By Stephen Cooper
Lauded by the BBC as the “greatest music teacher who ever lived,” Nadia Boulanger once described the ecstasy that listeners of reggae star Etana’s new album, “Reggae Forever,” feel: “Nothing is better than music. When it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for. It has broadened the limits of our sorrowful life; it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness[.]”
On March 31, shortly after she wowed an adoring crowd at Los Angeles’s “Novo” theater with a sensational, heart-stirring performance, I interviewed Etana backstage for about thirty minutes. We discussed “Reggae Forever,” milestones in her unique, successful career, several controversies she has weathered, sexism in the music business and media, equal rights, and many other topics of interest to music fans worldwide. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Question: Etana, it’s such a blessing to meet you, and that performance you gave tonight, wow, it was so hot, I’m still on fire!
Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.
Q: Now, about your fifth studio album, the fabulous “Reggae Forever,” which I’ve had on replay since you released it about three weeks ago, on International Woman’s Day, the headlines have been very, very good in the press –
Etana: (Laughing) Thank you.
Q: Reporting on the news that “Reggae Forever” leaped to the number one position on Billboard’s Best Reggae Album Chart this week, the Jamaica Observer’s headline was, fittingly, “Etana rules Billboard with ‘Reggae Forever.’” And the [Jamaica] Star’s headline was, “Etana creates Billboard history – first female to top reggae chart with back-to-back albums”! So, first of all, congratulations on such a historic achievement!
Etana: Thank you.
Q: You’re familiar with such success because as the Star’s headline alluded to, your fourth album, “I Rise,” released October 2014, also hit number one on the Billboard chart [in just its second week]. That album, “I Rise,” stayed on top of the chart for several weeks, and, as is often noted, when you accomplished that feat you were the first female reggae artist to have done so in over fifteen years! Other than the fact – that I want to ask you about next – that this new album of yours is your first full-length independent project since leaving VP Records, how does this early, tremendous success with “Reggae Forever” compare with that first time you ruled the Billboard chart, four years ago, with “I Rise”?
Etana: The first time was a little easier. Not achieving the Billboard status, but recording the album, producing the album with VP, and them paying for everything, putting the musicians together. They asked me: “Who would you like to work with?” And I named some people. And they said, “Clive Hunt.” And I said, he’s a veteran, he doesn’t know new reggae. [But] I said, I’m going to do a song with him and see how it works. And if it works, then I continue working. And then it worked so well, that we did the whole album together. It was an amazing experience. But they paid for everything; did everything.
Q: VP Records?
Etana: Right. So, the only thing that I had to do was just show up to the [recording] sessions. They paid for the mixing [and] the mastering. The only thing that I did was I listened to the mixes to say if they were OK or not. And my ears were so good, that they had a person remix one song and I knew that that song was not mixed by the person who did all the others. And I sent it back. I said, “take it back to the other guy.” And that was the only time I had to [make sure things were done how I wanted with the production of “I Rise”]. With this new album, “Reggae Forever,” I had to find the musicians, find the writers that I would write with, find the studios I would record in – I had to do everything on my own.
Q: You had to do a lot more work yourself. That leads to my next question: Because you had such success with VP Records on “I Rise,” and you’d had a history of success with the other albums you’d released with VP; usually when you score a top ranked album with a record company, you don’t leave them, so I think a lot of people would view that as being a gutsy move –
Etana: (Laughing) It was.
Q: So, can you explain a bit the genesis behind that decision, and do you feel increased pressure now, as a result, to succeed with this [independently produced] album?
Etana: Well, VP is run by two brothers: Chris Chin and Randy Chin. Chris Chin is a lot more for the love of the music. He really loves the music. Not that he isn’t a businessman, but he really loves the music, and he’s very supportive. His mother is very supportive of me too. But Randy Chin has a different view of how things should be. And I remember being on the road, touring [on] the album. And I had some issues being on the road, while I was touring on “I Rise.” And I said to them: “Guys, I need you to help me promote this album, you know? I need your help out here.” And it was a real toss up, you know? And I said to myself, next time I’m gonna try and do it on my own. When it came down to renewing the agreement for the next album, it was a major issue. Because it [was] three years that we did not record, that we didn’t do a new album. And they (VP Records) weren’t ready at that time, they were ready the following year. And that would have been too long and too late for me. So I decided to move along.
Q: What’s the best part about doing it all yourself now?
Etana: The best part is owning everything. The best part is owning the production. Owning the songs that are written. And to be able to make all the decisions on your own. And for people to accept all the decisions you’ve made –
Q: Without questioning?
Etana: Yeah. To see all the fans love the music the way they do knowing that I had such an intricate role in it all. I’m excited!