I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kirsty Rock, known for her work in Trumystic in the 90s, as well as her legendary vocals with Easy Star All Stars. The voice behind Easy Star All Stars’ legendary cover of “The Great Gig in the Sky” has recently released her first solo album, Slow Burn, a project many years in the making.
On this album, Kirsty brings her signature soulful sound and combines it with airy, evocative tunes, the sonic equivalent of a tropical summer breeze. Songs like “ L.E.O.” highlight Kirsty’s ability to combine genres and unique sounds to create something that is somehow completely original while also paying tribute to her musical roots.
Anyone who has witnessed Kirsty perform live can attest to her glowing stage presence and impeccable vocal talent. An integral part of the current reggae scene, Kirsty has remained humble and kind. She shared about working with her various projects and musician friends, what she’s into now, and how we can all contribute to making the reggae scene more inclusive. Read on for more!
RF: How did you get into reggae, and who are some of the artists that first made you fall in love with reggae?
KR: I saw my first Reggae SunSplash when I was around 13 years old. My older sister and I were obsessed with seeing live music and saw anything we could from The Police to Duran Duran. My parents were both drummers so music was always just part of our daily life and a way for us to communicate as a family.
But if I had to pinpoint a moment when I “got into” reggae, I would have to say around 1996-ish. I was walking down the street in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when I met Dr. Israel, who owned Bass Mind Studio on N. 6th street. This accidental encounter connected me to a crew of creatives, including my dearest friend and collaborator, Reggie Hodges, and we ended up forming Trumystic Sound System.
The music we were doing at the time was a crazy fusion of drum and bass, ragga jungle, hip-hop and reggae. Our touring brought us to London where I experienced my first real underground dub sound system dance party, and I had this holy shit moment — the bass!!! Something about the dub music coming out of London at the time from Zion Train to Jah Shaka & Iration Steppas really resonated with me.
After that, I just dove into reggae in all of its forms. And I realized that a lot of the music I had been listening to since I was a child was reggae influenced as well…the Clash, The Police, The English Beat. In the end, it kind of felt really natural for me to be involved in reggae in some way.
RF: Who are some artists you have in heavy rotation today?
KR: I’m currently obsessed with the new Lucious album, Second Nature. I’ve always wanted to sing with another woman the way they do. Their voices blend together so much so that you can’t tell one from the other. It’s very selfless and beautiful.
I have “Full Moon Baby” & “Kush Kween” by Holly Cook in heavy rotation. Her reggae style is uniquely her own. Mortimer’s voice is effortless and comforting. Fight the Fight is a go-to for me and his new one “Keep that Fire Lit/Gratitude Riddim” is in rotation.
I love listening to artists my friends are playing with. Elenna Canlas (keys/producer for Easy Star and Kirsty Rock) has played with some incredible artists including Sinkane, Kendra Morris and Xenia Rubinos. All very dynamic and interesting artists.
Vermont artists, Ida Mae Specker and Saints & Liars, are amazing.
RF: After working with Trumystic and Easy Star All-Stars, what was it like to work on a solo album?
KR: I think the biggest difference between working with a band vs a solo project is the luxury of time. I’ve never had the desire to do a solo project but this album was a necessary process for me to work through issues I was grappling with.
The catalyst for the album was Hurricane Irene, almost losing my home and all my belongings to the flooding in Vermont, while on tour in Mexico with Easy Star All-Stars. I felt untethered and fearful in a way that I had never experienced before. Through this “Slow Burn” process that took over 10 years to complete between life events and life on the road, I steadily returned to the music, cultivating these life experiences and ultimately myself.
Some of the songs really evolved over time. “The Feeling” originally came from a place of deep anger and is now perhaps the most joyful and uplifting song on the album. Normally I’m my worst critic but when I listen to these songs with their “mistakes” or things that didn’t turn out the way I thought they would, I feel joy and compassion because I hear evolution.
RF: Your new album, Slow Burn, is impeccably produced, with layers of dreamy texture that really highlight your vocal style. It’s quite a change from Trumystic’s 2005 album Dub Power, which is more raw and minimalistic. Even the cover art and capitalization in the song titles are so different. Can you speak to that a bit? Are your different projects just different facets of what you do, or has it been more of a journey from one style to the next?
KR: Trumystic in its many incarnations reflected the people involved. Dub Power was a vehicle for us to discuss and understand what was happening in the world during the time period we were living in NYC. Music resonates best to me when it’s a conversation rather than a monologue.
With that said, my new album Slow Burn is primarily me leading the dialogue. However, it was in no way a one sided conversation. I was communicating to my crew, including long time friend and producer Matt Stein, as well as my touring and writing partners, Shelton Garner and Elenna Canlas, who all co-produced different songs with me. I’ve known the musicians who played on the album for many years,including Ras Droppa, Buford O’Sullivan, Jenny Hill, Ivan Katz, and we have our own unspoken language after having toured together with Easy Star All Stars for almost 20 years.
I was recently told this album was subversive because, though I’m addressing similar large issues as Trumystic did in the past, I’m doing so with far more subtlety. For example, one song may appear to be a love song but it is in fact a stance on our connection to mother nature and our need to protect her and one another. Dub Power was more of a dismantling of the system and antiquated ideas, while Slow Burn is lovingly putting the rubble back together.
RF: I see a lot of your Easy Star family and other notable musicians contributed to Slow Burn. Do you prefer to give explicit directions to contributors, or share your music with them and see where they take it? Was the dynamic different working with your bandmates on your solo project, or do you fall into a similar working style?
KR: I’m incredibly fortunate to have the Easy Star fam in my corner with so much history behind us. As I laid down the structure of the songs, I knew, yeah, these horn arrangements are garbage, but Buford O’sullivan will draw up some amazing charts. The chords aren’t quite right in this bridge but Elenna Canlas can tweak them and then blaze a solo overtop.
After playing live together for so many years, I knew what they were capable of and I’d be a fool to tell them exactly what to do. There were some unexpected surprises, like Ras Droppa weaving the story of how we met into his featured vocal, and who knew Shelton Garner was such an amazing producer!
I left room for everyone to contribute as much or as little as they felt inspired to. My friend Nate Edgar just happened to be in town when I needed some heavy bass. Pam Flemming joined in with Jenny Hill and Buford to create the best horn section of all time.
Slow Burn became this easy workflow of things happening when they were meant to, with whom they were meant to. I felt profoundly understood and honored by everyone’s unique contributions.
RF: You evoke such emotion with your music, especially in songs like Easy Star All Stars’ cover of “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and your stage presence is just as moving. How do you keep up that intense energy tour after tour?
Singing has always been my chosen form of communication and expression. Conversation is not my forte. I try to be very present and in the moment on stage, open to the universe and all the subtleties each show has to offer like the different people in the room, the lighting, my breathing or the energy of the rest of the band.
There is always something new to discover in the same song you’ve been singing for 20 years. Being sick on stage is probably the biggest interrupter. I once had someone come up to me after a show in the UK and tell me how horrible and flat I sang. He was right, but I didn’t bother telling him how incredibly sick and feverish I was.
There is a bottomless list of why touring is challenging and there are times I just do the best I can under the circumstances and focus on each note like putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes even under the worst circumstances you can have transcendent moments and you get to leave all the flat notes and commentary behind.
RF: I see you split your time between a few different locales, each of them exceptionally beautiful, and your connection with nature is evident in your work. How do these different environments affect your creative process, if at all?
KR: I’m very much affected by my surroundings. I lived in NYC for 13 years and you can definitely hear it in the mechanics of the music we were creating. When I left the city, I had no idea how disconnected I had become to nature. My life soundtrack was car horns and the downstairs bodega playing salsa music all night, and it’s now a cacophony of peepers (baby frogs), the creek and chicken squawks. Nature has now become part of my visual and sonic language.
I hope people feel and hear the green lushness of Vermont in Slow Burn. I wanted to create sonic vignettes for people to escape into. When I was describing how I wanted Shelton Garner to mix “Green Is,” I told him to imagine the regal horns coming in at the top, and in walks the queen, mother nature in all her glory, and there I am on top of a mountain twirling around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I don’t know how, based on that description, he nailed it, but he did.
I try to integrate sounds of nature as much as I can. You can definitely hear the bubbling creek if you isolate my vocal tracks because I record with the windows open, weather permitting.
Coming up, I’m excited to release a live video for “Light it Up” that was shot in a cave a mile up into the Green Mountains. I roped Shelton and Elenna Canlas into hiking up to play with me because I thought the space was so beautiful and I wanted to share it with them. The natural acoustics in there are breathtaking. I hope to experiment more with the sounds of nature in recording and visuals.
RF: What is your favorite part about touring? Your least favorite?
KR: Food! Trying all the foods from all over the world. I love the travel, but I hate leaving my man and my dog, Beans.
RF: What has your experience been like as a woman in reggae? What effect has being a woman had on your career, or your interactions with others on the scene?
KR: I was incredibly fortunate to have strong female mentors and peers coming up in the reggae music scene, including Jenny Hill (sax for Burning Spear & Easy Star,) Antoinette Hall( keys for Meditations, Trumystic and Pato Banton) and Jenny Strecker (tour manager Easy Star & booking Trumystic.) I was drawn to them by their passion and knowledge of reggae music and their work ethic. There were few women involved in the US reggae scene at the time, but we recognized and supported one another.
We were hired and encouraged by legendary artists like Burning Spear, The Meditations, Mikey Dread and Mad Professor. We honored their legacy and were inspired by their music and inclusivity of us as women in reggae.
Though I had an amazing support system, of course I’ve also experienced sexism in many forms, both then and now. It’s not hard to see the lack of representation of women in the current US reggae music scene. We are seeing a small uptick of women in various music related positions from performance to production and journalism, but the gender disparity is still unacceptable. The optics of support from the industry when it’s trending does not get jobs or opportunities nor does it build a healthy thriving community.
So I asked myself, if marginalized people don’t hire and support each other, then who will? My way of moving forward in a positive way is through personal accountability for who I work with on my projects and being proactive about inclusivity and respect in all aspects of my process, from production and performance to artwork and visuals. With continued mentorship, collaboration, and being accessible, I hope to contribute to a more healthy, flourishing and comprehensive music community.
RF: What advice would you give to young female artists trying to make it in reggae?
KR: First define what “making it” means to you.
Focus on the work.
Invest in your community.
Enjoy the journey, not the destination.
RF: In strange times such as these, with COVID complicating everything, and physical things like CDs becoming less popular, what are the best ways for fans to support the music they love?
KR: What that looks like for each artist is different. Some artists are much more versatile and are able to jump onto streaming platforms or organized crowdfunding. Others are not and shouldn’t be forced to jump on platforms that aren’t true to their art. You can often donate or buy merch on their website which goes directly to them. Share, playlist and stream their music on repeat. Hire them for a private event. Reach out personally and let them know you’re listening. I have personally reached out to artists that I know that are struggling and hired them to do tracks. Ask yourself in what unique way are you able to support them.
RF: Any books, TV, movies, or other media you’re excited about right now?
KR: My current pile of books includes autobiographies of Willie Nelson and John Taylor of Duran Duran, The Vermont Almanac and Scotland: the Story of a Nation. I’m looking for some new sci-fi recommendations. I’m rewatching Mandalorian and can’t wait for the rest of Obi-Wan Kenobi to come out. Podcasts I’m listening to include The Reggae Podclash, A Conversation in Dub (I’m featured in Episode 61,) Herbs with Rosalie and Anatomy of an Artist.