Face-T is a rare reggae gem

We spoke to the Montreal-born, Jamaica-schooled artist about his path to electro-reggae and his new EP.

Face-T (640x640)
Face-T’s path to becoming a reggae artist was an unconventional one.

He’s a French-Canadian who was born in Montreal, but as a tot moved to rural Jamaica. After falling in love with the music there, he returned to Montreal as an adult and co-helmed Kulcha Connection, a band he said rode the waves of Sean Paul’s worldwide success by offering a partially francophone alternative.

Since going solo, he’s raised his profile even further thanks to his memorable collaborations with Poirier, both on record and at their Karnival parties. His latest, EP1, drops this Friday, and it’s his first batch of new cuts since 2012’s Tuff Like Stone. Each song has its own producer, so even though it’s a short sampler, there’s a varied mix of rocksteady vibes with electronic ones.

I recently caught up with Face-T, real name Nicolas Latendresse, fresh from a trip to Jamaica. “I had to explain to the older rastas who used to babysit me just how bad the winters get in Montreal,” he says. “And they just gave me this look, like ‘how could you live there?’”

Erik Leijon: For the launch this Friday, you’ll be playing with a full band. Is that a big change for you?
Face-T: My drummer from Kulcha Connection hit me up about a year-and-a-half ago and told me that I had the sounds, and that he had the musicians. I’ve been playing with them for a year and I think I have a real gem in my hands. We practice every week, and it’s liberating. It’s completely different than a DJ or playback. It’s not necessarily a reggae show even — it’s a rock show. The intensity of the music behind me gives it depth and a lot of flexibility.

EL: EP1 is a totally independent release. What’s it like for reggae artists online? Is it easy to find your audience?
FT: More than ever, which is good news and a reason why it’s possible to be independent and put out your music. The platforms are there and people know what’s going on. Jamaica is not really on the Internet that much, and the websites look like they’re from 1995, with yellow and green fonts. Up here we’re on our phones constantly, but it’s not like that there. Reggae is from Jamaica, but it has evolved worldwide so much in the last ten years. You have people from every corner of the world doing it, and we’re linking up together online. The proof is on my EP: I have producers from Scotland (Mungo’s Hi Fi) and Poland (Dreadsquad) on it.

EL: Jamaicans also seem pretty cool with outsiders who do reggae music.
FT: Yes they are. Poirier and I observed while touring — let’s say in the U.K. or France — if a Jamaican guy comes on stage, everyone’s immediately excited. But if a white guy jumps on stage, you have to prove yourself big time. In Jamaica it’s different, because everyone there does music and lives it. When they see someone from outside come down and grab the mic, they’ll just be surprised, like “hey that Japanese guy is doing it, whoa.”

EL: How was it for you then as a French-Canadian getting his musical start in Jamaica?
FT: When I moved down with my parents I was pretty young. No water or electricity in the house. We had batteries in the radio and we recharged them by leaving them out in the sun. Cassettes would suck battery power, so we listened to radio. My parents listened to Steel Pulse and Third World and all that was coming out in the ’70s, but as kids we were looking for something else. We were into U-Roy and I-Roy: DJ’s who came in with something different.

It started for me when I heard Yellowman on the radio. As young kids we freaked out because of the mix of traditional and digital. Everyone was doing music, so when our radio batteries ran out it made sense to knock on some percussion and write lyrics for fun. Eventually I went to dance halls, where guys would steal electricity from the lines and plug in 10,000 watts of speakers. We would run around those speakers as kids and listen to guys do their soundcheck. One evening when I was nine or ten, I went near the stage a bit timid and they said “white boy, come take the mic.” I grabbed the mic and busted my little lyrics right there. And the people were receptive. They said “that white boy can handle the mic.”

EL: By having a different producer for each track (Mungo’s Hi Fi, Poirier, Scorpio B and Dreadsquad), did you want each song to have its own unique vibe?
FT: It’s continuing what Tuff Like Stone started, which was half-Poirier and half-Scorpio B. There are two very different styles in reggae: there’s the more singing, roots vibe and there’s the DJ vibe. Since I’ve been solo, I’ve tried to cover both angles and make what I do as complete as possible in representing reggae music.

EL: And you’re also one of the few guys who can sing reggae in French.
FT: That’s true. More of what I do these days is pure Patois and I intend to keep it that way. I’m more comfortable in English and Patois than French. I do speak French daily and live in French, but it’s a cultural thing.

EL: I guess it’s also not very natural to do it in French.
FT: To do a reggae song in French, it takes at least triple the amount of time, just to get the vibe right. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying, but it takes a lot of energy. ■
Face-T launches EP1 with opening DJ sets from Poirier and Riddim Wise at le Belmont (4483 St-Laurent) on Friday, March 27, 10 p.m., $10