SOJA of Fortune

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Chances are, if you love reggae music, you’ve heard of SOJA. The eight piece reggae group — which hits San Diego State’s Open Air Theatre on Sunday, June 22, with Michael Franti & Spearhead — has been on a rapid rise over the last few years, surprising absolutely no one who’s ever heard them.

Originally formed in 1997 around Arlington, Va., the band signed to the Dave Matthews-owned record label ATO Records and found itself with a hit album in 2009’s Born in Babylon. The upward trend only continued with 2012’s chart-topping Strength to Survive. The band plays spirited, energetic shows with an uplifting message of positivity that resonates with even the most hardened of hearts.

After performing more  than 100 shows in 2013 across 17 countries (including 14 huge music festivals), the band is showing no signs of letting up any time soon. Its third studio album, Amid the Noise and the Haste, is scheduled for release on Aug. 12. The leadoff single “I Believe” features Nahko and hip-hop/folk/reggae guru Michael Franti; and June 16 marked the release of the album’s second single, the Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley-collab “Your Song.” If these new tracks are any indication, SOJA is primed for superstardom.

The band’s lead singer/rhythm guitarist Jacob Hemphill took a few minutes out to talk with SoundDiego about yoga, saving lives and working with living legends.


Dustin Lothspeich: Your June 22 show in San Diego with Michael Franti & Spearhead is billed as a Music & Yoga tour. Are you a yoga practicioner?


Jacob Hemphill: Not currently [laughs]. It’s my opportunity to figure it out. We shot the video for “I Believe” a week and a half ago, and I was asking Franti, “What are the benefits [to yoga] and what are the drawbacks?” He goes, “It’s all benefits.” He made it sound like the greatest idea ever. So I’m lucky — having Michael Franti as my first yoga instructor ain’t a bad way to start [laughs].


DL: So, any clues on what it’s going to be like?


JH: The whole day’s about yoga, with him doing it. He plays music behind his yoga instructor with potentially 10,000 people, for an hour and a half. Everyone’s into doing music and lifestyle shows these days and a lot of people talk the talk — but it’s just cool to see someone who loves what they do and really believes in the “lifestyle” aspect of his festival. He’s one of those “genuine article” kind of guys.


DL: “I Believe” is a killer track. How’d that collaboration with Franti and Nahko happen?

JH: Well, originally me and Nahko wrote it at my house. We met and two days later, we were writing music together. The song was getting finished and my manager said, “We still need something.” He said the stuff that Franti has been doing recently has this kind of vibe, so we sent it to Michael, and he sent it back with all these beautiful parts. I didn’t know he was gonna do all that. It was so simple [Hemphill sings the refrain]: “I believe/I believe/I believe/No matter what you do.” [Listen to the song here]


DL: Your collaboration with Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, “Your Song,” just dropped this past week — was that a similar process?


JH: We look at individual songs and what their message is. “I Believe” is about how you can change your life and the lives of people around you. “Your Song” is about leaving it onstage every night. We were like, “Who understands that?” Well … Damian Marley [laughs]. So, we sent him the track, thinking he was just gonna do a verse — but he jumped on the whole song. It’s just exciting to work with musicians you admire so much.


DL: Your music is all about positivity. Is that challenging? Don’t you ever get angry or sad?


JH: Absolutely. Life gets tough and you can’t be positive all the time. You can’t be making a contribution all the time. Sometimes you’re gonna be one of the takers. But as a general rule, we believe in what we’re saying — and we think it’s an accurate representation of who we are. Bad days exist and those will never disappear. Music is what helps people with that, and we want music to be there for people.


DL: It sounds like you guys probably have a pretty personal relationship with your fans, yeah?


JH: Oh, yeah. We’ve got the best fans in the world. People will email us about something terrible that has happened to them, and they’ll say, “You saved my life.” That’s the biggest compliment I’ll ever get. If you leave this world better for having you in it — mission accomplished. And I think it’s a cumulative thing. On the whole, in general, we want to be good to this place and the people who live here. So when someone says something like that to us — and it actually happens a lot — it’s a big deal.


DL: Well it seems like fans get a lot of opportunities to see you guys play. SOJA played more than 100 shows last year alone. Do you ever get tired of being on the road?


JH: I think it’s a mix. If you’re doing some you love, with people you love, you get homesick — but you’re happy to do what you’re doing. We’re lucky that we enjoy this so much. We have a big family that moves down the road with us. And we like putting on a good show for the fans.


DL: You’ve got a new record coming out on Aug, 12 called Amid the Noise and the Haste. What can you tell us about it?


JH: We got the chance to work with Supa Dups, who’s known for doing big hit reggae tracks with artists like Rihanna, 311 and Sean Paul. The members of SOJA are huge fans. Our goal has always been to help take reggae back to the mainstream, which is where Bob Marley led it. But when he passed, the direction seemed to change. We want to get it back there again, and we’ve got some great stuff in store.

SOJA performs at SDSU’s Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre on June 22, with Michael Franti & Spearhead, Brett Dennen and Trevor Hall. Tickets are available here. The show begins at 7 p.m. Soulshine Yoga starts at 3:30 p.m.

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