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HitQuarters Exclusive Artist Diary - Jan 11, 2010

“I believed then I was ready to go it alone. The idea of getting involved with another band was out of the question. In fact if that were my only option then I would prefer to retire from music altogether.”

picture Hawking his own vibrant and infectious blend of soca, reggae and dancehall, Antigua’s own Michael ‘Sparkey’ Drakes is a born solo star.

Having experienced the pressurised existence within two Caribbean groups that both eventually imploded from the strain, the “ups and downs” of band life was never the ideal match for Sparkey. Now as a promising solo star with an album and several awards to his name, the only person who is allowed into his inner circle is the one he can’t do without. However, rather than to add to the unavoidable stress surrounding Sparkey’s burgeoning music career, his manager Junie Webson is there to relieve it, as this exclusive Artist Diary reveals …

By Michael ‘Sparkey’ Drakes

It’s six a clock in the morning and I am up looking out at the ocean through my window. The beach is within walking distance from my house - it’s crazy! But I have to get to work. Although I am actively pursuing a career in music, I’m grounded in the real world and need a regular a job to support my musical ambitions.

I am a mason by trade and at the moment we have a house that’s in need of completion. However, at work later in the day, my manager phones and arranges a meeting for that night at the band house. It’s a familiar cry. We are due to head to New York for rehearsals and then on tour for a couple of months. There goes another job …

* * *

Today, reflection is necessary to make sense of where I am going. A career in singing is something I have always wanted. Music for me is a family legacy that I am maintaining - my mother sang and so did my father, and of their seven boys I am the only one who has ended up pursuing a musical career. When I was a kid my mother used to show me off to everyone. She would say to me, “Sing! So they can hear this kid with such a big voice.” Singing in church was a normal thing on Sundays for me.

In early 1997 I was performing in Guyana, my home country, and a guy by the name of Michael John approached me - he wanted me to join a band based in Antigua by the name of Tonik that was touring the Caribbean at the time. For me it was a great opportunity to join a group that was on the way up, and that’s how I ended up in my current home of Antigua.

Like so many other Caribbean bands, Tonik eventually encountered problems that couldn’t be resolved by any other means than dissolution, and so in 2001 it all ended.

Four years on from there I found myself with another group, Da Bhann, and we were on our way to New York for rehearsals with Atlantic recording artist Kevin Lyttle and due to head out on tour with him.

Over a period of five months, the band acted as both Kevin Lyttle’s opening act and backing band. I served as the point person, as Caribbean people would say - I worked the crowd and warmed up the stage for him. During that time we also recorded our album ‘TOSS’.

In September 2005, instead of heading back to Antigua, the group took a detour to New York to perform at a festival. It was at the request of Junie Webson, a former manager of the group Tonik. I hadn’t seen her in a few years, since the break-up of Tonik, and in fact she had refused to work with another Caribbean band.

September 3, 2005 saw us headline the Caribbean Splashdown Music Festival in NYC at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Over five thousand people attended the event. We stayed with Junie and then headed out to Bogotá, Colombia with Kevin for a show with Daddy Yankee. We finished off the year at the Star Mega Jam Festival in Nigeria where I met Ja Rule. Unfortunately it was one of those meetings that I didn’t follow through on, despite him giving me his phone number. Michael Drakes
We had clocked up so many miles travelling between Antigua, USA, Africa, Japan, Caribbean islands and Colombia that the idea of stepping inside a plane again filled me with dread, but January came and we were off again, this time for our own shows. Kevin had broken with Atlantic Records so we were no longer touring with him.

After a show in Florida in 2006 with MTV Tempo, strain and discontentment within the band began to surface. Tempo had made certain suggestions to management about having the band focus on my style of singing. That did not sit at all well with the rest of the band. When we headed back to New York for a show, and then onto a shoot with Jamaican photographer Roland Hyde for the video for ‘Caught Up’, a song I wrote, it proved to be our final act together. By the time we got back to Antigua it was all over.

Fortunately rather than left stranded by the collapse, I was already ready prepared for the next stage of my career. Along the way I had met a lot of people and also rekindled some old friendships. In fact before I’d left New York I had talked with Junie and asked her if she would handle my career. I believed then I was ready to go it alone. The idea of getting involved with another band was just out of the question. In fact if that were my only option then I would prefer to retire from music altogether.

In January 2007 I headed to New York to mix some of the tracks I had laid down at various studios in Antigua in preparation for my first solo album. Junie and I spent quite a bit of time going over what should be on the album and after ditching some of the songs for one reason or another, we made arrangements at Dreamsound Studio to mix the album. We brought in the former bass guitarist of Da Bhann, Selah, for a session on two of the songs.

By the end of February, my first solo album was complete and Junie called me in Antigua to say she is going to arrange an album release in New York for April 14 and then follow it up with one in Antigua in June. Several of the songs did very well on Caribbean charts and also got good reviews, US-based Taxi reviewed ‘Come Back’ and it was also a number one song on several online charts.

In October, my album ‘Sparkey & Friends Back 2 Basics’ having been out for a good six months, Junie used Sonicbids to submit it for an awards show that was held in Canada by Toronto Exclusive Magazine. I got three nominations. I remember vividly when she called to say, “Hey, you won both the ‘Best International World CD Album’ and the ‘Best International World Male Artist’!” The feeling of accomplishment was just unbelievable.

During 2008, in between travelling to promote the album, I signed a three year deal with WOA International for management in India.

I travelled to Japan for four shows, performing at Club Life in Osaka, which was great. People who had seen me perform at the Blue Note when I opened for Kevin Lyttle in 2005 remembered me and came out to see me. After Club Life I performed at two other shows in the area and headed to Tokyo for one show with Karnival Gold one of the few soca DJs in Japan. Japan was great and at the top of my list of places to return to in the future.

My first year on my own proved to be a great success for me – I had new album, two awards and some great reviews for my music.

My first album was designed to promote me as a solo artist and push my brand of music and I believe it did accomplish that. It is my marketing tool to get me to the next level, whether that’s a record label willing to take a serious chance on Caribbean music or my manager creating a definite buzz about me online. The latter is what we have steadily been working with for over two years, and it is paying off.

Winning the ‘Best Reggae/Dancehall Artist’ category at the 2009 Underground Music Awards and then the same week being named as one of the top 20 Independent Artist of 2009 by Internet Radio Magazine was hugely satisfying.

Today is New Year’s Day 2010 and I am working on my next album, due out in May. Six of the songs were completed over the past two years. The next two songs, I am working with a studio in Jamaica called Antarauge Productions. I am concentrating now on writing new songs and getting someone to build my rhythms. I am doing the same combo as I did on the first - soca/reggae/dancehall - it works for me.

Although the future for my music looks good, financing is always a problem. My manager is always having to come up with some inventive solution. Currently she is trying to raise funds for the new album by using a site called Sellaband. Nevertheless, we did what we had to do to get the first album out and I doubt if it’s going to be any different this time round.

My music career is now in a good place. I am happy as a solo artist free of the ups and downs of being in a band. I rely on my manager for a lot and in the end she always makes good decisions. Without her I would never have accomplished what I have with my music in the past two years.

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