Eric Roberson: The Erro effect
Widely acknowledged as America’s Number One independent soul/R&B artist, Rahway New Jersey-raised Eric Roberson this month releases his eighth album, the intriguingly-titled ‘Mister Nice Guy’. Which in turn features duets with the likes of veteran New York rapper Chubb Rock; Grammy-nominated North Carolina rhymesmith Phonte (of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange fame); plus R&B songstress Jean Baylor, formerly of Nineties Motown female hit duo Zhane.
All of which marks an impressive new release for the singer/songwriter/producer often referred to as simply "Erro", who prestigiously back in 1990 won a scholarship to Howard University before releasing his first single - ‘The Moon’ - for Warner Brothers in 1994. Having gone on to also record an album for Warners which never got released, in 1995 Roberson returned to the aforementioned Howard to complete his studies in Musical Theatre before landing a songwriting deal with EMI and eventually hooking up with Philadelphia-based artists like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and DJ Jazzy Jeff - most notably contributing to the latter’s 2002 LP ‘The Magnificent’.
Setting up his own record-label Blue Erro Soul in 2001, in the same year Eric independently released his debut album ‘The Esoteric Movement’. Which he has since followed up with seven further self-financed albums - the last three of which (2007’s ‘…Left’; 2009’s ‘Music Fan First’; and the current ‘Mister Nice Guy’) have also been released in the UK and Europe via respected British indie Dome.
Meanwhile, having prestigiously been nominated for a Grammy in each of the past two years for recordings from his aforementioned last LP ‘Music Fan First’, an ever-warm-mannered and charming 34-year-old Mr. Roberson reacquaints himself with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss his aforementioned new LP; his thoughts on receiving his first-ever Grammy nominations; the current state of the indie soul scene; plus his forthcoming three-date October UK tour.
PETE: Much of this album does seem to have a more immediate, upbeat flavour than some of your past work…
ERIC: “Well, it’s funny - because every album I do I kinda start by MISTAKE! You know, for whatever reason, I just get in the studio and start recording! And the reason THIS time was, my wife was pregnant and I didn’t wanna be on the road when the BABY came! So I took a couple of months off, stayed at home - and, while I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs, sure enough I actually started RECORDING! And because I was naturally in such good spirits and having such a fun time, that was the direction the music kinda WENT in… Then from there, as always, the wake-up call came when I was suddenly like ‘Wow, I already have about seven songs I really love - maybe I should start thinking about an ALBUM!’… And so I just followed that path from THERE! Which is why this time there was definitely more of an upbeat aspect to it all - from a tempo standpoint, in terms of the vibe, the feeling… You know, I really wanted to just carry on making it a fun-spirited thing, while also showing a sense of HUMOUR. Because, though people who come to my shows know that we can be quite silly at times, people who just hear my albums tend to just hear a more SERIOUS side.”
PETE: Also lyrically, some of the themes and concepts you cover are particularly thought-provoking this time round…
ERIC: “Well, lyrically I always try to push the envelope - and this album, though I didn’t realise at the time I was making it, probably represents the furthest I’ve stretched so FAR! Because a lot of it is about me just diving into, and being, different CHARACTERS!… I mean, to me, no matter who we are, we all have the same basic DESIRES. We all love to have a companion and love to have security, we love to be appreciated and wanted - and so, in my music we do play around with concepts relating TO that. Like several of the songs on this album - like ‘Try Love’ and ‘Shake My Hand’ - actually go back to conversations I had with my grandfather, who actually passed on this year. You know, he and I would sit and talk for hours, he’d come up with these theories and concepts... And, though I have previously brought some of that into my BALLADS, I think this time around the goal was more to try and to carry those deep concepts and theories into UPTEMPO songs. Which, as I say, did make me stretch that much FURTHER.”
PETE: Interestingly, the track ‘Come With Me’ marks the first time you’ve ever put your father’s voice on one of your records, and you have hinted there’ll be more of that to come…
ERIC: “Yeah, well my father has an amazing voice - very husky, really heavy... I actually describe it as like a mixture of Otis Redding and Elvis! And it was actually really funny how he came to be on that track! Because he happened to be down in the studio with me, I was playing him the songs, he was getting excited… And so, when we got to ‘Come With Me’, I was like ‘Yo Pop, you gotta get on this song WITH me!’… And while at first he was like ‘NO!’, I did manage to persuade him! And like you say, there is definitely gonna be more of that to COME! I’ve actually just written a song for him to sing to my mother called ‘I Wanna Reinvest In You’ because, as I say, he is a great VOCALIST! I mean, I grew up hearing him around the HOUSE! As soon as he’d get home, he’d give us a hug, pick a guitar up, and just play for the rest of the NIGHT - which ultimately is what really shaped us MUSICALLY… So yeah, while he’s already been working in my company for many years handling the distribution side of things, it’s great to now get him on the music side TOO!”
PETE: Your last album - 2009’s ‘Music Fan First’ - garnered you your first two Grammy nominations. How do you feel about that, and what difference - as an independent artist - do you think it’s made to your career?
ERIC: “I think it was an honour - particularly when we were nominated for songs that most of my peers would not have EXPECTED to be nominated for. Because both ‘Still’ and ‘A Tale Of Two’ are very, very different SONGS! I mean, neither really holds a songwriting structure. ‘A Tale Of Two’ doesn’t have a hook; ‘Still’ is like this long, sad monologue with these really weird rhythm patterns... So to be nominated for them to me just showed that, if you follow your heart, the rewards and the approval WILL COME!
PETE: So what are your ideas on the current state of the independent soul scene?
ERIC: “That’s a good question, because to me there is still a question-mark around it in terms of where it IS and where it can BE. Because in my opinion, while I do think it has potential, in terms of the industry overall there is still a wrestling-match going on. Also, in some ways, I feel we’re in a funny PLACE right now. Because, with artists like me and my peers like Rahsaan (Patterson) now having reached a stable point in our career, it’s become a thing where we’re trying to anchor where we’re at as well as trying to put a few more people through that DOOR. And so in that way we do need to make sure we’re as open MENTALLY as we are MUSICALLY. In that we need to challenge everyone to not only do better in terms of their MUSIC, but also as PEOPLE. Because at the end of the day we’re all still HUMANS - and some people are scared, some people are insecure, some people are still greedy… Which in turn can prevent people who are already successful from passing on the knowledge they have, and from trying to nurture the NEXT wave of artists. I mean, we just had the International Soul Music Summit, where there we so many people - artists from Australia, from California - who came to Atlanta to meet that week. And in my view an event like that - where you have like-minded people all sitting down together and talking about where they’re at - is ALWAYS a good thing!... So yeah, to me right now it’s all about continuing to improve as an artist, while at the same time doing what you can to give BACK.”
PETE: Finally, with you shortly returning to the UK for three live dates, what can we expect from your shows this time round?
ERIC: “I think the one thing you can guarantee is that it’ll be fun, it’ll be open, and it’ll have a lotta ENERGY! Because with this new album ESPECIALLY holding a lot of energy, I’m definitely looking forward to transferring that to the STAGE! Also, like I said, I do love doing musical theatre - and I think I’ve fulfilled that desire through my live SHOW! In that I do try to write songs that allow me to be different CHARACTERS onstage… So yeah, if you haven’t seen one of my shows before, it’ll be a touch of the old and a touch of the new - but at the end of the day, it’ll be an EXPERIENCE! Because the two goals are to make people RELATE to what we’re doing, and to give them an opportunity to escape from where they ARE.”
Eric performs at IndigO2, London (October 13) Ticketmaster The Drum, Birmingham (15); and Manchester, Band On The Wall (16)
The album ‘Mister Nice Guy’ is out now through Dome
FOR MORE FROM PETE LEWIS' INTERVIEW WITH INDEPENDENT SUPERSTAR ERIC ROBERSON, CHECK OUT BLUES & SOUL'S PRINTED OCTOBER/NOVEMBER EDITION
Words PETE LEWIS