“I always say that my three headed monster of influences are Stevie wonder, Commissioned and A Tribe Called Quest. There was an awakening when I heard the music of each one of those artists. And to this day I still try to mix those three together to make my sound.”
New Jersey native and one of his city’s finest soul and R&B exports, Eric Roberson has just released his much awaited eighth independent album, Mister Nice Guy. Championed and marketed on this side of the Atlantic by the U.K.’s independent soul label of choice, Dome Records, Mr Roberson was in town to do some promotional work in advance of his much anticipated show at the Indigo O2 Arena. UK Vibe’s Michael “The Dood” Edwards caught up with the Grammy nominated singer/ songwriter and producer a few days after he had just hosted a Stevie Wonder Tribute Show at London’s Jazz Cafe alongside self-confessed Stevie fan Omar and the cream of the UK’s soul talent.
Seated comfortably on the 15th floor in the plush surroundings of a central London hotel, the genial, affable and engaging singer/songwriter/musician/label owner was keen to talk about his journey thus far, including his back catalogue and ‘That’ album “Music Fan First” his musical influences, his writing style, his peers and of course Mr Nice Guy, his most recent project.
The Dood: Eric Roberson, it’s a pleasure to link with you at last! I’ve been following your music for quite a while.
Eric Roberson: Respect man!
The Dood: Just to let you know where I’m coming from, like you I am a big music fan first. I’m a lover of all types of music. And having researched and also followed your career I know that you may be a soul artist, but you listen to a myriad of different styles of music. There is good classical, good country, good soul, good funk, good hip-hop, good jazz…
Eric Roberson: Right! Right! Right! (Eric claps his hands in total agreement)
The Dood: … So you take in all these different influences and it comes out as Eric Roberson as only you could express it.
Eric Roberson: Oh man! I love that introduction, yeah yeah!
The Dood: So, tell us about New Jersey where it all began for you and the musical influences which surrounded you?
Eric Roberson: The funny thing about New Jersey is it’s in the middle of Philadelphia and New York, two very cultural cities. And you may not be in any of those two cities but you’re close enough to get the vibe off of them. But by the time it gets to you have a different rendition of it. So I think New Jersey has its own little feel to it. From the Whitney Houston’s to the Sarah Vaughan’s – even from hip-hop standpoint with the Fugees, The Poor Righteous Teachers and Naughty by Nature, if you notice they weren’t like other rap acts. They had an East Coast flow and did things in their own way… I remember when hip-hop had just started and we were getting vapours of what was happening across the water.
The Dood: The music started to seep through?
￼Eric Roberson in London on promotional duties
Eric Roberson: Yeah! It just started sleeping through and this is really exciting it! This was in the mid-80s and we were just excited! Then I had my elder brothers and sisters coming back with new music as well as the fact that I grew up in the church. I grew up with literally a plethora of sounds all at the same time, not to mention my father coming home with a different record every week. He’d come home with George Benson and the Gap Band with Charlie Wilson. Also he’d come home with Country records and Kurtis Blow. You’d never know what he was gonna walk in with, Gospel records, Rock records – Chicago; The Eagles, you just never knew! It was just ‘Good Music,’ if you felt it you kept it. That was a really really good start. My family was a very musical family, my father played guitar in the house, my sister was in bands. And that was older sister so i just followed what she was doing because i wanted to be with big sis. So it really helped me mould into not only just loving one thing but loving all kinds of music.
The Dood: It sounds like you had a loving family up-bringing?
Eric Roberson: Oh yeah! Still to this day they’ve been super supportive. I wouldn.t or could not get to where i’m at if it wasn’t for my family being as supportive as they are. From a musical stand point, but also just from an overall standpoint.
The Dood: Did you ever consider a career outside of music?
Eric Roberson: I was always into just creating. My sister was a very creative person and she’s an interior decorator now. So i watched her draw and watched my mother make clothes and we all did music. So to me it was all one thing…it was all just creating. At one point when i was very young i thought i might have been a fashion designer but the music really took a hold and i started diving deeper into it. Especially when in my personal life i started relating to Stevie Wonder lyrics, i started relating to Al Green lyrics.
The Dood: Was this in your late teens, early twenties?
Eric Roberson: It was more like my early teens. I remember my parents got me a keyboard – that was a big big moment! And I listened to a gospel group called Commissioned. When i heard their album it changed my life instantly. The lyrics were so profound and it just hit me in the chest. I remember saying to myself, “Whatever that is doing to me I want to do that to somebody else, I want to be able to write something that impacted on people.
Also when I got to sixteen I think I knew at that point that I wanted to take it seriously. I won this male pageant called Mr. Black Teenage World and they gave me a full scholarship at Howard (University). So that made me think that if got a scholarship there from singing, I may be able to convince my parents that I should look into it further…Maybe I shouldn’t go and get Political Science as a major, maybe I should major in music or Musical Theatre?
The Dood: Do you follow your heart or your head?
Eric Roberson: Oh! The heart always! I use my head to judge correctly. I really believe in what I call my ‘Spidey Sense.’ If it doesn’t feel right, no matter how much you love it, pull back and wait a second. And it’s never ever failed me.
The Dood: Everybody has it, but not everybody turns it on.
Eric Roberson: Right! Me and my whole staff we all ask questions of each other, but I’m all about feeling, if it feels right let’s go, let’s dive in. And that’s been the case with every album I’ve done… “This feels good, let’s do more, let’s bring some more musicians in…” And before you know it you have this thing falling into place.
The Dood: It’s like a Marvin Gaye style of recording?
Eric Roberson: Yeah! Yeah! It’s always been that way. I never go into the studio planning to do an album. I’m always recording, but every once in a while I’ll go, “Oooh! I really like that song!”
The Dood: So, the red light is always on in the recording studio?
Eric Roberson: This new album, Mr Nice Guy was created because my wife was pregnant and I didn’t want to be away when she had the baby, I wanted to be at home. And because I was recording I caught that right vibe and it was like, “we’re onto something, let’s bring in the reinforcements man, let’s take this to another level!” Every album I’ve done was made that way you know.
The Dood: You mentioned your wife. How much have your wife and your relationship with her impacted on your writing style?
Eric Roberson: Ahh! Tremendously! To me, I made a decision a long time ago to definitely keep everything open. My good days, my bad days, in love or out of love, I would put it into song. When I’ve made mistakes or when I’ve had great day or whatever. And that’s helped me stay open and that also helped me pay attention to you (my audience) and see what you’re going through and then write about. My wife has inspired a tremendous amount of songs. We’ve pretty much been together almost the entire time that I’ve been involved with the independent movement. I’ve been with her 10 years and “Esoteric” came out 10 years in July. So she’s inspired a lot of it man, she’s that critical ear, she hears most things first you know what I mean!
The Dood: Have you heard the saying, “The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and the neck turns the head.”
Eric Roberson: Wow! The man is the head of the family, the woman is the neck, and the neck turns her head! I like that, she would love that! She might feel that she is the head and neck and I might be the butt! (Laughs)
The Dood: If you look at any successful male artist, there’s always a female figure in the background, be it a mother, and auntie or in most cases a wife supporting them.
Eric Roberson: It’s also the patience. We did eight albums over 10 years! You know how much time that takes up? The night’s of recording, the days of recording. You couldn’t get that stuff done without somebody supportive that kind of pulling for you like a cheerleader. She also critiques as well, so I appreciate her so much!
The Dood: So, let’s do a quick synopsis: “Esoteric” came out in what year?
Eric Roberson: It’s been 10 years, so that came out in 2001, July 2001 on a completely independent label.
The Dood: Why the title “Esoteric?”
Eric Roberson: I had just come out of a bad relationship and really song was about that relationship. On the album title “Esoteric” means, only to be understood by a chosen few. And really the album was to her. Musically, it was the same way! Musically, it was like nobody really understands this direction I want to go in, so I thought, you know what, I’m going to write it and who ever understands it, it’s for you. It is it’s not meant to be understood by everybody, it’s not meant to change the charts. If I sold five copies I would have been happy.
The Dood: And that led to The Vault series?
Eric Roberson: “The Vault volume 1” came out two years later in 2003 and then “The Vault 1.5” came out in 2004.
The Dood: I believe that The Vault was originally spawned from an online forum?
Eric Roberson: Yes, there was a forum called 24/7 Soul. Unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore, but a friend of mine said that you need to go to this forum because they’re talking about you on it. So I went online and typed my name in, and all these things came up! Quotes like, “Who is this guy?! I love this song! Where can we get more information?! So I just typed in, “Hey! This is Eric Roberson and I just wanted to say thank you guys for talking about me.” And they said, “We want more music! Where is your music at?! How can we get it?! And that was the jumpstart! That was the challenge I needed. And The Vault volume 1 was really just for that Internet forum… And it kept growing, it kept getting bigger and bigger, and that’s when we went and did Volume 1.5.
The Dood: That was quickly followed by “the appetizer.”
Eric Roberson: “the appetizer,” came whilst I was working on the next album “…Left.” And what happened was I think we were in during the process of making “…Left” so much that we decided to make “the appetizer.” “the appetizer” was really like a Vault volume 2 or 3, it really was. We called it “the appetizer” because it was supposed to be a lead up to the album “…Left.” Not knowing that “Softest Lips” was going to be so big on the album.
That record really launched things for us. We toured for nearly 2 years off of that one record. In between the release of both these albums we brought out the live DVD and album. Then we finally came out with “…Left” in 2007.
The Dood: Why the title “…Left?”
Eric Roberson: So many different reasons many different reasons, but it was sort of like giving everything we’ve got ‘til there’s nothing left. It was almost like a process. If you notice the album cover I’m sitting in the chair. You’ll also notice that the title says “…Left.” So it was implying that, “there is more room Left”, meaning help your brother man and get in. There’s more room left for all of us to get in and make a difference. It was a fun concept and I loved making that album.
The Dood: Wonderful!
Eric Roberson: That was the album where things changed and my popularity had grown. I was the studio up to that point. So now I was on the road touring and I didn’t really have much time to be in the studio, so I was really chasing a feeling. There are14 songs on the album and I probably recorded 17 songs. And those three songs went on other people’s projects… And, “Pretty Girl” I probably worked on that song for about three years!
The Dood: Okay! Then that album led to the album which is catapulted you to people’s consciousness, “Music Fan First”
Eric Roberson: “Music Fan First” was in 2009.
The Dood: To this day, everybody I interview, in order to explain who I am, I tell them on a music fan first! That phrase should be in the dictionary.
Eric Roberson: For me at that point music was such a job, that I had to refocus. I’d say you know what we have to rethink how we approach this stuff. It’s not an obligation, I’m a fan first. It’s been the soundtrack of my life. So that was the main thing, it was more of a process, and at the same time I wouldn’t have this career if it wasn’t for my fans. So it’s to them first, and at the same time as got to remember that music is the soundtrack of my life – it’s my best friend! It’s been there through every breakup, every time that I fell in love, it’s literally been the soundtrack of everything. So we created it from that standpoint.
The Dood: Moving on to Mr Nice Guy, your new album released through Dome Records here in the UK. Tell us about the feel good factor of the first single, “Summertime Anthem?”
Eric Roberson: It’s about waking up in the morning and feeling loved, the weather is good, everything feels amazing and I thought let’s just write about it. There are a lot more positive feelings that we try to capture on this album. It’s a brand-new day; every day we have is a blessed day. So the weather was good and we try to write about it. Then Chubb Rock comes in and blazes the whole thing!
The Dood: He’s a legend man! Has he still got it?
Eric Roberson: Yes! Still to this day!
The Dood: He comes from that era of Big Daddy Kane and Rakim – all legends.
Eric Roberson: I wish they all did more music still. I think you can expect something from Chubb (Rock) real soon.
The Dood: You’ve been described as a singer’s singer and a musician’s musician. Many people within the industry name check you. You are also big amongst the Philadelphia massive, artists such as Jill Scott and Jazzy Jeff to name a few.
Eric Roberson: I feel honoured to be a part of that. I’m from Jersey that I feel part of that Philly school with that Philly movement and being like the adopted kid from that area. Also being a part of Touch of Jazz for so many years – Jazzy Jeff’s studios. That was like my Grad school when it comes to artistry and stuff like that. And I appreciate it. To this day it’s always been a collaborative effort. I think my albums would sound the same if I sat at a keyboard everyday trying to make my albums. But the fact that I brought all these different energies in and we worked together trying to find one common goal and making it song the best song it could be and that’s the way it’s always been and I’m really appreciative of all the help and support I get from everybody.
The Dood: With this new album being released through Dome Records, are you happy with the setup?
Eric Roberson: Oh! Yes! I’ve learnt so much about them and from them. It’s helped me with my company in the States (Erro Records) because I always constantly studying. They’ve helped me tremendously, not just with my popularity in London and the UK in general, but also how we apply what I learn here to my company back in the States. And I really appreciate all of them.
The Dood: Who were your musical influences growing up? I know Michael Jackson had a big impact on you.
Eric Roberson: You know it’s funny, I really mention Michael Jackson because he was just a part of our life. From day one he was there… I studied him so much, I learned from him so much! Both him and Prince they were like always there. I always say that my three headed monster of influences are Stevie wonder, Commissioned and A Tribe Called Quest. There was an awakening when I heard the music of each one of those artists. And to this day I still try to mix those three together to make my sound.
The Dood: Very interesting!
Eric Roberson: But to me Michael Jackson was the best up-tempo singer ever! He has a lot of accolades, but I can debate that one all day long. So I love singing up-tempo by really delved further into how I wanted my up-tempo tracks to sound. I really studied a lot of Michael Jackson. Terence Trent D’Arby was another influence, Bill Withers, Slick Rick. Even rappers like Biggie Smalls, I really studied all of it to paint a fuller picture.
The Dood: What advice would you give to new up-and-coming artists, new Eric Roberson’s if you like coming through into the industry?
Eric Roberson: I would say first practice their craft until it becomes invisible, so that that doesn’t get in the way of your choices. Learning your craft and studying your craft is so so very important. But understand it is the business of music – whether you go with a major deal or you are completely independent. Whether you sell five albums or 5 million, it is the business of music and it is your steps and your movements that dictate your success in the future. We won every fan one at a time… And if you win them one at a time you’ll hold them and maintain them. And from that time on we’ve just been maintaining by building that relationship with our fans one by one.
The Dood: Thanks for your time
Eric Roberson: Hey! It was a pleasure man! Good talking with you!
Michael J Edwards
￼Michael “The Dood” Edwards and Eric Roberson
Released: Tuesday, 18 October 2011 (Dome Records)
￼Nov 14th 2011