Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Singer and musician DUANE STEPHENSON talks about imparting message through his music and learning as he goes

ART AND LIFE: "I like to step outside of my comfort zone," shares singer-songwriter Duane Stephenson.

Pulling on the heart and mind concerns he has for his fellow man, singer-songwriter Duane Stephenson crafts music that warms the heart and challenges the mind. Not surprisingly, his authentic, lyrically sound take on life and love led to the warm reception of his debut album From August Town and its recently released follow-up, the critically acclaimed Black Gold, which delivers a hypnotic blend of rootsy reggae and soulful, bluesy echoes of world music. TALLAWAH recently caught up with the 33-year-old crooner, fresh from touring overseas, to talk about attracting new fans of his sound and lending his voice to the cries of the less fortunate.

You recently released your second album, Black Gold. From what you’ve gleaned, how have fans and radio been responding to the songs?
So far, all the responses from fans and critics have been excellent. The fans certainly love it because it shows a bit of growth, and the critics speak to the fact that I write in a very lyrically mature style. So right now it’s all about promoting the album as I move forward. And that is what music is about for me – pleasing the listeners.

How did you find the experience of touring with The Wailers in the United States earlier this month?
It was an American tour that took us between Maine and New Orleans, South Carolina and Kentucky – and those kinds of shows are a little different from what I am used to. It’s a much broader audience, so I got a lot of new listeners, and the response has been great. Over the summer, I had done a one-week run with [The Wailers], but this recent tour was a full three weeks, which was much more intense. We sometimes had to do some long drives for hundreds of miles. But I’m not complaining; I like to get different touring experiences. I like to step outside of my comfort zone.

People were first introduced to you when you sang with To-Isis. For any artiste leaving a group to strike out as a solo act the transition can be difficult. How have you been making the adjustment?
The adjustment was a bit rough at first, because I was in To-Isis for almost 10 years, and when you’re in a group sometimes you are able to take a little rest and maybe step into the back a little. But as a solo artiste you can’t do that; you have to put in 250 percent. You can’t afford for any loopholes. So it’s much more work, of course. And what I also like is that as a solo act you get to tell your own stories and express your own views in your own creative way.

Your music largely champions the down-trodden. Why that route?
Reggae has always been heavily based on social commentary, about the experiences of people in the society, and I’m passionate about that. Plus, I am from August Town, and I still live there. In my music, even though some of the issues I deal with are harsh realities, I try to put an undertone of hope to it, and speak to the people I know who can help the people who are suffering. In life, you have to be grateful, and give a little.

What are the toughest lessons you’ve had to learn as an ascending singer and musician?
In Jamaica, one of the main challenges is getting adequate air time because there are so many of us, and it’s a very competitive atmosphere out there. But patience is very important; you have to be patient, and learn to listen. And then expand on what you learn. Personally, I have had to realise that in my music I am painting a picture for the world, not just a local corner in the community.

So that’s your secret weapon?
Yes, definitely. Do your music in a way that a man elsewhere in the world can relate to it. Your stories should always go somewhere, and should have a start, middle and an end. Also, one of the things that mean a lot to me is when parents come up to me and tell me that their kids can play my CD without having to skip any songs. It really means a lot, and that’s how I want my music to impact people.

What’s on your music player right now?
Right now, I’m listening to some Tarrus Riley, Queen Ifrica, Peter Tosh, Lucky Dube and a little Bob Marley. I also listen to a lot of country and western, plus I have a compilation of alternative music that I play every now and again. For me, good music is good music; it has no boundaries.

What is your approach to meditation?
Before a show, I try to find a quiet corner and relax and focus on what I’m going to do, because mi easy fi shame (Laughs). At home, I am a movie fanatic. That is how I relax.

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