Date of Interview: 01/20/2010
For nearly two decades, Eric Roberson has reigned as the king of the independent soul music movement. Even so, he remains to be one of the industry’s best-kept secrets, since his fan base and reputation have been largely built upon word-of-mouth stemming from his spectacular live performances. In fact, as an esteemed alumnus of Howard University, Roberson’s name is spoken in “Chocolate City” with a level of reverence that is generally reserved for his musical forebears – Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. Such glowing respect is well-deserved, however.
In 2010, with the release of Music Fan First, Eric Roberson received his first GRAMMY nomination – “Best Urban/Alternative Performance” for “A Tale of Two” – along with Ben O’Neill and Michelle Thompson. In celebration of this historic milestone, “Erro” managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on sixteen years of resilience, the influence of DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Sol Village, his monthly showcase at SOB’s in New York City.
Clayton Perry: Congratulations on your 2010 Grammy Award nomination! To be perfectly frank, my friends and I often wondered what took the Recording Academy so long to recognize your work! But now that you officially have the industry’s highest “stamp of approval,” how does it feel?
Eric Roberson: Man, I’m still numb from the whole situation. I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet, but what I will say is that it’s very reassuring because the last nine, ten years, I have just been stepping out on faith and following my heart, you know? And a lot of times it may not have been the best decision or my peers may not have thought it was wise. But with a nomination like this, it’s like saying what you’re doing is right and keep going. I’m completely honored. I feel like it’s even more responsibility, a good responsibility, because I think it’s going to slowly but surely open the door for a lot of other people to get recognized. To me, it’s a sign that the playing field is getting leveled and a show of appreciation for making good music, and not focusing on what label it belongs to, or how many records it sold compared to some big artist, or whatever.
Clayton Perry: I hope that the tide is changing! This year, a few other independent soul artists received nominations as well. What do you think has caused this sudden change?
Eric Roberson: This is a crazy thought as a comparison, but I don’t know if President Obama could have won the election a couple of years ago just because of the people that were in play. Race is definitely a factor in American life, but as more and more white people became exposed to different black personalities, they also were reeducated on who we are as a people. Now, the government looks different, from the Supreme Court to the Congress looks different. When I look at the Recording Academy, I kind of feel like it’s almost the same thing, because my peers are now in a voting situation. People that know my story are in the movement, which is slowly but surely helping. It’s not all the way where it needs to be at yet, but it’s getting there. Case in point – Robert Glasper and Bilal received nominations in my category, too. And then you have Foreign Exchange. And these guys are pretty much part of the independent movement. Robert Glasper plays for Maxwell, but puts out his own album. And Foreign Exchange has several different groups and collaborated with so many different artists. We’ve circled the wagon. Sure we’re independent artists. But you know what? We work with major artists. We’ll write and produce for them, but we’ll do our own stuff as well. So we’re just covering the music business in general. When it comes down to it, if a Robert Glasper song comes across a desk, it has a better chance of being recognized for what it is now, because they see his work, all across the board, who he is and what his story is about. And it probably goes the same for me, as well as a lot of other independent artists. We just have to make sure that we keep it pushing ahead, so that the next people that are coming around behind us can benefit from that. And I think they can. I think they will.
Clayton Perry: As I hear you talk about “pushing ahead,” I immediately thought of a couple key moments in your life that are certainly the by-products of divine intervention. Sometimes, you never know how one thing can lead to another. When you were sixteen years old, for example, you were in the Mr. Black Teenage World pageant. Had it not been for that, you would not have received your scholarship to Howard University. When you look at your career, how did your Howard experience shape your future life as an independent artist?
Eric Roberson: Man, that’s a great, great question, because there are no accidents. My father always says that. But at the same time, it’s amazing how a small change can have a tremendous impact. My mother put my sister in pageants, and me being the younger brother, I pretty much did everything that my sister did. But while at her Hal Jackson pageant, she met someone who said, “If your son has talent, there’s competitions for him, as well.” And just being an active mom, trying to keep me out of trouble, anything she could put me in, she pretty much put me in. In addition, when I won the national Mr. Black Teenage World competition, to realize that I had a scholarship to Howard University — I can reassure you that I would not have been able to go to Howard if there was not that scholarship. My whole life course would have been totally different. I probably would have gone to school locally in New Jersey and tried to get a football scholarship. Even my focus in that regard would have been totally different. So to go to Howard, which has a great amount of musical history, and to be surrounded by such amazing talent, it was definitely a chin-check. It was made for me, man. I was in heaven in those years. And it made me not only the man that I am today, but it a better artist, a better student, a better everything. And I won’t say that it was always easy. That was definitely hard. But that was probably the start, right there, of where everything started coming together. Without that one scholarship, right there alone, I don’t know what I would have done. I knew Shai – who were good friends of mine at Howard – and when they got signed, I gave them my demo tape and said, “Hey, if you could pass it on to somebody… “ If they hadn’t done that, where would I be at? In some form or fashion, maybe I would have still gotten to this point. But I’m appreciative of all the rare opportunities I’ve had that actually led me to getting to some place such as this.
Clayton Perry: The one thing I always respected about you is your level of determination and always “pushing ahead” — no matter what. During the early part of your career, after a few setbacks with Warner Bros. and Island, some people would have just given up. Where did you get the strength to continue? And looking back, how was being dropped a blessing in disguise?
Eric Roberson: It’s several different things. Aside from just having a good supporting cast – parents who were just very encouraging, my sister – everybody was encouraging through those tough times. It was humbling. I probably spent more time on the eye-opening facts of the whole thing, because up to that point, everything vocally always worked for me. Music and singing solved all my problems. If I broke up with a girl, then opened my mouth and starting singing, I could find another girl. I thought the world would be paved out for me easily because I could sing. I naively thought that up to that point. To see the business come in and punch me clean in the face, that was just an eye-opener – especially the Island situation. A new President came in, he had his people, and he didn’t care who was there. I’m like, “Well, you can at least listen to what I have.” He goes, “No, I’m good. We’re good. We’ve got a male vocalist that we’ve been working on, that we’re bringing in. It is what it is.” I couldn’t understand that. I was like, “What do you mean? If I at least open my mouth for you, I think I can keep my spot if I can at least sing for you.” They were like, “We don’t even need to hear what you want to sing,” like it doesn’t matter. So that was eye-opening to know you’re really going to have to develop other aspects of who you are. That might have been the sole reason why I went back to school – which was a great, great decision, overall, when I look back in my life. I’m so happy that I went back to school. I’m so happy for the opportunity. Even though the embarrassment and pain that it may have caused going back, it was still the best decision I ever made. And it made me the better artist because if I stayed on that label and put out more music, I don’t think I had the talent level at the time to put out consistent music that I do now. There’s a lot I learned in that moment of being able to step back. I’ve seen a lot of artists from the writing and production side that get signed, and because now they’re out there, they don’t have the opportunity to really develop certain parts. It’s almost like a kid that skips college and goes back to the pros. And if he had not skipped college, he would have had a little more time, maybe, to work on that outside jumper a little more. But now he’s got eighty-two games a year, he doesn’t have the time to really step back because so much time is looked at like, “Okay, you’re a Laker today. You’ve got to study this. You’ve got to study how to guard it. Okay, tomorrow you have to…” There’s no room to step back and go, “Okay, how can I better myself”? Those years – going back to Howard – were more about me saying, “Okay, let me figure out how I want to do music and how I hear music.”
Clayton Perry: Luckily, you have your own label, Blue Erro Soul, as well as a personal studio – the Blue Room – where you record all your music. At what point did these elements become vital and necessary for fostering your artistic expression?
Eric Roberson: One of the big steps for me was meeting Jazzy Jeff and the producers at a Touch of Jazz in Philadelphia. I spent years in those basement studios in Philadelphia honing my craft and worked with some amazing people. That was when my songwriting and my artistry all went to another place. That was the first time I really went into a studio and didn’t have to worry about a time. We were sneaking in at nighttime and off-hours, or I was going in paying for time. So we were going in and Jazzy Jeff just wanted us to work. He just wanted us to vibe out. So those hours of spending time to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t work for me, what worked to better a song and what didn’t work to better production or whatever, really opened up that drive to say, “Man, there’s so much creativity that can open up if we’re given the time of finding that next layer.” And that was what really started me buying my own equipment. I realized no one could stop me from doing what I love if I own what I love. So bit by bit, one by one, when I made a little bit of money, it went to equipment. And before you knew it, I had so much equipment, that it was like, “Okay, let me try to put this equipment into an actual studio room.” And that’s what came to building the Blue Room and the rest was history. Once I got my own equipment, I could sit in there and work for days. That’s when I was able to let go of a lot more. If you have to make self- discoveries in public, you may not be able to realize a lot of your mistakes or a lot of your shortcomings or a lot of your accomplishments, because you’re still presenting it. But when you can really reflect over things in private, there’s another level, another wall that opens up for you. And that was what happened for me, artistry-wise. I still love the fact that I have my own studio. And when I have a little idea, I can go right downstairs and click the equipment on and try to hammer that idea out. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. It’s extremely important to today’s artists, in my opinion. If you really want to find who you are musically, that’s a step up that you must take.
Clayton Perry: When you look at yourself artistically, what skill do you think you have improved upon the most?
Eric Roberson: Mainly to show who I am. It’s funny. I have a show at SOB’s that I do called Sol Village. Every month we do it. I’ve spent so much time on stage now, and that has helped me so much, because there are certain times where, say the drummer broke the kick-drum, or let’s say the guitar amp isn’t working between acts. And I had to problem-solve while on stage, while performing. That’s like the main part of my job. As the host of that show, I have to hold everyone’s attention while still stage managing and navigating the night. And being on stage so much becomes second nature. I’m able to be on stage and be myself and still be in the moment of performing and be able to give you the talent that you paid to come see, but yet can still be going, “Okay, where’s the next act at? Let me flag down the assistant so he can go track that person down. And let me sing another song while the keyboard player is still trying to get the sound on his second keyboard,” or whatever. It’s funny, because at Howard, I was a musical theatre major and those acting classes that I had during that time helped shaped how I perform so much. I just can’t really express that enough. That was one of the main sparks that helped my writing, how much it helped my stage presence. As individuals we all see things differently. We all carry things differently. We all have something special. So the moment that I can see you for your work, it’s special, whoever it is. And if we all just show who we are, we’ll all have something different to say. I’m just all about trying to show me, but more importantly, I’m trying to not get in the way of myself while showing myself. And that’s what we all do. We go, “I’m the show. Oh my God! I need this crazy outfit. I’m just not doing something so I have to make myself look cool.” And you already cool. You already cool. If you just get up there and have your talent together, and present yourself or present you, and not be so occupied with all the craziness, everything will be cool. I loved to dress. I’m going to be on stage looking fresh, but at no point am I going to allow what I do on stage to hurt my performance. Let’s say the shoes are uncomfortable or the outfit makes me feel too tight, or whatever. The most important thing is the connection. And I’ve learned that. I’ve learned to say, you know, “That’s a dope jacket, but I’m not going to wear it because I feel comfortable on stage here,” among other things.
Clayton Perry: Sol Village is a commitment that you have held yourself to for quite some time. How did that opportunity first come about, and why is it so important to you?
Eric Roberson: Well, I remember at one point, I had become a pretty successful songwriter. And I would walk into meetings with my songs. I would be told, “Oh, that’s nice, man. I can hear this for such-and-such. I can hear this for such-and-such.” I’d go, “But, that’s my song. I kind of thought I would sing this one.” And they’re like, “No, man. You’re a songwriter, man.” I’m singing my face off. There’s still artist mode on the song. A song about my own life. I remember I wanted to make steps, bold steps to separate myself from the usual songwriting title that I had built for myself, to be honest. So, I started trying to do some shows. And I remember trying to do shows in New York. And I remember trying to get in SOB and not being able to perform there. I remember it. I remember calling and not being able to perform. And I remember – the way we got into SOB’s was – we said, “Well, how much does it cost to just rent your club? How much does this cost?” And he said, “Well, okay, it costs this,” and whatever, whatever. I said, “Well, I want to rent your club out. I want to rent your club out.” And I bought the club out for a night. And I did a free concert for all the industry and all my friends. That event was so successful, that SOB’s was like, “Wow. We were really impressed with your talent and we really like what you are doing.” From that point on, when I called and wanted to do a show there, it gave me the opportunity to do a show. Now, mind you, if I didn’t buy that club out, I don’t know when I would have ever got a chance to perform there. But it built years of me being able to do shows there. I did shows; probably every five or six months, I would do another show just to perform. So it made sense. And one of the managers at the time – her name was Erica Elliott – she said, “I’m sure there’s other talent like you who would love to perform on this stage that just doesn’t get a chance to. What do you think if we did a monthly show called Sol Village where people could perform?” And I jumped at that. I said, “I would love to host it. I would love to do it,” because I remember being that person. So now, to give acts an opportunity once a month to perform on a stage such as SOB’s where industry people can come and see you and you’re guaranteed a good crowd each and every month, it’s been beautiful. I mean, sure, it’s a dedication to make sure I’m available every third Wednesday of the month, but it isn’t that hard. It isn’t that hard. That, to me, is all worth it, because I remember when I was that person. I’ve been in this business now for over sixteen years now…
Clayton Perry: It is crazy to hear you say that.
Eric Roberson: It’s really crazy. And let me side-step for a second. I performed on Sunday at Lincoln Theatre in D.C. and I had not been on that stage since I was probably nineteen or twenty years old. The last time I performed there, I was performing “The Moon” and other songs I had at the time of the Warner Bros. deal. And here I am now, revisiting this stage with this huge amazing gap in-between it. I remember seeing things had changed. I remember when The Roots or Jill Scott or Erykah Badu and D’Angelo could do SOB, but an independent artist couldn’t set foot on that stage. I remember it. I was one of the people who was trying to get on that stage. Now, four or five acts get that opportunity every month. It’s a launching pad for these artists, and because they do so well and build their following through Sol Village, they’re even doing their own nights at SOB’s, as well as all around New York. It’s just part of it, man. I’m just happy to be a part of the foundation of a lot of things. By no means am I taking credit for launching anything. But I’m just happy to be a part of a lot of stuff that has helped, including myself.
Clayton Perry: Mentorship is a really big thing. There was this quote that has always stuck with me. You said that in this kind of climate – the current climate – the artist is the brand. When you are talking to these younger artists and you are being a mentor to them, when you think of that phrase, “the artist is the brand”? What kind of advice do you give them?
Eric Roberson: I heard a great bit of information recently from a lady that runs a music program out of Drexel University in Philadelphia. If you can take a look at it, I think it would be a great article. They run a record label through the college. It’s the craziest thing I ever heard in my life. On every aspect, from booking to publishing, and they have five acts that aren’t college students through this label, and the label has major distribution, but that’s a whole other story. The lady who runs the whole program, she told me it’s not about units sold anymore. It’s all about the relationship with each consumer. So, as an artist having and maintaining a brand, it’s about finding and prioritizing that relationship. Through the years, from the start, sure, I am the brand. I am every aspect of this business. And if I show you my passion and my conviction and challenge you to connect with it, I feel that I will not only have you, but I will have who surrounds you, as well. That’s why when I get off that stage, you’re going to find me by the exit to shake your hand, to say, “Thank you for coming.” And you’re going to have to walk by this CD table and avoid me, if possible. And you don’t have to buy a CD, but you know what? “Can you sign a mailing list?” Or, can you at least shake my hand and say, “Hey, man, I really appreciate you taking the time to come to this show. You want to take a picture? Sure.” Whatever we can do, because I want you to walk away with this moment time-stamped on your heart. When you go back to your girlfriend or to your boys in the barbershop, “Yo, man, this cat, he was really — I don’t know why he just kept saying do whatever, whatever, whatever, but man, he’s a good dude, and the people around him were good people and we were all focused on the same common bond.” And it becomes contagious. When that person comes back, they bring somebody with them, and it repeats all over again. We’re showing you who we are, man. We’ve got the greatest opportunity in the world to do what we love and to make a living doing it. There’s really no reason to come around kicking and sulking or whatever. It is beautiful, man, it is absolutely beautiful. And to me, we’re coming on good energy, man. Let’s celebrate that, man, and keep trying to rise to the next point. So that’s what I think everyone needs to do. When I mentor people, I try to tell them, “Find the main good part about it. And stay true to what you love to do.” So sure, the business part may become a headache at times. It just makes me draw more focus to what I love in it. We’re all going to have hard times. We all had to take some chances. We’ve all had to make some sacrifices to make it work. But the more that we focus on the main part. . .. To me, that was a very big realization for me when I started becoming honest with myself of what I wanted. What everyone else wanted for me was to become this big recording artist and sell millions of records. That was what people wanted for me. What I really wanted was to be able to be creative and to be able to inspire and to be able to grow old doing this music that I love. Getting a major record deal and singing someone else’s song, I would be very unhappy. I know that for myself. That might be good for someone else, but we all, at times, have to find what makes us happy and what we really want. So the moment that I stopped trying to make all my peers happy and started focusing on what makes me happy, then my decision process became a lot easier. I’m fine with not having a major record deal. I’m fine with carrying my own equipment in, because I know what this show is going to bring. It’s interesting. The other day I did an interview with a reporter. And he said one day his phone rang and it was an elderly lady saying that her paper wasn’t delivered today. This guy was a writer. So he said he went and grabbed a paper, took her address down and drove and brought the paper to her. Now as an interviewer and a writer, some people may say, “Man, that’s above you. Why are you wasting time driving a newspaper? You could have called and made sure the delivery guy came and did it.” But who’s to say that wasn’t the best part of his job? Some people might say that’s just taking a step back, but man, dude, I personally deliver that paper all the time. And I get more pleasure out of personally delivering that paper than I do writing the song. We all have to find what we envision as success. Making that woman’s day was probably the best success he might have had for that week. Or when he gave that woman a paper, what she said to him may have fed him more than any check or any accolade or award may have been. I mean, dude, I get people to hand me baby pictures from babies that they conceived through my music.
Clayton Perry: I believe that! [laughing]
Eric Roberson: If I didn’t go back there to sign a CD and just went ahead and hopped in the van to go to the next city to do what we do, what blessings would I have missed, man? The blessings are just — the people that pull from different stuff, the questions. There was an independent artist who was waiting tables at the club that I was doing. “You know, man, we’re going to do it.” And then two years from now, I run into him and they’re opening for me. Or dare I say, I’m opening for them. So just being a part of that story, we all have to find out what is important to us, not what’s important to everyone else around us. What’s important to us. And when you find that, man, it’s effortless to put extra work towards it.
Clayton Perry: A couple of days ago, I was going back through my CDs and I came across the live DVD that you recorded in D.C. When I look at the product, I am very impressed by the quality of work you present, in general, because there are not that many artists, especially independent artists, who come out with a DVD of their show, as well as a CD of the audio. You are definitely an inspiration to aspiring artist everywhere. And with the industry in the current state that it is in, a lot of people can definitely look to you in terms of a blueprint for what they need to be doing. I know that might be a lot of weight on your shoulders, but I see you getting more love now. Sadly, it took sixteen years, but I’m happy that you are doing what you love and stayed with it for so long.
Eric Roberson: I appreciate that. It’s all about organized growth, man. You may hear me say that a million times, but what my family has instilled in me is always trying to build, but never overshooting, just a steady growth. And for me, I’ve always had a year plan. I’ve always had a five-year plan. And I’ve succeeded way beyond what my five-year plan was five years ago. I still have a year plan right now, and I have a five-year plan from now. And I’m fine with each time they’re growing. I think it’s only a matter of time. With a Grammy nomination now and us being able to professionally tour throughout Europe and not just doing London and coming home or whatever, it really means a lot. So I can only imagine what it will be like in five years. I’m excited about it, man. I’m excited and patient to see.
For more information on Eric Roberson, visit his official website: http://blueerrosoul.blogspot.com/