Eric Benet: Perfect timing
With his latest, fifth album ‘Lost In Time’ being publicly hailed by many connoisseurs as the finest soul release of the last 12 months, singer/songwriter/producer Eric Benet returns to the UK for live dates later this month - including a prestigious performance at Jazz FM and Expansion Records’ 16th Luxury Soul Weekender, which is set to take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole between Friday, May 27 and Sunday, May 29.
Indeed, boasting duets with such US-chart-topping soul and R&B luminaries as Faith Evans, Chrisette Michelle, Ledisi and Eddie Levert of iconic Seventies Philly-soul trio The O’Jays, ‘Lost In Time’ (which debuted at Number Eight on the US R&B album chart) represents Eric’s loving homage to the sweet soul sound of the early-to-mid-Seventies. A concept which - in order to keep the connection to the music and time that shaped him as an artist - found Benet returning to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and recording with various local musicians, including The Milwaukee Symphony’s string section.
All of which - with ‘Lost In Time’ being written and produced by Eric himself along with long-time creative partner (and cousin) George Nash, Jr. - is evidenced in the album’s passionate, heartfelt combination of elaborately-orchestrated midtempo and slower tunes with occasional Philly-influenced upbeat groovers. As can be heard on highlights ranging from the achingly melancholy US single ‘Sometimes I Cry’ and hauntingly romantic ‘Never Want To Live Without You’; to the irrepressibly uplifting ‘Feel Good’ and punchy, early-disco-flavoured ‘Good Life’.
Born Eric Benet Jordan in October 1970 in Mobile, Alabama but raised in the aforementioned city of Milwaukee, Eric grew up the youngest of five siblings before beginning his live singing career in the late-Eighties in a local Top 40 band called Gerard. His recording career, meanwhile, kicked-off after he formed a band with his sister Lisa and aforementioned cousin George Nash, Jr. called simply Benet, whose self-titled debut album was released in 1992.
With Eric next going on to begin his solo career at Warner Bros. Records with his 1996 debut album ‘True To Myself’, it was nevertheless his 1999 Platinum-certified sophomore set ‘A Day In The Life’ which earned him his first Grammy nomination (for its US R&B chart-topping offshoot single ‘Spend My Life With You’, a duet with soulful songstress Tamia). Meanwhile, following a difficult period in his personal life (which included his much-publicised separation from then-wife, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry), Benet next teamed-up with legendary producer David Foster (of Whitney Houston’s ‘Bodyguard’ fame) for the pensive l995 set ‘Hurricane’. Which in turn preceded the 2008 release of his fourth album, the critically-acclaimed double-Grammy-nominated ‘Love & Life’.
… Which in turn brings us up-to-date with Eric celebrating the release of his aforementioned latest LP ‘Lost In Time’ with his upcoming British live dates. As an ever-affable and softly-spoken Mr. Benet reacquaints himself with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for a revealing 30-minute chat.
The thinking behind making his latest album a paean to the classic soul of the early-to-mid Seventies
“Well, whenever I listen to the radio - especially here in The States - to me it just seems there’s a lot missing in contemporary music. And, when I did an album a few years ago called ‘Love And Life’, I actually had a song on there called ‘You’re The Only One’ which basically represented my homage to the Seventies - in that it had a very Philly-ish, doo wop-y kind of vibe. So, with it being a huge hit here in The States - it was Number One for four weeks - and because I had so much fun recording, writing and then performing it, I basically thought ‘Well, maybe for my next record I’ll do an entire ALBUM that’s like a homage to what is my favourite era of R&B’… And so that’s pretty much where the concept behind making this latest album - ‘Lost In Time’ - CAME from.”
With his music having always had a strong Seventies influence, the specific ways in which Eric went about making ‘Lost In Time’ essentially different from his previous four albums
“To me this particular album is different in that while, when you’re listening to my other albums you can definitely hear a Seventies INFLUENCE, this was the first time where - as opposed to it just feeling like an INFLUENCE - I wanted it to feel like we were actually THERE! Because pretty much everything on this album was done LIVE. You know, in terms of the recording techniques, before making this album I watched documentaries and read articles about how tracks were recorded back in the day, and then just tried to stick to the blueprint as close as POSSIBLE. In that, with every track I pretty much assembled my musicians, had the drummer count it off, and then had everyone just playing off each OTHER. You know, rather than doing say the drum track first and then editing that to make it as perfect as we could before laying the bass down, I basically just had everybody mic-ed up and ready to go and then vibing off each other as we actually laid the songs DOWN.”
How Eric feels recording the album live made a difference to the end result
“To me it made it all very organic and natural and real. Plus it also adds so much more CHARACTER to the tracks. In that you get these unpredictable moments of sheer brilliance that happen, where maybe the bass-player is reacting to something the drummer did, or I may react vocally to something that maybe the guitar-player has just done... So yeah, to me recording live definitely added a certain LIFE to the recordings that is definitely lacking when you try to make it too perfect.”
The large number of guests on ‘Lost In Time’ - which includes such major R&B/soul names as Faith Evans; Eddie Levert of The O’Jays; Chrisette Michelle; and Ledisi
“While ‘Lost In Time’ probably has more duets on it than any of my other albums, at the same time it wasn’t really PLANNED that way. It was something that just kinda HAPPENED! Like when George (Nash, Jr.) and I were writing the songs, it would just become very obvious along the way that some were just for me and that others would be better as DUETS. And what happens when it becomes clear that a song is a duet, is that I can then begin to hear the type of tone or vocal attitude or personality that’s NEEDED for the song - which in turn leads me to thinking of certain artists to reach out to and see if they’re available. Like with Chrisette Michelle - who’s fairly new on the scene - because I think she has a very unique sassiness about her voice, to me it was obvious that she’d fit perfectly on the song ‘Take It’. Then with Eddie Levert, as soon as we got to the chorus of the song ‘Paid’ it was clearly obvious that we were writing a song that could have been on an O’Jays’ record alongside tracks like ‘Backstabbers’ and ‘For The Love Of Money’. So straightaway we just knew that we had to send him the demo, to see if he’d be interested in DOING it... So yeah, to me each particular song does lend itself to a certain personality and a certain tone. And once we get to that point, it’s then up to me to just close the DEAL, so to speak! To call up the artist and try to convince them that they absolutely must be on this recording WITH me!”
How Eric’s early years as the youngest of five siblings growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin impacted on his musically
“I can’t honestly say that Milwaukee as a CITY influenced me musically, because - when I was growing up there - it really didn’t have a big, creative R&B scene. I mean, there may have been a band here or a band there - like there is in EVERY city - but overall looking back I think my strongest musical influence actually came from my FAMILY. In that I was the youngest of a bunch of kids who all had great taste in music and a great album collection that I’d always dip into and LISTEN to. I mean, all my siblings sang and created music, they all played instruments... So, whether it be in our kitchen or in our living room, they’d always be listening to, say, Stevie Wonder or Earth, Wind & Fire albums, deconstructing the harmonies, figuring them out and then reproducing them PERFECTLY!… Plus the other thing about me and my siblings was that we all had a very DIVERSE taste in music - that ranged from Queen and The Beatles, to Funkadelic and James Brown, and on to Frank Zappa and Elton John!... Which is why I think today, though my music is definitely based in R&B and soul, creatively there are definitely other influences going on. And, as I say, that’s something that unquestionably stems from my beginnings back in Milwaukee with my older sisters and brother.”
Eric’s views on the UK market, and what we can expect later this month from his performances at The Luxury Soul Weekender in Birmingham and at London’s IndigO2
“Well, there are certain regions or certain countries in the world that from my perspective seem to have a deeper appreciation of actual MUSIC, as opposed to just RECORDING artists. And to me the UK definitely seems to be one of those places that has a real appreciation for authentic soul and authentic R&B. As opposed to here in The States, where we seem to be much less interested in the substance of the MUSIC and more interested in the persona of the ARTIST. Which is why it’s often frustrated me that some of my albums haven’t been promoted that strongly in the UK, because I do genuinely feel that my music is a really good fit for that MARKET... So yeah, with me being an artist that’s all about the music and all about being onstage and trying to authentically deliver emotion through my songs, for my live dates themselves you’re definitely not gonna see any dancing girls or any pyro-techs! Instead what you ARE gonna get is some incredible grooves, some great licks, and a beautiful, emotional JOURNEY! Because as a performer that’s pretty much what I’m all ABOUT!”
Eric performs at Jazz FM and Expansion Records’ Luxury Soul Weekender at The Hilton Birmingham Metropole on May 28 (0844 888 9991). He also performs at The IndigoO2, London on May 30 (0844 844 0002)
The album ‘Lost In Time’ is out now through Reprise
Words PETE LEWIS