New: We've just partnered with LMG to offer you a national gig guide. Check it out!
Johnny Cradle’s debut album by the same name is not just musical, it’s cultural. The trio uses jazz, hip hop and electronic elements that, along with thought provoking lyrics, paints a powerful image of the life of a young black man living in South Africa. I spoke to them about the powerful imagery in their lyrics and their specific creative decisions.
Stian Maritz: Johnny Cradle has been though a few distinctive iterations, at one point using live guitar and bass and now with someone on turntables. Can you talk us through some of these set-up milestones and what it meant creatively?
Johnny Cradle: We actually started with Laz on Turntables and Sakie on keyboards, guitars and a bunch of everything on computers. And because of computers and plug-ins – the creative process has never been informed by access or lack of access to instruments or set band members. Sakie played guitar not because he’s a guitarist but because he wanted a guitar part in a particular arrangement. Same as Tebza on drums – Sakie may tap a particular sequence on a sampler to have a groove going and Tebza comes in and does his thing on top of that and not particularly think of following a set of standard drum rhythm.
SM: The album has a distinctive sense of melancholy but also danceability, like it’s made for long nights and neon lights. Was that a conscious decision, or did it happen naturally?
JC: We were born to feel all types of emotions and energies, sometimes all at the same time, so who are we to mess with that. Our job is to channel all that into your Hifi system.
SM: You’ve chosen to mix English and township slang Xhosa in many of the tracks. Why was it important for you to convey your message with two languages as opposed to just one?
JC: Coming from the township a.k.a eLokshini in urban Xhosa, which is taken from the word Location in English, this is how we speak. Once again, who are we to mess with who we are.
SM: The album is full of vivid images and one of them in particular struck me hard. You talk about being at someone’s house where everyone there is white except for you and the domestic worker. Do you think statements like these are part of the album’s greater purpose?
JC: This is 1000% what the album is about. How do you send your child to private English speaking only school from toddler age and still have them know their Xhosa or Tsonga and actually speak it. How do you drink moet and miss your black tax debit order? From not finding a lover you connect with to learning to love the lover you connect with. Just coming to terms with these realities and learning to navigate these surroundings without breaking yourself. These are day-to-day things we speak about so naturally these are the things we sing about.
SM: What are some of the images, created by the lyrics, from this album that have stayed with you longest?
JC: Teaching myself how not to be lonely. Learning to open up.
SM: Some of the lyrics are brutally honest, revealing and personal. Who or what inspires you to be so frank? Are these drawn from personal accounts or are these drawn from other people’s stories?
JC: The lyrics are all from my personal encounters. Be it just me mechanicing myself in my brain or encounters between lovers and friends. As far as being frank, I don’t know how to be anything else fortunately. This does mean that I sometimes find it hard to be around people because it is hard for me to hide what I feel or think. On the other side, it makes it easy for me to create stuff because I know what I like and don’t like.
SM: I’ve read in interviews about how you’re always fighting for the underdog. Can you elaborate on what specifically that term means to you?
JC: Well that just happens because we are proud of where we come from, as in the communities we come from. And not many of us have platforms to express our views as clearly as we would like so because we make our own music we are our own bosses and that means we can say and do whatever we like. And what we like is to speak from a perspective of our people and they just happen to be in the perceived notion of underdog but really we are beautiful.
SM: What’s the response to your album been like, commercially as well as live? And has it sparked any debate in the way you intended it to?
JC: We haven’t looked at the numbers yet to be honest. But as far as live audiences I think we’re getting there. We’ll let you know after we do a run across the country one time.
Follow Stian on Twitter.
Listen to “Johnny Cradle” on Deezer.