LOS ANGELES — After one take of Jimmy Cliff’s new song “Blessed Love,” producer, fan and lifelong punk rocker Tim Armstrong offered a quick assessment: “I think we got it.” Not entirely.
Armstrong, best known as the scratchy-voiced leader of Oakland, Calif., punk outfit Rancid, looked to the reggae legend for his feeling. “Fine, fine, fine,” said Cliff, rocking forward and holding his hands together as if in prayer. Armstrong suggested doing another take. Cliff, at first, seemed indecisive. Armstrong recognized that cue and nodded to his band to get ready for Take 2.
“I’m an introverted character,” Cliff said about an hour later. “Tim has a nice little way of making me come out of my cocoon. At the same time, there’s a part of my character that loves to be flexible. That’s why I went into different genres of music instead of just singing reggae. If I go to Peru and hear a rhythm, I want to adopt it. Tim helps bring out that side.”
In his role as producer, Armstrong has gone from idolizer to collaborator, one of a growing number of working artists to make new songs with one of his heroes. Among the recent examples: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Mac (“Dr. John”) Rebennack, and, perhaps most unexpected, Gorillaz architect Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack.
Armstrong’s mission, like the others’, is not to add a modern hipness to a veteran artist but to instead help a star rediscover why he or she fell in love with music in the first place.
Last November, Cliff was encamped in the Hollywood studio Sound Factory, working with a group of younger musicians he barely knew on what would become his first album since 2004, “Rebirth,” due Tuesday. At 64, he is one of reggae’s foremost ambassadors; once the young star of the 1972 Jamaican crime film “The Harder They Come,” his rebellious streak and willingness to reinvent has made him a hero to punk rockers like Armstrong. The gospel backing vocals had yet to be added to “Blessed Love,” but already present was Cliff’s resolve. His is a sweet voice tinted with age, yet one almost stubbornly optimistic.
The results of these recent collaborations have proved to be vital, with each work, to use Cliff’s word, “reenergizing” the artists in different ways. In the case of Dr. John, Auerbach on “Locked Down” had the artist experimenting with instruments he hadn’t touched on record in two decades. It also gave Dr. John the best chart debut of his career when it bowed at No. 33 in the U.S. in April. For Womack, a soul great who long ago worked with the likes of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, Albarn used electronics to put the emphasis on the cracks in the artist’s ripened voice on “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” The album bowed at No. 6 on Billboard’s dance/ electronic chart.
“When you have been making records as long as Mac, Jimmy, Mavis or Bobby has, it’s easy to fall into a predictable approach,” said David Bither, senior vice president at Nonesuch, the label home of the Black Keys and Dr. John. “But when you see your own music through people as talented as Jeff, Damon, Dan or Tim, you rediscover it.”
Sometimes what’s been forgotten is a legacy.
“I was shocked,” said Womack, 68, of the moment Albarn said he wanted to record an album with him. “Why do these people want to hear me? I had just turned 68, so what is there for me to do? When I talk about Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley, unlike those kids I actually knew those people.”
And yet, said Womack, “I’ve never gotten this kind of attention for any album I’ve ever recorded, and I’ve recorded 30 or 40 albums.”
That Womack is alive is something of a miracle. He survived prostate cancer, was operated on for colon cancer (the diagnosis proved to be negative), had trouble kicking pneumonia and this year lived on machines after he said his lungs shut down for 10 days.
Womack brushed it off: “Everyone’s got personal problems.”
Womack’s career resurrection began in 2010, when the 44-year-old Albarn wanted Womack to lend his vocals to his genre-shifting, electronics-heavy project Gorillaz. Womack was skeptical, thinking Albarn wanted to hear the raspy swing Womack brought to ‘70s classics like “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha.”
Recalled Womack: “I said, ‘What if I come in a wheelchair? Will you be disappointed?’ He said those were excuses. They weren’t excuses. I just thought he was giving me a lot of credit for something I had done 35 years ago.”
What Womack found was a recording session that reminded him of his pre-record biz days. For much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Womack was releasing nearly an album per year, a furious pace that did little to slow his battles with substance abuse. Womack, looking back, said he “prostituted his talent” and wasted time “chasing the dollar.” Instead of writing songs, he said he was writing to someone else’s idea of one.
The sessions with Albarn and Richard Russell, the musician-owner behind XL Recordings, were different. “They were trying things that inspired me,” Womack said. “Damon said, ‘Put some lyrics to this.’ He would say, ‘Hey, the tape is running. Just say what you want to say.’ I don’t work that way. I wasn’t used to that. But this got me up. This made me want to do this again.”
Armstrong and Cliff were a more obvious fit. Some of Cliff’s biggest fans were British punk band the Clash, who referenced “The Harder They Come” on the track “The Guns of Brixton,” from its seminal album “London Calling.” Armstrong recorded the Clash song last spring with his new band, the Engine Room.
“I had my guitar when we met and we started playing music immediately,” Armstrong said of Cliff. “That was a fantastic moment in my life, meeting Jimmy Cliff. We immediately jumped into music. It was like a puzzle was fitting together.”
When Armstrong and Cliff met for originals in the winter, the songs were sometimes the result of improvisational exercises.
“Outsider,” for instance, sprung from a word-association game. “Tim came up with the word ‘Outsider,’” said Cliff. “Tim said, ‘Relate to me how you see an outsider.’ Then I relate to him, and he started writing things down.”
While Womack’s record is dotted with grave-sounding electronics and sparse beats, both projects put a premium on in-the-moment approaches to songwriting that left plenty of room for spontaneity. There’s a lesson to be learned there, said Womack, who noted his daughter is working on an album and has spent years fine-tuning songs with dozens of collaborators.
“I told her it’s become an abstract painting,” said Womack. “She said, ‘That’s the way we do it now, dad.’ Yeah, well, then you’re doing it wrong.”
If the studio sessions have been relaxed, there’s still pressure with each of these projects. “My whole goal was to make Jimmy have a higher place in the music world. I was focused on finding a [producer] with credibility, a guy who would keep it totally true to what the idea was,” said Tom “Grover” Biery, a partner in management/label group the Collective, the firm that manages Cliff.
If there’s an intangible fueling the artistic success of all of these records, it is perhaps that the younger partners (all in their 30s and 40s) have something to prove, each wanting to be the collaborative equal to their more experienced charge. Auerbach said Nonesuch’s Bither made it clear that he did not want Dr. John to record in his home city of New Orleans or use his full-time band.
“It’s only a story if it has the goods,” Bither said. “What’s interesting about having artists like those producing those records is they bring their own credibility, and their own hard-headedness.”
Which is why there will likely be more of these collaborations. “I’ve got one more song I must sing,” Cliff sang in the studio last fall, but later in the day he said it isn’t just Armstrong fueling his creativity. He pointed to today’s political climate, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement, as lyrical inspiration.
“I did a song called ‘Vietnam’ about that era, about that war, about people marching,” Cliff said. “People are still marching now but for a different cause.”
Womack puts it differently: “People say, ‘Oh, he’s from the old school.’ Well, I don’t see no new one.”
// Notes from the Road
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