In a west London hotel, Aloe Blacc and I bump fists like a couple of awkward teenagers and make small talk about the impending coronavirus pandemic. It’s March 9, 2020, UK lockdown is still a week away and – despite increasingly bleak bulletins from China, Italy and now Spain – nothing about the situation seems truly real. Aloe’s new album, All Love Everything, is due a May release and we’ve agreed to put him on our cover. At this point, George Floyd still has 11 weeks left to live. The past sure is a foreign country.
Spool forward almost six months and America has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths on the planet. Against a background of civil unrest unleashed by Floyd’s death at the hands of the police, the US election is gearing up at a social distance and Aloe Blacc is updating me on the phone about the imminent arrival, rearranged for early October, of his album about love, relationships and family. Never, he says, has there been a more appropriate time to be reminded about the more valuable things in life.
Interviews have been refreshingly different since the lockdown. Rather than trying to snatch 20 minutes with someone at an airport, a soundcheck or driving through busy streets with the radio playing, we’ve been talking to artists at home and during a rare period of concentrated work and reflection.
Tarrus Riley knows all about that, and is wholly right when he describes new album Healing as “a songbook of the times.” It’s a landmark release by a singer who’s now in his prime, and surrounded by long-time collaborators who understand exactly what he needs to excel. With no shows or tours to distract him, he’s been working with even greater focus than usual, expanding on his already richly varied musical palette, whilst documenting the pandemic and the emotions that it’s invoked with characteristic honesty.
“I’m very deliberate in what I am saying about this whole quarantine thing and the COVID situation… ”
“My glasses always help me find the boogie,” says Sy Smith – or rather, types over a-fly-on-the-wall clip that provides an insight into her process as a producer. A camera on time-lapse shows Sy’s point of view as she parks up outside engineer Grant “G Nick” Nicholas’s recording facility in North Hollywood, the grey pebble-dashed walls bleached in a blanket of daylight. She then walks to the entrance and opens the wrought iron gated door and proceeds through the hallway into the blackness of the studio.
“This whole album is about me pushing my own boundaries,” the text overlay continues, “as a singer, producer, writer & woman.”
Protoje is talking from his studio in the hills overlooking Kingston and it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place to shelter from a pandemic.
“It has three acres and no neighbours,” he begins. “It’s very high up, giving a beautiful view of the city, but also a view of the mountains as well. Inside there are lots of windows so you can always see the mountains or see the city lights. The view really gets people’s minds going and I love the energy that it brings.”
This is where Protoje recorded the majority of tracks on his latest album In Search Of Lost Time, which is his first since signing to RCA, home to A$AP Rocky, Chris Brown, Alicia Keys et al. The 39-year-old kingpin of Jamaica’s new wave brings something different to their roster, whilst highlighting the mainstream music industry’s renewed interest in reggae and dancehall artists. He’s doing it the right way too, since his deal is between RCA and Protoje’s own label In.Digg.Nation, which means that artists signed to him, like Sevana and Lila Ike, automatically benefit from RCA’s involvement as well.