It’s Friday evening and I’m whooping it up on a Pacific Whale Foundation sunset cruise with Marty Dread. It’s a mixed group of residents and visitors, all thrilled to see the sunset and Haleakala. A bunch of kids are grouped on the aft deck, snapping Instagrams on their phones, while kama’aina are celebrating birthdays and requesting a chance to dance an impromptu hula on the forward deck next to Dread.
The musical tour lasts two hours and is packed with plenty of great food, refreshments and live music from the moment the boat gets going. Dread explains that we’re there to have a good time, and he easily gets the crowd engrossed in his tunes for the voyage while the crew makes sure everyone has something cold in their hand. Ma’alaea Harbor can be breezy, but the captain is skilled and gets us out of the brunt of the wind quickly, making for a lovely two hours of dancing, eating and imbibing.
The live music trip, my first, sparked my curiosity about Marty Dread’s new album Upcountry Boy and his Reggae career. His latest release is his first album of cover songs, many of which are old country and rock hits, but he puts his indelible touch on every one making them his own sound. Dread says producer Fully Fullwood put together the band and it was the first time he’d recorded in a studio with everyone together “old school way, eye to eye.”
Dread travels all over the world to perform at Reggae festivals, but his heart and home base remains the eastern slopes of Haleakala. His love of music started as a boy in New York, but he refined his craft in the islands (he graduated from Maui High School). MauiTime found a moment between his boat trips, back yard farming and stage shows to find out more about Maui’s famous Reggae ambassador (including when he wears shoes)…
MAUITIME: Who inspired you to get into the entertainment business?
MARTY DREAD: A local band from Maui called Venus which was spearheaded by veteran Maui guitarist Donny “Davino” Smith. As a kid, I used to peek through the window as they rehearsed in Haiku in the early ’80s. One day they spotted me and invited me in and I sang for them because I had been peeping for months I knew all of their songs. They put me in front of my first microphone. Funny to recall it now but it was the origins of my career in the entertainment business.
MT: Did you get to go on stage with Venus?
MD: I competed in Brown Bags to Stardom which was an island-wide high school talent competition back in 1985 I was representing Maui High School. Venus backed me on a Reggae version of Chuck Berry’s
“Johnny B.Goode.” I lost to a girl lip synching “Material girl” by Madonna but I was not discouraged.
MT: Growing up, did you always want to become a musician?
MD: Actually, I had my mind set on being a watercolor artist painting primarily humpback whales. As a senior in high school, I won an art completion and was supposed to travel to Oahu to receive the reward at Sealife Park. However, the night before my trip, my mom informed me that my father’s people had been whalers on the East Coast for generations.
MT: Your mom certainly burst that bubble.
MD: I was shattered. I felt like the biggest hypocrite and was so ashamed. I never went to pick up that reward. In hindsight, I could have used my talent as a platform to bring awareness to the marine mammal conservation movement. Oh well, I figured out that music would be my medium of expression, so perhaps it was fate stepping in. As fate would have it, I’ve spent the last five years singing for the humpback whales on my weekly Island Rhythms Sunset Cruise, so it all came full circle anyways.
MT: What did your parents first think when you decided that you wanted to be a musician?
MD: Like any concerned parents, they initially tried to steer me toward being a doctor or lawyer but soon saw my passion and commitment and realized the best thing they could do was support me rather than fight it.
MT: Are there other musicians in the family?
MD: My great uncle Peter on my mom’s side was a very accomplished Cuban pianist who had a number one song on the Caribbean hit parade and often entertained the house guests of Fidel Castro. Other than him, whom I never met, I’m the only musical person in my family.
MT: So last month you were in Ohio with Soja and the Wailing Souls. This month you head to the Arizona Reggae Festival. What’s your most memorable time on stage?
MD: Wow, there have been so many. But if I had to pick one it would be playing in Russia in 1987. I pick this one because it literally changed my life. I was in Russia and was in a full auditorium of Soviet students who were afraid to be friends with us Americans because they were taught that we were their “enemy.” I played “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles, and all the kids started dancing and singing and suddenly wanted to be our friends. That one song overcame all language barriers and political ideologies, and suddenly we were not “Soviets” and “Americans” anymore but rather just kids enjoying a good song. That was the moment in my life that I knew I would forever be a musician.
MT: Did they make you wear shoes in Russia?
MD: No, luckily it was late summer and not cold. However, I do often wear shoes in big cities because you just never know what you might step in.
MT: When did you start playing regularly on Maui?
MD: When I returned from my life changing experience in Russia, I got serious about wanting to form a band and start gigging. A schoolmate of mine from Maui High named Kaipo Haleakala and I started jamming and writing material. We formed our first band “Culture Shock” and got our first paid gig at a bookstore called the Artful Dodger in Kahului. It was such a tiny venue that people were dancing in the book isles. We went on to dominate the music scene on the Westside for over 20 years on Monday nights, starting at Studio 505, then Maui Brews, World Cafe, Blue Tropics, then finally our last eight-year run was at Hard Rock Cafe, which ended when the real estate crisis landed our economy in the toilet and people stopped coming to shows in Lahaina. But what a run we had. Those were great times.
MT: Did you ever question your decision to be a musician?
MD: Never! I’m fortunate because I found my life’s purpose very early and always had support from family and friends. Have there been rough spots, of course. Have I ever questioned whether or not to keep pushing? Never.
MT: Where do you get your inspiration for writing songs?
MD: I have never gone hungry or suffered from poverty or abuse, but I try to feel what others may be feeling and try to see it through different eyes. It’s hard to sing or write about things you don’t feel, hence my music reflects the things I feel and see here on Maui. Maui is my muse.
MT: What are your favorite original songs to play?
MD: Lately, I’ve been getting the most crowd reaction out of my oldies. It’s funny, people still ask us to play “No Mo slippah” and “Wicked Wahine,” which are from way back in 1994. Currently, my favorite originals to play are “No To GMOs” and “No Ice In Paradise.” Both songs touch on serious issues facing our community, yet have anthem-like sing along choruses so it makes heavy issues seem a little lighter.
MT: Tell me about your recent CD release and your experience creating it.
MD: Upcountry Boy is a collection of songs I always loved growing up and some newer favorites from the country and folk-rock genres. I always wanted to marry country songs with Reggae beats. I think both styles have a lot in common and I’m a fan of both because they both tell great stories. With this release, I think I’m finally finding solid ground as an artist. It’s not about me, or the guest artist or the charts. It’s all about good old songs that everyone knows and loves but they’ve never heard them like this. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, from Texas all the way to Jamaica. I am stoked.
MT: What’s new and different about this release?
MD: It’s my first release of all cover songs. It’s also the first time I got to make a record the old-school way, with the whole band recording together in the studio. Some of the cats who played on this record have recorded with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Rod Stewart, The Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Beck, Tracy Chapman, Dwight Yoakam, Glenn Campbell and even Sade. The full list of players and their accolades are inside the liner notes of the CD.
MT: How many CDs have you created?
MD: This new release is my 16th full length album. It’s on my own Five Corners Music record label. I’ve also done several guest appearances in other people’s records, too.
MT: What genre of music did you grow up with?
MD: Growing up on the East Coast before moving to Hawaii at age eight, I listened to mostly R&B and pop. People like the Jackson 5 and the Commodores. But I always had outside-the-box taste in music and would also listen to Elton John and the Beatles as well as country stuff like Glenn Campbell and John Denver. It wasn’t until Bob Marley died in 1981 did I discover Reggae.
MT: What would you say is your greatest musical accomplishment?
MD: I sang at the White House and Moscow’s Red Square but my biggest accomplishment was playing at Farm Aid on stage with Willie Nelson. Not because it was Willie, not because there were 45,000 people in the audience, but because of the act of giving on that level. I have so much respect for Willie Nelson and his musical genius but more so for his humanitarian nature and his sense of philanthropy. The fact that he has consistently shed light on the plight of the small farmer in America for 28 years is really remarkable. I am so honored to have performed all over the country with him on tour and to have recorded with him. We don’t get too many genuine heroes in this life. And we damned sure don’t get to meet them and find out that they are way cooler than we already imagined, so for that I feel blessed beyond words.
MT: Do you play every day?
MD: I do sing everyday because the voice is like any other muscle in the body. If you don’t use it, you lose it. More than that, it brings me great joy to express myself in songs. My siblings used to hate it because whenever we would disagree, I would walk out in the yard and make up songs about how lame they were. It drove them nuts, but it was good practice as a songwriter.
MT: What kind of advice would you give to other musicians who are just starting out?
MD: The best business advice I can give anyone starting out is “get it in writing.” A binding agreement seems formal but when someone forgets the terms of said agreement or flat out refuses to honor it, you have it all spelled out in black and white. As far as musical advice, I would say write, write write. You can never have too many songs. Build your body of work and make sure you copyright and publish it yourself. It leaves a legacy for your family to inherent. It’s a very tricky business to survive in but if you do it, learn how to protect yourself from the sharks and pirates. And lastly, stay open to other kinds of musical influences. It’s the only way to truly grow.
MT: Where can we find you these days?
MD: All Fridays on the Pacific Whale Foundation boat except for Sept 26. I’m doing the Arizona Reggae Fest in Phoenix on Sept. 27. Also, I’ll be at the Maui County Fair on Oct.4 at 8:30pm.
Cover Image courtesy of Penny Palmer
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