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Q&a Rodriguez - the mystery man speaks about his 'disappearance', new documentary Searching For Sugar Man, being bigger than The Beatles in South Africa & more

Q&a Rodriguez - the mystery man speaks about his 'disappearance', new documentary Searching For Sugar Man, being bigger than The Beatles in South Africa & more
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The general story of Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez – who returns to the UK to play Jersey’s Folklore Festival at the end of this month (30 June – 1 July) – is already pretty remarkable. He released two acclaimed, but commercially moribund albums at the start of the 1970s, got dropped, returned to his day job as a manual labourer and was then ‘rediscovered’ and lauded 30 years via a series of compilations inclusions and reissues. However there’s an entire South African chapter of his career, that takes Rodriguez‘s story up to mythical status. That tale is told in new documentary Searching For Sugar Man (out 27 July), which recounts how by quirk the singer-songwriter’s music made it to the country, gaining success and influence on a par with albums like Abbey Road before becoming a focal point for the native anti-apartheid movement. All this and South African fans believed that Rodriguez had actually killed himself onstage many years before and so no one got round to telling him about his success in the country, which made his rediscovery and a series of gigs there in 1998 even more dramatic. Alive and well – though still working at his day job at home in Detroit – we spoke to living legend about the film and his impending festival date.

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How the devil are you?

“Good, good. I’m very excited about touring this summer.”

You’re playing a festival in Jersey, do you know much about the Channel Islands?

“Not too much, someone told me it has its own currency, is that right? You don’t pay as much tax there as on the mainland? Oh, that’s a draw! It should be very interesting.”

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Are you comfortable with the festival environment?

“I’ve played some big ones in South Africa and Australia. And I did one in Wales, the Green Man Festival, so I’m getting more of a sense of it. They’re festivals, but I consider them more like conferences for musicians and music people. Each one is so different. It’s a great playground!”

It must be a world away from when you started out playing little smoky clubs in Detroit?

“Anyone who starts now can achieve greater success quicker. Young people are getting there quicker. Music goes all over the world globally. All you need it one song these days and you don’t even need to write the best song, you just need to put it on the best selling show, or some such.”

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You’re the subject of a documentary, Searching For Sugar Man, how does that feel?

It’s not my film, [director] Malik Bendjelloul did a brilliant job. There’s a Hitchcock-like suspense like quality to it. He uses animation in it, he looks at South Africa and discusses the apartheid era. He’s done a pretty incredible job. He won two awards, People’s Choice at Sundance and the documentary award. And this is his first film! He was a child actor [in his native Sweden] and he’s had quite an interesting career. I have to credit him because he’s the one who created this interest. It got picked up from Sundance and is getting shown round the world.”

So you’ve seen it all the way through?

“I’ve seen it about 35 times because the screenings I’ve attended. Each time I find something new and interesting in there. But it’s not me, I’m not that interesting. I’m in the film for seven, maybe eight minutes.”

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What was your reaction when you heard they were making a film was about you then?

“I was sceptical about the whole thing. I didn’t think there would be any money for it because I didn’t believe the first part: that I was anything in South Africa. So I was sceptical, but they did a lot of research and journalism and it really bowled me over. Some of the pictures and images in it about South Africa are so compelling. Even with the other things about it me, it’s also educating people – and myself – about the apartheid era.”

You really had no idea that your music was so popular, and important – the South African government censored songs like Sugar Man in 70s and 80s – in that part of the world?

“I did not know. I was shown a CD which was being sold there. That’s what started it. This was about 97.”

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And it’s not just South Africa where you have this mysterious story. In the UK a lot of people first heard Sugar Man on David Holmes’ Come Get It, I Got It compilation and you’ve been sampled by Nas on You Da Man.

“Yeah, there you go. It’s so strange, complete strangers have come up and affected my life. That compilation excited Matt Sullivan to sign me to his label [Light In The Attic] in Seattle. So you never know what’s next.”

When you first heard about the big search to find the mysterious Rodriguez, what did you friends in Detroit think?

“Well, I worked in hard labour, and when you do that you don’t socialise you pretty much just do your work, you know what I mean? You’re just moving debris and stuff not chatting. My friends know I’m a musician, they know what I do, but it’s interesting they’re getting a little quieter around me now, so to speak [laughs]! It’s nice feeling.”

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Were you still playing music when you were working as labourer?

“I was practicing all the time. I love music and I was doing it all the time, but to be told my music was having an impact on the other side of the world was such an unexpected thing. I still have come down from these events really.”

And you kept writing new material?

“Oh yeah! You’re affected by everything. In South Africa I’ve woken up on mountain range and wondered where I was! That kind of feeling I write down, and remember the words. It’s cumulative, same with the music, you write a riff and go from there.”

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So any chance of a follow-up your last album, 1971’s Coming From Reality?

“Oh yeah, I work at stuff but right now we’re following the film. We’re touring. We’re real busy trying to break into the American market! It’s a real moving situation, trying to bring the music to the world. Apparently Mike Moore has picked up on the film and wants to show, so we’re meeting him. I’ll just name drop.”

Well thank you for time, we’re very happy you didn’t shoot yourself onstage like many South African fans believed!

“Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed. You be kind now!”

Paul Stokes@Stokesie

For more on Rodriguez‘s Jersey’s Folklore Festival appearance, including ticket details head to Folklorejersey.org.uk.


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