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Jamaican legend Jimmy Cliff renewed on ‘Rebirth’

“I’m motivated to write about sociopolitical issues as well as relationships. I think those themes have stayed with me,” says Jimmy Cliff.

Greg Watermann

“I’m motivated to write about sociopolitical issues as well as relationships. I think those themes have stayed with me,” says Jimmy Cliff.

Of all the bands I saw at this year’s South by Southwest music festival — nearly 60 in four days — the one moment I’ll never forget belonged to a man who was making music when most of those musicians weren’t even born.

In front of an overflowing crowd late one night in March, Jimmy Cliff, the iconic reggae singer and songwriter, took the stage to rapturous applause and sang his hit version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”

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The room fell silent, then swayed, then danced, then roared along with him. A few weeks shy of his 64th birthday, Cliff sounded exactly as he did when he first made inroads in this country in the early 1970s.

Cliff’s performance was simply the start of a strong year for the Jamaican legend. Over the summer he released “Rebirth,” a new album helmed by Tim Armstrong of the ska-punk band Rancid. (On Wednesday the record earned Cliff a Grammy nomination for best reggae album.)

In 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and now he’s the opening act on a stretch of the Dave Matthews Band’s new tour, which stops at TD Garden on Sunday.

Cliff recently checked in with the Globe on the road from Louisville, Ky. “I kind of have a love for this city because one of the people I have admired a lot in my life was born here: Muhammad Ali,” he said.

Q. When I saw you earlier this year, I couldn’t believe how much your voice hasn’t changed. What is your secret?

A. Thank you. It’s a matter of getting enough rest and trying to live healthy.

Q. How did you hook up with Tim for this new album?

A. It took me quite a long time to come up with a new album for the reason that the music business has changed so much. I needed to have the right kind of people around me, from managers to record companies. Tim’s name came up among the people who were suggested. I said, “Wow, I know Tim Armstrong. I’ve seen him on the Internet singing ‘The Harder They Come,’ and I know his band, Rancid. Also, Joe Strummer of the Clash spoke to me about him. So we spoke on the phone, and it felt really cool. We decided to meet in the studio, and it felt even better. It just evolved from there.

Q. How did he pitch this album to you?

A. There were some songs that I already had, but the first thing that happened was he played me a track. I said, “Wow, this thing sounds like the music we were playing way back then. I didn’t know that this existed anymore.” I sang the song, “Ruby Soho,” and then we started to bounce ideas off each other. Some of the songs we just wrote on the spot in the studio.

Q. The album starts with “World Upside Down,” which reaffirms your commitment to social justice. Have your songwriting concerns evolved over the years?

A. Basically I’m motivated to write about sociopolitical issues as well as relationships. I think those themes have stayed with me throughout my life. “Children’s Bread” is a sociopolitical song on this new album.

Q. The album is called “Rebirth.” Did it feel like that for you?

A. It is a rebirth of my career at this time. I have goals yet to accomplish, and I think this album is the stepping stone toward those goals. The challenge of the album was going back to finding those sounds we used to play back then, to go back to those forms of ska and rocksteady. That was a big challenge for me.

Q. How surprised were you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame?

A. I was very, very surprised. When I was nominated, I said, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” I had not looked at that institution much because I didn’t know the importance of it. And some people said it was a big thing. When I got inducted, I realized it was a really prestigious American institution. The music that I represent and helped to create and establish was born in Jamaica. So to be inducted into this American institution is really a cool thing.

Q. “The Harder They Come,” the 1972 film you starred in, has become a classic, in addition to its soundtrack. Did you have any sense that it would hold up as well as it has?

A. I had no idea it would become a classic. We just went into it with the spirit that we wanted it to be great.

Q. Did you feel like a natural actor?

A. I used to do a little acting in school. It was my first love, and I really thought I would be doing it as a career. I really wanted to complete that part of my ambition. I still have that in mind. I have a few movies on the table now, and one of them will go into production next year.

Q. Does being a musician involve a degree of acting?

A. For me, not really. That is what I do. But with acting you have to become someone else. That’s the fun part of it for me — to step outside of yourself and become a character. I guess being Jimmy Cliff is a little bit of a character, too.

Interview has been condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @
GlobeJamesReed
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