Romain Virgo Interview by Danny Pepperseed for Dancehall Vibes and WorldaReggae.com
Sometimes an artist impresses right from the start with the very first tune you hear from that artist. Romain Virgo is such an artist. Romain’s career has been quite remarkable so far. In 2007 he won the Digicel Rising Stars competition, a talent show on Jamaican tv equivalent to talent shows like American Idol and X-factor. Romain was the youngest contestant to ever win Rising Stars. In the past two years he has developed himself as the most important young singer to emerge from Jamaica in recent years and he scored hits with songs like ‘Mi Caan Sleep’, ‘Wanna Go Home’, ‘Love Doctor’ and ‘Who Feels It Knows It’. In the Summer of 2010 VP Records released his excellent debut album ‘Romain Virgo’, without any doubt one of the best albums for 2010. Recently Romain toured both the USA (together with Capleton) and Europe, where he impressed crowds at every venue he performed.
The interview with Romain Virgo below was done after his show at Petrol Club in Antwerp, Belgium on December 10, 2010. The interview has been broadcasted on Danny Pepperseed’s Dancehall Vibes radioshow on December 15, 2010. You can read and listen this interview exclusively on WorldaReggae.com
DP: Romain, welcome in Europe!
RV: Yea man, give thanks! I’m glad to be here, vibes maaaddd you know, nice vibe!
DP:How is the experience so far, cause I guess the temperature difference between Jamaica and Europe was huge?
RV:Yea, it’s an experience you know. It’s like the first time I’m exposed to snow and all these things coming here. On my way here it was snowing in other places like Germany, Finland and everywhere. Overhere [in Antwerp] it’s kind of cool now, but I heard last week it did snow here as well.
DP: Were you prepared for the cold?
RV: I was nervous at first, as I said it was the first time experiencing this type of weather conditions. I was kind of worried about how I would manage the cold and singing at the same time. Believe me, it took some time for us to really adjust to it, but so far it has been all good and I really enjoy it.
DP: Which part of Jamaica are you from?
RV: Well, I live in Kingston now, but I was born in St. Ann in a small community called Stepney. Stepney is a mile away from Nine Miles where Bob Marley was born, so it was pretty close like walking distance. Stepney is a beautiful place even though a lot of poor people live there. You know, I come from a poor family. Five of us had to sleep in one bedroom, the same thing that I sing about in ‘Ghetto’ [on the ‘Stagalag’ riddim produced by Shane Brown for Juke Boxx Records]. Stepney was such a peaceful community, even though we were poor, we were happy at the same time. I never let being poor stop me from reaching where I wanted to be. I always believed that someday I was going to get this big break and my parents, especially my mommy, was always encouraging me to go out there and fight. I have been through a whole lot of struggles in life, if I should start to mention them right now probably we would not finish this interview. We have been through a whole lot as a family, so I have been coming from far.
DP: How did you get into singing and what was your first experience with the music?
RV: I would say I started out inside of the house and then moved it to church. What we did back in the days, my bother did play [drums] on the table and me and my mother did sing and we used to record it on a cassette tape and play it back on the big radio every Sunday morning before we go to church. That’s how people inside our community found out that I could sing. While going to church I used to love to sing inside the church and listen to the echoes of my voice. While I was there singing, I remember one Sunday morning I was humming the melody of ‘Amazing Grace’ and everybody inside the church were excited and they were saying to me I could sing. From then I have been singing in the youth choir for the church. While I was going to highschool I was the leadsinger for my highschool choir. We entered the All Island Choir Competition in 2006 and we became second. So from there whenever we were going on the road, people were excited and that was my first break. Everybody was saying to me: “You should enter Rising Stars”. I entered Rising Stars that same year and that time I was 16, but unfortunately the judges said that I had chosen the wrong song because I chose a song that somebody had used the previous year. With determination, because music is something that I love, and the encouragement from friends and family and everybody, I went back in 2007 and they accepted me for the studio finals. It actually was six months from auditions to finals, but in the end I turned out to be the youngest person to ever win the competition at the age of 17. It was amazing and something different, it was like the big break of my life. I was still in highschool and just did my CXC subjects and was awaiting the results of my exams.
DP: How old were you when you started singing?
RV: The times I was singing inside the house, I was about 7, 8 years old. When I started to sing in church I was around 10, 11 years.
DP: After you won Digicel Rising Stars in 2007, I guess your life was upside down. What happened then, because soon after you started to work with the legendary producer Donovan Germain from Penthouse Records.
RV: During Rising Stars the artist Tony Rebel was watching Rising Stars, just like everybody in Jamaica. But Tony Rebel was watching and he was the first one who told Donovan Germain about me and said to him: “You need to record this artist”. So that was the first time Donovan Germain was hearing about Romain Virgo. Luckily Donovan Germain was also one of the producers that Rising Stars wanted us to work with for the songs we did on the competition, so he was one of the producers that I’ll get the chance to record one of the songs with. While I recorded the song with him, he was there [in the studio] and he was very interested, he wanted to work with me after Rising Stars.
DP: What was the first song you recorded for Donovan Germain?
RV: I did a song called ‘Always On My Mind’. That was the very first recording I did for Donovan Germain. It was an original song and I just got this riddim from him and he wanted me to sing a song on it and I wrote ‘Always On My Mind’. It was for the competition and the song didn’t reach that far. It was out, but it didn’t reach that far as it was my first song. I doubt if probably people in Jamaica would know that song. I did another song for [Richard] ‘Shams’ Browne [of B-Rich Records] which was ‘This Love’ and I shot a video for it as well back then. That song did fairly well, it had an r&b-feel to it, so the Jamaican crowd didn’t take on to it at the very first time they heard the song, but I believed in myself and I was saying this is what I wanted to do. The competition didn’t matter to me, it didn’t matter if I did win or became second or even did drop out of the top ten. What I wanted to get out there was this whole Romain Virgo, my name and for people to see me and know me. I would still be recording with Donovan Germain, because I know he is somebody who has been in the business for so many years and he has worked with so many top artists like Buju Banton, Marcia Griffiths, Beres Hammond, Sanchez, Wayne Wonder and Assassin, there are so many artists that he has worked with.
DP: So how is it to work with Donovan Germain? How did you feel as a 17 year old boy walking into Penthouse studio with this veteran producer Donovan Germain?
RV: I was nervous at first, because this is one of the top producers in Jamaica and you can’t go to him with anything. That was what I had in my mind, I said: “I can’t go to Donovan Germain with anything that doesn’t sound right”. So I was very nervous and I was shy at the same time, so I wouldn’t be giving my all. I would be there thinking about what Donovan Germain was going to say about the song, so I was paying more attention to what I was singing. I was very nervous also because I was coming from country into Kingston and there was all of this limelight and you now get to see all the people in person who work behind the music. But while I was recording, Donovan Germain was like a father and like a mentor at the same time, somebody that would be always encouraging me and telling me: “You can do it”. So that was the advantage I had working with Donovan Germain as somebody who is looking at me and telling me: “That doesn’t sound good, come back with something else”. Even if he didn’t like a song he will always try to find parts in the song that can work, so I just need to switch some lines or change some words or he tells me part of the song sounds predictable. It kind of helped me in terms of my writing, so Donovan Germain played a big part in my career, not only in terms of writing but also for my whole confidence level. So I was recording and recording and then finally I found ‘Mi Caan Sleep’ and from I found that tune that was it. I was there just writing, I wanted to write a song that would change the minds of all of the people in Jamaica that created the crime and violence, all these problems that the country face. If it was at least one person I could reach out to with the song, I was going to try if I could change that one person. ‘Mi Caan Sleep’ became this big song in Jamaica. It was playing on what people would class as the smallest radio stations in Jamaica at first and then gradually it moved up. We did a lot of promotion for the tune, me and my management team Dawin Brown and Omar Brown [from Vikings]. I must say everybody works as a team, Donovan Germain, Dyan Foster from Pete’s Music and Shane Brown. We just went out and promoted the song everywhere we went. I would always sing the song, until people took on to the song and it became a big song in Jamaica and the rest of the world.
DP: After ‘Mi Caan Sleep’ you recorded ‘Wanna Go Home (Rain Is Falling)’ for Vikings and Pete’s Music
RV: Yea, that was the next song after ‘Mi Caan Sleep’ that was big in Jamaica. Vikings [Dawin Brown] gave me the riddim and I was there at school, because I live at the school campus. I was there at school and the rain was falling that day and I said to myself: “I just going to be real and write something that is going on right now”. I just came up with the melody and the lines and wrote ‘Wanna Go Home (Rain Is Falling)’. I recorded it at Roof Top Studio [on Red Hills Road in Kingston] and that song just blew up. We shot the video for ‘Wanna Go Home (Rain Is Falling)’ at the same time and the song became a big song. Then you had the other songs for Donovan Germain. They were releasing ‘Love Doctor’ and ‘Who Feels It Knows It’.
DP: Especially ‘Love Doctor’ was very popular here in Europe. The ‘Automatic’ riddim did very well and ‘Love Doctor’ was one of the biggest tunes on that juggling
RV: Yea man, for real. You have Busy Signal & Marcia Griffiths on it as well, you have so many artists on the riddim like Queen Ifrica. It was one of those riddims, from you hear it you definitely are going to write something for it. From I heard it, the ‘Love Doctor’ melody just came to me. I wrote the song in Stepney, my community. I was there upstairs, listening to the riddim and I wrote the chorus first [sings]: “I’m your love doctor, call me anytime you need me” and I could hear my mommy downstairs singing the song. So it had to be catchy, from mommy was singing this song, it was something special. It was the first song I ever wrote and I heard somebody in my family singing it at the exact the same time, so it was something special. I was just going to go out to Penthouse to record it. I had to travel from my community, from Stepney, like a three and a half to four hours drive to Kingston, to record this one song. I used to go to the studio every Thursday and I went to record ‘Love Doctor’. Donovan Germain is not somebody who is going to tell you: “Yow, big tune!” and who is going to hype you up. He said: “Yea, good idea”. I must say ‘Love Doctor’ became a big song in the rest of the world before even Jamaica took on to ‘Love Doctor’. Probably even now it will be bigger in the rest of the world than in Jamaica. Over the past years of recording, I found out that people all over the world take on to music differently than in Jamaica. They take on to the music before Jamaica. Same thing for ‘Who Feels It Knows It’, it took a while before the people in Jamaica started to know it, not until we did a video for it, but in Europe they loved it from the start.
DP: The same thing happened to the ‘Big Stage’ riddim, the brand new riddim from Penthouse that released earlier this year. That riddim does very well in Europe at the moment. You hear it playing everywhere, especially your song and Marcia Griffiths’
RV: Yea, ‘Taking You Home’, that song…when did I record that song [laughs]? I did so many songs, but ‘Taking You Home’ I did it for my album. It wasn’t written by me though, but by Black Pearl and on the moment I heard him singing the song inside the studio, I fell in love with the whole melody. It was like a story, it was building and you could see everything going on through words. This is a nice song and I recorded the song for my album and when Black Pearl listened back the song he told me he wasn’t expecting me to record it that way, based on the way how he did sing it to me and everything. But it does turn out to be this big song and we have a video coming out for it now as well.
DP: Earlier this year your debut album did drop on VP Records
RV: Yea, I must big up VP Records. VP Records is one of the big distribution labels, probably the biggest for reggae music right now. We got the opportunity to do an album with them and we just took the opportunity and did the album. I was very excited when I heard I was going to do an album with VP Records and the management team, Dawin Brown and Omar Brown, came together with Donovan Germain to do the album. We did the album and even though the album is not doing as well as albums used to do like ten years ago, but the market has changed a lot since then.
DP: I think the album is definitely one of the best albums for the whole year.
RV: I was surprised with myself, you know. I have been recording for almost three years now and to put out an album and so many people are talking about the album, it’s tremendous. I am very pleased with the way people took on to the album. Everywhere I go, people tell me it’s one of the best albums they heard in a good while. It’s kind of uplifting for me, it kind of motivates me. It makes me feel like going back into the studio and try to record a next album just like that one or even try to do it better than that one, so it has been good so far.
DP: What I was very happy about to see, was that you did make your album a straight reggae album. So your album is not like this poppy, r&b-ish and techno-ish music that is coming out of Jamaica nowadays. Now it even looks like reggae isn’t even made in Jamaica anymore.
RV: That has changed, it has changed a lot. I think it’s a new generation of artists coming in the business, you know it has changed a whole lot. It doesn’t even feel like reggae, I don’t know what to say, reggae music has changed. Most of the riddims you will hear right now, I don’t if they are trying to call that type of music dancehall, but it’s not dancehall. It’s like an r&b feel to it. You know it’s young people, you know it’s a new time, so probably they just believe. We have to stick to our culture and we have to give people what they know. I believe before you get into the business, you have to know where you are coming from. You have to know and look back at the people who paved the way for us, people who used to be there. Take some time and learn about the business and the type of music that a market like the European market would love.
DP: That’s something very rare to see in an artist nowadays
RV: Yea, it’s hard to find, but it is probably because of the new generation. You know, probably the younger generation is taking on to the new kind of music that people play. But I am an artist that believe in myself and that believe in reggae music and believe that reggae music can never die. And I think it’s the opportunity that I get to be around people like Donovan Germain, who tries to show me the right way and the right type of music that the world would easily take on to, right away, like reggae music. The real reggae music, that people can listen to and that can touch their hearts. I will never give up. I am not saying that I will not do other genres of music like an r&b song, because nothing is wrong with doing that. But I think we can’t lose our culture. We have to continue to give the people what they know as far.
DP: Of course you did look back. You did a cover of Time Tough by Toots Hibbert and you did this Alton Ellis medley, which dropped only a month after Alton Ellis did pass away. Whose idea it was to do that medley?
RV: I would say it’s me and Dawin Brown’s. It started out while me and Dawin Brown, that’s my manager, were driving while we heard the news that Alton Ellis passed away. Because Alton Ellis is one of my favorite artists, while growing up. You know, it might be strange for some young people hearing this, but you know my mommy is responsible for all of that. She is the one who used to play Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Beres Hammond, these were the type of artists I grew up listening to. So he was one of my favorite artists growing up. While growing up I used to love listen to Alton Ellis, so while he passed away we were driving and Vikings was saying that a medley for Alton Ellis would be nice, a good idea. So we took the idea to Donovan Germain and Donovan Germain, once something connects, he is going to deal with it. So he called in the musicians the following day, because it was in the evening we told him about the idea. We chose the songs that we wanted to put in the medley and everybody was there holding a vibe. The musicians were playing and I was singing and the three songs just came and it turned out to be this beautiful song. Everybody just loves the way how we did the medley. You know, you want to do it good and it took a long time while we were recording, because Alton has some slurs which are hard to reproduce. So it took some time and I was there and I was kind of, I would call it rehearsing. I was there listening to Alton and rehearsing and singing, trying to sing the melody of the songs and it turned out to be this beautiful song. I even love listening to it myself. Everywhere I go, people would always say do the Alton medley, so I will do it at most places I go to.
DP: So you already mentioned Alton Ellis, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown as artists that influenced you. Who else besides these three big artists influenced you?
RV: Other younger artists that I really look up to are Jah Cure, I listen to Tarrus Riley, I listen to Queen Ifrica, Etana, Sean Paul and Shaggy. These are some artists, believe me there are a whole lot because music is something that I appreciate, so all genres and whichever artists. You can even listen to something negative and then that can give you an idea to write some songs. I listen to every type of music, because I don’t want anybody to think that it’s only reggae and dancehall music I listen to. I learn to appreciate, but at the same time not to lose the real me, the real culture, the real thing that we know the people love.
DP: I am very happy about that, to see that coming out of Jamaica, especially a person as young as you. Most of the time when I go to Jamaica and talk to younger people in Jamaica and I tell them about Studio One and Treasure Isle or even King Jammy and Steely & Clevie, the response is: what is that or who are they?
RV: True man, but these are people that I will learn about in school. I am going to school [Edna Manley College for the performing arts] right now and these are historical people, people who have contributed a whole lot to reggae music. I just think that if we as young artists could just take the time to know where all the music is coming from, then we would learn to appreciate it more and try to keep up our own music and not straw from it. I think that is the main problem we are facing. Artists that were there before, we need them to step out and teach the youths. I know, as I said before, there is a young generation, but we can’t lose reggae music. We can’t just be doing the music, then the younger people who are coming up they are going to take on to it and then in the next five or ten years from now, probably you won’t be hearing reggae music again from Jamaica. So we have to be careful what we do, I love music as a whole, but we have to be careful with what we do with reggae music.
DP: I totally agree on that! Can we expect you to do combinations with legendary reggae artists like for example John Holt or Ken Boothe?
RV: Yea man, Beres coming right down. There are so many artists that I listen to. If I could have the opportunity to do a collaboration with everybody, that would be so great, that would be so good. I think music takes time at the same time and believe me it’s good when I see people like Ken Boothe coming up to me telling me that he respects the way and the type of music I am doing. That is something that really means so much to me, because if the greats, the people who are there from so long, are so supportive to me, it means a whole lot to me.
DP: Let’s go back to your album. If you have to name one favorite track from the album, which track would that be?
RV: It would be track one through fifteen [laughs]. Believe me, I love all of the songs, but one song that actually you know, I can’t believe I’m saying this, my own song brings tears to my eyes. That song would have to be ‘Be Careful’. I sing all of the songs with feeling and I really mean all of the songs, everything that I sing, but ‘Be Careful’ is the one that I really feel to the depths of my heart. That song is so real and because of what was going on in Kingston the other day, it’s basically the same thing I was talking about in the song.
DP: You are referring to the situation in West Kingston and all that happened around the extradition of Dudus. It was around the same period that I got the track. Did you actually write and voice it in that period?
RV: No, that’s the beauty about. It was voiced about a year ago, you know. And then I saw the same thing I was singing about happening. It meant so much to me, it was like prophecy. It was something like that and I was amazed. I can remember I met this lady at the airport and she asked me if I wrote this song because of what was going on in the West Kingston area. So I told her it was written a year ago and she was talking to me like if she was crying. That’s a song on the album that I really love to my heart. Some people would probably say their favorite is ‘Who Feels It Knows It’ or ‘Mi Caan Sleep’, ‘Love Doctor’ or ‘Wanna Go Home (Rain Is Falling)’, everybody has their own favorite. That’s the good thing about my album. It’s not an album that everybody is talking about this one song. I think that is very good for me, you know, putting out my very first album and so many people loving it. Not just loving one song on the album, but the entire album and they are saying it’s beautiful. It’s uplifting and it’s encouraging and definitely the next album will be much better, because we will spend more time on it. I am always recording, so it’s going to be a matter of choosing songs again to put on the album.
DP: I guess you had much more songs for your debut album than ended up on it?
RV: Yea, we had to be choosing songs. At one point ‘Murderer’, which was a big song, was going to be left off the album. Then everybody was saying: “No, no way, ‘Murderer’ cannot be left off the album” and then they had to go about that song and put on ‘Murderer’. I think that was very good. You know, there were so many songs and songs with potential, so we had to choose the right ones. It worked out good for everybody. I think the day they were choosing the songs, there were some artists inside the studio listening and helping to choose the tracks at the same time, which was beautiful. Busy Signal was there, Shane Brown was there, so many people were there with us, so many artists, just choosing and it turned out to be this beautiful album. I love it, I love it myself.
DP: Another special thing about your album is that you only work with three production teams, it’s basically Donovan Germain from Penthouse Records, Shane Brown from Juke Boxx Records and Dawin Brown, Omar Brown and Dyan Foster from Vikings Productions/Pete’s Music
RV: I think that’s something special about the album as well. First of all I must say this, as a team we are trying to keep the music at a steady pace. There were times when I could have voiced for all of the big producers you could think about right now in Jamaica, all of the young producers and the ones who were there before. There were times when I know definitely I could have recorded for them and I would have had so many songs out now, but I think that would confuse the crowd. The type of music that I do, it would be confusing. The type of music I do takes time for people to catch on to, you cannot have ten songs released at the same time. We kind of try to have that control over the music. We work as a team and we won’t put out a certain song before a certain time, so we give each song time to live and I think it pays of a whole lot. Everybody is looking forward for a new Romain Virgo tune. It’s more like the people wanting more, like they hear this song and they love it so much and they listening for the next one, but still love this one and when they hear the next one they say: “Wow!”. I think it’s a good strategy and I have hardly seen anybody doing something like that. I always want to be different and I think it’s paying off.
DP: What can we expect in the near future from you? Will the new album be dropping soon?
RV: Probably you won’t see a next album until late 2011 or early 2012. I won’t do a next album this coming year, because as we say it’s reggae music and it’s music that people really take time to know and catch on to it. I will take some time and then I will come with the next album. I am touring and promoting the [current] album right now, we all know it will take a little time before the album will soak in. People all are saying it’s a very good album and there are so many good songs on it and those songs will take some time before people really forget them. I know they will never forget about this album, but before this album kind of soak in to people. I will take a little time, but not too long, so people can look forward for a next album coming from Romain Virgo, more singles, more music videos, just trying to give them that same vibe.
DP: Will you be back in Europe soon with a band?
RV: Yea man, I am looking to do the festivals next Summer from July going into August. I am just looking forward. Music is something that I love, so I don’t look at it like work. It’s just like making people enjoy themselves while I enjoy myself at the same time. Once it is music, I’m on it.
DP: So how do you combine the touring with school? I guess you still have to go to school, but while you are touring you miss a lot of lessons
RV: I miss out so much. Last month I was on tour in America with Capleton, so that took a month out of school. It took the whole of September going into October. Now I will going to be here for over a month again, so that’s almost three months out of school in a four month semester, so basically I missed all of that. But I must say that I have some teachers who believe in me, they are working with me and they definitely believe that I can do it. I also have friends at school who help me with most of the work, they will take notes for me and help me handing in some of my homework. I have people around me that really look out for me and that’s good. Everybody is looking out for me to finish school as well, so I’m going to try my best. I know it’s hard to balance, you know touring, doing all those local shows, recording and going to school at the same time, but you know music is something that, as I said before, I love. I’m not going to give up on school and I’m not going to give up on music, believe me. The good thing about it is that I’m doing music at school, that’s the good thing about it.
DP: As a last question I want to ask you if you have a special message for your fans?
RV: Well, by now all my fans would know that Romain Virgo loves them, because I sing so much love songs. I just want all of my fans to know that Romain Virgo loves you and I will always continue to do this type of music that I know people love. I will always be giving them this same thing. People always come up to me, like on Facebook, and say: “Romain, I love everything about you, please don’t change”. That’s what I want the fans to know is that there is no change about me, any change it will be always something of higher quality, an improvement. That’s definitely me and I will always be giving them the music that I know they love. I just want all of the especially younger people to just believe in themselves and anything you believe in, put your mind to it and you work towards it and definitely you are going to achieve it. I just want the people to know that Romain always going to be there and always going to do more music on top of music, as Capleton says: “Hits pon toppa hits”, that’s the aim.