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An Interview with Jason Hartman

Exclus1ve’s Graeme Shackleford met with Idols-winner, muso, earth child and all-round nice guy Jason Hartman for coffee and a chat.

Exclus1ves: Please give us a brief introduction to Jason Hartman.

Jason Hartman: Jason Hartman is a family man who enjoys nature, enjoys having good times and spending his moments wisely in the presence of his friends and family, doing things that he loves to do every chance he gets which is music, nature, fishing, and experiencing this beautiful planet in its entirety at every single moment.

EB: Your site bio says that you’ve always been a lover of music… How old were you when you began playing?

JH: I’ve got a recording of me singing ‘Buffalo Soldier’ at eighteen months old, on a ukelele-banjo, and I think that’s the first time i sang. Before that… I was born, screaming my head off with colic, so I was already a metal-rocker sorta dude the day I popped onto this planet. But the first recorded version of ‘Buffalo Soldier’ from Jason Hartman was recorded at eighteen months old, which would’ve made it 1980…

EB: After matriculating, you spent about ten years intermittently living on the road, playing corporate gigs. Can you tell us a little bit about that time?

JH: I left matric in 97, and my brother was in standard 6 at the time. We pulled him out of school cos we needed a drummer, and life became kinda hectic for us. We went through some financial and family turmoil at that time… I had one car, a little bakkie – it was actually a mortuary van from the police force. I bought this van, and it was the only car we had. My old man was playing music at the time – amongst other things – and we just decided to pull together and form a band. My brother was the drummer, played guitar and did backing vocals, and my old man did lead vocals and rhythm guitar, and bass pedals with his foot. My old man’s called ‘Sam’ and we’re his sons, so we called the band ‘Samson’.

We travelled all over South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, just playing music on the road. Living hand to mouth. I had a tent on the top of my bakkie, and we literally lived in this bakkie and any place we could find – like travelling gypsies in a way – and we played any gig we could find. We were very busy, and people enjoyed what we did. It kept us going financially. And then we started doing other things like beekeeping and vegetables and stuff like that on the side, cos we were living in the mountains with my grandmother at the time. Then i moved up to Joburg and started a solo career. Then, over time, we started the band again, over 2-3 years, and the rest is history…

EB: It makes me think of the Troubadours of the middle ages! It can’t have been easy for you, but i imagine it was a very rewarding time.

JH: It was an amazing time! I mean, rich with experiences and meeting people… We played with some of the most amazing musicians, and we met the most incredible people from around the world, and at the end of the day, it actually kept our family together through the hardest times. I emphasize the fact that we had a really tough time in every possible way: emotionally, spiritually, finacially, physically… And the one thing that kept us going in all of those aspects was music. It was the language that transcended all disaster and all tough times and just kept us together. I’m so grateful – I can’t believe it.

EB: How did that influence your personal musical journey? Playing with all those different people – did you pick up different influences?

JH: Yeah, we spent about a year in Zimbabwe, and I’d say that my biggest musical epiphany happened there. We played alongside the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi and Chiwoniso and other really top class entertainers and musicians. And the music in Zimbabwe is very different to the music in South Africa. It’s got a very happy essence to it. The rhythm is very different to ours here -I’m talking about African music. The rhythms are very bouncy and rolling, with melody lines that are really joyous, and the instruments are totally different. They play imbedes and stuff like that. We actually had a six-piece African fusion band during our time in Zim. Our eyes were opened to a completely different genre of music, playing instruments totally differently.

And at the same time, I found that my family are extremely talented. My brother’s an amazing drummer, and my father’s like a solid rock – he’s a rock, and that guy can do anything! He tenacious and powerful in many ways. So I made a decision when we went through the hardest times – we stopped playing music; we had no transport at one point – I made a decision to leave home and go on my own, and my whole purpose was to make enough money to be able to buy a vehicle for my family and to buy a drum kit for my brother, to keep us playing. That drives me – seeing my brother and old man on stage with me. Sharing the stage with them, for me, is everything. So my whole mission is to keep them going because they keep me going.

EB: What life experience to you draw from now when composing music? I assume that there’s a difference between what you’re doing now compared to what you were doing ten years ago.

JH: Yeah, it is quite different. I suppose it’s a little bit of both… A lot of the songs I’ve written on this album were written to have a good time when playing them, because we’re going to be playing them a lot, and I want the people who are going to come watch us play to have a good time as well. So, for me… We’re having a really good time in life right now. Life is good, so I express that in this album to say, “We are beyond the depths of things – we’re having a good time, we’re sailing down the river and the rapids are calm now, and we want people to join us on this journey of a good time.” So the music was directed toward that energy and that vibe.

But at the same time, I continuously draw upon and remind myself of where we come from, and that keeps me very grounded and grateful, and it carries me through trying times – we’ll always be tried and we’ll always be tested in life. It’ll never just be a plain ride – that’d be an illusion. Drawing on those times keeps my energy going because we’ve accomplished so much in such a short period of time. We’re hard-working, and we’ve always been hard-working. I don’t want to become lazy. I don’t want to sit back and say, “Oh, it’s all good now, so I might as well just take it easy…” I want to continuously remind myself that things can change in the blink of an eye, so we best be ready for that. Like a cat… It can lie there in a state of complete relaxation and in a split second, it can be jumping three meters across and pouncing on something. That’s the philosophy we have in our lives.

EB: What or who are some of your musical influences? Can you share with us some of the bands or artists who’ve inspired you, whether through their music or their own personal journeys?

JH: Locally, I’d say that Tananas was my biggest influence. Steve Newman is a phenomenal guitarist. He influenced me a lot – I used to play a nylon string guitar predominantly, and he plays a nylon string guitar. I heard an album when I was in Zimbabwe, and fell in love with his music. Ian Herman on drums – he’s one of the best in the country, and Gito Baloi – he passed away a couple of years ago – he was a bass player. These three people dedicating their lives to music and creating this really unique journey through their songs. They were never commercial…

And then, on other levels, I’m influenced by different things. I’m influenced by vocal performances by people with resonating voices, like Seal. As a male singer, I really enjoy him. I think he’s phenomenal – his music is so spacious, his productions are amazing… And that’s another angle. So I get influenced by everything – the production of the album, the writing of the songs, what kind of chords they’re using – the colour and shade. I’m also influenced by the simplicity of writing good hit songs – Bryan Adams comes to mind, because he has the ability to put across song after song, hit after hit, and theyr’e all based on really simple stuff – love, having a good time. So without getting too deep, it’s good to remember that sometimes the best things in life are the simplest things. He brings me back to that space. And then there are female singers as well. Christina Aguilera … There are these professional, amazing divas who just walk onstage and are so focussed and dedicated to their craft. It brings to to the space where, it’s like you’ve got Roger Federer playing tennis and you’ve got Christina Aguilera singing, and it’s no different – they treat it as the same thing.

Although rock ‘n roll is cool and we can all crucify ourselves and go mad at parties and get smashed – it’s part of the music – and let go like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – they influence me as well. They’ve got this theory, “Just get out there and give it horns! Don’t stop for a second! Give everything you’ve got at every moment you have.” And then you have the other side of it, where you get people who are just so focussed on their craft, which I also find very important. It’s a discipline to remain in a state of focus and dedication to your craft. So I get influenced by all sorts of different things.

EB: And then came Idols! Can you tell us a little bit about that experience? On my mind is the lyric “You seem to know me cos you’ve seen me on TV…” What was it all like for you?

JH: Idols was amazing! I never really like the idea of Idols. For years, I never entered, but the introduction of bringing musical instruments into Idols last year was probably the biggest turning point for me in deciding to do it – and the fact that I was turning thirty, which is the cut-off age, so it would’ve been my last chance to actually get in. And I thought, “I’m gonna regret not doing it because I got too old”, so I joined the queue. Initially I thought that I had a really good chance. I believe in myself and in what I do and when I got into the top 100, I was suddenly surrounded by the most talented singers I’d ever heard in my life, and it pulled me right back to earth and I wasn’t sure so anymore that I’d even get through. I barely scraped through in the beginning! And then my step-brother Josh passed away in a car accident when I was in the top ten, and I played “With a Little Help from My Friends”. I dedicated it to him. It was one of his favourite songs. Doing that wiped out all the anxiety of Idols. It brought me back to what’s really important, and that’s life is so precious and can go like that. Anything can happen. And Idols didn’t matter to me anymore, and the competition didn’t matter to me anymore – I just sang from the truest place, and from then on, my performances became really honest. And that got me through.

Then the lyrics “You seem to know me cos you’ve seen me on tv”… I wrote ‘On The Run’ as a little bit of a poke at the silliness of tv and the media and at what people think they know about people… The paparazzi and all the stuff that goes on with it. It’s saying, “You seem to know me cos you’ve seen me on tv but I think I’m free to be what I wanna be,” and then further, “We seriously are deceived by what we see, what we read, ain’t that they way they say that it ought to be…” It’s saying that the media takes it and makes it what they want it to be. Don’t believe everything you read. You found me cos you saw me on a television, but I’ve been doing this for so long and whether or not I had ever even joined Idols, I would still be doing this for years to come. Whether or not I’d be as famous as I am today, if all that media coverage had been left… I don’t know. But no matter what happens, this is what I will always be doing, and this is what I would always have been doing – whether I had joined Idols or not. And also not to take it too seriously, you know. See it for what it is, and take it as it comes and just do what you wanna do.

Don’t let anybody else dictate what you should be doing and what you should be singing and what you should be saying and what you should be looking like or any of those things – you’ve got the ability to do whatever you wanna do in this life. You are born free of everything. You don’t belong to anyone, you don’t belong to anybody or anything or any law. As long as you know what is right and wrong to you, you don’t harm anyone around you and you don’t harm yourself – if you choose to, it’s your choice – and that’s the point I’m making to people: that they have the choice, the freedom to be who they want to be, and don’t ever lose sight of that, even if you become famous. You have the freedom to be who you want to be, do what you want to do, at any time you choose.

EB: I admire integrity in artists, although it does seem to be something that some artists lose very quickly…

JH: Yeah, you can get very lost very quickly. I’m lucky that I wasn’t 18 doing Idols because I could have easily lost my way and have been caught up in that illusion that this is how it actually is when, in fact, it isn’t. I’m really grateful because it was almost like it was meant to be, like everything was planned in a higher way. It was like miraculous experience for me – the way that Idols ended, with the final like that… I never really intended to win it because I didn’t want to be labelled and branded as an Idol. I didn’t feel that I fitted that mould at all. I felt that I wanted to be the guy who should’ve won it. And that’s what happened, so my prayers were answered in a strange way, because then I won it as well, so I kinda escaped by winning it and losing it and whatever else. I got so much more exposure than if I had just won it. It’s given me a fan base that is really loyal to me because they felt that I was cheated out of something. I don’t know about that. For me, I’m just really grateful for everything. And the fan base – man, that’s incredible. To have people who are behind me all the way – it’s just phenomenal. That’s what you want as an artist. You want to express yourself to the world, to as many people as you can. It’s joining the journey, it’s getting involved. It’s all about the music.

EB: Has the ‘manufactured-pop star’ side of  Idols given you something you can work with? I assume so, seeing that you had your debut album released in October last year. How did you manage to work the manufactured side versus you doing what you want to do?

JH: It was amazing. Sony, for one, supported me. Initially we were looking at doing a very published album, with songs that I hadn’t written, songs that were written by song writers. They get these songs in, and you can go through them and decide if you want to sing them. And we found that it took away ‘me’ – it wasn’t me. I’m an artist, I’m a creator. I like the process of writing and creating music. I felt that I wasn’t going to be cheated out of that, no matter what. And thank God that Sony were behind me on that. They said to me, “Listen, man, don’t ever feel obliged to do anything that you think we want from you, like commercial stuff or anything like that. We want you to go out there and do what you want to do and be yourself and be free, because the world needs that.” And that’s how great stars are born – through freedom of expression. And great inventions are created out of that. Things that have changed our lives. The greatest artists in the world, those who have been really influential on the world, have come out of being free – exploring their subconsciousness, actually writing it out and giving to the world in the way they feel is right. Sony are behind me on that, and you can hear it on the album itself.

‘On the Run’ is a very raw album. It’s not perfect in any way. It’s honest. It’s banged out very quickly. Most of the songs are originals – ten songs are originals, three aren’t. One of them is ‘Hotel California’ because we wanted to have fun with it. The other two are published songs, ‘Collide’ and ‘Break the Silence’, which was the winning song of Idols, which I had to sing. It was just the support from the record company. I gotta hand it to them. It worried me a lot – it was another reason why I didn’t want to win Idols – I didn’t want to get tied down to a contract that I didn’t want to be in. But I was tied to a contract that is working for me, and they’re working for me, and I’m working for them, and it’s become a really good partnership. I believe that, and hopefully it’ll stay that way, so that we can actually create what we want to create and really make a difference to the industry.

There really is a mass-produced music market going on right now and that’s fine – there’s a place for everything. But the time is coming, I feel, where people are really starting to look for authenticity. And the biggest artists in the world that I believe in are the likes of U2… Even Bruce Springsteen, who’s made a come-back over the last couple of years. He just keeps going! These guys are doing it because they’re authentic. People want to see that. They want to see real people again. They’re getting a little tired of the plastic side of things. They’ve watched really talented stars fall into the depths of degradation. I mean, they get into drugs, they lose their way, and it’s because of that whole fame marketing machine. Music is a very pure, ancient language. It resonates with the deepest parts of everybody around the world, and it’s found in every corner of the world. You cannot go where there are human beings and not find music, which is proof that it is far beyond any kind of monetary value. Music goes ito the deepest parts of a mysterious place that we can’t put a finger on, and that’s the most important thing we need to retain as human beinEB: that side of mystery. Once we start figuring out all the mystery in the world, what good is life? I mean, the fact that we don’t know where we go when we die is actually really exciting. It’s something that we shouldn’t really tamper with and decode. There needs to be mystery, and music, for me, is that mystery.

EB: I find that really exciting. Where, yes, manufactured pop has it’s place, but audiences are widening what they’re listening to. I’m thinking of Florence & the Machine, which is soul-inspired indie, and they have a harp in the band, collaborating with Dizzee Rascal at the Brit Awards… Her album sales went up by something like 120% after that show! It says something about what people are looking for. It’s great where listeners are saying that, Just because I’m a fan of, say, Britney Spears, it doesn’t mean I can’t also be a fan of Florence and the Machine or Jason Hartman!

JH: Absolutely! Our band at the moment’s quite funny. It’s kinda grungey in a way… It’s kinda grunge-rock-funk, and we’ve got this brass section that i’ve just put in, so we’ve got saxophone and trumpet… It’s like having Nirvana with a brass section. No one ever thought that that would work, and it works like you can’t believe it. It’s just taken our music to another level, so I’m really excited to hear what our band comes up with for the next album!

EB: How do you compose music? What is the creative process for you?

JH: It varies. Sometimes I might get ill with flu, and that might just give me the space and the chance to rest, which is what I think flu is about – it puts you back into bed and says “Take a chill pill, dude, because you’re overdoing it.” Some of my best songs were written when I was as sick as a dog! On the other hand, pressure is also a really great element, because it forces you to produce something.

There was a lot of pressure behind this album On the Run because we didn’t have a lot of time. We left Idols in May/June. In July/ August, I wanted it done… I did 200 shows in a couple of months – it was insane. I was doing three shows a day, travelling around the country, and doing newspapers and all sorts of media stuff… I was forced into writing music, and I found that really worked. I just suddenly came up with these ideas… It was a great form of inspiration. I was banging out lyrics because I had to bang them out, I had to come up with a melody line…

Also working with people… You know, sometimes you meet somebody and you have this creative spark with them – you just seem to work really well. It’s like John Lennon and Paul McCartney – a great songwriting team. One of the best in the world. They worked off each other the whole time, and that’s also important. To have another set of ears, another outlook on life, another way of putting a lyric here, or trying this there… It’s good to share creativity with people, and sometimes you just meet that person. The producer Marius Brouwer and myself were that combination. We came up with really great songs, and we wrote really well together. He was a great guide. He guided me through things and I guided him through things. So sometimes I come up with lyrics first, sometimes I come up with a melody line first, sometimes I come up with a riff on the guitar. It all varies. Even a drum beat! I’ll hear this drum beat and I’ll get an idea. So I think you’ve gotta be open to anything. Don’t restrict yourself. With this album, what worked for me was pressure and a bit of sickness – I was lying in bed and I had nothing else to do except eat soup and write music. Lyrics are also important to me. I like contradictory lyrics and lyrics that take people on a bit of a visual journey through the music. The colour of the song needs to match the mood of the lyrics. It’s very deep, writing music – I could go on about it for hours.

EB: Your childhood in KwaZulu-Natal is where you grew in your love of nature, and I know that your involved in several green initiatives, like The Men of the Trees. Could you tell us something about that?

JH: I lived in a place called the Karkloof. We’ve been there all our lives. We all sort of come from there. My mother comes from there, my father comes from there… It’s where our whole family comes from. It’s a really beautiful place. It’s very mountainous and very green. It’s in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and it has indigenous forest. It’s really ancient. I spent many years living in the mountains there – it was very tribal, in a way. It was very strange for European people to live like that in this day and age, but we did. We were finacially strapped. We had no way of leaving, no transport. We had literally nothing. We walked 37km to the shops and hitched rides around. Nature became a way of life for me. It became a way of life for my whole family. I think that takes years – you’ve really got to live in it. We lived a very spiritual life – not religious at all, but spiritual. Nature was our spiritual guide.

A couple of years later, I went to look after my Gran – she fell ill – and I read this article about the founder of The Men of the Trees, Richard Baker. He passed away at the age of 94, and had lived the most incredible life and did the most amazing things, and nobody had even heard of him! Still to this day not many people know about him, yet he was one of the most influential people of his time – in fact, he was way ahead of his time. So I read this article, and the last sentence was “We need another Richard Baker.” We need somebody to carry on his legacy because since he passed away, it continued without that vigour, that passion. And perhaps there are people who think that it’s just too far gone to change it now. But I don’t think that it’s too far gone. I do think that we have the ability to change things, that we have the strength and courage to actually face the reality that this train we’re riding on is heading towards an end – there’s an end to every track. And we all know that this is happening. We all know it! There’s not one person on this planet who doesn’t know it. And I think it’s up to each of us to figure out how we’re either going to stop the train or maybe just decide to stop off at the next station and just take it easy for a while, just take in the birds and the bees. That was my calling – that final little sentence “We need another Richard Baker”. I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna get out there and find out about The Men of the Trees.”

There was no Men of the Trees in this country, so I decided to start it, and I have. We’ve done a whole stack of projects on it, but it’s still in its foetal stage. I think Idols and being in this position gives me an amazing amount of influence in getting things done and getting things going and also getting people to listen to what I have to say. Like this interview, for instance. I’d never have had this opportunity. It’s given me the opoprtunity to have a voice, to actually speak for something, and I’m speaking for Nature. That’s my mission. I’m taking a stand, saying, “I’m a soldier. I’m a soldier for Nature, and I’m a warrior for wildlife.” And I’m going to do everything I possibly can to bring people along the journey and get them to understand that this is the most precious, most beautiful place – and it isn’t ours. It belongs to the future. It belongs to our children. Who are we to take away our children’s future? That’s a question I have for everybody. Although it’s difficult to change our culture and stop doing what we’re doing, we need to have a cultural change.

We need to start taking a little more ownership in this planet and start seeing it for what it is. We have the ability to change it, to manipulate it for the good of all things. We should turn it around, and create it for our future, for our children, for future generations – those who haven’t been born yet. They need to see a lion… A forest. They need to experience beautiful, pure air and clean water. They have the right to live on this planet. I’m also talking about trees and wildlife. They have just as much a right to be here – if not more of a right, because they are so ancient. We are new additions to this ticking clock. We need to find our true destiny, our true potential as guardians. We are guardians and gardeners. We need to BE that.

EB: Other than music and your green ventures, what else occupies your time?

JH: I really enjoy riding my motorbike! If I could ride a horse through town, I would… But I can’t, so my bike has become my horse. It gets me out in the fresh air, and it takes me places in a way I’d never experience otherwise. Being trapped in my car doesn’t make sense to me. I’d rather feel the wind around me. It also gives me a sense of awareness – it’s dangerous, which I like! It keeps me on my toes and really makes me appreciate the beautiful life I have. I ride a lot, and I take a lot of pride in it. I spend as much time as I can on my bike.

I also keep bees. I have a few hives I look after, which is like my little way of communicating with nature. Bees are really sensitive creatures, and they tell me when the seasons are changing. They also tell me when there’s an environmental problem – like if they’re not making honey, for instance, I’ll start to look at certain things. It makes me think. They’re very sensitive creatures. They’re like the canary in a coal mine.

I also do bonsai trees. I’ve been involved with bonsai since I was ten years old. I’ve got some amazing trees, some of them over 200 years old. They’re massive – some of them need five people to lift them up! Bonsai is a form of meditation for me. I also do veggie gardens and stuff at home. I really enjoy making an omlette out of my own green peppers and tomatoes and eggs – I’ve got some chickens. I feel empowered when I grow my own food. I feel like I’m living my life – I’m actually feeding myself. It’s a really great feeling, and I think that people should try and get back into that culture. 100 years ago, it would’ve been unusual for people to not have a veggie garden. Now, it’s exactly the opposite.

I read quite a lot, I draw, I paint, I sketch… I’m quite artistic. I have no computer sense whatsoever. I switch them on, and they switch off… Also, I’m a fishing nut! I love fishing, and I take any chance I get to throw a line with my family. We also go camping, spending time in the Berg. I’m really interested in survival techniques as well. I do that a lot, learning about indigenous foods and herbs. I also enjoy the occasional hunt. It’s a primal thing, although I don’t like to kill anything actually. I can’t even kill a mosquito half the time! But, if I’m going to hunt, I do it for food and I use the skins – I do leatherwork… And carpentry! I’ve got many interests! I like natural stuff, you know…

EB: Do you have a message for your Exclus1ves listeners/readers?

JH: Expand yourself and your mind. Don’t be afraid to push boundries in every aspect of your life, have the courage to see things for what they really are, and don’t forget to keep searching. And take in every moment as it comes – really suck the marrow out of it, you know. Take in every single thing and realise the preciousness and the value of life, and get into a state of gratitude as much as possible. I think that a state of gratitude is the start. It’s the first step toward seeing things in an honest, truthful light.

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