07/16/2012 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Birth & Rebirth : A Conversation With Jimmy Cliff, Plus Chatting With Eleni Mandell


A Conversation With Jimmy Cliff

Mike Ragogna: Jimmy Cliff, I love you!

Jimmy Cliff: Thank you!

MR: (laughs) You have contributed to the culture in ways that some people, I think, are unaware of, and I want to get to that story. But first, for your new album Rebirth, you took a different approach. Can you describe it?

JC: Absolutely. It's produced by Tim Armstrong, and I've written some of the songs with Tim Armstrong. That's a completely different avenue from what I've done in the past.

MR: Rancid's Tim Armstrong.

JC: Right, Rancid, yes.

MR: Jimmy, was this album recorded as just a band playing together in the studio, everyone together?

JC: Yes. Back in the day, that's the way the recording business went. You'd go into the studio with four, five or six people and you all feel each other's energy and kick it off and record it. That's the way we did it.

MR: Let's talk about the players for a second.

JC: Well, the players are all from L.A., and that's a departure from me recording in Jamaica. They all have knowledge of all the former instruments and studios and all of the things that we recorded former reggae music in. They wanted to capture that same sound of that period in this time period.

MR: In the song "World Upside Down," you again look at not only the politics of Jamaica but the state of the world. "Too much injustice...religious hipocracy, political tyranny..." How do you look at the world now versus back when you first took the message to the people through vehicles like The Harder They Come?

JC: Well, we are in a technological age, and technology has changed a whole lot of things, but at the same time, ecological things are changing, political things are changing, spiritual things are changing. I just think that we're coming into a new age or new time. They had a play called Hair, which had a song called "The Age of Aquarius." We're past the stage of dawning now; we're coming into the actual Age of Aquarius, which is the age of air, so people will be more sensitive to things. People want fact, not fiction.

MR: Jimmy, when you create, where is it coming from?

JC: Most of the time, it's from my own soul, but what comes from my own soul a lot of times is kind of echoing the people. I'm like sensitive to what's going on in the world with people and things and places, and I kind of echo that. But I am always at the center of it.

MR: So you're taking it from the perspective of you being connected with the big Self.

JC: That's right, exactly.

MR: And I believe I saw that when I watched you sing some of your standards and new material at South by Southwest.

JC: Oh, great! You were there? I had fun at that, yes!

MR: I was in many a sweaty room to watch you.

JC: (laughs) Oh, great, wonderful. Good, good! I had fun there, so yeah. I did standards, and I did some of the new stuff.

MR: I guess this is a good time to ask you because it's relative to the South by Southwest performances. When you were performing those older songs, I was amazed at the kids knew your music and were singing along, like to "You Can Get it if You Really Want it" and "Wonderful World," "Sitting in Limbo"...

JC: Yes, well I think that's way it works. As far as I saw from a lot of my concerts all over the world is that the people who grew up with my music at the time passed it on to their children, and it has become a part of their children's lives. They grew up with it, so they come to the concerts to see the performer of these songs and really make the connection between the music and the performer.

MR: That must be fulfilling for you.

JC: Absolutely, very fulfilling, because I've lived from the generation of heroes to the generation of the rebels, and now I'm in the generation of the brains.

MR: Jimmy, the name of the album is Rebirth, as in the concept of a rebirth beyond your career with these songs.

JC: Well, the concept of rebirth is, first of all, the rebirth of myself musically and spiritually and all that, but beyond that, it's a rebirth of the planet. A lot of things are going on like I said earlier about the new age that we're coming into, and individually, we're able to rebirth ourselves again, to give new life to ourselves to really relinquish the parts of our lives that we don't want and then bud and start anew. So this is the concept.

MR: But I have to ask you, using one of your own song titles, that it always seems like there are still many rivers to cross.

JC: There are always many rivers to cross for me because we are always growing in life. You know, once you stop growing, that's it. So there are always many rivers to cross, and sometimes you say to yourself, "If I knew now what I knew then, I wouldn't have done that" but that's how life goes. There are always many rivers to cross, so that song is like a timeless song.

MR: On the other hand, like another of your anthems, "You Can Get it if You Really Want," that's true as well. That's still such a positive message.

JC: Oh, absolutely! And it's a message that is necessary again in the timeless mode of things. It's a message that is always necessary, and we just need to be reminded of that because if you notice, whether consciously or subconsciously, "If I really want that, I can go for it, and I can get it." We all know that, but we just need to be reminded all the time.

MR: Yes, and I think you're coming up on the fortieth anniversary for The Harder They Come, the movie that you starred in whose songs basically introduced the world to reggae, in many ways.

JC: Oh yes, and that would be a starting point that introduced the world to reggae visually and also aurally. People had little understanding of reggae, but when they saw the movie, they actually saw where it was coming from, so in that song ("The Harder They Come), reggae music, I kind of stated that.

MR: So getting back to Rebirth, you covered The Clash's "Guns of Brixton."

JC: Yes, "Guns of Brixton" because The Clash was another group that were inspired by Jimmy Cliff, and Joe Strummer and I had the opportunity before he went on to higher planes to record a song together, so doing "Guns of Brixton" is like one respect to him. And also, the song "Reggae Music" was talking about The Harder They Come, and is still quite relevant today.

MR: Jimmy, you also inspired, Paul Simon with your song "Vietnam." I believe the story goes that your recording of "Vietnam" inspired "Mother and Child Reunion."

JC: Yes, and I met Paul sometime earlier this year, and he was telling me the story. It was quite gratifying to hear it from a brilliant songwriter such as Paul Simon.

MR: Well let me ask you this also. You've only talked in a very modest way, but with your contribution to reggae music and your movie The Harder They Come, you woke everybody up to the politics of Jamaica.

JC: Oh yes, to the politics of Jamaica, to the deep part of the culture of Jamaica, which is Rastafari, and to the social living of Jamaica, which has impacted the world in a very big way. So yeah, I got to be the one who was in the place to do that at the right time.

MR: Yes, and Bob Marley gets a lot of the credit, but as far as the US, you were the first.

JC: Well absolutely. I took Bob to record his first songs. I saw his talent before anybody else, and he never let me down. Whoever opens the gate has to close the gate, and I'm still here doing my thing.

MR: Nice. I also wanted to throw out there your cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World." You absolutely helped Cat Stevens' career as well.

JC: Oh yeah, because it was one of the songs that he wrote and probably didn't recognize how great the song was. I recognized it and recorded it with him producing it, and then he recorded it for himself and put it on his own album.

MR: Jimmy, since we're on the subject of discovering artists, let me ask you this question. What advice do you have for new artists?

JC: I think we all should recognize that we have something of ourselves, just like how our fingerprint is different from everyone else's, we also have something different inside from everyone else. Try to recognize what that is and bring it out, and you'll be the best.

MR: Is there anything else about Rebirth that we need to know that we might not have covered?

JC: Well, we've put it in a nutshell without going into a lot of details, but yeah, it's a rebirth, and you can also rebirth yourself at any point in time because you're living.

MR: Are you constantly rebirthing yourself?

JC: Absolutely, absolutely. I'm alive! I'm a living man.

MR: When you listen to this album, and then you look back at the amazing body of work that you've done, what are your thoughts about yourself having gone from there to here?

JC: Well, I set high goals for myself. I've accomplished a lot of them, but there are still a lot of goals to be accomplished, so Rebirth now is another stepping stone to a higher level.

MR: And you'll be touring for this album.

JC: Yes, I'm touring the U.S., I'm touring Europe, all of North America and South America as well and maybe Africa. The whole world!

MR: Well, the world is your audience.

JC: Absolutely, and I just want to extend them that.

MR: Jimmy, I appreciate very, very much that you had time to talk about the new album and more today.

JC: I appreciate it too! I appreciate talking with you, and I appreciate all your audience. Thank you all very much for encouraging me in the past and for all the energy that you're giving me now. The soul energy to be going on in the future. Thank you all!

1. World Upside Down
2. One More
3. Cry No More
4. Children's Bread
5. Bang
6. Guns Of Brixton
7. Reggae Music
8. Outsider
9. Rebel Rebel
10. Ruby Soho
11. Blessed Love
12. Ship Is Sailing
13. One More - alternate version

Transcribed by Kyle Pongan


A Conversation With Eleni Mandell

Mike Ragogna: Hi Eleni, your new album is titled I Can See The Future. So what do you see?

Eleni Mandell: Well, despite my melancholy exterior, I've always actually believed deep inside that everything would turn out okay. That song was sort of a message to myself that things would work out; I would fall in love again. I had just gone through a break-up, I felt like my last record was a failure, my band that I really loved seemed to have dissipated... But I had to believe things would turn out in the end. The funny thing is, now I don't try to see the future anymore. I used to always think ahead, to my detriment. Now I'm really living in the present and it's quite a relief. But back to your simple question: I see sunshine and rainbows!

MR: (laughs) Okay, you've been wanting a family for a while but decided to have a your own child instead. And you had twins! What brought you to this decision?

EM: I've always known that I wanted to have a family and I actually always thought, "If I have to do it on my own, I will." Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a way, it wasn't a decision at all, I really could not be stopped from my mission to become a mother despite all the reasons not to do it on my own. I was actually in a relationship when I started choosing sperm donors because my boyfriend did not want children. He and I broke up but he was my "birth partner" and is on tour with me now as my nanny. He loves my kids and they love him. Despite my determination, I went through a lot of sorrow and grief. I felt like a loser, that something was wrong with me that I always chose the wrong guys, that nobody wanted to marry me. I had a lot of judgments about the kind of women that "had" to do what I did. It was interesting to face that and come to terms with it and then feel completely differently. I'm really proud of my decision now. I'm actually proud to be a single mom. I always tell people that it must be easier than being married because I'm having such a blast.

MR: Did you consider adoption?

EM: Yes, I did consider adoption and had started preparing my home for a "home study." I met with a single mom who adopted. I got big packets from different agencies, and I started writing my "birth mother letter." In the end, I felt that I was a hard sell to birth mothers: a single musician. More importantly, I really wanted the experience of being pregnant, and I loved being pregnant even though I ended up with pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes. I think my family was pretty concerned for my health, especially when they saw my feet. But I loved it.

MR: Was their any challenge in having a sperm donor versus a friend to help you become pregnant, and can you give me some background into the story?

EM: I had two friends who offered to donate their sperm and be a friendly part of the child's life. I thought it would be a great gift to my kids for them to know they had a father out there. I read a book called "Knock Yourself Up," and it explained some of the complications of using a friend as a donor. One of my friends also had health complications that derailed our attempt. I even did "try" with another
friend. It was one of the most hilarious things I've ever done and I thought despite how awkward it was for both of us, that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me.

Eventually, I decided that a sperm donor from a reputable sperm bank was the way to go. Still, it was incredibly difficult to decide. My first choice was a guy that sounded--I could purchase audio interviews--very kind, touchy feely; he said all the right things but suddenly they took him off their site and I had run out. It took me many attempts: 5 IVFs. So, I went with my second choice who was actually my mother's first choice. His description was "Astro Physics Phd; likes Classic Rock; plays the violin," etc. His audio didn't have all the warmth of the other Donor, but it turns out that he's the best donor ever. My kids are the best! And they have really long eyelashes.

MR: How is being a parent going to change your life as musician?

EM: Right now, I'm in a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona, heading for the first show of my tour, in Philadelphia. They're not keeping me from playing music at all. But I don't get to go out all the time and I don't get to date the wrong men anymore. I suppose that could affect the songwriting, but I'm ok with that.

MR: (laughs) Who is playing on this album?

EM: My longtime bass player, Ryan Feves, and my fairly longtime guitar player, Jeremy Drake, and a friend who played with me years ago, Woody Jackson, played some guitar, too. Members of my other band, The Living Sisters, sang back up vocals: Inara George, Becky Stark, Alex Lilly. Then a lot of amazing people who I'd never worked with but admired: Joey Waronker on drums, Zac Rae on Keyboards, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and Benji Hughes sang on a couple of songs. Mike Daly, Penelope Fortier also sang some backing vocals. And, of course, the esteemed Joe Chiccarelli produced.

MR: Eleni, please can you give the back story of "Never Have To Fall In Love Again," your duet with Benji Hughes? Do you actually feel like you never have to fall in love again, and if so, what do you do if you do?

EM: I've noticed that it's painful for me to stop loving someone in the way that you do when you're in a relationship with them. The transition is very uncomfortable for me. I was arguing with my last boyfriend--the one that didn't want kids--trying to explain to him all the reasons we should be together...never do this if you can help it. He could not be convinced. The nerve! I thought it was so sad that I would have to fall out of love with him. The song is a message to him: Don't make me do it!

Benji is a good friend and I'm a huge fan of his music. I always want to sing old country songs with Benji, like Tammy Wynette and George Jones, so it was perfect that he sings on the most country song on the record. I would like to fall in love again. I actually don't feel like I have to, but I'd certainly like to.

MR: Do you consider you're lucky, as "I'm Lucky" might suggest?

EM: I felt extremely unlucky when I wrote that song. I was in a very dark place. I think by writing it I was trying to convince myself, give myself a talking to, look at my life in a different way. Depending on the tone I use when singing it, it can either come off as ironic or sincere. Now when I sing it, I do truly feel lucky. I have spent plenty of time feeling sorry for myself but I don't anymore. If you meet my kids, you'll understand.

MR: Can you go into another song's story, your choice?

EM: There are a few songs on the record that reflect on past relationships that didn't work out. One of them is (about) a commercial fisherman. He doesn't use the internet, his cell phone numbers are often disconnected...I hadn't seen or heard from him in 10 years when he appeared at one of my shows in Portland three years ago. He's such a strange and unique man-child but I was so happy to see him and so happy he was alive and well. The song "Crooked Man" is about him--his nose is very crooked--and about how we were together; he drove me nuts, in a bad way, but we had a weird chemistry. It didn't make sense. I really appreciate knowing all these characters. I may not have chosen the most appropriate men to date but they're all really interesting.

MR: Was it hard writing and recording an album while pregnant?

EM: I wrote most of the songs while I was trying to get pregnant. It was the
hardest time of my life. Music has always been therapeutic for me so I think it probably kept me going during that time. It was difficult to record the record while pregnant. We had to wait for Joey Waronker to become available, and so I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with twins when we started the bulk of the record. It is not easy to sing at 190 pounds! Inara George told me that my voice was lower. We actually had to finish when my kids were about 8 months old. I'm glad we waited because I don't know if that lower voice was my best sound.

MR: In your video "Magic Summertime," your ex-boyfriend appears as the
male lead. I imagine this was cathartic in some way?

EM: Yes, it was cathartic. Charlie and I really did have to break up. We were at different places in our lives. But it was just heartbreaking and it drove me crazy that we couldn't be best friends right afterwards like we had said we'd be. He got a new girlfriend and I had a new boyfriend; he just wasn't ready to be pals. Making the video was the first time that I got to really hang out with him again and it made me so happy. I really enjoy his company; he's damn funny and handsome and such a good sport to dance around with me and jump in a freezing cold pool with!

MR: Does your song "A Possibility" also suggest that your path to have a child without a partner might be an option for others?

EM: I think that song is more about staying hopeful about life and love in the face of disappointment. I definitely think that having children without a partner is an option for anyone who is in the right place in their life to do it. I highly recommend it.

MR: Your past material was somewhat seductive. Does I Can See The Future suggest a new direction for both your life and future projects?

EM: I feel so differently about life now. I feel happy everyday. I could never have said that before I had my kids. This change in outlook is certain to affect my future projects. I look forward to the challenge, but being sad and disappointed all the time is exhausting. Luckily, I'm still quite the underdog so my songwriting shouldn't suffer too much.

MR: What advice would you have for those who want to pursue this path?

EM: The path of being a single mom or the path of being a musician? They're actually very similar. You have to have unending determination.

MR: Cool. Actually, it was a question about both, but what advice do you have for new artists specifically?

EM: Only do it if you have to. It can be so difficult and so heartbreaking but the rewards make it all worth it.

MR: Excited about the tour and where will it take you?

EM: I am really excited about the tour. I love seeing the wide-open spaces of our beautiful country and meeting different people who I would never meet. Yesterday, I gave my record to the 16-year-old girl working at a tiny Mexican restaurant in Needles, California. I loved hearing about what her life was like in that little town and getting to share my music with her. She warned me that she mostly listens to hip-hop, but maybe I'll convert her.

MR: Any other words of wisdom?

EM: I never feel articulate enough or I'll stop here. The babies are bouncing off these motel walls. We've got to hit the road before it gets too hot! Thank you.

1. The Future
2. Magic Summertime
3. Now We're Strangers
4. I'm Lucky
5. Desert Song
6. Who You Gonna Dance With
7. Never Have To Fall In Love Again
8. Crooked Man
9. Bun In The Oven
10. So Easy
11. Looking To Look For
12. Don't Say No
13. A Possibility

Here's the "Magic Summertime" video:

...and here's Eleni singing "Never Have To Fall In Love Again":

Transcribed by Angie Carlson