Progress Report: Jimmy Cliff
Name: Jimmy Cliff
Progress Report: Reggae legend and Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer Jimmy Cliff gets to work on a new record with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong.
There are few things that are absolute certainties in life, but here is one that’s a pretty good bet: You will never be as cool as Jimmy Cliff. Since he was first made internationally famous for his role in 1972’s The Harder They Come, Cliff has established himself as one of the most important — and profoundly influential — reggae artists ever to emerge from Jamaica. Cliff is the only artist to ever receive the prestigious Order of Merit from the government of Jamaica and last year he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that was a long time coming for someone who is often credited for almost single-handedly introducing reggae and ska to the rest of the planet.
In the years since he first started recording, Cliff’s songs have been covered by everyone from Keith Richards to Bruce Springsteen to Cher and guys like Bob Dylan still credit him for writing the finest protest song of all-time (1970’s “Vietnam”). In other words, the importance of Jimmy Cliff — not to mention his general coolness — cannot be overstated.
So, what does a 63 year-old reggae icon do on his summer vacation? If you are Jimmy Cliff you take a few weeks off from your nonstop global touring schedule and pair up with punk rock stalwart Tim Armstrong (yes, that Tim Armstrong, from Rancid) to record a bunch of new songs. While it might seem like an unlikely pairing on paper, the musical union of Jimmy Cliff and Tim Armstrong actually makes perfect sense. Armstrong is an avowed superfan of Cliff’s work, crediting him as an inspiration for much of his own musical output over the years. For Cliff, recording with Armstrong has provided a kind of rebirth — a creative blast that he credits for “relighting a fire inside of me.” Backed by a crackerjack band of musicians known as The Engine Room and with Armstrong in the producer’s chair, the two are readying an EP for release this November (slated to include a cover of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”) and a full-length album for release early next year.
I had a very distinct pleasure of speaking with the legendary Cliff about this new musical partnership.
STEREOGUM: How did this project with Tim get started? And how has the experience been for you?
CLIFF: The project started after someone in my management organization introduced me to Tim. The cool thing about it was that Tim knew people from the Clash, who I associated with a lot. I worked on a record with Joe Strummer shortly before he passed away. So, we knew people in common and that made it very easy at the beginning. Also, Tim is just very easy to work with. He’s a very creative guy and it’s just been very good — and very easy — working with him.
STEREOGUM: For some people, the two of you working together might seem like a crazy combination, but it really does make a lot of sense. The music Tim has made over the years has obviously been heavily influenced by your work.
CLIFF: Yeah. You know, when you think about people like Joe Strummer, for example, and you think about rock music … a whole lot of people of touched upon my work. It’s not so crazy that I’d be working with Tim.
STEREOGUM: Yes. Your work has obviously been very influential for a lot of people — and you can see that influence in literally every genre of music now. I was just looking at a list of people who have covered your songs over the years and it’s completely mind-blowing. Do you enjoy hearing your music recontextualized by other people?
CLIFF: It’s very cool. Very flattering. I’ve also covered lots of other people’s songs over the years, which I like a lot. I always try to do something different with the song or somehow make it my own. So, it’s really cool when I hear someone cover my song and I no longer really recognize it as my song anymore. It becomes their song … and I think it’s cool when that happens.
STEREOGUM: I know that Tim is producing the music that the two of you are working on right now. How does the process work between you two? Are you also writing songs together?
CLIFF: We’re collaborating. Tim is also the producer. It’s going really well. There is some new music, plus some cover songs. We’ve covered music by the Clash — a cover of “Guns of Brixton” — and some new songs that I wrote.
STEREOGUM: It’s cool that you guys cover “Guns of Brixton” since that song is a kind of reference to The Harder They Come. Had you ever performed that song before?
CLIFF: No, I hadn’t….but it feels good to cover it. Mostly because of my friendship with Joe and my relationship to the Clash.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been praised throughout your career as a writer of protest songs and for making music that really addresses social and cultural issues. Is that still a priority for you?
CLIFF: Oh yes. That’s just a big part of me and a big part of what I do. “Vietnam” for example. I started to perform it in a different way and call it “Afghanistan” … with a few added lyrics. That war is such a waste of life and money and I felt like I had to talk about that. Since “Vietnam” is already so familiar to people, I decided to just use that melody and rework the song.
STEREOGUM: How do people react to it?
CLIFF: People respond strongly to it. It’s a subject that is already on everyone’s lips — or should be — so people tend to identify with it. That song is very much a big part of my set right now. There are other songs that I’m writing now that are also really political. I understand that people want to hear music to escape from things, but I’ve also always believed that people need to be inspired. They want to hear music that can help offer solutions. So many artists have no interests in touching those subjects, but I’m still doing it.
STEREOGUM: You are one of the most universally recognized Jamaican artists of all time. Do you still spend most of your time there when you aren’t on tour?
CLIFF: I do spend a lot of time there and Jamaica is definitely my home, but I also spend a lot of time in Paris. For some reason, Paris reminds me now of how London used to feel in the ’60s and ’70s. There is so much creative energy — so many Caribbean and African artists came to London in the ’70s. Paris feels like that to me now. I find it very inspiring to be there.
STEREOGUM: You’ve had the opportunity to work with so many different kinds of artists over the years on such a wide variety of projects. Other than this project you are working on with Tim, are there still other things you are keen on trying to do? Kinds of music you still want to explore?
CLIFF: I still feel like I really haven’t reached the limits of my creativity. I have this new song called “One More” that I’ve been performing. The song says I’ve got one more bullet in my gun / I can’t run till the deal is done / I’ve got one more shot at the goal / straight from my soul and I’m in control. There is a fire that has been burning inside of me — a kind of sacred fire — that I feel like I’ve kept secret all of these years. All of this fire has yet to come out. It’s happening now.
STEREOGUM: Really? Why now?
CLIFF: I don’t know … I guess it’s just that I’ve spent so many years just running from here to there, from one thing to the next. So many things I wanted to do got sidetracked because of the business. The music business. Sometimes I couldn’t be … I guess sometimes my creativity got silenced, I couldn’t bring it out. I just feel like I need to bring these things out now. When you finally understand whatever it is that you have been put on this planet to do, one should endeavor to do that — as completely as possible — before one’s time on this planet is up. The time is now for me.
STEREOGUM: Where do you think that fire comes from?
CLIFF: The desire … the aspiration … to be the artist that I think I am, that I think I can be. When I see the things that are going on in the world — the state of humanity, the understanding that you are a part of that — that is what keeps this fire burning for me. I feel it … I feel it burning right here in my solar plexus.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys are in the studio right now, what will the rest of this year be like for you? Just nonstop touring and recording?
CLIFF: Yes, exactly that. For me, it’s always touring. But I’ll take breaks from touring so we can work on this record, with the hope of having the album ready for the end of the year or sometime early next year. I’m actually working on enough material for about three different albums right now. The juices are flowing.
STEREOGUM: That’s excellent.
CLIFF: Yes, I’m very happy for that.
STEREOGUM: One of the great things about doing this project with Tim is that it will also allow your music to be introduced to a generation of kids who might not have known much about you before, which is great.
CLIFF: Exactly, exactly. It’s so beautiful, I think. I’ve also really missed acting in movies. You know, I did that movie — The Harder They Come — that really helped introduce reggae to the world. You know, there were a few small hit reggae songs before then, but that movie really changed things. It really brought it to the international public. I’ve also done about three other movies. That part of my career is also a part of the fire.
STEREOGUM: Did you always want to be an actor as well?
CLIFF: You know, acting was actually my first love. It was the first thing that I really loved when I was in school. I learned that I could sing when I was in school too. I was singing in the classroom one day, just singing to myself, and some girls came over and asked, “Where is the radio?” These were girls who would have never looked at me otherwise, so I remember thinking that I had really discovered something with this singing thing. But the acting was something that I really loved. At the school I attended we would always put on a play just before the school let out for holidays. I always looked forward to that so much. I loved going on the stage and becoming another character.
STEREOGUM: When you perform live do you feel like you get to exercise that desire a little bit?
CLIFF: Yes, a little bit … but when I’m on stage performing you are really seeing me — the real me. I miss being able to perform in a way that will really allow me to become another perform in the way that acting does.
STEREOGUM: I heard that you are recording a Bob Dylan song — “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” — for the upcoming 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, which is very cool. Dylan has always had such nice things to say about you and your work, I was just curious if the two of you have ever met in person?
CLIFF: Not yet! But I hope that it happens at some point. I’m such a fan of his as well. For some reason our paths have never crossed, but I very much look forward to that day. It needs to happen soon, I guess.
STEREOGUM: Once you and Tim have finished this new record, do you think you’ll play shows together with The Engine Room band?
CLIFF: I don’t know, but for me the door is certainly open for that. I’m that kind of artist. I always leave the door open. If the shirt fits me, I’m happy to wear it.