SOJA Premieres 'Poetry In Motion' Album: Exclusive

Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Jacob Hemphill, lead singer/songwriter and guitarist with the American reggae band SOJA, is as provocative an interviewee as he is a songwriter. On the phone from Haunted Hallowed Recording Studio, in Charlottesville, VA, where the band recorded their latest album Poetry In Motion (Oct. 27, ATO Records) a conversation about the album freely moves from politics to religion to the passing of loved ones to a discussion about Charlottesville as emblematic of the fractious society we live in.

“Charlottesville, it’s the same thing that happens when I tell people I live in Georgia, they say you live fucking where?” Hemphill shares. “Some people think of the people there as living a step back in time but racism, sexism, ageism and classism exist everywhere, it’s an inherent recurring problem among the human race, in a world that awards separatism, competition and accumulation, taking more than we need. That’s why we haven’t figured out the cure for cancer; cancer does what only humans do, it takes more than it needs. When cancer doesn’t take more than it needs, it’s benign.”

On Poetry In Motion Hemphill, 37, aims his lyrical fire at the consequences of overconsumption (“More”), bemoans the societal separations that lead to war (“Bad News”) and is “taking shots at everything in the world today” on “Life Support.” “My favorite lyric from that song, written before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election,” notes Hemphill, “is 'the president is on a mission of war, forgetting any of the reasons that we needed him for/priests, sheiks, czars and rabbis all pray while they close the door,' meaning every government, religion, language, denomination, they all just want to be fucking right and I see what bullshit they all are.” Pausing for a second, Hemphill adds: “A lot of thought goes into these songs. I don’t claim to know more than anyone else, I am not the answer man, but I like to look around a lot.”

Listen to an exclusive stream of Poetry In Motion here:
Few observers of global affairs can translate their thoughts into well-crafted songs offering profound yet poetic statements fueled by righteous rage and delivered with rock star bravura, qualities that distinguish SOJA from their contemporaries and have put them at the forefront of the proliferating American reggae movement. The band’s multi-layered sonic tapestry, as strikingly complex as Hemphill’s lyrics, combine varying elements of rock, country, folk, hip-hop and jazz influences with occasional Latin, hardcore and Washington D.C.’s go-go flourishes into a distinctive reggae identity that’s wholly appreciated through repeated listening and provides a compelling dynamism to their live performances.

SOJA was originally formed in Arlington, VA (across the river from D.C.) over 20 years ago as Soldiers of Jah Army (an adaptation of the opening lyric on late reggae legend Peter Tosh’s track “Recruiting Soldiers”) by high school friends Hemphill, drummer Ryan Berty and bassist Robert “Bobby Lee” Jefferson (lead vocalist on Poetry’s “To Whom It May Concern”). The other members are Kenneth Brownell, percussion, Hellman Escorcia, saxophone, Patrick O’Shea, keyboards, Rafael Rodriguez, trumpet and Trevor Young, lead guitar and harmonies. Formerly the band’s roadie and guitar tech, Young was recruited after the January 2012 release of Strength to Survive, SOJA’s first release for ATO Records, the label founded by Dave Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw. On Poetry, Young sings lead alongside Hemphill on “Bad News” and “Sing To Me," the latter detailing the love of their respective guitars’ ability to help express their emotions.

SOJA’s previous (studio) album 2014’s Amid The Noise and Haste, produced by Duane “Supa Dups” Chin-Quee (Bruno Mars, Rihanna) with Michael Franti and Damian Marley among the guest vocalists, debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 (their highest debut to date), at No. 1 on the Reggae Albums chart and earned the band their first Best Reggae Album Grammy nomination; they were nominated again in 2016 for SOJA Live In Virginia. For Poetry In Motion, their seventh studio album, SOJA reverted to the DIY ethic that served them well on Born in Babylon (2009), which marked a greater maturation in their sound, with Hemphill relinquishing the faux Jamaican accent that somewhat detracted from their earlier recordings, emerging with a stronger vocal authenticity. “That was the last album that we recorded, arranged and produced ourselves, we wanted to go back to that approach, and have settled into the idea that this is what we are going to do from now on,” offers Hemphill. “The further you get away from these eight guys that have been together for years, the more you use outside artists, producers, musicians, singers, when you go to play your show live, it’s not totally whole because some of the elements that created it are missing and the idea of this band from the start has always been to make something that we can fall in love with and are going to love playing.”

SOJA obviously makes music that their fans have fallen in love with, too. The band boasts over 7 million followers across social media platforms and more than 300 million YouTube views. The Poetry In Motion album release party at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom on Oct. 26 sold out over a month ago. On Nov. 1 they begin their South America tour leg in Sao Paolo, Brazil; SOJA typically pulls audiences between 10-20,000 fans in major markets throughout the continent. Following four December dates in Mexico, the U.S. tour starts on March 1, 2018 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY.

As their fan base has grown over the decades so too has SOJA’s music, with Poetry in Motion further expanding their multi-faceted reggae strain into something Hemphill really isn’t interested in labeling. “The only way I can define what I am trying to do is by telling you that my dad (the late Bill Hemphill whose life Jacob celebrates on the tender “Everything To Me”) said when you are born if you can leave this world a little bit better for being here, then you deserve to have been here and if you leave it a little worse, why were you here?” Hemphill shares. “And a secondary quote from Desmond Tutu (South African Anglican cleric, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner) is how do you eat an elephant? You can’t, so you take it one bite at a time. I don’t know about genres or any shit like that but I am just trying to do this thing one bite at a time, so I just remember what my dad said and what Desmond Tutu said, that’s my genre.”


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