If you were to ask us what artist we admired the most, there’s a good chance we’d say Eric Roberson. Known for setting the blueprint as an independent artist that all other r&b artists have followed over the past decade, it’s just impossible not to be impressed with this man. Going from having to convince fans to buy his album after a show just to get the gas money to make it home, to now performing for sold out theaters, his story of perseverance is epic. Oh, and we challenge anyone to go to one of his live shows and leave without being entertained; it just doesn’t happen. YouKnowIGotSoul sat down with him prior to a recent performance in NYC and discussed his upcoming B Sides and new studio album, his independent journey, hosting the Sol Village r&b showcase for over a decade now, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You recently announced two new projects that you’ll be releasing soon. Talk about the “B Side” project.
Eric Roberson: Yeah, the “B Side” project is called “B-Sides, Features, & Heartaches”. It’s a record that represents a collaborative spirit that we’ve had since my independent career over the last 13 years. It showcases features with other artists, records that I’ve been on with their projects as well as 3 new songs. It’s just a celebration. It’s my 20th year in the music business. I have another studio album coming out later this year, so this album is really just a big musical celebration of just sharing as much as we possibly can musically.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Have you started on your new album yet?
Eric Roberson: Yeah, we’re halfway finished. I’m only putting 12 songs on it and I’m probably 7 songs in with a ton more recorded. I’m really enjoying the process and really confident about the songs. That’s why I can say the album is going to come out this year just because recording has been going so well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Coming off the “Mr. Nice Guy” album, what is the direction with this new album?
Eric Roberson: The album is called “Musical Monologues” right now, but it may change. It’s just an extension of where I’ve been going writing-wise. I think theater has shown up more on my stage, but it’s starting to show up more in my songs. From that standpoint, it’s just a very expanded and detailed combination of words. It’s telling stories, but it’s still that honest undertone of hip hop, soul, house and reggae music. It’s everything I love balled into one big gumbo called an album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your experience with United Tenors.
Eric Roberson: It was humbling. It was one of the great experiences that I’ve been a part of. I started doing music because of Fred Hammond and listening to Commission early on. The other members of the group, I’m good friends with them from just being on the road. I’m a big fan of David Hollister. When Fred called me up with an idea in doing another group, I jumped at the opportunity because I thought it was great. It was emotional man, we cried through the making of the whole album. Probably even the first 5 or 6 shows. Somebody was just losing it and it’s because it was so powerful and our careers came full circle. It really helped us not even with the music, but the brotherhood of that group. I can’t say enough about the conversations that helped while we were recording the record. It made us better people and they’re really good guys.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Do you think the Eric Roberson fans gravitated to that project?
Eric Roberson: I think some. Not as much as they could have, but at the same time I don’t really try to guess what people are going to do and what people are going to choose. At the same time, when they decide to go and discover it, it’s a project that I think we’re going to continue to keep doing and I think there’s another album down the road for United Tenors. If they haven’t heard the first one, get the next one and then go back and get the first one. That’s what happens with my album as well. I’ll let them decide when they want to jump over and check those out.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You spend so much time on the road and we feel you have one of the best live shows, so talk about the work that goes into your live set.
Eric Roberson: A lot of it has to do with having a good set of guys in a band and that they’re willing to work hard and get along. It shows up a lot on the stage. I got to where I’m at by using a lot of house bands as well, so whether I’m in California using an Oakland band or wherever, it has helped to get the places, so I could finally bring my guys everywhere. A lot of it is just rehearsing and making sure that you have a solid foundation, but leaving room for those left and right turns. That’s always been important for me to be able to deal with the reaction of the crowd. If something funny happens on stage or in the audience, we’re taking it and we’re adding it to the show. All the jokes and skits that you pretty much see that happens in my shows, they were created right there on the stage. It’s not really me at home with a pen and pad thinking of something funny to do. Usually we’re doing something and we just make a right or left turn and I think the crowds look forward to that now. We’ve worked hard enough to know that when we do make those turns and get lost, we know how to find our way back to the show. It won’t just take over and we’ll lose ourselves. It’s just a fun time. It’s funny because we’re doing SOBs and this Sol Village show has helped out a lot. We spend so much time on the stage. Truth be told, the last bad show I ever had was at SOBs. I remember this was years ago and it was because I had a stylist, brought a whole bunch of clothes and I was being way too cool and sexy. I had some clothes I wasn’t comfortable in and I realized I wasn’t me on stage. I decided to never again. The next time I said “I’m going to get up and be who I am.” That point on, it’s been smooth sailing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’re looked at as the pioneer of the independent movement and you made people believe in being an independent artist. Can you take us through the highs and lows in the beginning of your career?
Eric Roberson: At one point I wore the title of being signed and dropped by every record label you could possibly imagine. Then I focused real hard on being a songwriter and knew every single person in the music business. Even when I had desires of being an artist again, it was by my own fault. It was hard to sell the idea of being an artist because everyone knew me as a songwriter. When I would play a song and I sang it the best I could, when I walked into the office, the people were like “I can hear this on somebody else!” There were certain deals that didn’t work out because the labels were worried I was going to sell the songs off rather than hold them for my own album. So watching a lot of people getting signed and stuff really falling through, it really started as a hobby. I had songs that were too personal for me to sell, so whoever wants them can have them. It was as simple as that whether I sold 2 copies or whatever. A lot of my peers that were signed looked at me like I was crazy. They were like “Why are you wasting music?” It was something I had to do. My first album was called “The Esoteric Movement” and that means “Only meant to be understood by a chosen few.” It was really the girl that I just broke up with and it was for her to understand. At the same time, the parallel of people who weren’t satisfied with what was happening musically, it was for them. If 5 people bought it, it didn’t matter. The fans discovered the records and challenged me to take it serious and do more. That’s where “The Vault” album started. People were responding from different countries and on these different forums. They were saying “We want more of this and we want you to continue doing it.” At that point, I released my first album, I thought I was going to go back with songwriting and producing and not just really bothering with it anymore. From there, once I realized that it was something, the goal was to win people one at a time. For me, the goal was to get on stage and my show is really a challenge to dare you to walk past me after the show is over. I’ll be standing at the exit with my CD and I’ve given you an hour and a half on that stage. The whole thing was something like “I’ll be standing here with this CD, can you walk past me without buying this CD?” A lot of it was just selling CDs so I could get home and picking up bands. I had a real supportive family who helped out a lot. It just grew and that one person bought a CD and they brought their friend next time and you won that person over. Before you know it, we watched a show of 50-60 and now we do shows, it’s like 1000 people or more. It’s crazy to see that it’s grown. It didn’t really have the radio or huge marketing dollars, but it was just standing by the door saying “If you felt something, support it and come back next time.” Before you know it, we had it to where we are now.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve been here at Sol Villages for so many years now and you’ve seen so many artists come through. What do you think these artists need to do to get to the next level and become successful?
Eric Roberson: There’s no right or wrong way to be successful in this business. I’ve seen people grow from their parents’ basement to multi-platinum selling artists or producers. It’s all been different ways. What I would tell everybody is to trust your sense that if it doesn’t feel right that it’s not right. Trust that if it feels right, it is right. Learn that ability to listen to yourself because that’s probably not going to steer you wrong. With us, there’s no right or wrong way to write a song. There’s no way to be successful in the music business, you have to find your way. I’ve been in this business for 20 years. The first 10 years, I was struggling because I was doing it everybody else’s way. The moment when I said something like “It doesn’t really matter what everybody thinks. I think this is the way I need to be going.” That was the day I was really able to take care of my family and really provide and put together a team. The moment that we thought was the craziest thing to do was the time it really worked. That’s going to work for some and other things are going to work for others, but we have to learn, even to this day, when things don’t go right, I knew it wasn’t going to go right because something told me it wasn’t to go right and we went with it anyway. If you kind of just listen to yourself and train your instincts, as you go through these meetings and contract negotiations and heavy studio sessions, you have that part to lean on. That’s never going to fail you. That’s something that’s going to be true when picking your manager, band member, label or deciding whether to go on tour with Africa. Whatever those situations are, you really have to trust those instincts that you have. I think from that way you’ll be alright. I think every single person has an opportunity. You will have a window of opportunity. The main thing is how prepared you are when that window comes. That’s the main thing, just try to be prepared.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Eric Roberson: The “B Sides” album is an album that celebrates a collaborative spirit. It really means that in the aspect that the fans collaborate with us as well to make us do art. I just thank everyone for collaborating and making the shows what they are.