Feature Interview

The First Tribal Commercialised Pop Artist

Two years after achieving massive success with his first album “Subliminal”, Jimmy Nevis has just released “The Masses”, a new album with a slightly more mature sound, but the same pop tone that sets Nevis apart. After having studied Sociology, Nevis was inspired by people, their stories and the issues we all face that bring us together in this country. “The Masses” is the result of that and I had a quick catchup with Jimmy to chat about it.

Jessica Kramer: Where did your love for music come from?
Jimmy Nevis: Well I grew up in a very musical home. My dad is a pastor and my mom is in medicine, so the music probably didn’t come from them. But with my dad being a pastor, growing up in the church meant lots of choirs and praise and worship teams. Even though my parents weren’t musically inclined, there was always music in the house. My older sister actually paved the way. We are both very creative and where she went into the art side, I went into music. I had a weird relationship with it growing up. I took part in a lot of competitions and went to music schools. My first show was after I finished high school. I was in this tribute show at Grand West called Funky Town, and I had to dress up and sing like Prince.

JK: How did growing up in Cape Town and specifically your upbringing influence the music that you write and produce?
JN: It’s funny ‘cause I wasn’t allowed to listen to pop music until like early high school days. I didn’t even know it existed, but as soon as I got introduced to pop music I immediately fell in love with it and I knew it was what I wanted to do. When I made my first album I had to sit down and think “okay who am I and how do I sum up myself in twelve tracks, three minutes long?” So besides writing about the typical ‘love and hate’ pop structures and what not, there were a lot of gospel undertones. I found that really fascinating cause it wasn’t even intentional. So I think my upbringing has definitely influenced the style of music I make. I grew up Athlone which isn’t the most affluent area, even though I was very privileged. I went to Pinelands primary and high schools, and studied at UCT and it was always quite a contradiction for me. At home I was called a white kid and at school I was definitely not a white kid. Those two worlds combining is something you can always hear through my music.

JK: What do you think the role of pop music is in the current South African music climate?
JN: South Africa is so diverse and we have so many different styles of music that are essentially all at number one. They’re all number one in their own right and their own spheres. Pop music comes to life in all these different forms. There is pop music in dance music, pop in hip hop, etc. The definition of pop music has changed for me somewhat to where now I want to create music that crosses over to all those genres. We have been getting that from a few artists lately. ‘Jika’ by Mi Casa for instance; that’s a track by a dance group but it transcended to so many different categories and audiences. That’s my aim.

JK: Your first album’s success came largely as a result of your singles doing so well on Top 40 SA radio stations. Is that still the main vehicle for you with this album?
JN: Well, I actually hope not. When putting this album together I obviously had to consider the commercial industry but also the fans as well as personal growth, and often those things contradict each other. I wanted to do something that would establish my own identity. Even though that was happening through the first album, there was still a lot of “oh he sounds like Chris Brown” or whatever. And it was cool as a compliment but I feel like now I have this sound that I have built and it’s a mix of tribal commercialised pop that sounds flashy. I don’t know what it is, but it works.

JK: So other than putting more of your own identity into this album, how is it different to your first one?
JN: Well, for my first album I wrote and produced it myself, whereas with this one I still wrote all the songs, but I co-produced it. I worked with a guy called Ashley Valentine. He’s really great and has worked with a lot of other artists in the industry. He was like in my head, it was really weird but he was. I was so keen to find someone that I could bounce ideas off of and be creative with, someone who can support the crazy ideas running around in my head. So that was cool on the production level. On the writing side I tapped into more sort of sociopolitical things. I was so moved by a song that I wrote earlier on in the year. That was the starting point for me. It’s called ‘Blue Collar’ and it’s all about shining a light on minorities, kind of what society puts in the dark and bringing it out in the light and saying “it’s okay, it’s between you and God.” I think the way it was written and it’s sound inspired so much in regards to the tone of the rest of the album. I think things were just a bit more structured and planned with this album to try to get a message across. There’s a time for love songs, there’s a time for uplifting pop songs, but there’s also a time to talk about these things.

JK: What is your favourite track on the album?
JN: Probably ‘Horizons’, the opening track. I remember singing the chorus in my car on the way to the studio and when I got there we started working on it. It was a song that really surprised me and kept on getting better and better. Although ‘Blue Collar’ sums up the album, ‘Horizons’ sums up my identity.

JK: Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with in the future?
JN: Definitely. Off the top of my head now I can say Beatenberg, Mafikizola and Lira. They are all artists that I really look up to and would like to work with, but it’s all about energy you know. You don’t have to be the best singer in the world, but if you have that energy and connection you can make something really great. So that’s what I am looking for, and I am not pushing anything.” The Masses” album and this project isn’t over. It’s a huge project and it affected me quite a bit and there are so many other side projects that are linked to this that I am initiating and getting into at the end of this year and the beginning of next year. So who knows, maybe a deluxe edition or a little EP with collabs will come out later.

JK: What are you most proud of in terms of your journey as a musician so far?
JN: Well like I have said, being a crossover artist is so important to me. I have performed at Ultra Festival and in Alexander township. I have done Grand West Arena and sang the National Anthem at the Curry Cup. They are all great and I love it, but something that I am all about is when we do gigs and they become spiritual. It doesn’t happen at every gig but it’s happening more nowadays cause I feel like I know how to tap into it more. That moment, that feeling where it’s not even about the song, it’s not even about me. It just becomes about the atmosphere and the beat and it literally feels almost like worship. You can play anywhere in the world but if you don’t have that moment and that feeling then it’s kind of pointless to me. I have done these bigger gigs and I love them, they are so much fun, but nothing can compare to when everyone in the room is on the same level and as a leader in that moment to take everybody there is just an amazing feeling. You leave that gig feeling so satisfied and so full, it’s like an outer body experience.

JK: What would you say is the best part of this job?
JN: There are so many different things. Studio and live performances, meeting with fans, the music videos, rehearsal spaces and traveling. I enjoy all the aspects of what this industry has to offer, and I can’t say there is one that I enjoy more than the other. I enjoy it all. The money is amazing too. Obviously first and foremost this is about the music. But I am so aware of the value of musicianship these days and I am so proud of the value of my band and the value I can supply them with. It’s always been such a big deal for me ‘cause the band that I have now is the same group of guys that did free gigs for me for the first year. Now that I can pay them properly I look up and say, “thank you God, that’s amazing.”