Look, I’m going to come clean right at the top of this—most people do not come to me for my opinion of roots reggae. This is not because I don’t like reggae music, I do, but I also don’t have any claim to being an authority on it. I bring this up to point out that sometimes I get very lucky catching acts on their ascension as they come through town. Jah9 is one of these acts and her current run of shows brings her to the Saint on Sunday, February 8th.
On a tour of the East Coast that’s already been through Vermont, Washington, D.C., and New York City, the last stop is Asbury Park. “Jazz on dub” is how the music is described, but I’m not going to split hairs on genres, but it’s hard to listen to her debut album New Name and not hear elements of soul and blues. Jah9, born Janine Cunningham, lived on the rural end of Jamaica until relocating to Kingston when she was 8 and began singing in her church’s choir however, according to her official biography, “it wasn’t until university that everything came together in her mind and she really began to find her own voice.”
Her music glides along in an addictive groove that is sometimes light and airy (see “Avocado”) and occasionally fiercely jagged (“Preacher Man”) but the lyrics will slap you across the face if you sleep on them. Already a poet, her lyrics are articulate and as stinging as any punk anthem—instead of the bluntness of a sledgehammer her words simmer like a hot knife.
Your bio says you started singing in a church choir, but was there a song or an artist that when you first heard it or them you knew “yes, this is what I want to do” and which set you on the path for what you’re doing now?
There wasn’t a particular artist that made me want to do music in this way, in terms of industry. I never had aspirations of entering the industry. I truly just loved singing and making music and creating, and I’m still in awe that I get to do this as my life’s work and get paid for it.
I think in listening to jazz in particular—separate from the spirit music which kind of created a foundation of what we know—music is supposed to do as its service. I think in meeting jazz, it liberated me from just what I was taught, to kind of give me this space to explore what my voice wanted to be. And that was kind of the first stages of finding my own voice and putting my poetry, which was kind of my foundation, into song. And once I started to see the impact that had on audiences, it made it a little easier to open up and to share to the point where it was more me being pulled into this industry than me being pushed out of whatever I was doing before. So, it really was more of a spiritual leading than even an ambition or an aspiration to be an artist.
How does the music cross over to the stage? Is there a different element to the live performance?
There are definitely various elements of the live performance and I have found that especially because I didn’t kind of create a persona or an artist. I really am being sincere to who I am as a human being when I go on stage, so my interaction with the audience is very personal and intimate, even if it’s on a larger stage. And I use the principles of yoga in terms of controlling the breath and meditativeness and sending energy and translating energy.
I use that in my live performances as well to help me to connect with my audience regardless of the size, and just openness and sensitivity to the people in front of me. So hearing the music on the CD is very, very different from being in the space of a live performance. The vocals will sound the same, but the experience can even be transformational depending on how open everyone is.
Has there been a particular highlight of the tour thus far?
Rightfully so, there are many highlights of the tour even before we headed out on the road. And I think being able to connect with Midnite from St. Croix and to do two shows with them, I went out of my way to make that happen at great sacrifice but also because we know how important it will be to the community that we serve and because there is just so much more potential when we unite in our efforts to bring this message. And I think Midnite is very advanced in their presentation, in their articulation, and the ones who benefit so much from their messages I think have something unique to offer to them as well.
And for those who are coming to see me, I think they will be truly blessed by the messages and the sounds that will be made available because of this Midnite collaboration. So I think that’s definitely a particular highlight for me, being able to play with Midnite in Washington, D.C. and in the other stage.
Asbury is the last stop on this tour—what’s the plan going ahead in 2015? A new album? More touring? A break?
More music! More singles produced by some really talented ones as well as music produced by me in particular. Also, another collaboration with Rory Stonelove for an EP, and also more touring on the road. Europe, possibly Japan, definitely coming back into the United States, and hopefully, ideally rather, South America and the continent of Africa.
Being able to bring the message and the levity and the culture to these spaces has been a major goal of even my deciding to do this work. Just reaching to those populations where the message is most needed.