Back in the 1970s, a young man called Jon Lukas scored a first for Maltese music when he released Can’t afford to lose, which went on to become a huge hit, making him the first Maltese artist to break through at an international level. Regularly requested on local radio, the evergreen hit is still loved to this day; indeed there are many who immediately think of it at the very mention of his name, but in fact, there is much more to this man, who these days works under the extended moniker of jon lukas woodenman (intentionally written in small caps), than Can’t afford to lose. “I suppose that song is my ‘national’ anthem” he says with a smile. “However, in all the years that have passed, I’ve never stopped making music, and I’d really love people to get acquainted with my other songs too”.
He admits there was some luck involved in the way his music career took off. “Most definitely” he laughs. “You have to remember that back then, telling anyone you wanted to be a pop star was tantamount to madness - they’d give you a funny look and think you’ve lost it”. Nonetheless, when he moved to London, he had no intention of becoming a pop star. “It really all just happened when I wasn’t looking – that opportunity fell from heaven, but it hasn’t quite been as easy ever since” he concedes, adding that despite working very hard later in his career, things didn’t fall into place as smoothly as they had done with his breakthrough hit. “I still love doing it of course” he emphasises, “but I’m convinced that there was something lucky about Can’t afford to lose; it was the right song at the right time, and I happened to be in the right place”.
With a good number of songs to his name, are any of them particularly special to him, perhaps even more than the one that started home off? “That’s a very difficult question for me, as each song is my baby and each one has its moment, so I’m proud of them all”. After some persuasion, he elaborates on his initial answer. “My Time certainly means a lot to me”, he continues. “I had released it with my band Woodenman in the 1990s. It had been picked up by Buongiorno Music and was quite a hit too. I think what we did there was very nice and had a special sound”. He reels off a few more, among them Depend on me, which was written to promote AIDS awareness, a cause very close to his heart, and Never go away, the first song he recorded after his cancer operation. “That was a big challenge as I didn’t know if I was still able to sing. I had to take that apart and record it a line at a time because I didn’t have enough breath”, he admits he still has trouble singing it now because “it’s come into my head in pieces”.
And of course, there’s last year’s No Mountain, a heartfelt cover of the 1967 hit by US soul icon Marvin Gaye. “I knew Marvin quite well. He was a person I really respected and was close to, and to some extent I feel embarrassed that it took me 26 years to finally record a song as a tribute to him”. An undisputed legend and major influence on many generations of singers Gaye, says woodenman, “is one person I really look up to. Yes, he had his demons too, as all artists do, but I knew him beyond that, for the simple things he taught me, so when the opportunity to pay tribute presented itself, I grabbed it”. Afraid that he wouldn’t do the song justice, woodenman says it’s that type of song you can’t take away too much of. “I had help from the London Gospel Choir, who gave it a deeper soul feel” he adds, explaining that it needed to have the kind of natural tonality about love that only black singers can express without sounding cheesy. “You actually feel the love when they sing”.
Equally special is his latest song, Bad News which, he says “showed me I could go into rock mode”. It was originally sung by a black lady, and woodenman had featured it on his radio show (more of that later). “I was going through a phase of trying to write something fresh, when I came across the song again”. This was also the time of the last electoral campaign in Malta, which he was following through Facebook and Maltese radio stations online. “It suddenly struck me just how much political pollution there is on this tiny island” he remarks. “I must admit there were some interesting, even entertaining moments (laughs) but for the larger part, it was rather tedious. I think a long electoral campaign isn’t healthy, but who am I to judge?” He went back to the song, tweaked the lyrics to reflect what he was feeling, and recorded his own version. “I’m not quite sure if people actually got the message, but I’m sure everyone agrees there’s way too much politics in everyday life in Malta”.
Singing aside, woodenman also dedicates his time to the woodenman’s jukebox radio show, which airs locally on ONE Radio and on Channel Radio in the UK. But what was it that inspired him to host his own show? “The idea came to me in 2008. I’d come back to Malta to spend time with my mum who wasn’t doing well. I was listening to a lot of local radio – various stations - and I felt that everybody seemed to be focusing on a certain type of music, so I thought it would be a good thing to introduce something fresh”. The show, now close to its 100th edition gave him the opportunity to bring to the public’s attention songs that may not always get the exposure they deserve, including music from the local scene. “I was actually out of touch with the local scene, but your ROCKNA radio show gave me the opportunity to discover what the Maltese scene was producing”. He is very optimistic about the way the Maltese music scene has grown. “The way I see it, there’s been a musical explosion here, and there’s a lot of quality too. Of course, there’s always room for improvement in terms of standard, but giving local music a space on the airwaves gives them the incentive to strive harder”.
Before parting ways, I ask about his plans for the future. “I will definitely keep doing the radio show” he quickly replies. “In fact, I’m working on the possibility of franchising it to other territories beyond Malta and the UK”. And what about his own music, any new songs in the works? “My singing will always be there of course, because it’s my passion, so who knows, I might record something next year that might just blow everyone’s minds” he says with a cheeky grin. “I’m actually working on a new song that started here in Malta, so we’ll see where that goes”.
For more information about the radio show, look up the woodenman’s jukebox Facebook page.
Photo by Mary Elle
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (16 June, 2013)