Catching Up With Eric Roberson
As you know from my earlier posts, I think Eric Roberson is arguably one of the best independent artists around. I’d even say that he’s creating the blueprint for how to maintain a strong presence in the music industry as an independent artist. In fact, it was his music that first sparked my interest in finding more indie artists many years ago. I was ecstatic for the opportunity to interview him because he has found the formula for success. If I were to explain it using a mathematical equation, I’d say “hard work plus creativity, multiplied by a genuine passion for making honest music, equals Eric Roberson”. That formula has definitely paid off as Eric was just nominated for a Grammy for A Tale of Two from his new album Music Fan First.
Eric really is a cool guy and we had a great conversation. When we talked about his work, rather than brag about his accolades, he simply said, “I’ve worked with a lot of artists but I’m also a fan of a lot of artists too. I’m a fan just like everybody else.” Eric kindly made time during a busy week of performing and shooting the video for Dealing, the latest single from the new album, to chat about his songwriting process, goals and advice for aspiring artists. Here’s our conversation.
Mimi Soul: First off, I have to tell you that my twin cousins saw your show in Dallas and they liked the way you fit the word “orangutan” into your set.
Eric: Yes, I tell everybody the better the word, the better the song. So, one of the clever audience members suggested the word orangutan and I was happy because the rest of the words were pretty easy like “deceitful” and “hurt” or something like that. So, when he said orangutan I was like “We got it. Let’s start it.” It was a little crazier than usual but it worked out.
Mimi Soul: How was the video shoot?
Eric: The video went great. I’m very appreciative of all the people who gave it time and energy and Lalah looked lovely. It was shot with the same company that I’ve been shooting with for all the commercials and videos that you’ve seen. We’re building a great relationship. Today I’m getting a look at one of the first drafts of it so I’m like a kid in a candy store.
Mimi Soul: Cool, so that leads into my next question. Oftentimes we see artists performing around the time of their album release to get people talking about their music. But it seems like the opposite is happening with you in that you’re always performing. How do you keep up such a busy pace of shows?
Eric: Well, we’re constantly trying to nurture the relationship with the promoters and we’re also changing up our show all the time. I’ve put out an album every 2 years and you can pretty much tour off an album for at least a year and a half. So, it’s almost like by the time they’re tired of hearing those songs, you’re getting into another lane and it kinda regenerates itself. At the end of the day, I always say there’s always somebody who doesn’t know about it and we’re still working to get into cities that we haven’t gotten into.
Mimi Soul: Are there any marketing efforts that you’re trying for the first time with this album?
Eric: Well, there are a couple of things. We hired a couple of new staff members and once again with the video crew that we use, we shot minute-long videos for four songs. I did a thing called “17 Days of Music Fan First” where during the 17 days leading up to the album I talked about a song each day. So, just little things like that to pull the traffic toward the album and every chance we got to talk more about the album, we took the advantage to do so. That’s the main thing we did differently and it definitely paid off tremendously.
Mimi Soul: Yeah, I saw the 17 Days videos and I thought it was a cool idea.
Eric: I believe in the record so I was proud to talk about it. Going back, I remember when I bought the first singles from Boyz II Men and Jodeci. Before the album even came out, they had these cassette singles and I think Boyz II Men’s first single was Motownphilly. On the b-side of the tape were snippets from 5 songs from the album and I listened to them soo much. And it was the same kinda thing with the Jodeci one. I was so excited about these records. It built so much energy in me. So, it’s kinda piggybacking off the marketing style that they were using in the early 90’s. It’s a great marketing tool. I try to make sure I make something that I’m proud of from beginning to end.
Mimi Soul: I read a recent interview where you said “compliments are great and criticisms come, but it’s not my job to judge music; it’s more my job to create it.” How would you describe your creative process?
Eric: Well, I try to keep myself open all the way around. It’s a state of constant writing, conversing with friends and observing strangers. If something happens, I capture it as fast as possible. So, that’s where it first starts. I’ve written so many songs in my lifetime that now I’m just looking for motivation, energy, subjects and a spark and as soon I get that, it’s almost already in song mode. Then comes the technical aspect and most of the time, it kinda pops in my head how it should go. From that point on, I’m just chasing that sound and trying to get it out of my head and onto the tape or onto the paper. And, you know sometimes it’s dead on, sometimes it’s not but the amazing thing is that somehow, no matter what, it kind of works out. I’m not really a routine person. Once I do something one way, I’m probably trying to go as far away from that as possible for the next one. And that has kinda always been my way and it has allowed me to have a fresh approach to writing. So, that’s really my creative process.
Mimi Soul: It seems you always have a knack for knowing what people are interested in. Do you think it’s because you perform so often?
Eric: Well, for me I think it’s maybe a little bit of that but for the most part, it’s just that I know I’m a fan of music and I like for music to feel good. I’m my own boss and I have my own label so there’s no reason for me to compromise or deviate from my initial plan. At the end of the day, I’m just making music that feels good to me. And, there’s a possibility that it might feel good to somebody else. My music won’t change the world and I don’t think every single person is gonna hear it and love it. It’s not really for that. I wouldn’t wanna do music for that. You gotta take some chances and move to different areas. I’m kinda in a place where I’m not really distracted by things in the peripheral. I have an eye on what I’m trying to do and if it doesn’t feel good, I don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. So, I release things that I feel passionate about and if I feel passionate about it I’m putting passion in it. I think people relate to that.
Some of my favorite songs may not be from my favorite singers or it may not be the greatest song but there’s something about it that pulls me in. There’s a song by Nina Simone called Pirate Jenny and she’s a pirate; she’s a thieving person in the song but the character development is so amazing and it just pulls me in. Is it the best song? It probably isn’t. Is it a song that’s meant to bring people to tears and inspire the world? No. It’s a story about a pirate. But it’s so amazing and she’s so convicted and into character that you buy into it. So, I could write a song about an elevator worker at this big corporate building who falls in love with the beautiful VP and he just wants to have the courage to say hello to her but all he does is just keep pressing button 11, you know what I mean? (laughing) If you capture that person correctly, some people might say “The track is alright, but I’m buying into the song.” It’s all about trying to make that connection.
Mimi Soul: So, when people start talking about being successful as an independent artist, I’m sure it’s no surprise that your name always comes up in the conversation. Some would call you a pioneer in this type of movement. I know that it’s easy for other people to call you successful but how would you define success?
Eric: To me, a lot of success is really is based on your individual goal. My goal is to grow old doing music; to be able to do what I love musically and use those things to not only better my surroundings but also the people around me. I’m really about organized growth. That’s probably the most important thing to me. I wouldn’t want to overshoot my boundaries or really jump so much ahead. To me, we’re doing well. I had to ask myself what was most important and what the overall goal was for me. The overall goal was to grow old doing music. So, my next questions were “What does that mean? and What are you really after with that?” With me, it wasn’t becoming a millionaire. That would be nice but it wasn’t what was important. What was important was that people around me can be paid for doing what they love and I can create music and share my talent with people that are interested and passionate about art.
I would love for every album to do better than the last album and show everyone that I’ve learned more with each album. I’m very satisfied as an independent artist because truth be told, a lot of times people trade in their personal life for their art. And the art becomes so big that it takes over everything. You have a tremendous amount of money but you can’t live. And, you have a responsibility to the art that makes you overlook your responsibility to your family and your own personal health sometimes. I feel like I have a happy balance in my career. Sure a lot of people may not know me. But, that also means I may be able to walk down the street and take the time to communicate with fans. If I’m doing stadiums, it’s kinda impossible to communicate with anybody. Things are a little smaller scale so you won’t make as much money but at the same time, you might be able to leave here a little healthier.
Mimi Soul: It’s funny that you mention organized growth because in the same interview that I mentioned earlier, I read where you said your uncle gave you the advice that a business is organized growth.
Eric: All of my uncles are pretty amazing guys and I look up to them a great deal. One of my uncles, my uncle Raymond, is a very successful businessman in North Carolina and at family reunions, there’s always some point where all the nephews and cousins are trying to get a moment with him and pick his brain. He’s always kinda watching my career and every once in a while, he’ll tap me on the shoulder and tell me something. He’ll say “You need to focus on organized growth!” (laughing) They’re simple things that he drops but I’m paying attention and trying to apply it. It has been very helpful and it was one of the reasons why I didn’t run out and go buy a big ole car when things started going well. I didn’t go foolish because of the advice that a lot of my uncles and peers were putting in my ear when I was becoming a man.
Mimi Soul: So, in addition to keeping things within the proper scale, what other advice would you give an aspiring independent artist who wants to get into the industry?
Eric: You know, the word “completion” is universal, whether you’re trying to be an independent artist, a record executive, the next Timbaland, or the next successful blogger or music critic. That’s universal advice that I give everyone. The people that win in this business are the people that focus on that word. At the end of the day, it’s all about completing your goals. A lot of times we’re not honest with ourselves. At times we don’t take the time to find out what would work best for us in this business. You have to nurture your sound. And, you have to maintain deadlines to get projects finished and hold yourself and the people that you work with accountable.
Mimi Soul: I know you have the new video for Dealing, but what else do you have in the works for your new album?
Eric: Actually, as soon as we finish this one, we have talks about going right back in and doing another one. At the same time, we want to maintain the tour and educate people on the album. We’re trying to stay open to opportunities for the most part. You have your basic stuff with shooting videos, touring and the whole nine, but there are so many albums coming out. So, hopefully in the next 365 days, we’ll still be able to keep pushing the album. We’ll find clever ways to get people excited.
Mimi Soul: I have to ask my favorite fun question. If you had to give up all of your music and only keep 3 albums, which 3 would you not be able to part with?
Eric: Wow. You made it tough when you said only 3. Oooh man! First and foremost, I gotta keep Commissioned’s Go Tell Somebody. It has Love Isn’t Love, Running Back to You; you know a lot songs I truly built my passion for songwriting and creating music in general so that would be one. I really gotta think about this.
Mimi Soul: Yeah, I know. My 3 choices change all the time.
Eric: I’d say Roberta Flack’s Greatest Hits but I don’t know if that’s cheating or not. That album is just so well put together. I think A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders would be number 2.
Mimi Soul: (laughing) I thought Roberta Flack was number 2.
Eric: I really wanna say Roberta Flack but I’m good. I think what I would get from Roberta Flack, I would get from the Commissioned album. And you know what, this is really cheating, but give me Songs in the Key of Life.
Mimi Soul: Oh, it’s ok. Stevie is worth it.
Eric: It would probably change if you ask me that question over again but I would go through a major bout of withdrawal.
Mimi Soul: Cool. (laughing) Well, I really want to thank you for the interview. I think your music has a certain honesty and that’s great; especially in a time when some people think that there’s an absence of good music. I’ll tell anyone that good music is still around. People just need to know where to get it.
Eric: Yes, there really are a lot of talented artists out here. So, we need people to teach everybody about what’s going on and spread the word.
If you haven’t heard Music Fan First yet, you owe it to yourself to purchase it soon. Here are a few of the tracks we chatted about just to get you started. And, I’ll be sure to let you all know when the video for Dealing is released. Thanks again Eric for a great conversation!
A Tale of Two
D Brown/D Brown Photography
Anna Keenan/Anna Keenan Photgraphy
Concep/Concep Make Love