Jimmy Cliff's 'Rebirth' a call for change

Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff performs during the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on April 13, 2012. Jimmy Cliff has been a reggae icon for half a century, but that doesn't mean he plans to become complacent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - Chris Pizzello

TORONTO - Jimmy Cliff has been a reggae icon for half a century, but that doesn't mean he plans to become complacent.

His new album, "Rebirth," is all about re-inventing his career and taking it to new heights, while also delivering the message that society is due for a rebirth too.

"I've always been an artist who highlights what is going on, whether locally or globally," Cliff, 64, said while sitting on the edge of a floral armchair in a sunny boardroom at a downtown Toronto hotel.

"So this is just a continuation, an expansion of those things."

Despite his lofty ambitions and the demands of his music career (he has gigs in Toronto and Montreal this weekend), Cliff radiates an air of tranquility. Known for his classic protest song "Vietnam," the singer has been advocating for social change for nearly 50 years, and continues to do so on "Rebirth."

His 2010 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cliff said, offered a springboard to take him to "higher places."

To get to those places, Cliff wanted to go back to the origins of his music on "Rebirth," his first studio album in seven years.

"When one is reborn, one has to go back to point zero, so that's where I went back," said Cliff, wearing a classic fedora and a textured camel jacket.

"I have the same sound that we used back then, we have the same instruments to get the sound, and we recorded the same way, which is live."

He said a lot of the inspiration for returning to that sound came from producer Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who created an "easy and fun" mood in the studio.

But the album is about more than just a musical rebirth, it's also a call for change.

Cliff says the need for social, economic and ecological change is greater than ever. And his new album has echoes of the mood driving the Occupy movements and the Arab spring.

"What's wrong with humanity/have they lost their sanity/for the sake of vanity?" he says, quoting from the track "World Upside Down."

Despite Cliff's status in the music industry, he says he's always setting new goals for himself.

"One of those goals was to conquer the world. I've done that to a degree, but to the highest degree is not finalized yet."

He says he still wants to win an Academy Award, and have a new string of number one hits for this generation, eventually becoming a "stadium act."

"There's so much that I have to say and share with this generation," said the singer. "This is like Act Two of Jimmy Cliff."

Cliff will perform at the Phoenix in Toronto on Saturday, and will appear at the Montreal International Reggae Festival on Sunday.