With a much-anticipated set coming up at the Innervisions festival in London shortly, The Cocoa Diaries catches up with Jarrod Lawson, the Californian who has his own take on heartfelt soul music. We talk childhood, being a late bloomer in the music industry, musical heroes and even the state of the world. Sam Bleazard picks up the story on the hottest weekend of the year.
So how has your stay in the UK been so far?
“It’s been a little hot these last two days in the UK, but we’re staying in a lovely place in Kent. It’s been really good, we’ve had some great gigs and every time we come it’s always so sad to leave because there’s so much love here for the music.”
You first came to London to perform in 2014, playing two gigs at Ronnie Scott’s – what are your memories of that time?
“At the time, I was so brand new to the industry, the first album had just dropped and I didn’t have any touring experience under my belt. I just went straight out on tour for two months, in what was also my European debut, and I have really fond memories of that time. I had actually been in communication with so many people on social media, who were curious about who I was and where I came from. It was fascinating to meet the people I had been speaking to and connecting to.”
– Would you say you came late to success in the music industry?
“I would characterise myself as a late bloomer in general. I worked as a stone mason for ten years, working for my grandfather in his machine shop, and I did a number of labour intensive jobs – which took its toll in the end. I ended up getting issues with my body, wrists, back and neck, mainly because of my frame and the fact that I was working with heavy stones and hammers every day. In time, I moved into a new profession, I was actually tuning pianos for six years, and I was still loving music, my deepest passion. At the start, maybe I didn’t have the courage or complete conviction to let everything else go, but the response I was getting in Europe, the UK and Japan persuaded me, so I made the leap.
I was also 36 years old when I made my initial breakthrough in 2014. They tell you in the music industry if you haven’t made it by the time you’re 20, just give up. It took me until I was 36, and it was a slow build, but I also had a lot of trepidation. It’s a dirty game out there…and I didn’t have a great interest in being involved in that part of the music industry. It does feel good though, coming to it late.
I put in a lot of work at the front end – I spent 4 years working on my album – and I also spent my hard-earned money on it. It felt so good to be able to say that I didn’t sign a big deal with major muscle behind me.”
– You seem to have a real connection with the UK, but what led to your album coming out on the Dome label?
“The guy who was my manager at the time was hunting around to get the album distributed in Europe. He came across Peter Robinson and Dome records. We had a few talks in the beginning and I liked Peter and felt he had a good reach. Dome provided distribution all across Europe, plus, some additional territories such as South Africa and Turkey. It was a good deal because the label didn’t require a lot from me in the back end. Peter was great, and accompanied me to interviews at the BBC and other places.
Initially when I got a lot of enquiries – from Facebook, from DJs etc, asking: who are you, tell us about yourself, it eventually spread through to Germany and France, Italy. People in the UK always got my music, so it is a little bit special here. In the US, I didn’t put a lot of intention into promoting myself, I went where the demand was. And obviously it’s a massive territory, so, it can be hard to figure out the markets there initially.”
Your family were clearly very important?
“Yes, my father in the early years was hugely instrumental, in providing an environment for me. We lived in a modest place.
He was a recording artist, and had a band in Redwood City, California. He was really trying to make a career at that time, was on the verge of signing a contract with a major label and had opened for the Rolling Stones, Doobie Brothers and The Steve Miller Band. I remember some of his later concerts which my mum and I would go to see.
I came up in San Francisco, in the Bay area, in a recording studio my Dad had put together there. There would be drums and guitars lying about. My first instrument was the drums which I started playing on when I was two years old.
Much later I found my way to the keyboard when I was about 13, and all throughout my childhood I was very much into music. I didn’t see it as a career path, but at some point, when I had found my way to the piano everything just changed. Before that I hadn’t found that portal, that sucked me in. The piano gave me a clear concept of what you could create harmonically.”
– What recordings moved/influenced you?
“If you asked me to name five – the top five would all be Stevie Wonder records from the 1970s, Innervisions, Talking book, Music of My Mind etc. Incredible, magical, beautiful music, which transformed my life and the perception of what I wanted to do with music. On the more modern side of things I would say Voodoo by D’Angelo.”
We love your track Sleepwalkers – what is it about?
“It’s pretty self-explanatory, in that it’s a comment on people blindly walking around, not paying attention to what’s going on. Mobile phones. Tuning out…so you could say it’s social commentary on society.”
Vocals are clearly very important to you – what’s your approach when you’re recording?
“Absolutely, I remember having an early discussion with my engineer before we’d started the mixing process on my album because vocals are a main feature of my music.
I mentioned D’Angelo’s Voodoo, on that record you can hear that the background vocals are as present as the lead vocals. That’s not really a standard technique. I also like my background vocals to be featured as much as the main vocals.”
Some of the people you work with also worked with Prince, were you an admirer of his?
“With Prince it was so unique, it was like an alien had landed from outer space. Such a special anomaly among human beings. And yes, I’ve known several people who have been close to Prince, with most saying he was very gracious and loving.
I also felt incredibly honoured that I saw his last concert the day before he died. I was doing a show in Atlanta the following day, when my buddy Craig said he had tickets for his one-man piano show at the Fox theatre…but of course nobody knew this was going to be his last concert.
You would never have known that he was having any kind of trouble, as he came out for 3 encores, and the audience kept roaring, persuading him to do 2 more songs and 2 more songs… His legacy will live on forever.”
Are you classically trained – what’s your musical education?
“I’ve had very little training, and the training that I have had was with my father. At the beginning when I began to tinker around on the piano, with a major scale here, minor scale there. He got me doing inversions, for anyone with basic music theory that’s the 1-3-5 notes…if you keep inverting those, things begin to happen. He taught me to do that in every key and it’s incredible how that improved my technique in general, from there I started listening to so much music, including classical. I got to a point where I could figure out Chopin waltzes by ear.”
‘Everything I need’ is the title of one of your most impassioned songs – what inspired it?
“This song was inspired by a specific event that took place. In 2011 a tsunami hit Japan, and I’d been playing some gigs in and around Portland where I live. There was a crowd of people who would come to every gig, one of whom was a lady who had family back in Japan when this terrible event took place. She had no way to contact her family, no way to know what had happened.
I sat with her one night and she cried on my shoulder…and I was thinking a lot about her and her situation at that time, which was when I was inspired to write the song. There are times in our lives when everything’s basically gone to shit.
I’m ok as long as I’ve got the people I need with me. More and more as a society we need that message, we’re so concerned with our devices and technology.
Pure connection with other human beings can be so tertiary now.”
Have you been working on some new recordings?
“Yes, I have one record that I just finished which I’m going to release under a pseudonym…I don’t want to confuse my audience or the soul-jazz crowd. I’m working on some electronic music, I will be using my voice on it, but in an instrumental capacity.
This might come out in the Fall, and I’m looking to finish my next soul record by spring next year.
One of the complaints I’ve heard about the first record was – it would have been nice if you’d had some more love songs on there! So, this one will have a little more emphasis on that. I’ve certainly been through some tumultuous situations along the way.
I was recently divorced when my first album came out about six years ago, and I’ve been through some other heartbreaks since then.
What is it they say? ‘What’s hard on the heart is good for the art?”
What’s your view on social media: the good and the bad?
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s a part of the firm-ware now. I love and it I hate it. There are definitely periods of time that I really feel the adverse effects of it. As a result, I’m quite happy to tell friends – ‘Hey guys I’m going to disappear for a bit’.”
What can people expect from your performance at the Innervisions festival?
“I’m really excited to feature a new quintet. Sammy Figueroa is in my band, and if you don’t know the history, he’s one of the most recorded percussionists of all time. I met Sammy a few years back, he contacted me out of nowhere, and asked to make an album with me.
He had a vision of bringing Latin music and soul music closer together. So, I’ve been writing music for that project, and we are going to debut those tunes along with some other new songs next week, which is very exciting.”
What do you prefer – recording or performing live?
“Recorded and live music are very different animals. I love that you can take your time and sculpt a recording into exactly what you want it to be. Taking the time to go through that process can be very satisfying.
With live music, there are so many things that are out of your control, but you have the audience and the vibe, so I love that part of it too.
In the live situation, there’s a fire there that’s very different. There’s something special about that.”
Can music make a difference in people’s lives?
“When I was getting into Stevie Wonder, the model that he created – and that I’ve followed in the lineage of – I think I’ve always wanted to use the music as a vehicle to share a message that is relevant in people’s lives.
It can have a massive effect. Just even the conversations after my shows, I like to have a moment with folks.
The reactions that I get from people is so sincere…whether someone just lost their mother recently, or that they’re telling you that one of the songs got them through one of the hardest times in their life. I think it does, and it can make a difference.”
And finally, what are your aspirations for the future?
“There are other things I’d like to do, other artists I’d like to work with. I’m already 42 now! And I’m only saying that because you look 20 years down the line, and because I’m a planner I’m thinking, what can I do to diversify? I can see myself being a producer for others, but I’m not there yet. I want to continue to perform live and sing. I do want to leave something behind.”
Jarrod Lawson will be appearing at The Innervisions Festival, which runs from 3rd – 7th July. For more information visit the website here.