INTERVIEWS

‘The Fight For Me Was Trying Keep As Many People As Possible Stable’ – How Jesse Royal Recorded His Sophomore Album Whilst Also Saving The People Of Jamaica

‘It was a time when people were finding it literally hard to get through. In war, sons who don’t have the heart of a warrior have to fight and at that particular time the fight for me was trying to keep as many people as possible stable. It was definitely a main focus and a big focus on mine.’

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It’s been well documented that professional musicians were some of the hardest hit by the global pandemic over the last eighteen months as they were forced to sit at home and couldn’t go on the road to earn their regular income – with some even being forced to pivot to other forms of revenue during this time – but I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone going on a journey during this period quite like fast rising and soon to be Jamaican reggae legend Jesse Royal. Instead of sitting on his ass during the pandemic and crying woe is me, Jesse not only managed to write and record several of the songs that make up his sophomore album ‘Royal’ – released last week – but also managed to repurpose his Palace Pickney Foundation to help out a load of people in his country who were decimated by the impact of the virus.

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The Palace Pickney Foundation – which counts Anthony Joshua and Stefflon Don amongst its patrons – was originally set up to facilitate Jamaican celebrities to visit schools and ‘reignite a fire in the youth’ by explaining to the children there that they’re not superstars that you see on the television 24/7 and revealing their stories and the decisions that they’ve made that have led them to their current status, hopefully inspiring them to do the same. During the pandemic though the focus was shifted as Royal was able to oversee a pivot of the Foundation to focus on helping out people who had lost their jobs and were no longer able to provide for their families because of the COVID-19 situation.

Caribbean mobile phone network Digicel partnered with the foundation to deliver food packages, water, phone cards and whatever else they could to help people ‘get through’ this time and this was mainly thanks to Royal facilitating it all. Again, that’s not how most musicians would have chosen to approach their role during the global pandemic but most artists don’t share a similar mission statement and ethos as Jesse Royal who really does believe that he’s on a mission to change the world – and the way he’s been going about it, he might just achieve it.

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Jesse Royal has loved reggae for as long as he can remember, citing his long standing friendship with Daniel Marley – the eldest grandson of Bob Marley – as the origin of it all. Royal moved from Maroon Town in St James to Kingston when he was eight years old and as fate would have it ended up sitting next to Marley on his first day of school, where the pair bonded over football and music – ‘we used to lean on sledgehammers and mops and we used to be Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers just singing along’ – and it wasn’t long before they were messing around on ProTools with their own stolen shitty mics and coming up with their own tunes.

At this point, Royal had no idea about a career in the music business and just loved reggae music and singing and it’s clear that even have almost a decade spearheading the ‘new reggae’ movement (I’m hesitant to use that term as Royal feels like reggae never went away, but this is how the mainstream media have described it), he still feels the exact same about the music he’s given his life to performing and creating. Indeed, as I sit speaking to him via Zoom, he can’t help but burst into song whilst recounting the anecdote about himself and Daniel, singing almost a whole verse of ‘Everyone Wants To Be The Cowboy’ before we continue the interview:

Jesse’s excellent second album ‘Royal’ was released a couple of weeks ago and I assumed that Jesse had probably been sitting on it throughout most of the pandemic like most musicians – there’s not really much point in releasing music if you can’t tour it, right? – as the first single ‘Lion Order’ dropped over three years ago. Turns out that they decided to release that tune before any other songs were written for the album – an unusual move in the music industry – but Jesse tells me that it just felt right. ‘The vibration was right and I was just feeling the vibe’ he tells me, and this very much seems to be the way he approaches pretty much everything in his life.

The song ‘Lion Order’ itself was a collaboration with long time friend Protoje and features a beat from Sean Alaric and Jason Panton that’s been described as both uplifting and militant, allowing Jesse and Protoje to deliver positive and constructive messages of being careful of the company we keep as well as identifying the strength of unity in our communities. The video sees the pair rocking around Kingston in both the green landscapes of the city and the junkyard of its industrialisation with a bunch of familiar faces from the Jamaican reggae scene popping up in cameos. It’s a lot of fun.

Even though the pandemic obviously slowed down the album release cycle for everyone, I still thought that most of ‘Royal’ would have been recorded ahead of last February/March, but it turns out that this wasn’t the case at all. ‘We really had to get creative,’ Jesse tells me, saying that he was involved in writing sessions with people on Zoom and FaceTime, often with someone in the studio who would lay the vocals down over the phone just so that they had a reference track at the end of the day.

That doesn’t sound like the best way to record the follow up to a number one Billboard Reggae record, but Jesse seemingly again seems to have taken it all in his stride, saying that he loved having to think out of the box to keep the process rolling. He used the following great analogy, which just might be the most Jesse Royal thing that he says during this whole interview – and there were a lot of Jesse Royalisms in this 45 minute chat – to explain the benefit of recording this way:

For me it’s always good that you can remember that there are a thousand ways that you can start a fire.

We’ve got so comfortable using a lighter or a match or a stove, but there are a thousand other ways when you get the opportunity.

It’s a mental exercise and it’s definitely been good for me.

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This seems to be the way that Jesse Royal approaches every problem in his life and a philosophy that more of us could do with following. He explains that his particular songwriting process always starts off coming from Jesse Royal – ‘whether the melody comes to me in the shower or on the football field’ – but as he’s grown as a musician he’s more open to trusting the creativity of those around him and trusting them to craft the perfect track. ‘I have absolutely no ego when it comes to music, I am a servant to music and it’s good to hear people I trust’s honest opinion about tracks – it’s only going to make them better’.

That being said, ‘Royal’ is also notable for its collaborations with several other of Jamaica’s biggest reggae stars and Jesse explains that these partnerships were very deliberate in his mind when he was choosing them: ‘I know who I want and why I want that person and I know the tone of conversation that needs to be had to round out the song. Then I just step back and let them express their creativity’. Seems like Royal has a plan for everything – and they usually seem to work out for the guy. 

This attention to detail and  can be seen on one of the standout tracks of the album ‘Rich Forever’ which he recruited Vybz Kartel to aid him create. The song features the pair contemplating the true meaning meaning of wealth outside of material goods and instead connecting the idea to faith and hard work, all over some excellent bouncing roots reggae production. The video sees Royal spreading the wealth to those around him in the beautiful hills of Kingston with cameos from Protoje and Popcaan as well as a delightful animated cameo for Vybz Kartel’s verse: 

I’ve already mentioned how Jesse Royal’s love for reggae music is clear and infectious just from talking to him about anything, but when you hear him talk about the genre of music then this is apparent on a whole different level and you realise how much he really does believe he’s on a quest to bring reggae to every corner of the planet. I think this quote was the one the made it clearest to me and summed the guy and his mission up very – it’s clear that he views reggae music as his life work:

Reggae is the ting that keeps the heart pumping and the tubes clear so it’s important for us to be there in service to humanity.

What we do in reggae music isn’t really for us as musicians, it’s literally a burning desire to share this message and get as many people aboard as possible.

Oh man what a wonderful world that would be.

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Although his life’s purpose seems very clear to the guy now, things haven’t always been so clear and easy for Jesse as he freely admits that he was a very troubled youth whilst he was in high school and this forced his mother to send him to college up in Niagara Falls on a football (soccer) scholarship – although bizarrely this was bizarrely this exile led to him deciding upon a ‘career’ on reggae music. Jesse was unsure what he wanted to do with his life at this point, but Daniel Marley was living in Miami at the time and Jesse would regularly visit him to continue making music in their spare time. As luck would have it, one day his father Stephen – a man Jesse lovingly refers to as Uncle Steven – overheard some of the music that they were working on and inquired as to who had written it.

The track in question was Jesse collaborating with both Daniel and Kurt White from Crash Dummy Productions on a dance hall number and Stephen (pictured below) was so impressed that he immediately recounted to Jesse the following speech, which Royal remembers word for word and admits changed his life:

You have to know yourself in a life and everybody gets something special and what’s going to make you special in life is figuring out what that is and honing it.

The earlier you learn what it is the better for you.

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With those words, Jesse immediately knew that he wasn’t going back to Canada and was instead going to pursue a life of making reggae music and bringing it to the people. The only problem was that now he had to tell his mother – ‘I wanted to stop wasting her time and money, but how do you break that to your parents?’ – and although Jesse admits that he was really nervous about this, she understood and gave him her blessing.

Ironically, as he was speaking to his mother, a Fatis Burrell song was playing on the radio and it wasn’t too long until Jesse was working with Fatis himself, a man who Jesse says was responsible for getting him ‘really serious about music’. It was a two way street too because at the time Fatis had been taking a break from producing, but after meeting Jesse ‘there was a fire inside him again’ to get back to work and it wasn’t long until his first Burrell produced song ‘Singing The Blues (Long Days Short Nights)’ was released in August 2011. Even at this early point, it was clear that Royal was onto something special with his music.

Fast forward six years and after years of touring, writing, recording, mixtapes and collaborations, Jesse released his first album ‘Lily Of Da Valley’ on legendary New York label Easy Star Records – who Jesse can’t speak highly enough of ‘they’re like family man’ – and it ended up topping the Billboard Reggae Charts. Four years after that and Royal is now sitting in Miami, getting ready to play the record release show for his second album ‘Royal’ alongside some of Jamaica’s most influential musicians who play in his live band.

Royal normally plays as a seven piece band but because of Covid and some other circumstances – one of his harmony singers just had a baby – it will only be a four piece for this show. ‘It’s a four piece that sounds like an orchestra though!’ Jesse reassures me and when I hear that he’ll be joined on stage by Unga Barunga on the drums, Renoi on guitar and award winning producer Riff Raff then I don’t doubt him for a second. ‘We’re planning on giving people a very special experience, it’s going to be lodged in their brain as opposed to a picture or a photo album,’ he tells me, ‘It’s been too long. People need to feel the bass in their heart and the chest and they need to feel the snare and the dance hall and know that they’re alive.’

This being the album release show, it’s the first time that Jesse will be playing a lot of these songs live and one track that is sure to receive its live debut during the show is another standout from the album, ‘Natty Pablo’. The song and music video is inspired by the suspicion that many Rastafarians are treated with by the authorities and the lyrics reflect this as Jesse gets unusually aggressive over a pumping baseline. The video in particular features Jesse being pulled over by the cops on suspicion of selling drugs when he’s actually just delivering packages of books for local school children, much like he does with his Palace Pickney Foundation.

Speaking of Rastafarinas, when it comes to any reggae artist from Jamaica, it’s fairly obvious that the conversation is going to turn to mairjuana fairly quickly and this happened within the first five minutes of my interview with Jesse when he said that he wasn’t nervous about the big record release show in Miami because ‘there are lots of great strains over there’. What might be surprising to hear though is that not only does Jesse love smoking the herb – which he lovingly refers to as ‘a gift from God’ – but that he’s also very much involved in the legalisation and distribution process over in Jamaica, acting as a major shareholder and brand strategist with one of the main medical cannabis dispensaries in the country JACANO.

Jesse explains that there are too many people on the island trying to make money from selling weed and so it’s important that someone like him is involved to make sure that the people can be supplied with a clean and quality product:

Herb is not like caviar, a delicacy, it’s a medicine that everyone should have access to whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor, whether you’re black whether you’re white whether you’re uptown/downtown, I don’t really care about that.

If you need medicine, then it should be accessible.

It’s clean, it’s quality, we have some great farmers on board and we also employ people from in and around the communities to work on the farm so we’re keeping it Jamaican.

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Once again, it sounds like Jesse is taking a more active role in the community and development of his country than any other musician I can really ever think of and it sounds like he’s doing a great job with it and it’s benefiting both him and the general population of Jamaica. The guy has such an enthusiastic energy and passion coming out from that it’s hard not to be enamoured and impressed with the progressive steps he’s taking in the development of his home country. It also helps that his music completely slaps as well.

With that, my time with Jesse Royal has come to an end and I can’t help but remark that it seems like everything is going well in his life right now and indeed that everything he seems to put his mind to turns out fantastically and how positive a role model he seems to be for young people trying to achieve their dreams. He’s quick to correct me though and comes out with another classic Jesse Royal line which again people would do well to live their lives by.

It’s also an excellent way to end this feature as well:

There are some things that don’t work some times, but we use those lessons and turn them into blessings. 

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