How writer Gregory David Roberts' foray into music with album Love & Faith kept him going in the pandemic
The album is an easy listen, with the songs centred around love in its many forms — fulfilled, unrequited, forlorn and ecstatic — and faith in the self, in others, and in the divine
Gregory David Roberts, author of the bestselling English novel Shantaram (2003), wears many hats — of a novelist, songwriter, speaker and artist, bringing one to the conclusion that his life has been anything but dull. From being a student activist in Melbourne University who established the first crèche for children of students in the early '70s, he went on to getting addicted to heroin, and later even turned to a life of crime, and was one of Australia’s most wanted men, before he escaped from prison and fled to India.
However, he did turn his life around after authoring Shantaram, that has since gone on to sell over six million copies, and has been translated in 41 languages.
It was a failed marriage and the loss of custody of his daughter that pushed him over the edge. To fuel his drug addiction, he turned to crime and in 1978, was convicted for bank robbery. Two years later, he found himself on the run from Australian authorities, and he soon landed in India. “I didn’t choose India. I bought a ticket to Germany, with a 48-hour-long stopover in Bombay, as it was then. Two hours after I arrived in Bombay, I tore up the onward ticket. I knew I’d found a place I could love,” he says.
His time in India was indeed life altering. However, one cannot escape the long arm of law, as he was captured in Frankfurt in 1990. He was extradited to Australia where he also spent two years in solitary confinement as a punishment for escaping prison. “It gave me the time I needed to finally understand that most of the pain and humiliation in my life was a beast of my own creation, and that the buck started and stopped with me and my own responsibility. Solitary confinement was a gift, because I was finally ready to perceive it as such,” says Roberts.
It was during this time that he began writing his first novel, alongside his songs. The novel was published in 2003, but the songs were never recorded. As a fugitive, he was a busker who sang in piano bars and even formed a street band, and was always in the company of music. “My father was a tenor, my brother Nick Smith is a gifted multi-platinum songwriter and my mentor (The Black Sorrows). Music was always playing in our house, from morning until late. I write to music, compiling playlists for each mood I’m writing about. My writing is also musical, in the sense that it’s written in a musical cadence, to be read aloud, without losing breath,” he says.
He decided to record the songs he had been writing in Jamaica since 2018 and compile them into an album titled Love & Faith, which comprises 16 songs. Eleven of the 16 tracks have been solely composed by Roberts, while the remaining are collaborations with other artistes. Music is something that kept him going during his darkest moments, and was also the reason he never gave up. Now, during the pandemic, he wants to help others stay strong and comforted with his music.
Love & Faith is an easy listen, with the songs centred around love in its many forms — fulfilled, unrequited, forlorn and ecstatic — and faith in the self, in others, and in the divine. Roberts presents all this with a mix of pop, R&B, Country and Reggae. 'Long Lonely Road' is the only track that he features in.
His musical inspirations include Stevie Wonder, Grace Jones, Nile Rogers, Bob Marley, Renee Geyer, The Black Sorrows and Chris Wilson. The songs in the album evoke tranquility, suitably complemented by their lyrics. One tends to pick up some words as they go through the album, especially those that resonate with his message of "keep going". A couple of peppy tracks grace the album too, but its mood largely leans towards relaxed.
When asked how different making music is compared to writing, Roberts says: “A song, I think, is comparable to a short story, and is written with much of the same concision and economy. A symphony, say, is closer to the novel, and requires much more complexity in the structure and the modulation of moods.” Roberts chose Jamaica to produce his album because he found the right pool of talent, with people who understood spirituality in a very profound way — an element essential for his album. Not once did he have to explain the spiritual nature of the project to his singers, musicians or engineers, which made his job that much easier.
Considering he did spend a significant amount of time in India, music that he heard here too influenced him. “The music of AR Rahman has been tremendously influential on me, as it has on all of us who love Bollywood music and Indian music in general. The voice is an instrument of love in Indian music, and that has had a huge influence on my songwriting. I use some Bollywood motifs in my music, such as the repetition of a verse. And I’m a big fan of lush harmonies and enduring melodies, which Indian music excels at, week after week,” he says.
Roberts has co-produced this album with Dale ‘Dizzle’ Virgo, who has worked with the likes of Drake and Rihanna among others, at Gee Jam Studio in Jamaica's Port Antonio. Three singles from the album — 'Drive All Night', 'Lisa Run Away' and 'Make Me Believe' have already been released, and the complete album is scheduled to be out on 4 December this year, across all streaming platforms. Roberts wants to perform live once the pandemic is over, and he plans to start off by performing for prisoners in Jamaica.
Currently, a television series based on Shantaram and its sequel The Mountain Shadow (2015) is in production, with Charlie Hunnam playing the lead.
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