Romain Virgo talks musical legacy & working w/ reggae production legend Donovan Germain

Romain Virgo began singing in his local church choir as a youngster after his talent was spotted by a neighbour. During high school, he became lead singer of the school’s choir, with whom he finished runners-up on Jamaica’s nationally televised competition, All Together, in 2006.

Following encouragement from people who saw him lead the choir, Romain entered the soloist equivalent, Rising Stars, later that year. Unfortunately, he failed to make it to the finals, but the confidence gained from positive feedback helped the then 17 year-old try again in 2007. Not only did he make it through, he became the youngest singer to win the competition.

Since winning, the singer-songwriter has gone on to become one of the most promising young reggae singers, currently working under the wing of legendary producer Donovan Germain. Germain’s Penthouse record label has been very influential to the careers of some of reggae and dancehall’s biggest artists and producers from previous decades including Beres Hammond, Garnett Silk, Wayne Wonder, Sanchez, Buju Banton and producer Dave Kelly.

Virgo thanks his mother for playing the likes of Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Sanchez, Beres Hammond to Michael Jackson, Percy Sledge and Marvin Gaye, which he credits as a contributing factor to people describing his songs as having an ‘old soul’ feel.

A range of mature topics can be heard on the 20 year-old’s self-titled debut album; songs such as Virgo’s smash hit ‘Can’t Sleep’ details the troubles with living amongst young gun men in the ghetto, empathises with less fortunate employees struggle on ‘Who Feels It, Know’s It’, offers advice on ‘Be Careful’ (interpolates Bob Marley’s ‘Time Will Tell’), ‘As The Money Done’ warns fellow males of gold diggers, break-up on ‘Walking Out On You’, to serenading that special lady on ‘Taking You Home’.

Marvin Sparks caught up with Romain Virgo to discuss life after winning Rising Stars. He opens up about lacking of confidence, nerves during his first session with Donovan Germain, the importance of social commentary over sing-a-long songs and his debut album, Romain Virgo.

SoulCulture: Where did the name Romain Virgo come from?

Romain Virgo: A lot of people ask me this; it is my real name. I don’t know where my mommy got ‘Romain’ from. A lot of people think that Romain is one of my [stage] names, but Romain is actually my real name.

SC: What did your friends and family think of you entering Rising Stars competition at such a young age? Some people would see it as quite a big risk or too early to enter whilst still in education.

RV: At that time I was about to finish my CXE [final high school] exams, so I was under a bit of pressure in terms of school, but I was determined as I knew music was always something I wanted to do. My entire family was supporting me, so from they were behind me I had nothing to worry about.

SC: Many singers are sceptical of American Idol/X-factor format shows; how did you benefit from winning the Jamaican equivalent, Rising Stars?

RV: It opened a whole lot of doors for Romain Virgo, because many people in Jamaica got to find out I could sing. Donovan Germain from Penthouse was the first producer that approached me, which was very good because not everyone that wins gets to work with a legendary producer like that. That was where my first big song ‘Can’t Sleep’ [was recorded], I got a number of shows across Jamaica; I’ve performed in every parish in Jamaica.

SC: Rising Stars provides a good platform for new singers, as it could be argued that dancehall artists get more promotion, publicity, radio airplay and general attention than singers.

RV: Well it depends; in Jamaica, especially the younger people, they go for dancehall over reggae. They still love reggae, but not like some places. I’ve been to some places and I must say I’m surprised by the way the people [react] whenever I go on stage. I wouldn’t say it’s harder [for singers]. I do dancehall music too, so I get to mix between the two.

SC: Where have you performed outside of Jamaica?

RV: I went to USA a few months ago to promote the album; New York, California, Boston, Florida. Trinidad, Barbados. Also Europe. We have a number of Caribbean shows coming up. Everywhere I go the people love the performance.

SC: Not everyone gets to work with a legend like Donovan Germain in their career let alone so early. Was it a daunting experience the first time you worked in the studio with him?

RV: The first time I recorded with Donovan Germain I was nervous. I was thinking, “This is Donavon Germain, I have to come good,” but when you [get to know] him, you get to find out he’s a cool guy. He will record you no matter what. He isn’t going to say ‘No man’, he’ll show you parts to change around or ideas he doesn‘t like. Like a father to me, always encouraging me to stay on the right path like a mentor.

SC: It’s one thing to win a competition, but another to make a successful career from it. Through working with producers such as Donovan Germain and Shane Brown, what have learnt and how would you say you have progressed as an artist?

RV: I think what I lacked in the Rising Stars competition was confidence. I felt like I could do it but sometimes I didn’t have the confidence. Sometimes Shane Brown doesn’t want you to burst your brain to write a song. He’s somebody that taught me that once you are in the studio you can just vibe and get it right. Sometimes it’s better that way; having an idea, then going in to the studio and getting a vibe. I have learnt a whole lot in terms of melody lines from these producers and learnt harmony lines. I have learnt a whole lot from those producers.

SC: As well as love songs for the ladies like ‘Love Doctor‘, on hits such as ‘Who Feels It Knows It’ and ‘Can’t Sleep’ you sing about social issues. That element isn’t there as much in most other urban genres such as hip-hop and r&b. Some would argue music just has to be catchy and easy to dance to. Would you say social commentary is still an important element in music?

RV: It’s very important. To me, it is the most important thing in music right now. It doesn’t make sense to make a song that people can sing and dance to a few months from now and you won’t hear anything about the song again. I want my music to live on; songs that my great-great grandchildren can listen to and it sound like it was made yesterday. It’s very, very important.

Most of the songs that I write are personal experiences or songs about what is going on in the country. I think we need some more of that social commentary. Not that we don’t need songs that we can dance to, but it doesn’t make sense to write 100 songs and none of them make sense.

SC: As an artist that makes traditional roots reggae with political and social messages as well as love songs, would you consider making more commercial appealing music to crossover?

RV: I love music, don’t get me wrong I love every genre; be it dancehall, reggae, R&B, Hip Hop etc., but I always try to write songs that can help people through their troubles in life. I write songs for the ladies because they are very important to the performances I do. And I write songs that people can just listen to and enjoy themselves as a whole, so it doesn’t matter the genre of music, it just depends on what you’re talking about.

SC: Alongside your music career, you’re studying for a bachelors degree in visual and performing arts. I recognise the two are related, but how do you find balancing your studies with being an entertainer?

RV: It’s hard some of the times. I’ll have some [work] schedules then a performance or interviews interrupt it. I’m very determined, and all of my friends help me with the work. I’m working as hard as possible, music and school, and that’s where my focus it.

SC: Your self-titled debut album is out now, what can people expect from it?

RV: As I said before, songs that can uplift people, social commentary, you have some dancehall songs on there as well, a couple of songs that bridge between reggae and r&b, lovers rock as well. It’s a very good album; 15 tracks, Romain Virgo, everybody can go out and get a copy.

Donovan Germain from Penthouse, Shane Brown from JukeBoxx production, and Darwin and Omar Brown from Viking productions are who I worked with. I have a collaboration with Etana on ‘Who Feels It Knows It’, as well as a collaboration with Carmeal Davis who is the 2008 Digicel Rising Star winner. 13 of the songs were written by me. I’m very excited about it.

SC: What would you like to achieve with your self-titled album?

RV: I would love to use this album introducing myself to the people. I would like people from all walks of life to get to know Romain Virgo, and what I have to offer. I would love everybody to get a copy of this album.

Romain Virgo’s debut album, Romain Virgo, is out now on VP Records.

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