Song-by-Song: ‘The Empire Windrush’ by Dubwiser

Dubwiser. Photo: Meghan Bennett
Dubwiser. Photo: Meghan Bennett

Dubwiser’s Jonas Torrance: “It often starts with a theme which then becomes a phrase or hook.” Photo: Meghan Bennett

From Windrush’s legacy to Bristol’s rebellion, this EP is a reggae celebration of Black British experiences, blending history and family

Dubwiser, the acclaimed UK roots-reggae quartet, recently unveiled their The Empire Windrush EP. It follows last year’s lauded Smile Plenty EP and finds the quartet in top form both musically and lyrically. Led by singer Jonas Torrance, producer Spider J, and brothers Eddy and John Smythe, the EP blends classic Jamaican reggae with vibrant horn sections. Released during Black History Month, the EP embodies and celebrates the British Caribbean family experience.

The EP starts with a young Jamaican woman on a journey to England and takes us up to the tearing down of the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020. Also paying tribute to beloved family members, the four songs are a tribute to resistance and remarkable people, as Torrance explains…

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THE EMPIRE WINDRUSH

The first song on the EP was actually the last to be written. When we decided to put something out about Black British experiences, I immediately thought we should include something about The Windrush. The band has a lot of family connections to the ship and the era, so it seemed obvious to write something. How songs are originally conceived is down to individuals, but for me it often starts with a theme which then becomes a phrase or hook and then parts of a chorus or verse. That’s how this song went. Inevitably when I’m writing, I leave my studio (usually at night) and then have another idea, this is how the opening horn line happened, I found myself humming it in the kitchen.

I didn’t even put a bassline on the track, I wanted Spider to bring something for that. I just sent him drums, chords, horns and a voice. At my suggestion he also sang the lead vocal, but reckoned my voice’s tone suited the tune better. As our designated producer he has the final say, so we went with our more standard pattern of my lead vocals and his immaculate backing.

Time-wise, we were up against it. We asked for input from John and Eddy, but they simply didn’t feel it was needed, and they were probably right. We asked Kioko horns to add to the existing lines and the final icing on the cake was a Trinity/I-Roy style ‘toast’ by Spider at the end. The track was long but strong. It was written, recorded, mastered and released in less than a month.

JOHNNY

This song is the oldest on the EP. A couple of years ago, Eddy found himself doing an increasing amount of talks and presentations about his father, the WWII hero, Johnny Smythe. One day, he was talking to me about songwriting and how it happens and the next thing I knew he told me he woke up one morning with a bassline and shortly afterwards a poem about his dad’s exploits in the war.

He sent the bassline to the rhythm master, Spider, and the poem to me. The three of us met in the middle and I put Eddy’s words to the music. John (Eddy’s brother) added some wailing guitar parts to bring out the soul and it was a done deal. We changed very little in terms of sound, it’s quite rough and ready, but it has a bounce to it which, as well as being identifiably reggae, also has traces of West African funk. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ has to be one of the central rules of songwriting and recording.

It felt important to get some of Eddy’s voice on the record, he wrote a small passage and it felt like a spoken word piece, so that’s how he did it and it finished the short song off perfectly.

Dubwiser. Photo: Meghan Bennett

Dubwiser’s Jonas Torrance: “‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ has to be one of the central rules of songwriting and recording.” Photo: Meghan Bennett

TAKE DOWN COLSTON

My son was present when the Colston statue was pulled down in Bristol and he contacted me straight away. As a band we talk a lot about these issues. Eddy told me at the time of his relief that the damn thing had been removed. A frequent visitor to Bristol, he said that whenever he went past the statue he felt sick. At a gig we were wondering about trying out the song and John emphatically said that we must, and he was right, it went down a storm.

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The song didn’t come straight away however. It needed to sit for some years in ‘unwritten-song land’, but I think I knew it was always there. In the end it emerged as a ‘flying cymbals’ style roots rockers riddim, but digital. In my small studio I don’t have the space for a drumkit, so I use a drum machine most of the time. I relied on Spider to work out which way he wanted to take it. He stayed with my original groove, but carefully added both TD10 electronic drums and live drum sounds to fatten the sound. It came back to me sounding heavy.

The four of us got together in a rehearsal space and Spider brought his mobile studio setup so John and Eddy could add keyboards and guitar under his direction. Eddy once again brought his authoritative voice to the tune. I was put in mind of folk storytelling when writing this song, it unfolds over several verses. Although the Black Lives Matter message was central, I was also aware of other cultural influences in Bristol on that day. I did not explicitly tell Spider, but I tried to give it a slight sea shanty feel, he picked this up and enhanced it which meant that it felt a uniquely British/Caribbean reggae track. We also wanted it to be a clear celebration of people power, a marker and recognition of the rebellious nature of the people of Bristol.

AMAZING

When his mother died in the Caribbean, Spider was in London. As he sat grieving, the thought came to his mind that all the things that she had done were truly amazing. This condensed into a single phrase; ‘she did’. As he turned this over like a stone in his mind, Spider felt an answering bassline and the song Amazing was born.

On his own, Spider trailed from live room to monitor room and back again, recording every instrument live; drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, percussion and sketched out horn parts. As he moved between rooms, setting up instruments and checking levels other people from his past appeared to him, nudging him musically in certain directions, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley. Even when we write completely on our own it is still a communal effort. He completed the vocals and sent the track to me and a couple of family members.

It was poignant for me to hear the track, Spider’s mum was an amazing woman, as the song said, and he had also somehow captured her beauty and strength in the music and playing. We lived with it for a while, knowing that we needed to find the right vehicle to release it, I added a hand drum and filled out the horns, but with the lightest of touches, nothing else was needed. It rounds off this EP with a heartfelt tribute to an ordinary, extraordinary person.

The Empire Windrush EP is out now, check it out at dubwiser1love.bandcamp.com

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