebook: The Courtney John Project
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