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“I hate the safe zone”: a post-Grammy winning chat with Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito may have just won Best Contemporary Blues Album for his latest LP Please Don’t Be Dead but he is far from your average bluesman. Negrito is a creator with his sights set on being one of a kind, and with two consecutive Grammy wins for both his debut and sophomore release he’s showing the world that his unique approach to music is taking him places few could dream of.

I caught up with Fantastic Negrito to talk about the themes behind his Grammy winning album Please Don’t Be Dead, what it takes to make an album worthy of awards, signing naked butts at Bluesfest, and more.

How many artists can claim two Grammy wins from their first two albums? Before he tours Australia this April, we sit down with Fantastic Negrito.

HAPPY: You’re coming back to Australia to play Bluesfest. What’re you most looking forward to about playing the festival again?

FANTASTIC: What I’m most looking forward to is just getting back out there, Australia were a crowd of good listeners, and the first time I signed a woman’s naked behind so that was interesting, I don’t know if that’s just what they do down there but that was very interesting.

HAPPY: Yeah, we can get pretty wild down here.

FANTASTIC: They’re pretty wild. The women had a few drinks and so that’s what happened, and it was in front of everybody, thousands of people there but she insisted I do it so I was more than happy.

HAPPY: Well, that’s something! How would you describe your live shows?

FANTASTIC: I always describe my live show the same way, it’s like church without the religion. It’s a good old high spiritual time that everyone has, and I think my shows are positive because I’m very optimistic about things and that’s how I like to approach my music. I like up and positive, even if it feels dark there’s always a light to walk to at the end.

HAPPY: Nice. So, you just won a Grammy for your album Please Don’t Be Dead. How does that feel? Did you ever anticipate2 winning for a second time?

FANTASTIC: Well, I didn’t anticipate for it a first time. I just try to go into the studio and make music that I think is great, and songs that I think are great and I try to write my music according to the way I see life.

When I wrote Please Don’t Be Dead, it was really based off songs and ideas of the salvation of democracy, but taken from the point of view of where I grew up. I took the bass lines and I wrote them to characters I grew up with that were drug dealers, hustlers, pimps, pushers, and players out here in Oakland, California. I wrote the bass lines as to how I imagined those people and how I saw them, even down to the way that they walk, I did that with out of tune upright pianos.

So yeah, I come from a different place, I don’t want to write twelve bar blues songs, I believe it’s a feeling, black moves blues music. That’s what I thought with Plastic Hamburgers, it’s blues on speed. I bring the punk energy out of blues, mix it in with lots of loops, and create my own guitar solos then put it in Pro Tools to make it more interesting. I like the tools from a production standpoint but you’ve got to have songs first before you do anything.

HAPPY: Absolutely. Do you have a favourite track on the LP?

FANTASTIC: Be it one that I never play, maybe Transgender Biscuits, I don’t know. I hate to say a favourite because it changes from week to week, maybe A Boy Named Andrew, someone said they’d never heard anything like that, ever, and I thought ‘Wow! That’s a great compliment’.

HAPPY: Yeah, it definitely is. So why do you think the album won a Grammy? What makes an album worthy of winning a Grammy in your opinion?

FANTASTIC: I never really think of that at all, but I think an album worthy is one where an artist has been as pure, forthcoming and honest as an artist can be to express, and contribute something to the landscape, and society that we live in. I believe that as artists we make contributions. But, the songs have to be great, and there has to be originality, I love originality, I don’t want to sound like anyone else, I don’t want to rehash and make the same blues style songs that people just make over and over again. There’s nothing more boring to me than listening to artists who are doing that, it’s the safe zone, and I hate the safe zone.

HAPPY: Which artists in the blues, besides yourself, do you feel are stepping outside of that box and really doing something different? Who do you think people should be keeping an eye on?

FANTASTIC: Fantastic Negrito [laughs]. I don’t like genres, I just think artists who keep it real have it. Kendrick Lamar is an artist, who despite genre, always feels like he’s really trying to do something different with his albums, and that’s what I look for in artists. There are other artists out there who are lesser known that I think are pretty awesome, I like this group Another Sky from the UK, I think they’re awesome. They’re not necessarily blues but I don’t think of it like that ‘oh it’s got to be blues, or it’s got to be soul’, I just think it has to be great, and move the soul. When it moves that ass, and it tugs at your heart then you’ve got something.

But, you know who I’d love to mention in blues, I think Robert Randolph from Mississippi is incredible, and I want to do something with him. He’s outside of the box in my opinion. I give him a lot of credit, he just makes me go ‘wow’.

HAPPY: Very true. I have one last question for you. You’ve just released a new album, toured, and won your second Grammy, what’s next for Fantastic Negrito?

FANTASTIC: I’m doing a little bit of touring but more writing. I’m doing a mixtape, a black roots mixtape, it’s going to be something. I’m also linking up with people like Tank and the Bangas, they’re amazing and we’re working on doing something together. It’s going to be great.

 

Catch Fantastic Negrito at Byron Bay Bluesfest or at his sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne.

14 April 2019 – 8 pm – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney – Tickets
15 April 2019 – 8ppm – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne – Tickets

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February 21, 2019