Hollie Stephenson – Visiting the island of Jamaica

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You can hear Hollie Stephenson’s debut album on Society of Sound this month. The album was recorded in both LA and Jamaica and produced by Dave Stewart. Here, Hollie recounts her first visit to Jamaica and the experience of recording at the legendary Studio 17.

Visiting the island of Jamaica was a big deal for Hollie in itself – a kind of spiritual homecoming – but a rather special duet was also about to take place…

“My auntie’s love of reggae has more than definitely rubbed off on me; whenever I see her, there’s always a dirty bass cruising in the background on the off beat. 

I was introduced to Mark James, who was working on a documentary called Studio 17 – The Lost Archives, which is where everyone from Bob Marley to The Maytals have recorded, and the hurricane that ripped through Jamaica had left Studio 17 as a pile of rubble. Reggae journalist Reshma B who came across the story has been working with director Mark James on it.

Amongst the wreckage, James landed on an old recording of Dennis Brown’s which he had started working on but never completed. It was a cover of When You Get Right Down To It and James suggested the idea that I sang the missing lyrics. At this point, I was ecstatic and so excited to duet with the legendary Dennis Brown, which I would have never thought was possible.

James then decided that I should record it in Jamaica and I then decided I needed to sit down before I started skanking around like a madman as the offer would quickly be taken from me on the realisation I’m Jamaica crazy, and I was so desperate to go. I think I went home and packed my bags that day even though it was two months in advance. 

My geographical knowledge is pretty dire, so I wasn’t aware of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica which we had to drive through from Kingston airport to Port Antonio, where we would be staying at GeeGam.

I clambered over the seats of the mini bus which was too big for the winding roads, and announced to my mum that “I’ve been here before! Mum! I know this place, I think I was a Rasta man in my past life.” My mum rolled her eyes at me, nauseous from too much coconut juice which we were greeted with at the exit of the airport, and the journey was about as jerky as the chicken so I’m sure that didn’t help.

20 minutes in Jamaica and I had found my spiritual inquisitions in the depths of the Blue Mountains. Possibly one of the most uncomfortable long car journeys I will ever experience, but it was authentic, exciting, and I was to consumed with the idea I used to be a Rasta living in the mountains. 

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We got to the Hotel, and Dave was sat at a table with his daughter Kaya; The Jolly Boys (a mentos band, very well known in Jamaica, all men in their 80’s) were playing on the porch, and the only way I could describe the atmosphere at 1am that morning when I arrived at the GeeGam Studios in Jamaica, was magical. Jet lag wasn’t even a thing. 

That’s the thing I found about Jamaica; it really does feel like a magical place. There’s just something in the air that makes me believe anything is possible. Within the first few days of being there, I put pen to paper, and the writers block I had been suffering from, had been lifted and I just wrote songs as though I knew them word for word already. 

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I met some incredibly talented musicians when I was there, and I had the opportunity to record with these amazing Jamaican musicians. There was something so dirty yet pure about the vibe. It all kind of just happened.

When I was recording the Dennis Brown duet, it suddenly became very clear how hard it would be for my vocals to match his, but the serene surroundings allowed it to work. That’s what I mean by Jamaica is magic. Without any disrespect to my beloved London, had I tried to record it there, I think I would have felt so panicked and pressured, that perhaps it would have never been recorded. Jamaica gave me that head space and time to figure out how to record it in a way I would otherwise not have known how to. 

After my week in Jamaica was over, I insisted that I had to stay and persuaded my mum to push our flight back another week. I couldn’t leave just then. I needed a few more years there, but we compromised on a week. I just loved waking up to a platter of fresh exotic fruits, the warm sand and clear sea.

The second week was definitely more chilled. I’d take my guitar to the beach and sit their singing and playing, and people would just come and sit around me and then we’d all be singing together, our shoulders getting redder and redder with every moment more under the glorious sun. It was nice that sunburn was my only problem for two weeks.” – Hollie Stephenson 

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‘STUDIO 17, THE LOST ARCHIVES.’  A treasure trove of newly discovered original studio session recordings from the Randy’s / Studio 17 vaults charts the origins and evolution of Jamaican recorded music. Shot in Jamaica, London and New York. 

Featuring: Jimmy Cliff, Lord Creator, Carl Malcolm, Sly Dunbar, Ali Campbell, Bunny Wailer, Earnest Ranglin, Bunny Lee, King Jammy, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Jimmy London, Lester Sterling, Junior Kelly, Clive Chin, Pat Chin, Don Letts, Dave Stewart, Maxi Priest, Carol Thomson, Janet Kay, Dennis Bovell – and more. 

Directed by Mark James
Executive producers, Dave Stewart & Waël Kabani
With Reshma B

Read more about Hollie Stephenson here

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