Way back in pre-pandemic 2015, Jimmy Cliff was on tour in Japan and missing his family. After one show, he sat down at a piano backstage and quickly wrote a song, “Human Touch,” about longing for personal connections: “I like the way I can keep in touch when you’re far away … There’s nothing like your smiling face and your warm embrace.”
Cut to six years later, and Cliff, finishing up his first album in nearly a decade, realized that in the Covid-19 era, the message of “Human Touch” took on a new meaning. The track, out today, will be included on the reggae legend’s forthcoming album Bridges, which includes collaborations with numerous producers (including Mark Batson, who’s worked with Jay-Z and Eminem, and Ghanaian musician-producer Kwame Yeboah)
Cliff, 77, talked to RS from his home in Miami. “They say it’s the center of everything,” he says of the COVID uptick in his state. “But I’m well and writing and exercising.”
What went through your mind when you found those old lyrics and realized they applied to current times?
I said, “Well, this is a good song. An appropriate song.” It sounds like it was written for [the pandemic]. Everyone is missing the human touch. So I’m sending out that message to the Covid virus.
Do many of your songs emerge fully formed in that way?
Some of my best songs come like that, like “Many Rivers to Cross.” I was living in London and used to go across the Channel from London to France or Germany, and thus you have “white cliffs of Dover.” I was in New York and I was finishing up songs for mixing. On my way to the studio, I said, “What if I finish this one [new] song and get it recorded?” In 15 minutes, I’m walking into the studio and say, “Can you do this one song I just wrote?” I sang it to the musicians on my guitar and the players just went, “Wow,” and in one day we were done. I love when songs come like that.
You also have a song on the new album called “So Happy Day.”
That’s another inspirational song. I decided that, despite what’s going on outside, it’s a happy day. What’s the point of looking down? Look up and look forward. Smile! It’s more important now than ever with this Covid thing. I look at Covid like World War III. It’s more dangerous than I and II. It’s invisible. And it’s not just Europe and America; it’s the whole planet. You need something to boost you up — and outside of a shot of alcohol or something like that!
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of The Harder They Come, which was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry earlier this year. What are your strongest memories of making it?
We all went into it with a very positive mind, saying, “This is Jamaica’s first full-length movie. We want to get it right. We all want to be stars from it!” [Laughs]
It was such a low-budget movie and there were so many stops and starts. It ran out of money and they had to stop production. I flew back to London where I was residing at the time and they said, “Come back now, we got some more money!” The only actor in the movie with acting experience was the girl who played my girlfriend [Janet Bartley].
I really wanted to act. [Director] Perry Henzell got me to play that part because I was doing well in England as a recording artist. I was touring all over Europe and making a bunch of money, and he said to me something that only I knew then or believed. He said, “You know, I think you’re a better actor than singer.” It stopped me in my tracks for a minute. I didn’t say anything. How come he knew that I always wanted to be an actor?
The movie wasn’t originally called The Harder They Come, so did you have to write a new song when they changed the title?
We were shooting and nearly coming toward the end. Perry said, “You have to write the songs.” But we didn’t have any songs! Then he said, “The harder they come, the harder they fall,” and boom – that clicked in my head. So he gave me the title and I wrote that song during the making of the movie. He said, “Let’s shoot the scene tomorrow.” If you notice I didn’t have all my words together during the scene. I just winged it. But that scene was very actual.
Do you keep up with current reggae acts?
Chronixx is what I call a culture artist. He doesn’t sing about girls and cars and superstars. He sings about culture. Like when you capture a piece of land and build a house on it. So he writes a song saying, “Hey, look at New York, dat a capture land!” He writes reality songs. He’s the most outstanding one.
Last year, we lost Toots Hibbert. How close were you to him?
I was very close with Toots. He touched me when he crossed over so sudden. And now I have a better knowledge of what we call death. It’s just a transition to the other side of existence. The physical body is not the end. The body is still there but moves to a higher plane. It stays circling around out there in this atmosphere. It depends how you live your life.
I heard Toots had the virus. But I didn’t really expect him to cross over. I expected him to beat it. Quite of the few of the artists went in a short spate of time [this year]. Bunny Wailer, U-Roy. They all crossed over.
Hope you’re staying healthy.
They say that when you reach your peak, you start a decline. The fact that I’m still here means I haven’t reached my peak yet. When I finish talking to you, I’m going to go for my daily swim.
Do you still use ganja?
A lot of fire but no more smoke! [Laughs] I have nothing against it, but it was affecting my voice. I said, “Wow, this is my instrument. If it goes, what do I have?” So that kind of motivated me to stop, four or five years ago. If I’m in the company of people I appreciate and they have the real good stuff? Yeah, I’ll take a drop. But that’s about it for me right now.