A talk with the lead Wailer: Aston Barrett Jr
By David Dawson
Following the release of the new album One World, David Dawson caught up with the leader of the iconic reggae group, The Wailers
Thanks so much for talking with us Aston. It’s been a while since we’ve had a Wailers album, where did the idea for this one come from?
The thing about it is when we wanted to do albums my father never said, 'We’re gonna do a Wailers album' because of what Wailers meant, and the message and the power that’s behind it. But when Josh Barrett joined he started writing the words that were close to my father’s ideas for Wailers. Because of that my father, myself and Josh started collaborating together and that’s how we came up with songs like Can’t Get I Out and my father came up with Can’t Handle the Truth. Everything about these songs are actually situations that we’ve been through it’s not like we just came up and said, ‘Oh we’re gonna write a song’. So eventually when my father got sick and retired, you know, he told me, ‘Aston you have to take over right away’ and it was like 'boom' everything just came down on me, and I didn’t want to do it because it was so much pressure. So, in about 2018 we got an offer to do a show at the Miami District with Emily Estefan, Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s daughter, and when she came in we were blown away. So we went ahead and we did the show and Emilio and Gloria came upstairs to the dressing room and Emilio said. ‘Reggae’s coming back very differently man and I want you to get to the next level and I want to help you guys’. So Emilio said, 'We want you guys to come to the studio', and that’s when everything started, but we weren’t sure whether to use the name 'Wailers' yet. Emilio said to us that he’d help us with the album, we’ve never had a producer before but my father told me that he and Bob always wanted Quincy Jones to produce for them. The first song Emilio came to us with was One World, the first thing I said is, ‘Oh we gonna reggae-fy this’. Before I brought the band in I spent two weeks in the studio organising the whole album and we did about 18 or 19 songs and then just picked the best. The second song he brought was Destiny, he came to me and said, ‘Gloria and I did this song on one of our albums and I want to put this in reggae.’ I said, ‘Yeah man I can do it in one day’. So I recorded it and I sent it to them but I accidentally gave them the hard drive with my vocals on, I totally forgot because I’m not a singer you know, even though my grandfather is Joe Hicks who mentored Bob [Marley] and taught Bob how to sing. Emily Estefan texts me saying, ‘Oh my gosh I love your voice, I heard you on Destiny’. I was so shy, I was like, 'I’m not going back to the studio, I’m not showing my face!' Someone made a comment years ago saying, 'Aston can do everything Wailers except sing', that’s why you also have to be careful about how people talk because words are power, I mean, words can’t get to me like that anymore, but more when you’re younger and growing up. Emilio pushed that out of me and I ended up singing three songs on the album, it’s the first album where I ever sang something. We also had Josh Barrett, my lead singer, then we had Skip Marley, Cedella Marley, Farruko, Shaggy, and Julian Marley singing too. It was a nice project, it took us two years and we made sure everything was very high quality and Emilio let me do my thing, and when I see him doing his thing I’m like, 'Wow, he reminds me of my father'. So the thing about it is, Bob Marley and the Wailers had a message in their music and that’s why it took so long to do a Wailers album, we didn’t want to try to mimic Bob Marley because my life is totally different to what Bob went through. The message of the album is that we wanted to bring all religions together because we don’t want to divide the people, that’s why I like Ziggy Marley’s message when he says, ‘Love is my religion’, because you keep love in your heart regardless of everything.
The songs on One World are packed with messages of letting your worries go, having a good time and spreading love, and reggae has always been an ambassador for inclusion, peace and equality. Do you feel that people need reggae now more than ever?
Yeah, reggae is needed because Reggae don’t have no category. The reggae is spiritual music, it’s from the soul and like we would say the music we play with Bob Marley and the Wailers is roots music, because reggae has different categories like lover’s rock and rocksteady and ska before reggae. My father told me he used to listen to a lot of R&B and Samba so if you listen to how he plays you can hear a little bit of the samba thing. A lot of people say, ‘How did you learn it, did your father teach you?’ but my father could have only taught me so much, I had to learn the feel on my own. So what my father did was take me back to his roots, my mother would take me to Trench Town and I’d stay in Trench Town for like a week with my cousins and family members. That’s why we say Bob Marley and the Wailers music is not easy, Bob Marley said, ‘This music will get bigger and bigger until it finds its right people then it will get bigger again’. So it’s really needed and it’s my job to keep the roots. I had to learn the roots on my own, I have to want it, if you want something in life you have to work at it, don’t wait and depend and then you get upset. In the 70s you could pick out someone from their style, but in these days they do a lot of sampling so they study one thing, but I don’t leave out the analogue, analogue is what give you goose bumps, organic is analogue. You can make the digital be organic but you have to fuse it with the original, it doesn’t have a heart without analogue.
Good Time contains the lyrics ‘All I want to do is have a good time, listen to the music and free my mind’, was this happy and freeing experience similar for you and the band when writing and recording this album?
Yeah man, it was amazing doing the music, we had so much happiness you know. Good Time was actually the last song to master before we put out the album, that song was written by Emily and Gem (Gemeny Hernandez), we recorded it in the studio but we never really came back to it, we were focused on the other ones. Emily called me and said could I sing on Good Time, she said she wants me to sing the chorus so I sang the chorus, then she said, 'Do you want to do the first verse?' It’s amazing, and then they got it mixed and when they sent the master I said, 'Yeah, it’s a masterpiece.' It’s a good tune. It’s funny because when I finished recording it I went outside and drank my watermelon smoothie, it was just the vibe. That’s what we want, Bob Marley and the Wailers back then is peace, love and unity, they also wanted people to be enlightened and to enlighten themselves from the system, that’s why even one of our songs say ‘stand firm in the Babylon’. That means there’s so many good people in the system that try and make a difference, so if you say 'beat down Babylon' you’re beating down everybody, it’s like antibiotics they kill the good and the bad bacteria, we need a system in order for everything to be organised so you want to have a good system. Like me, I am the new leader for the Wailers band but I call myself a leader, not a boss because a boss can use their power to manipulate anybody, but I can’t go out and manipulate people then sing One Love on stage so we have to be true to ourselves. We’re not perfect and there’s things in life that make you swerve sometimes but the music is a therapy for me, seeing the love that the people are giving. Honestly I didn’t want to do this, it’s a lot of pressure, the thing about it is someone came to me at a show and said he almost committed suicide and we saved him, and we went to a show in Maryland and this lady came by and she was crying and she said, ‘I needed this so bad you don’t even know’, and to see these kinds of people come to me I know that this is what we have to do to preserve it, I have to preserve my family’s foundation. I look at my father and I see the hard work that he did, so it’s my job to do everything so he can see what he worked hard for. We do all of these things because the message of Bob Marley is already there and we are extending this, we keep his message and move forward. The Marley family are doing a great job of preserving their father’s legacy and when the Marleys and the Wailers come together it’s dynamite, baby!
Aston’s Mental Health top 3:
One Love – Bob Marley & the Wailers
Wake up and Live – Bob Marley & The Wailers
You are the Living Word – Fred Hammond
I'd like to dedicate this interview to my father who we sadly lost this year. Reggae music was one of his pleasures in life and this is something he passed on to me. Had he known I was talking to a Wailer he'd have been so excited and it pains me that I can't share these moments with him now. I love you Dad. A huge thank you to Aston for being a true gentleman and a wonderful musician.