Cas Haley: Connected

One of the most intriguing things about reggae music is its sheer diversity. After all, this is a genre that can happily encompass gospel, dancehall, soul, ska, funk, hip hop, r & b, rock, dub, lovers rock, pop, Latin, mento and many more styles besides yet it was still a surprise to discover that a contestant on America’s Got Talent – the transatlantic version of X-Factor – had signed to Easy Star Records in New York and delivered a set of songs so engaging, all thoughts about his involvement with Simon Cowell swiftly faded into insignificance.

To look at him, you’d think Cas Haley had more ties to surfer punks than reggae music. That’s because he’s a well-built Texan with glasses and a Hare Krishna tattoo and would stand out like a sore thumb in downtown Kingston. He’s a fine songwriter though, as well as a good musician and I defy anyone to check his album Connection or watch him singing Walking On The Moon on YouTube and say he’s not a genuine talent. Not only that, but he’s got integrity. That clip was recorded during one of the early heats of America’s Got Talent some months before he won second prize, got himself a record deal with Cowell’s label and then quit in search of his own identity. Faced with the same decision, most people would swallow their pride and follow the money, but not this guy.

“The deal with Simon Cowell’s company and Sony was for a TV show album with a bunch of songs that I didn’t write,” he says from LA, where he was resting before taking the stage at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. “I could tell from the early stages that I wasn’t going to have much creative control and none of my songs were going to be on it so I turned that down and I just went back to what I was doing before appearing on the show, which was just playing, making music and touring as much as I possibly could. Just doing stuff for myself basically, and then I ended up meeting this guy named Michael Gewhirtzman in New York who became my manager and introduced me to Eric Smith and Michael Goldwasser of Easy Star. This was in the summer of 2009; we talked about doing something but then I went back on the road and decided I was going to record an album on my own and release it as an independent. Seventy-five percent of what you hear on Connection I made by myself. It had nine tracks originally, but then Eric and Michael liked what they heard and asked me to put some more songs on it, which I did.”
Whilst it’s far removed from the reggae re-workings of Pink Floyd, Radiohead and the Beatles that we normally associate with Easy Star, Connection is actually a breath of fresh air. Cas’ songs come across as being very genuine and he writes about subjects a lot of us can relate to, including the freedom to enjoy life and do the things that make us happy. Listening to tracks like I’m Free, Better and Will I Find, it’s inconceivable that Cowell’s team would turn down such original material in favour of cover versions, except Cas has learnt a lot in the interim and now feels stronger for the experience.

“I liked Simon Cowell and the guys at Sycho Music,” he says protectively. “They were really nice to me and I felt really awkward turning my back on them but I just don’t think they had the time or confidence in me to do anything else. They wanted to make an album that had proven hits on it and I jumped out of it pretty early. Looking back, I could have probably fought to have some of my tunes on there but I just wasn’t feeling it at the time. I had a self-titled album recorded already, and they turned it down. It was a collection of songs written over the previous two years but none of them were as honest as the ones on Connection. It’s only recently I’ve come into my own and found a new means of expression really. I probably wasn’t even ready back then to be fair.”

There’s modesty for you, except Cas’ roots go deeper than you’d think. Both his parents were singers and musicians and whilst they moved around a fair bit during his childhood, music was an ever-present. Whether it was family or friends, there was always someone singing or playing instruments at home, and it was Dad who taught him guitar and bass.
“The cool thing about what happened to me, my parents encouraged me to make up stuff as opposed to learn a bunch of other people’s songs,” he recalls. “That meant it was easier for me to make up a song versus trying to learn somebody else’s. Right from when I started playing, I was writing my own songs, and I started singing and playing at the same time. That helped it all come together for me. At first I was just expressing how I felt, and then I saw the reaction from people around me. That was like the hook because I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow. I can connect with all these people just by singing to them.’

“I’m blessed with the parents I had because they gave me this understanding of feeling success in the moment, as opposed to success as a future thing that I’m going to get to eventually. I think that’s what has enabled me to jump over hurdles and bust through everything I’ve had to get through. I was never made to feel like a failure, no matter what I was going through.”

There’s a lot of reggae in your music. Where does that come from?
“It started with my mum, who took a liking to any kind of tribal influences like Bob Marley but what made it cool for me and made me think that I could do it or wanted to do it was the skateboard / punk culture. There was like this weird mix between punk and reggae and that’s really what opened the doors for me to dig deep and find out where bands like Rancid and NOFX were getting their ska influences from. I had a ska band in high school called 40 Cents Off. I don’t remember any bands in my area, even in Dallas that played the same kind of music I was but I loved it and kept doing it and the punk influence fell away when I became tired of playing fast!” he says, laughing.
“From there I started to get into bands like Sublime, which were covering songs by Toots & the Maytals and Bob Marley. That made me get into reggae more and then I fell completely in love with the history of reggae and ska.”

What was your first recording?
“My first recording was with a band called Woodbelly and that was me, my drummer Brendan Morris who’s still my drummer and a guy named Ben Drake on bass… I was about nineteen years old and I recorded two albums with them. We were playing pop / rock with an experimental twist to it. It even had some thirties and forties’ swing type influences in it, like those you can hear in Time And Truth.

“That music only appeared locally. We recorded the second Woodbelly album at the trailer park where I lived and who knows what we were on when we recorded it! Back then there were four of us all living in this one bedroom apartment, smoking weed as much as we could and just praying that something was going to come and save us. That was in Arlington, which is like slum suburbs. Paris on the other hand has a very tight community and that’s where I was born and raised. I love being there too, but I made the decision to make music my career when I was thirteen, fourteen years old, going into high school. I was already caught up in the illusion by then that this is who I was and once I made that decision I never turned back. I tell people that my talent is based on my decision to commit to it. That’s the hardest thing for anyone to do and that’s what you have to do to be successful. I just kept telling myself that I’m not going to be defined by anything else, that there is no destination to the journey… Everybody has this vision there’s a place where you feel like you’ve made it and I realised after the America’s Got Talent episode that there is no such thing as ‘making it.’ It’s all about the journey, and once you’ve made a commitment, then you’ve already made it. There’s nothing else and if you don’t get it now, then you won’t get it anyway.”

It was his former tour manager Seth Morgan, co-writer of Everyday, who recommended he audition for America’s Got Talent. Cas doesn’t even remember agreeing to it but didn’t want to let his friend down and so turned up anyway.

“I always used to make fun of those shows,” he admits, echoing what a lot of our readers may also be thinking. “It was hard for me to look at the people on those shows as valid artists and I knew that a lot of other people felt the same way but I ended up going anyway. I went in, walked straight into a room with all of these executive producers in it and they asked me if I knew anything current. I said no and they were like, ‘Well okay, play something that a British guy would like,’ so I played Walking On The Moon and some Bob Marley songs. They started shifting me round after that and getting me on all these different cameras but then I left and I remember throwing away my number and this British guy saw me and said I was going to be sorry if I made it through… I remember thinking, ‘Nah, he’s an asshole,’ so I threw away the number and walked out, not thinking about it anymore and with no expectations of going back there but they called two weeks later and asked if I’d like to do it. I agreed, and so they sent along this thousand-page contract with all these binds and chains in it. Basically, you have no options but I just went along without putting a lot of thought into it and then I got to the end and shit, I was up there in the final and that’s the first time I actually thought about winning, right before I lost! That was something that not too many people get to experience but I honestly didn’t feel let down because whilst I know what the money would have done for me [first prize was $1 million], I really don’t know if I would have had that much drive afterwards. I definitely wouldn’t have written songs like Will I Find but if I’m going to sell somebody a product with my name and face on it, I want my heart to be in it and that’s it.”

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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