Having lived with Hepatitis C for nearly 20 years, London-based music producer and songwriter Jesper Mattsson has a personal investment in raising awareness of the chronic viral disease that affects 130 million people worldwide (another 350 million live with Hepatitis B).
As the disease claims 150 million lives every year, the World Health Alliance (WHA) is promoting greater access to vaccines and treatments to halve the annual death toll.
Mattsson, who is Danish, is working with artists from as far afield as Argentina, Norway, Bangladesh and Africa to produce the WHA's first music album aimed at raising the profile of Hepatitis. The album, which will also include a song from Mattsson's own band, will be released on World Hepatitis Day (May 19), a day that came into being last year due to collaborative efforts between North America, Latin America, Europe, North Africa, Australasia and China.
The 44-year-old, whose resume includes stints with legendary producers like Mike Hedges (U2, Dido) and Gordon Raphael (The Strokes), was in Shanghai this week to record one of Shanghai's oldest alternative rock bands, The Honeys (Tianmi de Haizi), the only Chinese contributor on the WHA compilation.
Mattsson took a studio break from recording The Honeys' "Yi Jiang Nan" (Remember Southern China), a song about separated lovers, to chat with Shanghai Star Weekend writer Linda Yu.
Q: Tell us a bit about your band's song for the album.
A: "Juju Man" is about witch doctors in Africa. Our band Crash Atkins is named after a foreign correspondent and Juju Man is sort of like a character - a lot of our songs are his stories as inspired by newspaper articles or stories on the news. Gary Lucas from New York, who Rolling Stone magazine calls perhaps one of the greatest living guitarists today, will play "Juju Man" with us for the WHA project.
Q: Why include China on a project like this?
A: China is a massive country, and you cannot completely ignore China on something like this. Also, the World Hepatitis Alliance is very big here in China and the patient-organization is one of the biggest (about 150 million Chinese live with Hepatitis B and roughly 40 million with Hepatitis C), so it was very important for us from the start to find a Chinese artist.
Q: What made you decide to include a track from The Honeys?
A: I think it's important a serious band gets heard. A lot of people in the United States think that most Chinese artists are pop because a lot of what you hear is stereotypical and is that kind of pop stuff. The Honeys is a band with a long history, they have weight, and have had to endure to keep going here because it's not as easy here to be a rock band compared to the West.
Q: What was it like working with the Shanghai band?
A: Working with them made me feel like they were kind of R.E.M-ish, not like they sound like R.E.M, but for me Michael Stipe has that quality of speaking the truth, there's something that makes you want to listen to him, and lead singer Yu Tian has that quality, too, a real strong kind of presence that is rare.
Q: Do you think Chinese bands like The Honeys, which sing in Chinese, can make it on the world stage?
A: I can't see why not really. There are bands like Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band, singing a language that no one understands and it still sells lots of records. It's not always about people understanding the lyrics; it's about conveying something else. I can't see why a song with Chinese lyrics wouldn't be able to reach an audience outside of China.
Q: What kind of opportunities are there?
A: People are listening to more international music. That's one of the main reasons we didn't want this to be a traditional charity record with a bunch of UK pop stars singing for the WHA. It's much more interesting to go out in the world and say: "Who are they listening to in Bangladesh? Who are they listening to in China? What does Mayan music sound like, and who do the Brazilians like?" I'm sure it will travel beyond language because all the music on this CD is quite heartfelt.