“I want to speak for people who don’t have microphones,” Jacob Hemphill says. “Our goal as a band is to stick up for the human race. We see the world and we try to make it better in the limited time we have here.”
This is the philosophy behind SOJA’s music, a simple statement that has driven the D.C. area band, who blend reggae, go-go, D.C. hardcore, Latin, rock and hip-hop. Originally formed by a group of friends while still in middle school and has built a massive, dedicated fanbase around the world since. In the years following, SOJA has sold more than 200,000 albums, headlined shows in over 20 countries around the world, generated over three million Facebook fans, and 65 million YouTube views. The band has toured with Dave Matthews Band, Incubus, 311 and appeared at major festivals including Bonnaroo where they attract an almost Grateful Dead-like international fan base along the way, with caravans of diehards following them from city to city. After the release of their 2012 album Strength To Survive, the musicians started writing material for what would become their fifth full-length album, Amid the Noise and Haste.
For Hemphill, who pens the lyrics, chords and melody, each song starts with an experience: meeting someone, reading something, experiencing something that seems pertinent to the human condition. On this album, the songwriter is suggesting that "all of life’s problems, and all of life’s answers are within us. We’ve been conditioned to accumulate, compete and break others down around ourselves – not inherent to the human condition, but rather taught. Those things can be untaught. The real us is in there, somewhere.” All of this is translated into short, sweet packages of music.
The writing and recording process for Amid the Noise and Haste stretched out over a year and a half, mostly because the musicians kept finding new collaborators and new ideas along the way. The aim was to engage as many guest artists as possible, with each working on a song that had a legitimate connection to them. The album was produced by Supa Dups (Bruno Mars, Eminem, Rihanna, John Legend) and recorded at Circle House Studios in Miami and Lion & Fox Studios in Washington D.C. throughout 2013. Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley appears on “Your Song,” a buoyant, hopeful number that asks fans to remind the band why they got into music by singing along, while “I Believe” brings Michael Franti and Nahko together to offer thoughts on how to control your own destiny. Collie Buddz, J Boog and Anuhea are also featured on various tracks. “We wanted to bring together people who would help demonstrate each song,” Jacob says. “We wanted people who could either relate to or convey the message. The whole album is about the human race relating to itself and connecting with itself.”
For SOJA, whose live show is an explosion of energy and positivity, music is a means of helping people relate in a more affirmative way. It also asks people to look inside themselves and really ask what it is they want to do with their life and how they can be happy. SOJA’s music is about finding that happiness and peace we all deserve and helping others do the same, something Amid the Noise and Haste aptly conveys in its songs.
“I put words in my songs that I believe to be true,” Jacob says. “The point of the album is reconnecting people to the power inside themselves, getting them to fall back in love with life again. Look around, take a deep breath. All the answers are there.”
The Green’s latest album, Hawai‘i ’13, opens with a chant.
“From the times of ancient Hawai‘i and even up to present day, chanting has been a part of our culture,” says JP Kennedy, guitarist, vocalist, and one of the band’s five songwriters. “It’s a way to start something important. When we chant, we ask for blessings, knowledge, and guidance so that we can be ‘pono’ or righteous in whatever we do.”
The chant of “He Mele No Ku‘u Hawai‘i” prepares the album’s listener as much as the band. Hawai‘i ’13 dances through roots reggae, soul, and R&B. The album charts a journey through Hawaiian life and music in 2013, reflecting The Green’s musical upbringing as much as their vision for the future of Hawai‘i and its musical output. Following The Green’s usual modus operandi, the album was written by the group’s five separate songwriters (Kennedy, guitarist-vocalist Zion Thompson, vocalist Caleb Keolanui, keyboardist-vocalist Ikaika Antone, and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Brad Watanabe); the band’s four singers (Kennedy, Thompson, Keolanui and Antone) take turns on lead vocals, sometimes trading off with each other within a song. Once you listen to this record, there is little doubt that the chant served its purpose, as the results show the band has been righteous in their hard work.
The Green formed on O‘ahu, Hawai‘i, in 2009. The group began as a vehicle for six different members of Hawai‘i’s tight-knit music scene to record a few songs and have a bit of fun along the way. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2010, earned both critical and commercial acclaim, and was awarded iTunes Best Reggae Album of the Year.
Afterwards, the band jumped on a plane to the mainland and started a heavy touring cycle. On the strength of their debut album, The Green struck a record deal with ground-breaking independent reggae label Easy Star Records to record their sophomore album, Ways & Means. Ways & Means hit #1 on the iTunes and Billboard Reggae charts and the band embarked on more intense touring; supporting acts like Rebelution, Iration, SOJA and Damian Marley. They also played at acclaimed festivals including Vans Warped Tour, Wakarusa, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival and California Roots Festival.
Despite all the time spent away from home, Hawai‘i never left the band’s day-to-day life on the road. In almost every state, the band met Hawaiian ex-pats, driven away from their home state for reasons both economic and social. The Green’s concerts became a place where Hawaiian natives could gather and for one night, share a bit of Aloha spirit from the Pacific islands they call home.
“Hawaiians living on the mainland will come to our shows and say ‘I haven’t been home in years! You remind me so much of home,’” says multi-instrumentalist-songwriter Brad “BW” Watanabe. “I feel like that’s our service in some way.”
In early 2013, The Green retreated to Hurley Studios in Costa Mesa, CA, to record their third album with Danny Kalb (Ben Harper, Beck, Jack Johnson), the band’s first outside producer/engineer, at the helm. In addition, the group brought in Joe Tomino, drummer from Dub Trio (who also double as Matisyahu’s backing band), to handle the drums for the sessions.
“We were worried about it because we always recorded everything ourselves,” Kennedy admits. “But when we added Danny Kalb to the mix, and Joe on the drums, they just brought so much to the sound of the songs.”
The addition of an outside ear helped sharpen the band’s direction, and the 13 tracks on Hawai‘i ’13 sound focused and pointed, despite the group’s many different songwriters. “All of us contribute to the creation of a song,” says guitarist-vocalist Zion Thompson, “whether it’s lyrics or music, it’s always collaborative.”
“Everyone respects each other’s opinions,” Thompson continues. “Everyone has their place and everyone makes room for it to work.”
The album’s songs span soulful lover’s rock (“Striking Up A Love,” “Take Me On”), heavy roots workouts (“Good One,” “Forgive Me”), smooth R&B ballads (“Chocolates & Roses”), roots reggae-pop hybrids (“Power in the Words,” “Good Vibe Killah”), and herb anthems (“Hold Me Tight”).
The Green hit all the right notes with their first two albums, but the band members are still coming to grips with the personal toll of success. Bands from the mainland may be used to touring from state to state, but that’s no small step for a group from a small island in the South Pacific. “While I face a dozen spotlights, you’re crying at home,” goes “Something About It,” one of the lead singles from Hawai‘i ’13. “Sit by the phone. You think I’m alone, wishing I could be there. But the music’s got me traveling on.”
The Green struck the reggae community hard with their debut in 2010. Their sophomore LP Ways & Means solidified their status as a force in reggae music. With Hawai‘i ’13, the band aims higher. The album collects 13 stellar tracks by a group with an insatiable urge to push their music onto the global stage. Some songs punch and some songs sway, but ultimately they all blend to form a new shade of Green. http://thegreen808.com
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