Smokin‘ Alone // JMSN Interview

JMSN by Daniel Shaked © 2018

Detroit-raised Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN (pronounced Jameson), is more than a vocalist with a passion for 80’s- and 90’s-R’n’B.  He’s way more than just a singer with feature parts on Kendrick Lamar’s instant classic album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City”. He’s a complete musician: on his latest album “Whatever Makes U Happy”, he produced, enginereed, mixed and, of course, wrote every single song by his own. On tour, he is leading a four-headed band as a vocalist and a guitarist– and as if that were not enough, Berishaj is also the man behind JMSN’s stunning music videos. Needless to say, it’s no surprise that JMSN has many interesting things to share.

How are you?
Tired, very tired.

In the past few years you have played hundreds of shows all over the world. What is the weirdest thing you have ever experienced on tour?
Nothing really crazy so far. It’s always crazy to me that people are coming to my shows (laughs). I don’t know why they are coming to my shows, but it’s cool, I like it.

Is there a difference between playing a show in New Zealand and Australia and playing a show in Europe?
Definitely. The people are acting different in every place you go. Even from city to city in America, it’s completely different, you meet different people. You never really know what to expect. Here, it’s great. I love coming to Vienna. Vienna has great food, great architecture, that’s really nice. On tour in the USA, you often have to cope with gas station food. That can be really bad.

Do you try to maintain your healthy lifestyle in the USA?
I try, but it’s super hard. It’s a lot easier to do that over there (laughs).

Do you have time to write songs on tour?
Not really. I do voice notes and stuff like that, but I don’t have time to sit down and record stuff. It’s just like “go, go, go“ on tour. And when you have some free time, you are trying to get some sleep.

“I was always into phases”

You are originally from Detroit. What influence has growing up in Detroit on your music?
It influences my music because growing up in Detroit influenced me as a person. Musically, when I was growing up, I listened to the new shit from Detroit. Eminem, Kid Rock, White Stripes, that was the Detroit thing for me. Later, I got into Motown. It was primary the popular 80’s-stuff like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston that got me into music. At that time, there weren’t many popular artists from Detroit. Kiss were singing about Detroit, but they weren’t from there. I remember going to a show of Eminem and Jay-Z in Detroit once. That was a good show. But Jay Z played so long, I just wanted to see Eminem. It really got on my nerves (laughs).

Any contacts to the Techno scene in Detroit?
Not really. I was too young. I knew about the Techfest, but I was more into rock music. When I finally got my band I was into Punk rock, Radiohead, White Stripes, Limp Bizkit, Korn. As a Punk band we had Suicide Machines, who are from Detroit, and Less Than Jake. In Detroit, there were a lot of good punk rock bands with crazy shows, where people were getting their anger out.

Punk rock shows are completely different from soul music shows.
Yeah, completely. But that were the first show I went to. I was old enough and rebelled, I dyed my hair with crazy colors for example. I was always into phases – and I had that one punk phase. Coming out from that I started to get into Radiohead, into a more maturate type of music. I was listening to Fiona Apple and Coldplay. Coldplay is amazing.

What do you like about Coldplay?
It’s just amazing music. The songwriting is amazing, Chris Martin’s voice is amazing, what else do you need?

In my opinion, their first two albums are way better than their new ones.
They are different, for sure. The first (“Parachutes”, A/N.) is  amazing, but the second album, “A Rush of Blood to the Head”, is one of the best albums ever made. They always did good stuff, even “Viva La Vida” was good. They kept an impressive consistence.

“The combination of a good story and great acting is what makes a movie perfect!“

Coldplay is also known for their good-looking videos, something that seems to be important to you too. Do you produce all your videos on your own?
No, there are a lot of people helping, I couldn’t do everything on my own. But I’m definitely at the forefront of the concepts and the ideas. I get my inspiration by movies, sometimes just by pictures. When I go through Tumblr and I see a nice picture that strikes my eye, I feel inspired. I really like people acting, I love good acting. The combination of a good story and great acting is what makes a movie perfect!

Is there a movie you can watch over and over again?
Yeah, several movies. One I have recently watched again is “Snatch” by Guy Ritchie, another one is “No Country for Old Man”. Such a great movie! Javier Bardem is amazing in it. One of my favorite actors is Woody Harrelson. I love him. Any movie he is in it, I have to see it.

When people in Europe hear about Detroit, they usually think about “8 Mile”, where Detroit is portrayed as a violent place. Is this imagination more a stereotype than the reality?
I wouldn’t say that Detroit is a violent place. No city is a violent place, unless you are talking about a place where the government has no control over the people. Detroit is a poverty-stricken place; and a lot of ignorance is involved when it comes to poverty. It’s all relative to me, because that’s the places where I come from. That’s normal to me. I’m the worst person to ask about this, because I’m biased. I’m not scared to go anywhere. You can go to the most fucked up place in Detroit, if you are scared, they gonna feed on your fear. If you believe that it’s all okay, it will be okay. There are bad areas everywhere. That’s not limited to Detroit.

You are living in Los Angeles right now. What are the main differences between living in Los Angeles and in Detroit?
There are a lot of differences. Los Angeles is completely different! The weather is better – that’s a plus – and the music scene is bigger. There are a lot of songwriters and producers in Los Angeles. You have amazing musicians living in Los Angeles. That’s the main reason why I’m there. I can find the best players for my band and my recordings in Los Angeles, where the community is huge. And everybody is trying to help.

Your father is from Albania. What do you know about that country?
I don’t know a lot. I know that it is hard for us to play there. I would like to go to Albania and to see what’s going on there, but it wasn’t possible by now. My father told me things about Albania. That the people don’t have a lot of money in Albania (laughs), and that there are two big religious groups, Muslims and Roman Catholics. He’s a Roman Catholic. He also told me about albanian food. I love albanian food, it’s very similar to Greek food. And he also showed me some albanian music. It sounds very similar to arabic music, you get the same vibe with the two-string guitar.

What role does religion play in your life?
It’s my foundation as a person. It’s definitely interesting. I grew up playing in the school choir and the church choir. The church is important in this way too: If you want to find someone you can do music with, you possibly find them at your church. But I have never done that by myself.

When you write your lyrics, is it always about things that actually really happend in your life – or are you trying to write fictional stuff too?
It’s never fictional. It has always to do with things that are going on in my life. Maybe one day I try to write something fictional like a story – but even if I try to get into fictional writing, I feel that there’s is some kind of metaphor in it that has something to do with me. Because even if you change the names, the people, the places, it still feels like you write about something that is going on with you. You are still writing about yourself. Fiction is the wrong word, I would better call it metaphorical stuff.

Do you start with the lyrics or the music?
It depends. It’s different every time. Sometimes, I have an idea for lyrics, so I start to write it down. Sometimes, the music is first, I’m singing a melody and forewords that don’t exist and I try to figure out which words I can make out of it.

“The slower you get, the groovier your music is becoming”

Was it some kind of evolution for you to move from this aggressiv, fast music from your beginnings to slow jams?
In the beginning, I was super young and had a lot of energy – and so sounded the type of stuff I was making. As I was getting older I’m calmed down. I still make some stuff that I consider as faster, but it’s never too fast. Some songs I recorded before the last tour were pretty uptempo. I always ask somebody if the speed of my music is okay. The slower you get, the groovier your music is becoming. It’s a big challenge to make fast music that doesn’t lose the groove.

What did you pick up from the 80’s-stuff?
The biggest thing I picked up is songwriting. I’m glad that this was the first music I was introduced to, because I feel that my songwriting foundation is based on that music. These songs in the 80’s were amazingly written, with the choir progressions and so on. From growing up today, it’s a loop the whole time and you think that’s music. Okay, it’s music, but it was something different back in the days. It’s good to have the foundation of the 80’s-songwriting. Just listen to a Whitney Houston song!

You are a big fan of Prince. How did you feel when you heard about his death?
I was very sad. It was crazy to me to feel this about somebody you have never met. I asked myself: “Why are you so upset?”. That’s wired. I was like “Damn, he’s gone”. I was watching his videos and live performances and I teared up. It felt crazy. I never met him, but I felt to know him through his music.

Did you know Kendrick before you worked with him on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City”?
Yeah, for sure, I was definitely a fan before we met. “Section.80” was a great rap record, nobody was doing stuff like him before. I knew when he was doing something new that it’s going to be amazing – and I was glad that I was a part of it.

Did he bring you any benefits?
I didn’t want to be featured in the liner notes, because I didn’t want to be known as the man featured on a Kendrick Lamar song. I want to be my own artist. I made it clear to them that I don’t want to be featured. Plus: I just did strings and vocal stuff in the background, not a big hook.

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