Interview: Anthony Joseph – Strengthening Caribbean Roots in London Soil (May 2021)

Just like a contemporary storyteller or a London-based calypsonian, Anthony Joseph is a perceptive and insightful narrator of the present days. The music and lyrics of the Trinidad-born singer/songwriter open windows wide on the here and now and it’s not by coincidence that his upcoming album The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives, out tomorrow via Heavenly Sweetness, is a forthright musical commentary of the times we are living in, from the pandemic and its social impact to the Black Lives Matter Movement and its momentous drive.

A few days ago, we reached him in Camberwell to have again a really longed for face-to-face chat starting with the unrelenting title of his new work, expanding on the meanings behind his latest single ‘Calling England Home’ and closing with some words on music at large and its state of affairs in these Covid-days.

As its release is only a few days away and boasting such an impactful title, Anthony’s new album was inevitably the first subject we touched during our interview, retracing its story and putting its themes in a nutshell…

“The title is pretty strong, I know. It is from C. L. R. James, who was a writer and activist born in Trinidad in 1901. He wrote this book called The Black Jacobins, which was about the Haitian Revolution, which was published in about 1938. It’s a seminal work, a really important book about revolutionary ideas. The Haitian revolution was the only successful black revolution and the book is really deep.

Before you even get to the revolutionary part where the sort of revolt is happening, there’s a whole first section, which is just about law and the sort of internal politics of the French Parliament at the time in real detail. Then eventually, he gets to Haiti and begins to talk about the plantocracy, the people that own the slaves, the people that own the land and businesses, and he makes this comment: he says ‘the rich are only defeated when running for their lives’. To overthrow these people and get rid of them, you have to kill them. They’re not going to give up. I mean, it’s true. The only way you’re going to defeat them is you have to kill them. Which is what Frantz Fanon said as well in different ways.

The revolutionary ideas and stuff are great, but the only way you have real revolution and you overthrew the oppressive regime is by decapitating, killing it. You’ve got to destroy it”.

To translate C. L. R. James’ words into the present days and embrace them in his new album was pretty straightforward for Anthony. The inspiration came like a big wave set in motion by the news happening across the ocean, in Minneapolis in particular…

“The reason why I chose that title at the time was because it was just after George Floyd was killed. We started rehearsing and writing the album and then we actually recorded it when there was a break between lockdowns and that was around the time of George Floyd and the mobilisation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We were already going to do the album. It was already happening. But that event shaped a lot of the emotions on the album, it shaped a lot of the ideas.

The title wasn’t entirely inspired by George Floyd, but it felt right, and that C. L. R. James quote just felt like the one. So yeah, I was thinking about George Floyd. I was thinking… they’re going to get away with this! You know, they’re going to kill this man, and nothing is going to come of it. So that’s why I said, we can only defeat this by killing them. We have to get rid of them. They will only be defeated by direct action”.

Next to its subjects, The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives differs from Anthony’s past discography also from a musical perspective. The artist momentarily set aside his devotion to calypso and Afro-Caribbean roots, to embrace a more jazz-based approach. 

“The last two albums were about the Caribbean. But I wanted to do something that was more, that was just spiritual jazz with a smaller band. I picked up a couple of records of Bubbha Thomas, an American drummer, and I was like, ‘ this is what I want the record to sound like!’ Then, there was a lot of poetry like Amiri Baraka and people who were making spiritual jazz with poetry. I was listening to a lot of that just to get inspiration and get vibes.

So, I just wanted to go back to that kind of sound, a little bit of… just bass, drum, sax and percussions. We started working with that sort of structure and just jamming really, seeing what came up with that sound and the sound of the album just came gradually. But the plan was to do something that was spiritual and political at the same time. I think it was a flavour of feeling in the air for the last few years. 

I feel that people are becoming more conscious about what’s going on. Especially in the centres of power like London. Actually, London hasn’t had its time yet, but it’s coming. Something is going to come here as well, but definitely it’s happening in the U.S. We can feel that the movements are beginning to change. It’s been a long time coming and I still don’t know if we’re ever going to achieve complete change.”

Going back to London, the city has turned into a main character in Anthony Joseph’s works. After more than 30 years, his “new” residency keeps on offering him inspiration, original observation points and renewed challenges. So much so, that his new release is a reflection on being a Londoner as well.

“For a long time, I never really wrote about life in London. I never really wrote about being in London. But then, oh, I’ve been here since 1989. I forgot; how many years is that? It’s a long time. So now, I feel like I live here. Even with the latest albums [People of the Sun and Caribbean Roots], I was still feeling a connexion to the Caribbean and stuff which is still there. But I now have nostalgia for London. It’s a weird thing. It gets to the point where you’ve been here, you’ve been in a place for so long that you begin to have nostalgic memories of it. And I’m like, wow, this is the time that I have to start because it’s become my history and it’s part of my life now. That’s how I feel now, that I’m more and more accepting of the fact that I’m a Londoner, I live here. 

The ‘Calling England Home’ piece actually came out of Windrush. It came out of the idea of Windrush and the whirlwind of scandal that happened two years ago. It came out of the research I was doing for my novel Kitch that I published in 2018 about Lord Kitchener. I did a series of interviews for that book with people who came here the Windrush period. In the song I talk about someone who came to the UK in 1949, someone who came in 1959. And then I talk about myself arriving in 1989. I think music is helpful when dealing with these subjects. A lot of people, who have no idea of Windrush or any idea of the history, can hear a song like that  and be drawn into the music and be drawn into the lyrics and learn something of the history“.

As much as his roots, history and music listening, Anthony Joseph’s musical vision is constantly enriched by collaborations and teamwork. Not only The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives and his previous albums enjoy exceptional guest participations, but his idea of music is a perpetual working together. 

“I like to feel that there’s a unit of the people that I work with, and I’ve worked with the musicians on this album for many years. With the exception of a few guests that I might bring in just for an album, usually the people that I work with, even the guests, I’ve worked with them for a long time and have developed relationships. I’m not into just grabbing musicians and putting them together for an album. I have to work with them, live with them, tour with them.

Because I’m dealing with lyrics, but I’m not a singer, I have to find musicians that are sympathetic and understanding of how to approach the music. I’ve worked with Jason Yarde, who produced the album for over twenty years now. Also, Andrew John, the bass player, I met him in ‘91″.

Talking of record labels, the relationship between Anthony and Heavenly Sweetness has grown and cemented in the last years. Not only has the artist become one of the most representative names in the French label roster and Heavenly Sweetness has constantly supported and nurtured his art, but they have become family.

“My first album [Leggo the Lion] was with Kindred Spirits, a Dutch label. It was my very, very first album, released in 2007. But everything since then, the seven albums after that, I’ve been with Heavenly Sweetness. They’ve been really supportive. Frank [Descollonges, founder of the label] has been really helpful, there’s a love you know. We know each other well. His family knows me, they know my family. We’ve worked together since 2007. So yeah, they have been very supportive.

Frank loves music. He’s also open minded and he kind of runs the label in a very ‘old fashioned’ way, like labels used to run in the 70s, when you signed an artist and you said, ‘ok, what do you want to do? I’ll support it. I’ll pay for the production. I’ll develop your career”.

The last mad and eventful year, which also coincided with The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives recording and production, has inevitably influenced the way Anthony and his music family worked. So, we tried to retrace the working process behind the album and how he feels today about the outcome.

“We started rehearsing and writing the album before the pandemic, it was the end of 2019. And it was going great back then. The plan was to rehearse every other week, up to the point of recording. We were planning to record the album in summer 2020 and then the pandemic hit. So, we had to shut down rehearsals and keep working on the project online. Then we got a window between the lockdowns. We went into the studio, rehearsed for about three days, and then recorded all the material just before the second lockdown.

The first song on the album [‘Kamau’, which pays homage to the memory of late Barbadian poet, Kamau Brathwaite] was quite special. For me, it was a transcendent experience recording it because we recorded everything live. The vocal part was a live take. I could see the musicians while I was reading the poem. After a while, I got into a trance and it became a spiritual engagement with the words. It was interesting doing that. It was very, very powerful and you could feel it in the music. Kamau Braithwaite was really important to me as a friend and a mentor and a poet that I admired. He was very important, for Caribbean poetry.

Then, ‘Maka Dimweh’ is another thing that I really love about the album. The song is about a friend of mine from Guyana, who I met here in London, when I used to work in a pizzeria during the mid 90s. This guy used to tell me the most amazing stories about his life. He was a soldier in the Guyanese army at the time of the Jim Jones massacre in 1978. The song is inspired by him and the groove takes me back to when I first started the Spasm Band, which was just percussion, bass, sax and this kind of Spiritual Baptist rhythm””.

As written, the last year has deeply affected the way musicians and the music industry work and will be working in the near future on a global as much as a more local scale. Enough to wonder if, how and when things are going to change and eventually “return to normal” both around the world and considering the so-called London ‘nu-jazz scene’.

“I think that it’ll be a little while before things will go back to normal, but I think they will. I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that people will start going out again, going to venues, attending gigs. I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year… Maybe by the end of the year, things will be ok. I feel people are still cautious, waiting for the vaccination process to advance.

Maybe things will change slightly for musicians. I think international travels and touring might be scaled back a little bit for  artists that are not huge. I mean, if you’re Jay-Z or Coldplay, you’re going to keep on as you were doing before. But for smaller acts, the promoters are going to be more cautious in putting money out and take risk. So, I think it’s going to affect us for a little while.

In any case, the way the business was running for artists and bands, how they were getting paid, dealing with streaming services and touring, I think that has to change. So, hopefully we will see a change in that for the better. Music is a funny business because it’s art, but it’s business. It’s a ‘creative industry,’ which is a kind of oxymoron, a balancing act between creativity and economy. It’s always, always tricky. But I feel that musicians are going to probably have a greater role in deciding what they do.

Talking about the London jazz scene, I feel I’m an elder statesman now because I’ve been here for so long. In the last few years, there’s been this real explosion in British jazz and it’s great that young musicians are getting exposure. I’m with the scene in the sense that I know the musicians, I know the people who are part of it, and we are all expressing what it mens to be in the UK at this historical point. But once you begin to say that you’re part of a scene, you kind of tie yourself into a difficult situation. What happens when, in two years’ time, this is no longer the thing and the record industry has moved on to something else? What is going to happen then is that a few will rise to the top, the most commercially viable projects, and everything else will be left behind, so I’m cautious”.

Luckily, his caution toward the music industry and the unstable times we are living in haven’t prevented Anthony Joseph from making plenty of plans for the future…

After the album release, we will hopefully do some live shows. We are probably going to play in London later in the year as well as in Paris and throughout France. I’m also working on another project at the moment, which is related to a novel that came out a couple of years ago called The Frequency of Magic. We’re going into the studio in June with the band to record an audio book and I’m going to do some sort of soundtrack for the entire novel. It will be all improvised music and we’re just going to have fun recording for a whole week inspired by the poetry of the book. So that is a big project funded by the Arts Council.

Then, I have a book coming out hopefully next year and a couple other projects that I’m working on. So, yeah, there’s a lot of work…

As we often do, we closed our chat with Anthony Joseph with a tricky question, which was to introduce his music to someone who’d never listened to it…

It’s really difficult… For someone like me, it’s really difficult because my work straddles so many things. You know, it’s poetry, but it’s also music. What I do is poetry with an Afro-Caribbean jazz soundtrack. It’s essentially very political, passionate, and it’s something different.

Photo ©: Bunny Bread/@icreatenotdestroy