Leighton Levy, Gleaner Writer
After spending the past few years travelling the world and building what has become a steadily growing fan base, reggae singer and songwriter Duane Stephenson is planning to spend most of the next few months at home working on and completing what will be his third studio album.
"Hopefully, it will be out in June. That's the time frame we're looking at," Stephenson told The Gleaner as he leaned back in a chair inside a sound studio at Grafton Studios on Deanery Road in east Kingston to talk about his latest projects and the growth of his career over the past few years.
Stephenson, the superversatile singer who has penned and sung songs dealing with everything from romance to social issues, says the working title for this latest project is Story of Minds.
"The theme is of the mind in different places, reflections of the different places and the journey from August Town 'til now," he said, pointing out that the title could change as work progressed.
"We are about half-way through, so we might need to change because as you go through and find your direction, things might become a little bit clearer so things may change."
The album, he says, will also be an attempt to reconnect with his home base, getting back to music on the local level, as he puts it.
A lot of this home-town focus has to do with the lukewarm support he got for his monster hit August Town, which was released back in 2007.
"August Town was never a big song in Jamaica, but at the time, it was a number-one song in the Caribbean, California, in Europe, and Amsterdam. That great push was never behind it here," he said with a hint of disappointment.
Dean Frazer will be the main force behind the album's production, but Stephenson says this time, he will also be leaning on Christopher Birch, who he expects to bring his unique flavour to the project.
"We have had a synergy over the years. He has a serious understanding of the younger generation while still not diverting too far from what I do," Stephenson said.
Of the collection of songs he has down to make the album, there are some that are more likely to make the final cut.
Among them are songs like Jullian, a song about relationships.
"It's the lighter side of reggae music about being in love with a person who is not in love with you," he said. Another cut called Back to Africa is also one that people can look out for.
Distribution of the album is to be handled by Irie Star Music.
Reggae music might be struggling in Jamaica, giving way to a more popular dancehall culture, but the genre seems to be thriving everywhere else.
Those markets are also much bigger and a great deal more profitable for purists like Stephenson, who are more respected abroad.
"I have never stopped working. For the past few years, I was opening for the Wailers, so I am hardly ever here in Jamaica," he said.
The Wailers, he said, spend eight to nine months every year touring, mainly in Europe. Stephenson spent much of his time opening for them with much success. It was part of the reason he hasn't opened for them for the past two years.
"Between mid-2010 and 2012, they were in Europe, but I deliberately wasn't there," he said. "I already have a strong following in that market, so coming in as an opening act would not have been a good thing."
Focused on South America
So while the Wailers wowed Europe, Stephenson took on South America. "I did Brazil extensively, every crevice and corner of Argentina. Once I went on a bus in Mendoza (on the eastern side of the Andes), and it was hot. Twenty-eight hours later, in Bariloche (located in the foothills of the Andes), it was winter," he said, laughing at the memory.
He also made forays into Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador, where he said much of the food was similar to what is found in Jamaica. "I had culture shock in Ecuador. It's like you're home. Only ackee and saltfish they never had."
Brazil also has strong Jamaican links, he said, revealing that there is a section of the city of San Luis that is called Little Jamaica where the Jamaican culture is very strong and where entertainers like Tarrus Riley thrive.
In fact, reggae has a very large following in the continent and is proving to be very fertile ground for acts like Pablo Moses and the Abyssinians. Where Stephenson believes many emerging reggae acts from Jamaica can make a good living there.
Shows in South America are usually held in clubs that can hold about 2,000 patrons or at designated entertainment venues that hold as many as 5,000 people.
"Ninety per cent of the time, the venues are packed," said Stephenson, who recently toured Brazil again and most recently returned from a very successful performance in St John in the US Virgin Islands where he headlined with Steel Pulse.
"These people are serious lovers of reggae music."
For the next few months, however, the focus will be on completing the album and writing songs. He will still do the occasional show abroad, but he plans to spend much of his time here. "Right now, I am sitting in doing more writing for Jah Cure. I want to write even more for an album that he has coming out. I will be doing shows, but there will be nothing extensive until after my album is done."