What goes into a Grammy Award-winning career? Is it hard work and focus from a young age? It can be. Is it knowing what you want and going for it? Yes, sure. But it’s also about exposing yourself to a myriad of aspects of the world because one never knows where a lesson or inspiration may come from. For acclaimed singer, producer, and businessman, Sean Paul, his path to fame and recognition began in Jamaica with his mother singing songs from the Beatles while taking him to school as a kid. She loved Paul Simon and Cat Stevens and so she exposed her son to them, too. Paul’s aunt owned a sound system and she’d play reggae and dancehall music. That’s when the wheels began to turn in Paul’s head and help to lead him to a career that includes Grammy nominations, collaborating with Beyonce, and more. And Paul’s new album, Scorcha, is set to drop on May 27 with features from Gwen Stefani, Sia, and more.
“I just grew up with melodies,” Paul tells American Songwriter. “The Beatles, Cat Stevens being played and sung around me. The latest reggae songs, stuff like that. My timing and syncopation—my flow—have a lot to do with what mom schooled me on. My voice is my mom and my pops. I got to thank them for that! I do have big lungs because of water polo and swimming. That helped a lot and still does.”
The path to success requires more dedication and determination than any single person can imagine from the outset. For Paul, he learned the meaning of those words, though, even before he dove into the proverbial pool of creativity. For him, it happened when he dove into the literal pool for sports. Paul’s family, while also being artistic (his mother is an accomplished painter), is comprised of athletes, too. Both his grandfather and father represented Jamaica on the water polo teams and Paul has done the same.
“Swimming and water polo,” the artist says, “definitely helped me to set goals for myself. Every year, you want to make the big games and the Caribbean Olympic-type events. You set projections for yourself. That spilled over into all parts of my life. Music—yeah, being disciplined is something a lot of people don’t realize [is important]. Musicians have to be persistent and patient.”
Paul says that maintaining a lengthy career—or even starting one—requires just sitting, waiting, and biding your time on occasion. You have to watch passively as things transpire, waiting for the perfect time to unleash your voice. But doing so requires a lot of work to hone that voice, to begin with.
“I looked at my goals that way,” he says of his early days. “Like, maybe I’m not the best right now but I’m going to keep writing, training, and doing me. One day people will recognize.”
Early on, as he was just getting his feet wet in the industry, so to speak, Paul thought he’d be on the production side of things. He remembers being 15 years old and seeing how beatmakers created and built rhythms on a computer, drum machine, and keyboard. ‘Wow,’ he told himself. He wanted to do that, too. A few years later, at 17 years old, he began to fall in love with lyrics and writing rhymes. Hard work continued and eventually, he began putting out records that people liked. Then: fame hit in a big way. But not before some schooling in between.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says, recalling that formative stage in people’s lives between teenage years and early adulthood. “My friends went away to school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I’d try to get into college to do architecture but that didn’t work—I didn’t have the grades. But they let me into hotel management.”
At the time, Paul’s mother insisted he study something, so it was hospitality at first. Paul studied that for three years while also swimming and playing water polo. But at night, he’d find himself in recording studios, doing his thing. That’s when his hobby began to take off. He was 13 years old when dancehall and hip-hop music began to speak to him—he would often listen to it while training in the pool. Now he was making his own. Today, Paul, in many ways, is the Platonic Ideal of dancehall music. His voice is synonymous with the genre. But that doesn’t mean it was always easy on the come up.
“Mom, being an artist,” Paul says, “said it’s hard to do full time. Sometimes you do things from your heart and you don’t get the same result back. And early in the game, a producer, who I’m very close with gave me good advice: he said, ‘in the music game they give you a ladder to climb. They cheer you when you’re climbing the ladder. But in the middle, they’ve greased the steps. So, when you start slipping, the same people jeer you. So, you have to be ready for that.’”
Paul knows you have to have thick skin to endure the ups and downs of a long, potentially successful career. Thanks in part to the advice he got along the way, he’s maintained focus and a head above, well, water. And Paul’s new album is a testament to that. His 2021 release, Live N Livin, which he produced on his own label, earned him his latest Grammy nomination and his 2022 offering may manifest the same for him next year. The new music was created in part during the pandemic, a time when Paul decided he’d hunker down rather than worry or look outward for answers.
“The first five months were mind-numbing,” he says. “So, going into the studio helped.”
The new LP has a number of standouts including the triumphant “Good Day” and sultry “How We Do It.” And while the 49-year-old Paul shows a number of sides on the album, from introspective to joyous, what he’s always wanted in his music is to impart how it makes him feel—and always has—to his listeners and fans.
“From the beginning of my career,” says Paul, “I’ve always wanted to give people that euphoria I felt at 13 when I first discovered hip-hop and dancehall music. Being social and having friends that I didn’t have before. I love that about music.”
Looking ahead, Paul is taking it day by day. He has a number of gigs on the horizon and first up is a European tour in August. Then there’s a slate of fall dates in September and October with the rapper Pitbull, with some one-off festivals and shows interspersed throughout the calendar. In the end, it’s all about bringing the feelings he loves to stages and studios whenever he can. For Paul, who is now teaching his five-year-old son the game of water polo, the hard work has paid off—and then some.
“Music brings people together,” says Paul. “Whether you’re listening to it or whether you’re getting a band together to play it. Even if you’re learning it from someone else—you don’t learn it from the sky! Music brings people together and that’s a beautiful thing. Unity is the best community and music is the universal language.”
Photo by Charlotte Rutherford/The Oriel