Fortunate Youth: Twenty minutes with frontman Dan Kelly

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Fortunate Youth is a six-piece reggae band with roots in Hermosa Beach, California. Since 2009 it has toured heavily in the United States and overseas and its albums and individual songs consistently top the Billboard and iTunes Reggae charts. The band just opened up a nationwide tour to promote its newly released eponymous album; they’ll play 50 shows over 70 days hitting as many states as possible.

On March 18, just hours before the band played to a sold-out crowd at The Regent Theater in Los Angeles, I was blessed to meet with Fortunate Youth’s frontman, lead vocalist Dan Kelly, for about twenty minutes. We discussed the band’s new album, its maturation over the years, the stigma facing “white reggae bands,” respect for Jamaica and Jamaican culture, and finally, some of the obstacles in the music business.

Q: I understand today is your birthday. Happy Birthday!

Dan Kelly (Stephen Cooper)

Dan Kelly: Oh man. Thank you so much.

Q: The reception to your new album has been fabulous. Your audience when you played recently in Ventura (California), they just loved the new music. I was there. I saw that. The album has been steadily climbing the Billboard and iTunes reggae charts. I imagine those rankings will only get higher the more you get into your new tour?

Dan Kelly: Oh yeah, touring always helps. Anytime you’re putting something out there in the world, the energy comes back, you know. I’m looking forward to this tour a lot.

Q: I understand you recorded the new album live at Henson Studios, in Los Angeles, and also over at 17th Street Studios in Costa Mesa (California) where you normally record your albums, with producer Lew Richards?

Dan Kelly: That’s our homeboy. We find success in ourselves and knowing what we want. And [then], being able to work with people who can go with us on that journey. And so Lew Richards, he’s done a great job over the last few years in our relationship with him. He’s helped us produce some amazing albums. Going backwards with Henson Studios and our recording the album there, that was something Lew and Jordan (Jordan Rosenthal, Fortunate Youth’s drummer) really wanted to do. They had a vision and I think they really nailed it. Because, you know, there was a lot of energy recorded there [at Henson Recording Studios] from people like Led Zeppelin [Ziggy Marley, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more stars].

Q: I’ve been listening to the new album a lot and I really dig it. You’ve got a great mix of new, creative songs on it. Of course, like Fortunate Youth’s past albums, there are songs about peace, love, and unity. But also there are songs about the melancholy of life on the road as a traveling band, away from friends and family; living for today and being present in each moment we’re blessed to have; love of California; and, of course, the album includes plenty of really dope lover’s rock. But there are two songs on the album that are a bit more complicated in their interpretation. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit more with your fans on the meaning behind them?

Dan Kelly: Definitely. Which ones?

Q: First, “No Place Above.” Can you tell your fans a bit more about the meaning and inspiration behind that song?

Dan Kelly: When it comes to reggae … reggae as genre is not marketed enough. It takes a lot to get yourself on the radio. For us, we are heads deep in it. And we feel we always have been because we are originators of what we want to do. We’re inspired by people who are originating a craft. And we never really saw it break a glass ceiling. It’s like Elvis. He broke the blues ceiling and now he’s the king of rock and roll. I don’t need to be the king of anything, but we do want to say that there is a lot of great reggae. A lot of great music. A lot of new things going on. So, “No Place Above” is about being right there and not being afraid to just jump off. With this new album you can’t say every song is going to hit every listener the same way. But for what we care, we give it our all anyway, so we’re just going to jump off and enjoy the fall.

Q: That’s a good vibe. A great vibe. Now, what about the song “So Far Away”? Can you tell your fans a little more about the meaning and inspiration behind that song?

Dan Kelly: “So Far Away” is an old song I wrote back in the day. You know I have two young kids [I’m away from when I’m on tour]. So I dedicated it to them. I wrote it out a long time ago as a poem and framed it, and put it up on the wall. They are still my fire every day. No matter where we go, rain, sleet, or snow, on the best day or the worst, I get to sing passionately about something I’m so passionate about. They are great kids.

Q: How do you see the maturation and the development of Fortunate Youth over these last seven years? How has the band’s music changed since you first released your debut album Uplifted in 2010 to this, the newest release, the band’s fourth full-length album?

Dan Kelly: It’s been great. You know a lot of the past albums have been a collection of a lot of music we’ve already wanted to put out. You see, you can’t put it all out at once. And this album was like, alright, you know all the stuff that we had in the past, it’s kind of already done. And now we could bring out something fresh and new. From everybody [in the band]. It’s self-titled. So, it really gets more personal. On [us as] Fortunate Youth, on what kind of music we like, we’ve got that blues-reggae jam, and there’s just so many different dimensions to this album.

Q: Absolutely. Now, I want to throw a monkey into the works. I don’t want to create any bad blood in any way but I watched a lot of the early videos of the band. And I’ve listened to a lot of your music. And to me, it seems the departure of [former vocalist] Daniel Gonzalez, or “Gonzo,” made you guys a stronger band.

Dan Kelly (Stephen Cooper)

Dan Kelly: Thank you.

Q: And I’ll tell you why. Because I think you stepping up and being the indisputable frontman – and you have it, you are the frontman of this band – there is no question about it. And the genius of this band right now for me is, that there is this beautiful marriage and harmony. It’s a marriage that exists between the musical instruments and you, Dan Kelly, as the band’s lead vocalist. And when I watch those older videos of live performances when Gonzo was still part of the band, you seemed to take over even then, and dominate those performances.

Dan Kelly: It was a really crazy experience [when Gonzo left the band] to be honest with you. And it did make us all stand up in a whole bunch of different ways. I guess you are right. It has made a good, positive change for the whole band and it’s not gone downhill ever since. And it’s been good for Gonzo too, and for his solo career.

Q: Fortunate Youth had a lot of success right out of the gate. But I think that partly because of Gonzo’s departure and the music centralizing around you as the lead vocalist now, that the music sounds tighter, more confident to me. You play to your base but you still take a lot of risks. In the new album there’s jazz riffs, you guys use lots of reverb and you are constantly changing the pace in the music, all of which I think is super dope. It seems like you guys are peaking at just the right time that a band should be. Are you feeling that too?

Dan Kelly: Definitely, definitely. Walking out on stage for this new album just feels really different. It’s evolved to where you walk out on stage and you know what you’ve got to do and how it’s going to go. You know it’s accepted. The shows are sold out.

Q: I want to ask you a little bit about the relationships you have with Jamaican reggae artists, both new and old. You have this collaboration on the new album with Kumar Bent from Raging Fyah. How did this come about?

Dan Kelly: We are very friendly with everybody. They were on tour with Stick Figure at the beginning of this year and we got to meet them, hang out with them. It was good times. So, it was easy to get together with them.

Q: Have you guys played in Jamaica before?

Dan Kelly: No, we haven’t yet. But we’d love to.

Q: There’s a bit of stigma that exists against “white reggae bands.” I’m curious about this because so-called “white reggae bands” are very successful right now. But there seems to be a strain of older Jamaicans and Jamaican musicians who get upset because they see white reggae bands from Southern Californian dominating the iTunes and Billboard Reggae charts. So they feel a sense of misappropriation. And even now, I have some friends who tell me that you “just can’t trust a white boy with dreads.” Or, “a white boy with dreads is going to have a faux patois.” Same thing with the Grammy awards. This tension, such that it exists, it troubles me. And I want to write about it. Because I think that reggae music is big enough for everyone.

Dan Kelly: That’s what it’s about. So, we like to shatter that [tension]. We give zero into that. It’s Jamaica’s culture that inspires us. You don’t need patois to get out reggae’s message. It’s the best message I’ve ever seen. People have come up to me and been like, Dan you saved my life [with reggae music].

Q: Because you guys aren’t just singing about weed. You’re espousing the values and messages reggae holds dear. You guys are respecting the culture. And that’s fabulous.

Dan Kelly: Yes. We are inspired and honored to have sit-down conversations and to enjoy the stories Jamaican artists have. Like we’ve done with Inner Circle, for example. We’re friends with them. We eat at their house all the time. And there are so many legends out there that we get to talk to. And I feel like everyone else should be jealous. Because I’m fortunate to have these great conversations with legendary Jamaican artists.

Q: Steven “Cat” Coore from Third World was quoted recently saying he thought the rise of white reggae bands is great because it’s opened up new markets for reggae. And because it shows the great influence that Jamaica has.

Dan Kelly: Yes. And I think the rise [of white reggae bands like] Fortunate Youth is a big boon in all their work. Because we get to play their music. And it goes hand in hand. And what I’m trying to do is advance this reggae genre. To give it more volume, more people, and more listeners.

Q: What are some of the obstacles Fortunate Youth has faced in doing that?

Dan Kelly: You know, it’s not the biggest genre. The complaint [in the United States] has always been that “reggae’s always been this one kind of sound.” And so, for us, we’re glad to have our own sound within [the great diversity of] reggae. And a lot of great people are behind it. It’s a great movement. I don’t know how else to answer that question. We enjoy reggae. There is an uplifting message there. There’s this rebelliousness to it, you know? So, for us, we’re gonna have some distortion in our rebel, you know?

Q: Is there anything more that you can tell me about the obstacles to reggae music in general being bigger than it is? I think it was Bunny Wailer who was saying how he’d like reggae to get back to the level that Bob Marley had it when he passed — consistently selling out stadium-sized venues. What things do you see that prevent that from occurring?

Dan Kelly: You know we have to get it on the radio somehow, I guess.

Q: So we need more radio stations to play reggae music. And we just need to get the word out more generally about reggae’s awesomeness?

Dan Kelly: And get some TV time, you know. That’ll help. That’ll open a lot of doors. Because there are a lot of people who will see a band on TV and say, that’s the newest band I need to go look at. They trust in that product placement, you know. There’s a lot to it. That’s a deep question.

Q: I see you need to leave now Mr. Kelly to meet and greet some VIPs before the concert. I can’t thank you enough for your time. And best of luck to you on tour.

Dan Kelly: Thanks man.

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Fortunate Youth’s Dan Kelly performed at The Regent Theater in Los Angeles, California, on March 18, 2017.

Top photo of Fortunate Youth by Mike Davids