Though Jimmy Cliff—one of the most steadfast, recognizable voices in reggae—is loved for the socially conscious singles that have spanned his career over half a century, the covers he performs are just as popular and revered as his original melodies.
When Cliff returned to the studio to record Rebirth, his first album in seven years, it was with Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Operation Ivy, and the first track for which the metaphorical tape was laid was a cover of Armstrong’s own “Ruby Soho.” Plenty of people record their own versions of songs that strike their fancy, but for Cliff, there’s a science to it, and “Ruby Soho” wasn’t just a dry run with the studio band that happened to be recorded.
Upon meeting Tim and getting to know him a little bit, when did you realize that he was going to be the one working on Rebirth with you? When did it click?
Cliff: The first time, when we talked on the phone, I felt the energy and it felt really good. Then when we met in the studio and I saw the love that he has for reggae, the love that he has for social, political expression in music—that said it all to me.
In addition to a rousing rendition of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” you include a cover of “Ruby Soho” on Rebirth. Why this particular Rancid track?
Cliff: It was the only one we chose to work on, and I kind of knew that the recording of it would complete a chapter of my career after I met the wonderful people who worked on the album. Reggae was influential to punk. I felt that this was a good song to cover from this side of the Atlantic, and “Guns of Brixton” was a good song to cover for the other side of the Atlantic, because they both represented punk that was inspired by reggae.
What as that experience like, recording “Guns of Brixton”?
Cliff: When I was recording “Guns of Brixton,” there was a riot going on in London at that very moment. No one could’ve predicted that there would be riots. I knew Joe Strummer of The Clash, and he’s the one who introduced me to Tim Armstrong. The fact that he sang about [Cliff’s 1972 film] The Harder They Come, that was one of the factors that made me want to re-record that song.
Between your last full-length album, Black Magic, and Rebirth, what changed with your creative process? Did you approach this record any differently?
Cliff: I’m an artist who is constantly writing, so I kept on writing. It didn’t change so much, but I didn’t know how I was going to do or who I was going to do the next album with. When it turned out to be Tim Armstrong, the results are very evident. I’m very happy with the result.
What’s the most exciting aspect of taking Rebirth on the road?
Cliff: That kind of direct connection you have when you’re on stage with the audience is like there’s nothing else. Seeing how people react to these songs, it is as good as it gets.
What’s the criteria for choosing the next cover you’ll do?
Cliff: What I look for in a cover song is very simple: to make the song my own. If someone’s covering one of my songs, that’s something I appreciate about that.
What is the one message you hope people take away from Rebirth?
Cliff: That life is long, as long as you are constant and have the breath to keep breathing. You are still a person. You still have a role, no matter how miniscule it is in the crux of things going on this planet.
If you could go back to the Jimmy Cliff of 40 years ago and dole out some career advice, what would you tell him?
Cliff: Have all the thanks that you can in yourself, and believe in yourself. Keep reaching for your goals. The simplicity of the thing is that when you have that faith in yourself, you know yourself better than anyone else in the world. It’s a very powerful thing.