Trenton Birch talks Music, education and cannabis
Trenton Birch has just released his new album, Unity in Diversity, with his reggae-infused Afro-beat band, Trenton and Free Radical.
It’s their second full length album and it has been a long time in the making.
Trenton is a music man through and through.
From heading up one of SA’s leading creative colleges, SAE Institute Cape Town, for several years, to running his own label, launching the Breathe Sunshine Music Conference several years back and being (to this current day) an SA board Director for the Bridges for Music non-profit organisation, he has left an indelible footprint on the musical landscape of this country.
Recently he has also diversified into various projects in the burgeoning cannabis industry that seems like it is ready to explode in South Africa.
We chatted music, education and weed among other things…
There have always been two consistent things in my life: Music and Cannabis.”
New album, new life challenges, slight career change… how would you sum up 2019 so far?
It has been a whirlwind of a year so far with some big changes in my life which have found me reinventing myself, redefining my true purpose and getting clarity on what really matters.
Sometimes we get pulled off our path and sucked into the wrong things and it can take a seismic event to shake things up.
Despite some of the bumps I am very excited about where I’m at right now. I feel for the first time in a long time that I’m back on my path.
After several years heading up SAE Institute Cape Town, which you built up to have a formidable footprint in the South African creative studies domain, what’s the biggest takeout when looking back, now that you have moved on?
Trenton Birch: I had an incredible time building SAE into what it became.
There were 60 students when I started and when I left there were over 400 and we launched a JHB campus so I’m proud of what was achieved.
I bought the business early last year, but it got to a point where I had evolved, it was time for a change and there were other things I wanted to do so I left a few months ago.
I guess one of the key take-outs for me is that while I am an entrepreneur, I have to be passionate about what I do and if the passion goes then I go.
Life is too short to do things that you don’t have a passion for.
We came in and disrupted that and helped open up the township music scene.”
A while back you hosted the first ‘Craft Cannabis Sessions’ at the Raptor Room in the city. How was it and what’s your plan behind these get gatherings?
Trenton Birch: It was an incredible experience.
Well attended and I realised that there is a massive community that is keen to connect.
There have always been two consistent things in my life: Music and Cannabis.
While I am not a heavy user I really believe strongly in the power of the plant and the positive benefit it can have on our planet medicinally, recreationally, for product utilisation and job creation.
I have always wanted to run a Cannabis company but with the legislation it was impossible and now that it’s opening up, I am excited to be getting involved.
What is missing in SA right now are platforms where like-minded people can meet to learn, connect and share information. The Craft Cannabis Sessions are design to help facilitate this.
I am also just about to launch a Cannabis company called Boogaloo Africa, so the Cannabis play is a big thing for me right now.
From Breathe Sunshine Conferences to SAE and Bridges for Music, you’ve done a lot to try and make the SA music industry more cohesive and professional, especially with the youth. Not an easy task which is why not that many do it. Was it all worth it?
Trenton Birch: Yes, and to be truthful I realised recently that I have spent so much time trying to build the scene and something’s have been worth it and some in retrospect were not.
The conference for example was a great event and I’m proud of the quality and content of what we created but the Cape Town music industry is so apathetic that I feel that particular event was a bit of a waste of time.
Bridges for Music on the other hand has had a really big impact on the industry but also has played a significant role in changing disadvantaged young creatives lives so that has definitely been worth it.
When I moved back from London to Cape Town 8 years ago the industry was controlled by a small number of people who had no interest in what was happening in the townships.
We came in and disrupted that and helped open up the township music scene.
We made a few enemies at the time as we were disturbing the status quo but the scene has definitely opened up so that was worth it.
The one thing I have released recently is that I’ve spent too much time trying to help other people and I forgot to help myself and my music career has suffered because of this.
The education environment has become so corporatised and cut and paste.”
Speaking of education, the Bridges Academy is now up and running in Langa. It’s been a long road with many challenges, but you guys persevered and it is now happening. I was there the other day and I must say the buzz is electric. Try and give readers a small insight into what it’s like going there each day…
Trenton Birch: The Bridges Academy is my happy place.
On the days I’m in the Academy I constantly remind myself what a privileged it is to be in a space where we are changing lives for the better.
Every morning we begin with a group mediation, followed by a gratitude journal writing session where we all write down three things, we are grateful for and then the our three most important tasks for the day.
We then all share how we feel, and it is such a connecting experience and a powerful way to start the day.
We then move between audio training, entrepreneurial training and mindfulness.
Again, we’ve worked hard to be disruptive, to create something cutting edge and fresh that works in our environment.
The education environment has become so corporatised and cut and paste and we are not teaching people about their purpose, what makes them tick, what makes them happy.
I think we have managed to craft a curriculum that does this and the feedback and results so far have been phenomenal.
You were in L.A soon after your album launch. Music related or other business interests?
Trenton Birch: I don’t think I ever have a trip that doesn’t have some music angle to it, so my LA trip definitely had a music goal.
I met a few producers and artists, but my primary goal of the trip was to explore the Cannabis industry.
It is massive in California, so I wanted to throw myself into the belly of the beast and learn as much as possible.
It was a mind-bending experience where I learned so much.
You also advocated in your talks that in today’s climate people, especially creatives need to have an entrepreneurial spirit. You’re now living that reality yourself. How good is it to be your own boss, 24/7?
Trenton Birch: If you are a creative without an entrepreneurial spirit you need to do something else.
You will not make it without the entrepreneurial drive, simple.
One of the most important things to me in my life is freedom.
I’m a workaholic and love to work because I love what I do but I need to work on my own time and have freedom of movement. Some people need structure and routine, but I thrive on a fluid work life and love to be able to travel and work.
The last few years I got stuck behind a desk and it killed my creativity. Being my own boss and having the freedom I have now is absolutely liberating and I’m more inspired than I’ve been in a very long time.
So, it’s amazing!
There is a very sad global narrative around segregation, putting up walls and highlighting our differences.”
It’s been a longtime coming but soon you your new album is out in the stratosphere. What’s the overlying feeling, relief or excitement?
Trenton Birch: It has been a very long time!
We recorded this album four years ago, but I wasn’t happy with the result and I got distracted.
We’ve been slowly reworking it over the years and I now have the time to push the music forward so I’m very excited and definitely relieved to have the album out.
What I’m also excited about is the new tracks that we have written and also releasing those over the next six months. It feels so good to have the music flowing again.
How does it differ from your last album, Giant Steps, musically?
Trenton Birch: I think its more mature than Giant Step.
The songwriting is stronger, and I feel we are starting to find more of a sound. We still haven’t solidified the sound we are looking for yet, but we are definitely on the right track, pun intended J.
The new long player is called ‘Unity in Diversity.’ It’s a great album title and certainly one that echoes your life since you settled back in South Africa. For those who don’t get it, explain the significance of the title…
Trenton Birch: The title is sadly a reflection of the times we live in.
There is a very sad global narrative around segregation, putting up walls and highlighting our differences which I find painful to watch.
It is also very prevalent in Cape Town.
It’s actually disgusting how segregated Cape Town still is and that so many people are still living in such abject poverty.
Unfortunately, when times are tough people retract into their comfort zones and our battered economy and increase in crime are not helping the situation.
What people forget is that our diverse culture is what makes us so special, its why people come from all over the world to visit our country and its what makes us unique and culturally powerful.
The album title is a gentle reminder of this.
Anyone and their dog can now DJ and let’s be honest watching a DJ is not the most exciting experience.”
You’ve also recently launched a music festival called Muizenberg Unity Jam, tell us more about that.
Trenton Birch: We felt that in these complex times it wasn’t enough to just put an album out.
We ran this amazing event in Langa township four years ago called the Breathe Sunshine Unity Jam and had artists like Jeremy Loops and Youngsta on the bill.
It was the most mixed crowd I’ve ever seen in Cape Town and was truly inspiring.
My long-time song writing partner and guitarist Marco is a Muizenberg resident and came up with the idea to run another event.
So, he’s pulled it together and the band are effectively the custodians of the event. It will become the band’s annual event and aims to build community, break down racial divides and unity the people of Cape Town.
Four-piece bands are a bit of a tough sell in a musical climate that seems to favour electronic artists and DJs at the minute, especially in our small country. Have you guys leant a little toward electronic/synthy sounds with the new album, or have you kept it straight up reggae/pop vibes?
Trenton Birch: We’ve definitely increased our electronic flavour on the album.
Two of our tracks have a house beat although this is something that just happened naturally.
The live band scene is unfortunately very weak at the moment, but the band scene is still very healthy internationally, so I don’t believe its going away.
I think the whole hype around DJ’s is tailing off a bit.
Anyone and their dog can now DJ and let’s be honest watching a DJ is not the most exciting experience.
It has its place but so does live music. Everything has its cycle and live music will always live, it’s just not so alive right now.
We still have undertones of reggae/pop, but we have diversified on this album, pun not intended J.
Your first single, Round and Round, is a reggae/rap cut collaboration with BigStar Johnson. Have you done some more collabs or just the one?
Trenton Birch: The collab with BigStar Johnson is the only collab on this album.
We would be open to more but have found recently that artists are precious and closed.
Working with BigStar was a dream. There was such a great musical and personal connection and those are the collabs we like. They can’t be forced.
Which song do you find yourself being drawn toward the most now that you can listen to them in hindsight?
Trenton Birch: ‘No Ceiling’ is probably my favorite track on the album.
It has a very original sound, very local vibe and its really hooky. People go crazy when we play it live.
It was tipped by some very credible industry people to be a hit, but radio would not support it.
But that’s a whole other conversation for another time. We are actually busy working on a remix project for the track at the moment so hopefully that will give it more life.
You’ve always done great music videos for your releases, incl. Round and Round recently. Can we expect the same in support of the new album?
Trenton Birch: Thank you.
We have put out three videos for tracks for the album and one lo-fi one.
I love making music videos and if we had enough budget, I would make videos for all the tracks.
I think we are done with this album, however.
Find Unity Through Diversity on all major digital platforms.