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After polished album, SOJA looks to return to roots

Virginia-based reggae band headlines Rams Head Live twice this weekend

Jacob Hemphill, guitarist and singer of the Arlington, Va.-based reggae band SOJA, realized early on that, as a white musician making a career by playing a Jamaican art form, he would make an easy target of criticism.

He vowed, however, not to let disapproving voices deter him as an artist.

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"Do I conform to what everybody wants me to be musically and lyrically and image-wise, and have everybody still have a problem with me? Or do I do what I want to do, and have everybody still have a problem with me?" Hemphill said from the road in Texas during a phone conversation last week. "When you look at it that way, you think, 'Well, there's no penalty for being myself.'"

For the eight-piece group SOJA, Hemphill's guiding principle has led to continued success. The band's current tour, which stops by Rams Head Live tonight and for a sold-out show Saturday, is in support of "Amid the Noise and Haste," the band's fifth album. Released in August 2014, the record earned SOJA its first Grammy nomination earlier this year for Best Reggae Album. (It lost to "Fly Rasta" by Ziggy Marley.)

Dedicated fans with tickets to both shows this weekend should expect much different setlists, Hemphill said.

"I think we're only sharing six songs between the two nights," he said. "We pick three or four from each [album] and just kind of mash them together the way we like."

SOJA has more than enough material to keep audiences on their toes. Founded by childhood friends Hemphill and bassist Bobby Lee, the group has steadily released albums since its 1997 formation, both independently and, since 2012, via ATO Records.

After he heard artists like Bob Marley and Steel Pulse at a family reunion as a child, Hemphill said, his attraction to the music was instantaneous, especially its lyrics that often reached for peace and compassion among people on a large scale.

The music of SOJA — which also includes members Ryan Berty (drums), Ken Brownell (percussion), Patrick O'Shea (keyboards), Hellman Escorcia (saxophone), Rafael Rodriguez (trumpet) and Trevor Young (lead guitar) — strives to reflect similar ideals, Hemphill said. Continuing to push such a message is an easy decision for the singer.

"We don't really have to please anyone," Hemphill said. "My choice is simple: I either sing about a bunch of crap that isn't real and doesn't matter, or I sing about things that I think do matter and are very real to me."

Each SOJA album explores a theme, he said. For "Haste," Hemphill kept thinking of the world's knottiest and most complicated issues, and how they affect individuals in many different ways. Soon, he wondered if a concept — albeit a simple and some would argue vague concept — could ever lead to actual solutions.

"Problems with the environment, the problems with the social class and equal rights for races and genders and sexual preferences — when you look at them by themselves, they seem like big mountains that are going to be real tough to climb," Hemphill said. "But wait a minute, there's one thing each one shares.

"If we had love and compassion, and our actions were based on that, instead of accumulation and competition, which is what our actions are supposed to be based on in this human society," he said, "then things would change."

SOJA's message hasn't changed, but its music's process often does. For the first time, SOJA worked with Dwayne Chin-Quee, a Miami-based producer, better known as Supa Dups, with production credits for Bruno Mars and Akon. The goal, Hemphill said, was to make the most accessible album in SOJA's career.

"'Amid the Noise and Haste' was polished and universal," he said. "The point was to open the doors really wide and let anybody in."

With a Top 20 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart and a subsequent Grammy nomination, SOJA seems to have accomplished the mission. Now, the singer said, the plan is to revert to the band's less glossy techniques for the follow-up.

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"It was fun doing that record, and now we're kind of ready to get back to good ol' dirty [sound]," Hemphill said. "Write in the garage. Record it at Lion and Fox [their early studio in College Park]. The original SOJA. That's what we're starting on now for the next record."

Hemphill expects it will be released next year. While SOJA's music consistently deals with worldly issues, Hemphill said the next record would likely include an in-depth look-back at the group's journey for the first time.

"It's all very much about us," Hemphill said. "What has happened with SOJA is not a small thing. We've become this kind of global thing and the way it's happened has been like a dream. I'm just looking back on everything that's happened, and I'm trying to put it together."

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