With his new album, This Love, five-time Billboard Reggae Album Chart topper, the beloved Bermuda-born, Hawaii-based singer-songwriter Mishka, has taken a turn inward. The acclaimed artist has been named iTunes Best New Artist in the SingerSongwriter category, has been praised by Rolling Stone, Paste, Relix and American Songwriter and has headlined shows around the world. He has also shared the stage with everyone from Jimmy Buffett to The Wailers and Julian Marley. But rather than continue cruising on a predictable path, he has opted to stake out new territory—starting with a shift in his sound.
“I realized that what was really touching people were the songs that were most personal,” says Mishka. “I have songs about bigger themes or world situations, but the ones that were actually moving people were about my own daily experience or relationship experience—being a husband, being a father, being a man working on the road. Those are the things that seemed to actually connect with people, because they’re the ones I can speak to most honestly.”
“We had a very clear musical vision for this album, which is that this would be a singersongwriter record,” he says. “The emphasis is on the vocals and the acoustic guitar, but we also brought in elements that aren’t necessarily representative of the troubadour singer-songwriter sound. We wanted it to be bass-heavy and sparse, so it’s got reggae and soul in it, but still holding the acoustic vibe throughout, and making sure my voice wasn’t crowded by a lot of production.”
This intentional step outside his musical comfort zone is immediately evident on the infectious and refreshing lead single “This Love” as well as on “Come Back to Me.” “I was just playing around with chords and a kind of chugging rock vibe, and came up with that song. The lyrics could be interpreted as the lover speaking to the lover, but it’s also the self speaking to the self—come back to center, come back to clarity.”
Born to a Bermudian father and Nova Scotian mother, Mishka grew up on his family's boat, sailing in the Caribbean. He was an avid windsurfer and dingy sailor growing up and he still windsurfs as often as he can; “it breathes life into everything I do.”
Mishka was signed to Alan McGee’s legendary Creation Records early in his career. His first single, "Give You All The Love," charted in the Top 40 in the UK and the Top 10 in Japan. Despite the success of his self-titled debut album, he wasn’t completely satisfied with the musical direction he was headed in.
“Although I love it now, my first album wasn’t entirely the record I wanted to make at the time,” he says. “I’m a huge reggae fan, so I wanted to make a full-on roots reggae album. But Alan Mcgee was like ‘No, man, you’re more of a folk artist/singer-songwriter.’ “He had literally wanted me to make a record in the vein of Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” It was a tricky dance for me because I was a white kid who grew up in the Caribbean. My own family music culture was mostly about listening to ’60's folk artists like Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell, but the larger culture around me that embraced me and that was informing my world view, my politics and my spirituality was Black, Caribbean, Rasta. In the end I made the record the way Mcgee wanted but because of that, I became even more determined to make more of a reggae sound. I was very set on genre and creating what I was inspired by. In hindsight, I think Alan’s vision was cool and the record really captured a specific moment in time, my youth, the island of Nevis where I lived at that time, romantic love and spiritual awakening.”
Mishka’s subsequent albums saw him working with such celebrated producers as Butch Walker and Martin Terefe and collaborating with legends Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett. Three of his albums reached Number One on iTunes’ Reggae Albums chart, and he has a devoted listenership of over 270,000 on Spotify with over 70,000,000 streams to date on Spotify and Pandora alone. Additionally, Mishka enjoys year round heavy rotation on Sirius XM’s No Shoes Radio and Radio Margaritaville.
When it came time to make This Love, Mishka knew that he was to switch things up. “Over time, the music starts to tell you what it wants,” he says. “I’m just trying to let things be what they want to be, and it’s quite liberating. It’s more interesting, too, rather than giving everything the same treatment. I think we did a good job giving each song what it needed.”
He and producer Joti Mangat committed to staying in the studio and putting in the time necessary to figure out what the album was going to be. “It was a lot more deliberate than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, “and that was both a joy and a challenge, because I had to really stretch my imagination to create the soundscape that I wanted.”
Mishka notes that the real transformation of the album came when they brought in drummer Matthew “Indio” Hardwick to add his parts to the demo recordings - that the shift was evident on “Close to Your Heart,” the first song he took on. “When we heard that, it blew our minds,” he says. “From that point, we wanted to start changing other elements because he brought it to a different level. Then each song started to blossom into its own thing.”
For the album’s title track, that meant spending days in the vocal booth layering vocals and then, adding 32 part violin and cello arrangements. On “All the Same,” upright bass was used to infuse the song with more of a jazz swing groove. “I’d never done a song with that kind of feel,” says Mishka. “It brought so much character and tone, and gave me the idea to do stuff in a more stripped-down vibe.”
Meantime, as Mishka winnowed his lyrics to put the focus on more intimate material, he noticed a change in his own use of language. “I let go of being literal on some of the songs,” he says. “There’s a story being told, there’s rhymes and cadence, but I think I painted with broader strokes and I was able to put more emotion in them.”
Of course, in addition to the inspiration he draws from his family, Mishka also continues to turn to the water that has always been so central to his life. “From Bermuda to Nova Scotia to Hawaii, I’ve spent most of my life close to the ocean,” he says. “That never ceases to feed me or nourish my soul and my body on every level. I find rhythms, lyrics, all kinds of stuff out there, but it also gives me energy, life force, an immense amount of vitality.”
With This Love, Mishka has written a new chapter and set a new course for a career. He says that he finds motivation in the work of younger artists. Mishka notes “Michael Kiwanuka is killing it, the way his music comes across is just profound,” but also in those songwriters of all genres who stay true to their vision.
“I have huge admiration for people who have really stuck to their craft — Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, so many others — the songwriters who are able to keep writing and keep conveying powerful messages,” he says. “There’s an assuredness in those people, they know who they are. And that’s a lesson, because most of us don’t know who we are most of the time.” Mishka laughs “I aspire to know who I am someday.”