By Ben Doy
Sammy Johnson has today released his self-titled EP. The recording features first single ‘No Sleep' which topped the NZ iTunes Reggae chart as well as cracking the US Billboard Top 40 Reggae Chart, while new single ‘Hey' debuted in the NZ Top 20 single charts. He's also just embarked on a full US tour with Californian sensations Common Kings and a performance at the Island Reggae Festival alongside internationals including FIJI and J. Boog and locals Aaradhna and Savage.
I caught up with Sammy earlier this week for a chat about his music, the new EP, and his appearance at the upcoming Raggamuffin Festival.
Where did you grow up?
My mum is Australian and my Dad is New Zealand Maori. We grew up in Australia, in Brisbane. I tried to pursue music a lot in Australia but it's kind of hard with the genre that I do which is Island Reggae. My whole family does music; there were six of us kids. One was on Popstars and one was doing opera. And my little sister was on Idol... the same one as Stan Walker. But I was not interested in being a singer... I did like singing and wrote a lot of music, and was a backing vocalist for a local band. Then the lead singer left and I got pushed into taking his place. Then we were jamming one afternoon, and someone must have posted one of the clips and that's when it all went crazy.
A label in Hawaii had watched one of the clips and contacted me, and to cut a long story short they signed me.
Where are you based now?
I've been here in Auckland for the last three years. I spent a lot of this year in the US and toured around there, but this is where I am based.
Do you consider yourself an Aussie or a Kiwi?
They call me a Mozzie!
Who were your early influences growing up?
You always listen to what your parents listen to, so I was always listening to things like Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Al Green... I love all the soul stuff. And then as I got older I continued on that route a lot more, thing like D'Angelo and Musiq Soulchild. And of course being a Polynesian or Maori, we all listened to Island Reggae... it's like the standard.
What age were you when you first started performing?
I've always sang and stuff like that, but professionally I've only been doing this for about two years. So it's all been really quick and had to adjust real quick. Everything was a bit of a shock, and not what I thought it was going to be. Both in a good way and bad way. People only see the finished product, they don't really know what has to go in behind it. It's a long process and a lot of work. I really enjoy doing that work, but it's hard.
You recently played the Island Reggae Festival in California. How was that experience?
That was crazy! I didn't even know there were that many Islanders in America, it was like being in South Auckland again. Probably one of the highlights of my musical career so far.
How big is the Reggae scene over there?
It's pretty big, and it's not only Islanders either which I found interesting. I opened for Common Kings for two months, and on that tour I'd look out into the crowd and I'd see brown faces but also a lot of different races... African Americans, whites, hippies... it was really cool to see.
And you're releasing your new EP...
Yeah! I don't even know how I found the time to do it. It was all just kind of a fluke I guess. I just wrote a lot of it while I was on the road. Because as soon as ‘Prelude' the first EP was released, I was still writing while I was touring that. This EP I guess is just a progression from the first one. But I'm really excited to see what the perception of this will be and how it's received.
Where did you record it?
Everywhere! Australia, New Zealand, Compton, Hawaii... whereever I could find a mic or equipment. I was just literally on the road.
And you've got Raggamuffin coming up too!
Yeah, I'm very excited for that and nervous as well. First time in Auckland and I think it's a bigger show than usual. A lot more international acts, so there is pressure to meet the standard. It's a big honour to do that and be a part of it.
Who are you looking forward to seeing the most?
There is a guy on their Chronixx, this will be his first time in New Zealand. He's dope! And I get to see Aaradhna again, I always love catching up with her. And of course the actual UB40.
What's your plan for 2015?
My goal is to work on my first album. This is my second EP, and releasing an album would be like solidifying myself as an artist.