Impulse is everything. Such was the rebellious wisdom that drove the sessions for Project Mama Earth’s astonishing debut EP. In June 2017, the all-star lineup of Joss Stone (vocals), Nitin Sawhney (guitar), Jonathan Joseph (drums), Étienne M’Bappé (bass/guitar) and Jonathan Shorten (keyboards) met at Stone’s home studio in Devon England to record a high-wire act unique in modern music.
They had no songs. No chord charts. No safety net. “The possibility for catastrophe was huge,” nods drummer Jonathan Joseph. “But the minute everyone stood in the studio, before we even touched an instrument – I just knew.”
Project Mama Earth didn’t take long to feel each other out. “It was all very spontaneous,” remembers guitarist Nitin Sawhney. “The sessions were all about making something in a short space of time, creating a vibe, listening to each other, coming up with ideas, being creative.”
Joss purposefully kept her own creative process separate. “I left them to do their own thing with the music in the studio,” she reflects, “… I deliberately didn’t have any input in the music, because I didn’t want to affect it – or it’d all come out hip-hop and R&B!”
“A lot of times,” Stone added “I’ll write about some drama that’s going on in my love life. But this time, I decided I wasn’t going to entertain anything that was romance. I thought, ‘I’m gonna write about Mother Nature, because she’s way more important than any of that bullshit’.
“Some of my favourite moments,” says bassist/guitarist Étienne M’Bappé, “were when Joss would listen to the music and you’d see the inspiration in her eyes, like she was feeling it. I was blown away by what the song became after she put on her vocal parts. She just has magic in her voice.”
Just ten days after they came together – and following a powerful co-production from all five band members – the Mama Earth sessions were over. Impulsive, dynamic and sometimes downright dangerous, this is a release unlike anything else in the five musicians’ respective CVs, unprecedented in the clinical modern music scene.
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When drummer Jonathan Joseph hit on the Mama Earth concept of a release driven by the dynamic rhythms of Africa, there was no question that Stone would take lead vocals. “I’ve been a Joss Stone fan right from the start,” he reflects, “and any opportunity I have to work with her is a blessing. As Joss says, I pack the rhythm and she packs the melody. How could I possibly say no if she was offering?”
“I’d had a couple of conversations with Joss,” he adds, “about a drum book I wrote called Exercises In African-American Funk, which focuses on these two ancient Cameroonian rhythms, Mangambe and Bikutsi. That kinda launched into the idea of doing this record.”
Assembling the Mama Earth band, the drummer remembered his long-standing compadré Étienne M’Bappé: the dazzling Cameroon-born multi-instrumentalist whose résumé spans from John McLaughlin to Robben Ford. “He’s one of the premier bassists on the planet,” says Joseph. “He plays electric and acoustic guitar, and sings as well. A very talented man. So I gave Étienne a call, pitched him on the idea and he flew over from Paris.”
Another common denominator was Shorten, who had produced much of Stone’s studio catalogue between penning some of the biggest hits for Gabrielle among others. Finally, there was Nitin Sawhney: the genre-slipping wildcard and one-man musical tidal wave whose collaborations take in Sting, Paul McCartney and the London Symphony Orchestra. “Nitin is Nitin,” smiles the drummer. “He’s a genius, basically, and a powerful force in his own right. I’m just grateful my career has allowed me to meet these people. You couldn’t be standing in that room unless you’d really done something before.”