By Billy Sparks
Across the last decade and some change, Manafest has steadily cemented his status as one of the world’s most diverse, envelope-pushing and all around uplifting artists. His seamless, lightening-like blur between the spectrums of rap, hip-hop, rock and pop hasn’t just led to 300,000-plus album sales and four coveted Juno Award nominations (essentially the Grammy equivalent in his home country of Canada), but also more than 1,000 shows logged over four continents.
With such a wealth of experience and achievements, anchored by a rabid, tastemaking fan base, the singer/rapper/songwriter/author/skater could easily put his feet on the dash and coast through the next career chapter, but considering he’s never been one to phone in the predictable, Manafest is taking a completely Reborn approach to his intelligent but ceaselessly contagious music throughout this fittingly named new album. Perhaps the chief catalyst in the ambitious leap forward comes from the decision to once again oversee his affairs, which after six albums within the major label system, has inspired a full circle season that mirrors the hunger and predominant hip-hop flavors accompanying this versatile artist’s self-released debut a dozen years ago.
“The idea of going independent is a big deal, going back to my hip-hop roots is a big deal, returning to skating a lot more is such an important outlet for me, and then of course the whole concept of my faith is always all about being Reborn and starting anew,” muses Manafest of the factors that helped formulate the title. “I’ve done this for a long time, but at times I feel Reborn because I’m basically starting over. And I say that as someone who’s not jaded or broke, but as someone who’s happy and stoked. I still have lots to say and lots to create.”
Released just over a year after his last studio effort, the current collection is clearly part of a creative surge that’s been churning in the performer’s mind for quite awhile. “I’ve always rapped, even on the rock stuff, but I’ve wanted to do a more hip-hop influenced record for a long time,” he continues. “I started thinking about that just after Fighter came out, which was my second kind of more real rock record like The Chase, and then last year’s The Moment was a bit of a hybrid record. For Reborn, I decided to go back to hip-hop, but even the way I do hip-hop isn’t the traditional ‘boom, bap,’ stuff, so I don’t think the fans who like more of the rock stuff will be disappointed.”
Follower feedback has always been a priority for Manafest (frequently the very last person to leave one of his concerts) and the Reborn sessions have brought him even closer to core listeners than ever before thanks to a PledgeMusic campaign. “It’s allowed me to have direct communication with my number one supporters,” he verifies. “Just being able to have access to that is huge and I try to go the extra mile every way I can for them. We talk, they get access to as much behind the scenes stuff as they are interested in, I give them a ton of bonus content and we’re building a relationship in the process.”
And speaking of relationships, a simple scan of the Reborn track list indicates a slew of guest collaborations, which in keeping with Manafest’s diverse history thus far, come from literally all walks of life. For starters, there’s frequent friend Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch fame, who joins in for the insane hook of “Shine,” a song about living each day to maximum capacity and beaming your light along the way.
From there, rapper Tedashii vibes alongside the headliner throughout the peace and unity promoting “I Have A Dream” (which even drops a skillful sample of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed speech). Another instantly famous voice comes via Soul Glow Activatur (formerly of Family Force 5) on the rhythmic party rocker “Stick To Your Gunz,” an all-out anthem for surviving the struggle and never going down for the count.
“I wanted more features on this record period,” asserts Manafest. “I just realized as an artist, man, you can get so much farther when you work together with people rather than doing your own thing all the time. I find the lone soldier mentality doesn’t work out as well sometimes, plus when you work with artists you’ve never worked with before, everyone gets to reach new fans, plus it’s a ton of fun.”
The same could be said about the decision to team with super producers Seth Mosley (Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, Sanctus Real) and Joel Bruyere (Thousand Foot Krutch), both of whom encouraged Manafest to bring in additional musicians to contribute additional layers and atmosphere. “Seth and I met when he was in Me In Motion and he did the majority of The Fighter record as well,” the singer explains. “He’s phenomenal, man, and just nails it. Believe it or not, I’ve never gotten to watch a live drummer track before, so that was surreal, plus he brought in live string players- people who worked with Red- which was another first for me. He also hired guitar players just to lay down some vibes and they just so happened to be Jerry McPherson [Jewel, The Neville Brothers] and Miles McPherson, who used to play live for Paramore. And this is also my second time working with Joel and he’s grown so much on this record as far as mixing and producing and stretching. He even suggested we bring in somebody to do a harmonica solo, which I probably would’ve never done before, but because it had worked so well when Seth hired musicians, I was like ‘this is cool. Let’s do it!’”
As unexpected as it may sound on paper for a hip-hop centric collection, the harmonica fits right in throughout the eclectic title track, which could very well be considered Manafest meets Johnny Cash and Mumford & Sons. It’s certainly an engaging way to start a record, though additional highlights abound, including the lead single “Let You Drive,” which seems tailor made for a rolling down the car windows on a perfect day, especially as Miles goes to town with his signature pop/punk beat keeping.
“The whole concept is to take your hands off the wheel and know that God’s got everything under control, which means you don’t have to freak out,” he assures, before giving additional insight into the second single “Pray.” “I feel like that’s even deeper, and I didn’t even realize it at first, but it’s almost like part two of my old tune ‘Everytime You Run.’ It continues where that song left off as I’m pretending I’m talking to a guy who’s really screwing up his life and I’m trying to share something positive with him, but since I don’t know what to say and can’t come up with the words, I just start to pray. The whole idea is that even when it gets dark and messed up, we don’t have to fight the battle on our own and we can win it with prayer.”
And last but not least is “Army,” one of Manafest’s personal favorites that could very well be a musically dark but lyrically hopeful mash-up between Eminem and Cypress Hill. “It’s a lot more political for me actually,” he admits. “I talk about the federal reserve and debt and just the idea of not following the status quo and going your own way. I’ll stand, I’ll march, I won’t back down. I think it’s something my fans are really going to like the mentality behind and people are going to take as their own and mean something very personal for them individually.”
Yet another aspect of engaging listeners individually comes with Manafest’s subsequent call for all to submit their Reborn stories online, which is basically their opportunity to blog or upload a video about their own stories of redemption. For the campaign creator, it naturally ties into his faith, but like any typical 13-year-old guy, it actually started with a coming of age curiosity. “I was bribed by my mother to go to Bible camp and I only went because there was going to be girls there,” he lets out with a laugh. “I ended up having a huge transformation because it was a week-long camp and that’s when I really turned my life around. I made some big decisions about drugs, alcohol and what I watched as far as movies and TV, which really pointed my life in a different direction. I also happened to meet my wife there, so I guess the ‘meeting girls’ part worked out too!”
Fast forward to today, and Manafest’s focus includes leaving behind a legacy for his young daughter, who is just getting to the age where she can join the family on tour from time to time. This transitional period’s also given the artist and his photographer/graphic designer wife the chance to reunite creatively, which after working with outside sources during his last few label years, is a fun return to form. Add it all up, and Reborn is destined to be a landmark season all across the board for a man who’s just as committed to his family as hitting his ultimate artistic stride on what’s truly shaping up to be the culmination of his entire calling.
“I really want this to be one of those records that becomes a soundtrack for those who connect with it just like Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP or P.O.D.’s Satellite were to me,” he sums up. “My goal is for this record to not just reach current fans, but also new people because it just touches so many areas that are real and applicable. It’s been my favorite album to make so far and I hope it can get people wondering ‘what was he thinking when he was creating that?’ and wanting to dig deeper into what I’m all about.”