Grace Jones Interview

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Earlier this year, I fulfilled a decades-long dream to chat with Ms. Grace Jones, reaching her in the countryside of Jamaica on the occasion of the release of Bloodlight and Bami, an interview that ran over at Rolling Stone.

Below is the full transcript of our chat, which goes a bit more into her grandchild, family dynamic, and her love of dancehall:

Where are you now?

Jamaica. It’s absolutely beautiful. I try to stay about six months out of the year, in and out. But I’m here a lot. Nowhere else like Jamaica.

In the film, we see you visiting your newborn granddaughter. How old is she now and how is it being a grandmother?

She’s fantastic. She’s nine now. She’s full of energy and super-talented. She paints, she plays piano, she dances. She comes over and gets into all of my clothes and does fashion shows and talent shows for me. it’s a lot of fun. She’s vey athletic as well, she loves to swim like I do.

Do you see yourself in her?

Of course. She’s very independent and very strong from when she was very little. I remember walking with her in the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and she didn’t want to hold anybody’s hands, so she got knocked over by the crowds. I love that independence of her. She loves coming to Jamaica for Christmas, never wants to leave.

You talk about the Jones family in the film, that they “act younger as they get older.” Do you feel that way?

I guess so but I hope that I’m wiser anyhow. We start looking younger, but I hope to be wiser. Not to reflect on how you look but what you’ve learned.

What struck you about Sophie’s film?

Ah well (laugh)…what struck me was that I thought it was going to be so difficult to pull together. We had so much material after twelve years and I didn’t see any of the film before it was finished. I love the way it went in and out of the performance side, the recording side. She really captured the stuff that you go through as you are recording and working and doing talk shows and performances. And then coming in and out of the family and the whole part of me in Jamaica with my family, the way she went back and forth connecting the private intimate life of me to the part where you’re performing out there onstage with me. I just loved the way she saw that vision, because I lived it like that.

Was there a part of the film where you thought it was too personal? Too revealing?

No never! Sophie when she was filming was like a fly on the wall. Obviously, I felt very comfortable with her, so she was like an insider. I felt like I could be myself. I’m sure there was plenty of other stuff that didn’t even get in there.

Sophie also made a film about your brother, a preacher in Los Angeles. What was it about that film that made you decide to let her tell your story?

The film with my brother was completely different. It was dealing with the church and how he deals with all of that, and then about him. I don’t think it went as intimate on our film as it did with him. That’s how I met her initially, I was invited to a screening for my brother’s film. And we hit it off and we just got along really great. And I just said, we should do something. I also saw her other films, the one about the German artist and I knew she definitely has a vision and a passion for what she’s doing. So I felt completely safe in a way that I could be unsafe. You know? If you know what I mean. I felt really safe with her so that I could also let everything hang out. Literally!

When I think about you in films, A View to a Kill, Conan the Destroyer, Boomerang, or even A One Man Show, there’s this distance and this toughness and the film reveals a more intimate side of you.

In those films, I’m playing characters. I’m trying to make sure you don’t think about Grace Jones in those films, you think about May Day or Zula or Strangé, I try to make sure those characters were completely apart from Grace Jones in performance.

Did you like your shout-out in Black Panther?

Yeah! I was told that before I went and saw it. I just saw the film when I saw it in Los Angeles and I’m going to see it again here in Jamaica. I saw too close to the screen with my brother –who is near-sighted—and I’m far-sighted, so I want to see it again. It was quite funny getting mentioned in that movie. I did a film called Shaka Zulu: The Last Great Warrior where I play an African Queen, so I went wow, it brought all that back in a way. it was very interesting.

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Your 1982 longform video/ concert film A One Man Show is a classic of the era, but it’s never been available digitally. Is there any chance it will ever be reissued?

Well, we’re talking about it, Chris Blackwell and I, we were producers of that. it would be fantastic. I remember David Bowie that the performance of that film, you could just bring it out again and again after so many years, because it was really so far ahead of its time. People had their mouths falling down when they watched it, it was so different at the time. It really does stand the test of time, so we are talking about doing that, actually. I just hope we can find it. I hope we can find the masters!

In the film, there’s footage of you in the studio with Sly & Robbie working on Hurricane and you quip about “emotional blackmail” on Robbie to get them there. During the ‘80s, you worked with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Trevor Horn to C+C Music Factory so what led you to back to Sly & Robbie some 26 years after working with them on Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life?

When Chris Blackwell put Sly & Robbie together with me in 1980, I believe that being Jamaican and getting to know me, it just felt right. It just felt like this is what my voice together with them… they’re like my brothers. I fight with them, I beat them up, but we’re like brothers and sisters. My voice just seems to just meld perfectly with their rhythms, with their style. I love the fat bass, the percussion and rhythms. And I think they experiment more with me than with probably anyone else. We don’t mind experimenting together.

Did your songwriting approach change for Hurricane? Some songs seem more autobiographical than on other albums?

I like to write autobiographical songs but it was less before than it became on Hurricane. Some of the songs on Hurricane, Williams Blood for example, was written with Wendy and Lisa, we just didn’t release it. we went into the catalog, for me when it’s a really good song, it’s a really good song forever, its not a trend. But songs like “Art Groupie,” “Nipple to the Bottle,” “Inside Story” that was autobiographical as well.

Are you working on a new album now?

Yes! I’ve been working on it for five years now. Hopefully another month to just work and not go anywhere and not have outside things happening. Between my memoir, the touring, and now the film, we have to keep putting it on hold. But it’s very, very powerful. Sly & Robbie are on there in bits and pieces. I always call them in and say “Let’s see what you can do with this.” And they always find something.

I’m sure you get asked about this part in your memoir where you dismiss most modern pop stars for not being original and having their own vision. But I wonder what you thought about Jamaican singers of that era, dancehall artists like Patra, Lady Saw, and the like. Did you ever want to make a dancehall album?

Back in the day, I didn’t think about making dancehall necessarily. But we do have a dancehall track that I’ve been performing live and on tour, but we haven’t put it in record form yet. It’s called “Shenanigans” and it has a dancehall riddim to it but when we record it, I’d like it to drop even heavier, with a bit more edge. It’s still too sweet still. When we finally do it, it needs to be edgier.

Oh I love dancehall! I also love when Chris Blackwell did the film Dancehall Queen. It’s fantastic. I try to that whole bottom-shaking, twerking movement and almost broke my neck standing on my head to get my ass twerking. It’s really hard! But I’m taking lessons.

In the film, you reference Timothy Leary and also talked about disco as being “church with people on hallucinogens dancing,” so I wonder how influential LSD was on you in terms of your development?

Oh absolutely! It was like therapy, the way that I did it. I was born again in my own way. my eyes opened, the world got bigger but smaller at the same time. Bigger in the sense that it was mind-opening, it freed me up. I was a nudist during that time as well, so you get comfortable with yourself naked. And then from there, you see how small the world really is when you start traveling all over the place. I was hitchhiking. One time I even hitchhiked to Paris on acid. It was amazing. You meet welcoming people, welcoming and good conversations and then growing from that. You learn just how small the world really is. It just encouraged learning and growing really with me. that’s what I did. I felt like a gypsy going around the globe.

I always wanted to go to outer space, too. I always wanted to do a concert in outer space with David Bowie, Michael Jackson and myself. At one point I was like, let’s just call Bill Gates and have him fund it for outer space.

Sadly, it would just be you now.

Well now, with all the technology, you never know. Now we can just have a virtual reality concert in space.

 

Nic Roeg’s Musical Legacy

Roeg

“Perhaps it’s a no-brainer to cast Jagger as a reclusive rock star, especially one able to mesmerize the moment an audience’s gaze falls upon him, but it was inspired casting to see that beneath the sleek veneer, the Thin White Duke could easily be an alien.”

My tribute to the late Nic Roeg and his unparalleled musical sensibilities in his films, for Vulture.

Neneh Cherry interview

Neneh

“There was frustration and anger and at the same time, that is provoked by consciousness. You’re on the edge because you’re conscious of the fact that things are wrong. We live in a time like that now. There’s a thin line because people are frustrated and unhappy [with] the way that things are going and there’s a very strong sense of neglect. Education is crumbling, health care and economic survival, fascism, racism, we’re right there and it’s washing over us everyday.”

Neneh Cherry on her lifetime of making music amid broken politics, for Vulture.

Clube Da Esquina

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“I was eating a piece of bread that someone had given me, because I was starving. And I was barefoot. But I never knew I was on the cover of a record. My mother will be thrilled. We never had a photo of me as a boy.”

Last month, I went deep on one of my favorite albums of all-time, Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges’ exquisite double album, Clube Da Esquina for Pitchfork’s Sunday Review.

Midori Takada interview

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In May, I wrote a feature for the New York Times about Japanese composer/ percussionist Midori Takada, “How a Digital Rabbit Hole Gave Midori Takada’s 1983 Album a Second Life.” Like many people, I became enchanted with her wondrous album Through the Looking Glass via a YouTube algorithm and it was an honor to speak with her about her music and her outlook on the world. She spoke slowly (English is not her first language) yet with a steady pulse and as we talked, a sense of great calm and serenity overtook me. Transcribing our conversation later, that same sense of steadiness and peace returned. It’s odd to say this, but talking with Midori is meditative and one of the most affecting interviews I’ve ever conducted.

How does it feel to play in Europe and US?

This is first time for me to tour in the US. But I think same feeling. I give something to audiences. Each one individually received my sound. I always play to each person. I imagine each person to give my sound to each person. Whether in Europe, Africa, Asia or USA, it doesn’t matter, each person is important. My vision is to give individually my sound, to give my sound to each one.

It’s like church and receiving communion. When did you start playing drums?

When I was 13 years old, I was entered into the orchestra for children. There I started playing the snare drum. At the very beginning for training, I practiced on a wooden board. After one year, I played a real snare drum.

What made you continue with the drums?

For years, I continued to play just snare drum. I felt interested in it because my right side and left side were moving simultaneously or individually moving as a result of different sounds and rhythms. Making rhythms is very interesting for me so I continued playing.

Were there other drummers that you liked?

No no no. In my childhood, I didn’t have any machines for playing vinyl. So I just played by myself. I didn’t hear other drummers. Then I didn’t have other influences.

In the reissue it states that while you were with the Berlin Orchestra, you had reservations about western classical music.

There was no specific person. Before TtLG, I went to Bali. I learned gamelan music and before that, I listened to African music on vinyl. In Japan, there’s very little information about African music. I just got two vinyl records on Nonesuch Explorer: one was Tanzanian music, the other one was from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I went to Bali to study gamelan. In java, gamelan is court music, but in Bali, it’s farmer music.

During my study of classical music, I came to know the work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Before that, I knew traditional African music and was interested in it because of the cross direction of the rhythms. When I had debut concert in Paris, I certainly noticed I can’t continue this situation because that type of music needs so many instruments and musicians. For playing that type of music, I needed, it was economically difficult to sustain. With world music, it was simple to get for everybody so I at that moment I encountered African music, they have very few materials. People say it’s poor, but I think it’s a very rich philosophy. From very few materials, they produce rich sounds just using their body and hands. How to make a worldly sound by your body and with simple materials is an important thing I sought. If I continued to play westernized contemporary music, it needs many more instruments like an orchestra. But in one kettle drum, it has so many sounds from only one skin on the head of the drum. How to produce them is important, I thought.

Then I gradually changed my thought for music. I played and learned minimal music and African music. after that I went to Bali and learned gamelan music and Asian music.

What does Mkwaju mean?

Mkwaju means tamarind tree.

Did you study in Africa?

Just for performance I went to Africa. It’s very hard to get information on African music in Japan, so I copied from the vinyl, writing down the rhythm structures and tried it by myself, playing and using right and left hand and learning how to control them. Because right hand plays 5 beats, left hand plays 4 beats, that’s African music, the polyrhythm, simultaneously, different time signatures. It changed my body.

In what way?

Day by day, I trained without any emotions, just like a machine, playing in one same tempo, same sound, controlling the sound to make something like the chanting of a mantra. Playing 5 and 4 simultaneously. At the same time, I learned from Korean music. Playing these cycles, sometimes 7 beats or 20 beats, I trained every day and gradually my body changed.

After two records, Mkwaju Ensemble disbanded because of money issues, and then you had financial issues making Through the Looking Glass. Was it stressful, or difficult to make it, with no money or with financial constraints?

Not stress, because playing solo I am very free to use materials, because playing solo is just you and your materials. I don’t need to buy something; don’t need to make preparations for big instruments. Economically, it was very good for me. Not stressed.

What is your memory of making Through the Looking Glass? Do you have a distinct memory of recording and the process?

I was given only two days for recording in the studio and making overdubs so I couldn’t spend time writing notes and music scores, I didn’t have time for that. I couldn’t rest, I was just memorizing what I would play. But the engineer and producer didn’t understand what I wanted to make. I felt great solitude in the studio.

Only I knew how the album would end. So in my brain, just in my sight, I knew the ending for the album, but it was incremental, one song I recorded or sometimes one phrase recorded. But at the moment, the staff didn’t understand what was happening. During those two days, it required great concentration to make all the sounds. It was a very hard time for me. Four pieces recorded in two days. It’s so, so hard time; but on the other side, I felt happiness, because that’s the first solo recording I had made.

But then you didn’t record your own music for the rest of the decade. Do you even wish that you had the chance to record more?

After Through the Looking Glass, I knew that my music was not popular, so there was no offer to make a new one. It doesn’t matter if the musical industry is like that. I don’t care, so I continued to make music and composition, but I didn’t have time to record.

Is the album named after the Lewis Carroll book?

Yes. Lewis Carroll’s rhetoric of Through the Looking Glass is like the reversal of time, or the turnover of time. From that, I had this idea of space. Through the Looking Glass is meaning of the world of looking through a different perspective.

There’s a YouTube video of your album that many, many people saw, and it had two million views. Did you ever see that?

I have not really. I didn’t know that, because I don’t do social media. Even a PC, I didn’t have one. (laughs) And no way to play music in my home. I just work in studio, and I don’t hear any music in home. I didn’t know that, but … But I knew later, many young people think that the TTLG sounds made by computer. I noticed that nobody thinks that someone played this by hand, all acoustic, because it’s not very economical. Nowadays it’s easy to play it by electronics, but I played it myself, of course, by acoustic. I made the album as a perspective of sounds so when this new generation listened, they felt something different, recognizing the space.

What do you think it is that made young people, I guess, understand it in a way that maybe in 1983 it wasn’t understood?

Even the staff at the studio couldn’t understand it. I was misunderstood. On the difference of culture and history, I was in touch with many cultures that have possibility to share the music.

Do you think that now you have the chance to share this music with new audience?

Yeah. My sound is very close to the nature of … Nature, then it’s a result, that people could get the … my sound, and … I believe in its sensibility. I believe in the sensibility of human, and the possibility of the human. The individual has the possibility to share.

Jacob (who co-released the album) says it’s not as popular in Japan as it is in Europe and America.

It’s difficult playing in Japan. When people have their own concert, it needs much more money. For that, no sponsors, no help, especially for an obscure artist like me. It’s very contemporary, experimental, it’s … nobody paid money for that. People like very classical music or Japanese pop music or … so … Then, I working just in studio.

Are you excited to play in New York City?

Yes, yes, yes, very, very, very much. People in New York is very busy. If they have the chance to hear my music, maybe I could give different time.

Music for game, listening to music for games; but earphones, still, it … it’s not good for brain. It comes, it make weakness for the sensibility, for outside. To outside people, doesn’t matter what’s happened outside. What’s happened is, other, other people … For instance, in train, and street, people doesn’t notice what’s happened outside. Doesn’t pay full attention that … so it makes human weak. Then … Electric mix is … Now it’s important for life, but at the same moment, I think it’s important to get natural sound. Because ear of … Sense of ear, sensibility of ear, is very important for the … Now, it’s open for the environment, and to the world.

Failed Ethnomusicology in SE Asia

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Recently, The Believer digitized their archives. Which means you can now read about a three-month trek through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia I took back in 2008. Under the influence of the Sublime Frequencies label at the time, I was in part preparing for an interview with Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop, one of the label’s co-founders. That interview is here and has been anthologized quite a few times. At the same time, I also went in search of molam myself, to slightly disastrous results. Follow along on the map.

Dennis Wilson: Holy Man

Dennis Wilson

“If Wilson’s a holy man, then he’s of the Mr. Natural variant, with a prodigious sexual appetite that conquered such lays as President Regan’s daughter, Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, fellow Beach Boy Mike Love’s illegitimate teenage love child, and the clap-bearing ‘daughters’ of the Manson Family.”

Holy Man originally appeared at The Fanzine.