Being Kiwis we instinctively admire those who are good enough to be entirely laid back with their natural musical gifts, and refuse to pretend that they are anything or anyone they are not. Even the best need a push however. A fine album that gets no promotion risks getting as much attention as the metaphorical tree falling in the forest. So it was for Te Kuiti singer/songwriter/guitarist Regan Perry when he self-released his first album in 2009. For his second album he has an American music professional at his back, and the potential of a bright future in the U.S. reggae scene to his front. He talked with Richard Thorne about his r-evolution.
It’s become rare for even Auckland-based artist managers to pick up the phone and call the NZM office in support of their artists’ future profiles. Too hands on I guess. So it was quite a surprise to have an evidently American manager-type calling all the way from Chicago, and a little unnerving that he seemed to have extensive knowledge about a “world-class” Kiwi artist we’ve heard nothing of for several years.
“Regan Perry,” the caller drawled earnestly. “He was lead guitarist in Cornerstone Roots and he’s a reggae genius – we’re just finishing off his new album now and looking to get it mastered at Lion Fox Studios in D.C.”
The American gent’s name is David Wells and he followed that call up with several more, as well as a series of emails – but to his credit, took prompt note when I put my e-hands up to say, ‘No more’. His email signature reveals him as the ‘Owner & President’ of Actuate Promotions, and by any account he’s pretty well hooked up in the world of US reggae. The kind of guy who can pick up a phone and call artists like former Jah Roots’ lead Josh Heinrichs, or Wailers’ guitarist Junior Marvin, and make things happen.
And Regan Perry? Plenty of Kiwi musicians, especially those from the roots end of the music spectrum, will know Regan as a gifted and completely natural guitarist. Acoustic or electric, steel string or nylon, folk, jazz, reggae, Flamenco or rock – an effortlessly capable guitarist whose potential for wider acclaim has yet to be untangled from his determined individualism.
Among his fans there are some who have been happy to proclaim Regan Perry as the greatest guitarist ever – as distinct from the greatest guitarist they’ve ever heard. A common opinion holds him as “the most laid back artist ever.” The type who is most at ease strumming a battered nylon string acoustic and happiest in bare feet or jandals, no matter what stage he’s on.
Proudly from Te Kuiti in the King Country, Regan is one of four boys, including well-known Hamilton-based blues performer Darcy Perry. Another brother, Sasha, has been a collaborator with music and film. There are a lot of creative people in the whanau he says, their father Ross was a teacher and from a long line of brass bandsmen, stretching back into NZ’s history.
His own childhood was spent wild and free. Literally. Regan spent a lot of time with other people’s families, a lot of time playing guitar, a lot of time climbing trees or otherwise alone, and not much time going to school.
Self-taught as a guitarist, he’s been performing on public stages since he was 13. It takes no guesswork to figure his early musical experiences lay in jamming to the classic rock and reggae grooves that swilled around provincial NZ in the 1980s. His dad added jazz to that palette and it became evident that whatever genre Regan willingly applied himself to he would soon become adept at.
Now 37, his lifestyle has largely been transient since leaving the country as a teenager, disillusioned with the local and national scene. He first spent several years living in Queensland (surfing and playing), then some more in Japan, these days swinging regularly between the various places he feels at home and among friends.
That childhood need for freedom still defines him. Music seems to be maybe the one place Regan finds discipline acceptable. A story from his early time on the Gold Coast is illustrative.
“Aussie was cool and there were a lot of jazz gigs ’cos I felt that I could express myself more through jazz than I could through anything else. But I was missing my roots, this rhythm thing that was there when I was growing up.
“The only time I felt it was on acoustic guitar, with a bunch of dudes sitting around having a drink – and it happened to be Gypsy music. They used to play like this in caves, and they all had that fire. Instantly that was me, so I studied flamenco for four or five years there and took off to Japan with it.
“When I say ‘studied’, I studied from gypsies, from the streets, from gigs. From the deep end like I study everywhere. You don’t need a piece of paper to prove it, you can either play it or not. I’m glad I jumped in the deep end, I don’t know any other way anyway.”
Against pretty much all odds, he ended up playing solo regularly in Tokyo’s Ritz Carlton hotel – a job he describes as probably the best any musician could get.
“But… it didn’t mean anything. It was cool, but the job is to sit in the corner and do whatever you like to do. I wasn’t learning anything except that I could be given money for the way I looked.”
It didn’t feel right inside – and he was still looking for something else, a sense of home. He links the drug taking habits of many musicians to that absence of a regular home life.
“The music’s what we love, the other bits just help us along now and then.”
Helping his mate Brian Ruawai to tour Cornerstone Roots in Japan, they talked long about the meaning of home and roots. Regan realised he needed to get in touch with his family again and record some songs that reminded him of home.
“So I came full circle to discover that the stuff we were doing in Te Kuiti was good enough, already. If you know enough to write a song about what’s in your heart then you know enough.”
‘Wiser’, was the title he gave his debut album, a simple reflection of what he had learnt about the world and himself over the past decade, which had begun with the death of his father.
Over the period of a year he recorded the album’s 17 tracks at various mates’ houses around NZ plus a rented Mt Maunganui beach shack. He did most of it himself, including the recording and mixing, and also mastered some of the tracks.
Incredibly he secured the involvement of successful Brit producer/ engineer Mike Nielson to help him remix the record. Nielsen first produced the acid jazz act Jamiroqaui, mixed the electronic Underworld albums and has also produced for Rufus Wainwright, illustrating his diversity. He worked on Perry’s album at his own London studio.
“Mike Neilsen gave me guidance with the album and my production knowledge. We spent a lot of time on the album’s flow and getting things tight while leaving them loose… knowing that some noise is actually good noise… things that are hard to explain. I didn’t expect anything from him, but what I got was some very deep knowledge. I was just stoked working with someone of that calibre, and I love the first two Jamiroquai albums which he produced. I wore those tapes out.
Self-released in 2009, ‘Wiser’ got a good review in NZM, but otherwise went largely unnoticed and completely un-promoted. It did though serve as a business card of sorts for Perry, fellow musicians readily recognising his ability.
“A couple years ago, I did a song called Cruisin’ with Josh Heinrichs of Jah Roots fame in the States. That song went on his  album ‘Satisfied’ which ended up No.3 on the Global iTunes Reggae Charts, and No.2 on Amazon.com.
The single is officially billed as Cruisin’ feat. Regan Perry, and the video was shot here in NZ.
Back to David Wells, who came across Perry due to that appearance. Heinrichs, as the Springfield, Missouri reggae act, was a client of his.
“At that time, I did not pay any particular interest to Perry, other than I thought he sounded great on the track and was impressed by the unusual mixing technique he employed once Josh and I received the track back,” offers Wells.
Since then he has become a big supporter, throwing his weight, money and energies into establishing Regan as a leading reggae artist, in the U.S. and beyond.
Wells firmly believes ‘Wiser’ should have been the catalyst for a thriving career – and seems intent on making that happen for Regan with his second album.
Willfully independent as he has been all his musical life, Regan is clearly cautious about where he places his trust. He admits he didn’t like labels “at one point in my life, but accepts now they are part of the business. Wells is key to finally bringing his undeniable talents to a global audience.
“I’ve kept my music locked up for years and now I release it through my own company, Mash It Up Records USA/NZ, half-founded and co-owned by myself and David Wells.
“David asked me to do a video via Youtube addressing the Mayor of Chicago, it was about helping save his reggae club, The Wild Hare. I gladly did and after a few conversations, we were starting production on my new album. The first artist he hooks me up with was Junior Marvin, my favourite reggae guitarist, Bob Marley’s best friend, lead guitarist of the Wailers.
“David has been a friend, business partner, life changer, brother, writer and co-producer on this new album. He honestly loves music and we communicate on a level I haven’t done to anyone else for a long time.”
Other artists contributing to his new album include Desi Hyson, current lead-singer/keyboardist for The Original Wailers, Scott Woodruff (aka Stick Figure), who Wells says is second only to SOJA in terms of popularity among American reggae acts, plus scene-leading reggae bands and collectives from Southern California, Wisconsin and Hawaii. Katchafire’s Hani Totorewa is again a key collaborator.
“There were so many artists excited to be a part of this that we had to trim it down,” says Regan. “I ended up with 25 tracks or so. A second album is looking good already. Nothing was thrown away, nothing gets thrown away. I’m a musical hoarder – like uncle Lee ‘Scratch’.”
The 19 tracks-long album, is named ‘Maui’, after his three year old son.
“He is half Japanese and half Perry… Tokyo and Te Kuiti blood mixed together. His name is unique like him.”
Despite all the above talk of reggae stars’ input, ‘Maui’ is by no means all reggae, and certainly not of the paint-by-numbers reggae too often served up locally. It brooks alt-folk, jazz, dub, surf folk, ska, ‘Maori strum’ and Latin music, with its messages covering as much ground – perhaps reflecting where it was written.
“In lock up, at my mate’s house on the couch, in the car, on a roof, in the kitchen, people’s lawns, bathrooms, different locations around NZ, some lines from a while ago some lines from a week ago… real time music, with real time lyrics for the surrounding I was in at the time… you know, real music.”
That rightly identifies part of the strong appeal of the album, a grounding both lyrically and musically that reflects the way reggae’s original masters used the form to talk colloquially about their own struggles, yet somehow made the message universal. Perry throws in the odd “bro”, sings verses written by a variety of collaborators, uses other vocalists for his songs and constantly mixes things up.
“It’s been a real collaborative effort in a lot of ways. It’s a real mash up. Real artists dealing with other real artists, recording their art straight for the listener, it’s definitely rare in this industry.
“It’s my first time in the American market, which is huge no doubt, it feels major in some ways but normal in other ways. Hard to explain. Music is all I’ve ever done. No schooling just music. It’s a step forward for me not only as an artist but as a person, this album has affected me in a lot of ways – and the journey has only begun, a lot more steps to go.”