“It only took us four years,” laughs Jacob Hemphill when he hops on a call with American Songwriter. He’s speaking, of course, about the four-year gap between SOJA’s 2017 studio album Poetry In Motion and the forthcoming Beauty in the Silence, slated for release September 24.
Leading up to the project, anchored with previous singles “Something to Believe In” and “Press Rewind,” the reggae band now readies the heart-wrecking “The Day You Came,” a collaboration with UB40 and Rebelution. “I’m weird. When I write love songs, I normally write them from her perspective. In my experience, I’m the one who kind of leaves, normally. As I think about the song, I realized that she was kind of leaving, too,” Hemphill explains. “And it doesn’t really matter who leaves.
“I read an article one time and it said there are two kinds of great loves you will experience in your life. One is a partner or a friend,” he continues. “That’s someone you trust, someone who is truly your friend, someone you don’t scream at, or say mean things to, or someone who you build things with. Then, the article referenced another kind of relationship that was called a wrecking ball. What a wrecking ball does is it breaks down all this old crap in your life, and it ignites something in you. Both these relationships are necessary, but the friendships last.”
With its easy-going, no-frills baseline, the song references UB40’s “Impossible Love,” originally recorded by Keith “Honey Boy” Williams and found on their 1989 LP Labour of Love II. “It’s even weirder how you can kind of look back,” Hemphill says, “and think about the relationships you’ve had and how they both kind of fall into one of those two categories一real friendship and extreme passion that kind of explodes.”
Musically, the single trumpet line also plays a crucial role in eliciting a deeply affecting response. “I wrote those trumpet lines!” Hemphill beams. Opting not to use a saxophone, the single trumpet line references Taps, a traditional military bugle call used in funeral settings.
On linking up with UB40’s Ali Campbell, who he’d long idolized as a kid growing up in Arlington, Virginia, Hemphill says “it was a dream come true.” Meanwhile, working with Rebelution was, one could argue, a long time coming. “We’ve known those guys our whole career. We both started around the same time, and we’ve connected with them throughout the years.”
Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany hops on backing vocals, as well as taking lead on a verse. It’s a charming duet that’ll surely put a smile on your face. “I knew Eric would understand simple and complex at the same time, not many words, but the few words you do use, you try to say as much as possible and evoke an emotion out of people.”
Rachmany shares a few words on the collaboration. “After being friends for so many years, it’s amazing to be working on more songs together over 10 years after our first collaboration,” he says. “What an honor to be on a track with the legendary UB40, too.” Campbell chimes in, “SOJA are such an exciting band, and I’m thrilled to have finally collaborated with them. I wish SOJA every success with their new album.”
While making the record, which is “basically about learning a new way,” notes Hemphill, the group was forced into quarantine due to Covid-19, much like the entire world. Instead of letting their creativity shrivel, each musician “sort of became our own producer. I would wake up one day, and there would be something brand new from the keyboard player. Then the next day, the guitar player had this whole part together,” he recalls. “When you’re in a room with seven other people, you have a tendency to say yes or no real quick. Working far away, there is no time constraint at all.
“If there’s one lesson to learn from this whole virus thing, it’s that patience can be pretty cool,” he adds.
Hemphill switches gears for a moment to further detail the album’s core themes of self-preservation and discovery. “In learning a new way, you’re going to have to look at why you started in the first place,” he says. Where the lead single “Something to Believe In” depicts an especially “rough” time in his life and how he tunneled his way out, follow-up “Press Rewind” gazes through the looking glass to the start of his journey.
“Singing on stage every night for 20 years, you got to have something to hold on to, you know,” he says. “We all have these crossroads. In the crossroads, you get kind of afraid, because when you’re making a move, a new decision that you know is the right one, there’s a lot of silence.”
The singer-songwriter also reapplies concepts from the early 1920s poem “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann, which the group had also explored with their 2014 studio record, Amid the Noise and Haste. The opening line, which his father would whisper into his ear before he headed out on tour, reads: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
“The older I get, the more I realized that kind of might be the secret to life,” he reflects about that line, a formative idea that has soundtracked his life. “What my life has been constant noise, constant hurry up, constant get up on the stage. Then, Covid happens, and it’s me, sitting here with my girl and my dog and my guitar.”
When he was a kid, his mother had a book called Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life, authored by Rex Weyler and Rick Fields, and it left an indelible impression on him. “The whole point of the book is that hundreds or thousands of years ago, humans had a routine一and the routine was chop wood, carry water. And they lived in small communities,” he explains. “They didn’t have the internet or cable or cell phones or anything. I mean, they literally woke up, and they got their wood to get their food. Then, they got their water and brought it back. That pattern turns out to work for humans. The further we get away from that, the more we’re starting to notice problems.”
“Think about a tree. If a tree takes too much water, it’ll fall over. If it takes too little water, it falls over,” he continues. “Same with my dog. Same with the grass in my front yard. Everyone knows that the secret of life is in the middle. You find happiness in the middle.”