Eric Roberson on His Faith, Longevity, and Staying True to the ‘Process’
Grammy nominated singer/songwriter/producer Eric Roberson (affectionately known as “Erro” by friends and fans) is truly one of the great forerunners of modern soul music and the neo-soul era of the late 90’s early 2000’s. With a catalog containing some of our favorite R&B hits and a sound all his own it’s no wonder this year marks his 20th year in the music business, and he celebrated such a feat by doing what he always does, making and releasing as much music as possible. Having released B Sides, Features & Heartaches, a collaborative project of 13 unheard singles, featuring DJ Spinna, Les Nubians, Aaron Camper & more, on February 4th, he is currently also working on his 9th studio album which will be released later this year. Coming off of his last solo album, Mr. Nice Guy in 2011, Eric teamed up with Gospel music legend, Fred Hammond, Dave Hollister and Brian Courtney Wilson to form the group, United Tenors. In 2013 they released a self titled album, which earned multiple Stellar awards at this year’s celebration.
Hailing from Rahway, New Jersey Erro has has penned songs for numerous artists including Will Downing, Charlie Wilson, Musiq Soulchild and Vivian Green. Although he endured a series of unsuccessful record deals and other artist lows, his originality, electric live performances, impressive & noted freestyles, genuine humility, and ability to connect with people through his music, has earned him the respect, appreciation, strong following and the support of fans all over the world.
Heed Magazine had the chance to chat with Eric Roberson as he prepared for a show at one of NYC’s premiere performance venues, SOB’s. The interview was just as I expected it would be, relaxed, knowledgeable and honest. As a ‘music fan first’, I was taken aback that I had the opportunity to speak with an artist whose music I’ve been a fan of for nearly ten years. We talked everything from the solidity of his faith and how he’s survived 20 years in the fickle music industry, to staying true to the ‘process’ of creating good music. After the interview, I hung around for a bit, snapped a few pictures, made small talk with Chantae Cann, his musical guest for the evening, and joined the band for the circle prayer. As surreal as it was, it proved that even the most respected, seemingly untouchable artists are willing to sit down in a small room and share their journey.
Check out our 1-on-1 conversation with Eric Roberson!
Mike Sanford: Mr. Eric Roberson, how are you?
Eric Roberson: Man, I’m great.
MS: First of all thank you for talking to us today!
ER: No problem man.
MS: Our first question is one that I always like to asks and it is simply, what do you ‘take heed’ to?
ER: Wow, that’s a great question. I mean as a writer, I take heed to almost everything. I feel like being observant is the most important thing about being a writer; but as an artist, I try to stay very in the moment and not really lean to heavy on critiques or compliments. I trust the fan in me of music and how I grew up loving music and what felt right—goose bumps. I take heed to goose bumps. When I feel goose bumps rise on my arms, I know we’re in the right place. When my spidey senses go off and say something’s not right, I take heed to that and I move forward. But I believe my only goal is to really grow old doing music, so what can interfere with that is what I try to pay close attention to, or avoid. A compliment like, ‘aww man, your last album was the best thing you ever did’ can be just as negative to your next album, as it is helpful to your next album.
MS: What inspires you to wake up every day doing what you do?
ER: My love for it, my kids, my family, and my wife! Just the fact that I’m now earning the rewards for a lot of the crazy sacrifices I made in my twenties. I really wasted away my twenties. I really spent days and nights in the studio and driving my four runner up and down the east coast, just trying to be heard and noticed. Trying to capture someone’s attention with combining words and combining notes and now I’m seeing all of that hard work kind of showing.
MS: You’re celebrating 20 years this year? How have you managed to stay grounded for the past 20 years?
ER: Well, there were major ups and downs throughout the whole time. It’s 20 years because my first deal came when I was 19/20 years old, but there were very dark, empty, non working periods during that time. I went back to college after my deal with Warner Brothers fell through. But with all of the hard times, the Columbus deal that fell through, the Epic deal that fell through, you go back to the studio; you go back to the first place. You go back to those catastrophic moments and they humble you for the time when you do have money, you do have options, you have choices, you do have opportunities. I tell everybody to this day, I’m not supposed to be here. Most artists that you think of that have been signed as many times as I have, that kind of floated around as long as I have, they’re careers end! Even people who have major success and they disappear, it’s very rare that they have major success again. I don’t take any of this for granted. I realize that I’m here by the grace of my fans and by the grace of God. They chose me, you know they say we like what you’re doing and we want you to do more and I try to keep a humble spirit about that and I try to match everybody’s energy constantly and let everybody know that we appreciate the opportunity because we really do. But I wasn’t supposed to be here 20 years later, I really wasn’t.
MS: Twenty years in this business is really a major deal, especially in this day and age. In thinking about that, I know you are a believer, so how has your faith in God shaped the way you approach music?
ER: I’ll tell you this. My true lesson of all that there is a God is through songwriting because I’ve written songs that I’m honestly not wise enough to write; only for months or years later for that same song to show me and teach me through an obstacle that I was running into or a challenge I was running into, and that’s just God. I don’t know if I’ve received any big thing without some struggle added to it. Whether family, my career, or whatever…there’s been some kind of ‘you can lose this, if you’re not careful’ and it’s very obvious. My route as an artist hasn’t been ‘you get 5 albums with Def Jam and everything is going to be cool’, no it’s been up and down and we’re selling these albums humbly out of the trunk and it kind of grew into something, but at the same time we’re not driving around in Bentley’s or anything like that. So, God is always saying ‘man I’m not going to give you too much, I’m going to give you just enough to make sure you’re straight. You’ll always be straight, but I’m always going to remind you that I’m here. That means remind you to be appreciative and be careful or remind you that I got you.’ Yo, He got me! And I’m at the point where I truly understand that. There have been times when I’m like ‘wow, there’s no coming out of this,’ or ‘why me?’ But He had me covered the whole time. Now I tell people, when they go in to write songs, that they should write songs as if the songs already exist. There shouldn’t be frustration when writing a song, there should be more patience. If I go through my course, I’ll complete it because the pieces are already here. It’s a little difficult but if I take my time I can put the puzzle together. That’s life too man. God’s literally putting in all of the pieces of the puzzle, if we’re just patient enough to go ‘I’m not going to get frustrated. I’m not going to throw this hanger into the window. I’m just going to go yo man when the pieces come, I’m going to recognize it and put it in place and if you put it in place you’ll be straight.’
MS: What is one of your favorite songs that you’ve written? My personal favorite is ‘Previous Cats’.
ER: I’ll say this…There’s a song called “Penalty” that I haven’t released yet, that I did with my good friend Rich when we were in college. I really feel like it’s going to dictate where we go musically. It’s crazy because the record is pushing 15-20 years old.
MS: Are you putting it out?
ER: Well, we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do with it… [laughs] but that’s the record when I hear it I go, ‘ahh, that’s such a good feeling’. Like I wish we went there more with that record, just the feel of it. If I had to choose one of the records I released, it would be a song called “How Could She Do It” off of the Music Fan First album, which was 2 albums ago. You know how you have a vision in mind and you chase the idea? That song came out as close to the idea in my head as I could possibly get. I always say that song, because I’m a sucker for a sad song…
MS: Another one of my favorites is “Obstacles”, is that song based on true events?
ER: Oh yeah, very true! “Previous Cats” was true too. During that time 100% of the records I wrote were autobiographical. And real talk, that song “Obstacles” was tough because there were real people involved and it was as true as it could possibly be. My homie, when he first heard the song, wasn’t too happy about it, even though it was like paying respect to the situation because real talk when the situation happened, I wiped my hands clean and walked away from it. So, the whole song was like dropping a bomb on the whole conversation that none of us really had together, but to me it’s like if God gives you the message and there’s a lesson behind it you can’t walk away from it, you gotta be true to it. And at the same time, that song has been one of the most rewarding songs. Can’t tell you how many times someone came to me because there child has autism and that song relaxes their child. Or there was a brother in Chicago, he had cancer, and he was saying through his treatments for Cancer he would listen to that song to help him through his chemotherapy. And when you think about it, I didn’t write a gospel song, I wrote a song about a girl and this dude’s is finding that it’s lifting him up through his ‘obstacle’ and that’s the beautiful thing about it and I’m really appreciative of that song. That song could have been in the previous question about my favorite song, but by far the most rewarding song has been that song.
MS: Speaking of Gospel songs, you toured with United Tenors this past year. How is it being a part of that group?
ER: It’s like my career coming full circle. Real talk. When I heard Stevie Wonder for the first time, I realized a person could be an artist; when I heard A Tribe Called Quest for the first time I realized that all of things that I love in music, I can do all of it and make it work; the first time I heard Commissioned, I remember it was the first time I heard singing and songwriting empower me. It punched me in the chest and without realizing it, tears were falling down my face. I was like 12 or 13 years old and I remember saying ‘whatever that is, I want to do that.’ Before I even knew about the power of writing songs, I knew that whatever that feeling that song just gave; I want to be able to give that feeling. So, thirty something years later for Fred to call me and say ‘hey man, I want to form a new group and I want to know if you’ll be down?’ was like my life and career coming full circle. The crazy thing about it is the first time we all got together, our blend was effortless. We sounded like we had been singing together all of our lives, but it’s because we all were fans of the same feeling…and we cried man. Throughout the first 5 shows and doing the album, we cried. Throughout the show, we’d look across and it was very rare that all four of us were singing at the same time. We just couldn’t handle the ‘life’ moment of it. But the best thing about that whole thing was it wasn’t just that we were singing together, we were really fellowshipping with each other. The time we spent talking in between our takes and talking on the tour buses, I promise we walked out of those studios better than when we walked in. Whether you became better husbands, fathers, better Christians, musicians, singers…better whatever; we walked out of there better. The goal of that record, more than anything, is to amplify that. We all added strong points to that circle and we all walked out of there with improvement. That’s the best way I can word it, improvement. It’s an honor man, those guys are my brothers.
MS: In your career, traveling and meeting so many diverse people and personalities, what keeps you accountable? Or how do you stay focused?
MS: Well it’s not hard to lose focus on whatever aspect. Whether it’s stepping out on your relationship or not being true to your friendships or losing sight to the whole thing. Like I said, man I was reminded! Five or six years ago, I was seconds away from throat surgery; my voice was shot! When I named the next album Music Fan First, I named it that for a reason. I was rededicating myself to just being a fan of music. Like, just saying I’m going to let music play in this room and just enjoy it. Sometimes doing music becomes so much of an obligation. I’ve been fortunate enough to get on stage and sing the stuff that I love, but not everybody has that opportunity. There are a lot of people in this industry who are way more successful than I am, but they’re singing songs that they don’t enjoy. They’re probably happy to be in this business, but they’re not happy with what they’re doing in this business. I’m happy with what I’m doing in this business for real. I had the fortunate opportunity that my wife was able to grow through the business with me, she watched it grow. We watched it together and we had to understand fans and stalkers all together. And now that I have kids, I have to balance knowing when to come out of that studio because you can always lose sight and that’s a game you always have to stay sharp with. It’s never on cruise control. Someone’s always willing to not wish well for you in something, but keeping a good amount of people around that’s humble…and being able to recognize real.
MS: You mentioned that you love what you do. You’ve found your lane and it works. How does someone get to that point where they’re okay with where they are? Were you ever frustrated with where you were?
ER: Plenty of times! But when you realize that it’s process over product, and when you get mature enough to realize that and at 25 I wasn’t mature enough. I thank God I didn’t have the successes that I have now. Even when I was 19 at Warner Brothers, I could write a song in 2 seconds but it didn’t mean I was prepared for what came. I used to always say that I would never rap on a record, but now I’ve rhymed on multiple records. But if you catch me off stage, I’m rhyming all the time. I grew up rhyming more than any rapper you could ever think of. But that was thinking more about product than process. But if I’m doing music and feel like rhyming, that’s the process. But if I start going ‘nobody wants to hear me rhyme’, that’s product. The greatest thing man, I grabbed several musical instruments and I had this small room and I found myself. I got lost and found my way back. Being in the studio when you have an engineer and a producer and everybody’s telling you what to do, sometimes that works for people, but you might not always be able to figure things out. But like A Touch of Jazz was great for me because Jeff had his 4 studio rooms and everybody was in there working and nobody was in there tripping off of making money or what was going to do whatever, we spent sometimes just putting mics on drums all night. All of this stuff that made us find what was right. So when Musiq walked in for the first time, very unpolished, we all knew what to do to help him find who he was which immediately became brilliant. Jill Scott the same way and all the people that started coming through there. So then getting my own little equipment and going into my own room and dealing with breakups, and dealing with shortcomings and deals not falling through. All I had was that drum machine and that keyboard and that microphone in that little room, about the same size as the one we’re in now, and the songs just got more and more real and more and more personal and then you know what, I shouldn’t worry about how I’m singing it. I should sing it the way I hear it in my head and trust it. Go back to A tribe Called Quest, go back to Commissioned, go back to Stevie. I’m going to trust how I feel about it and if anybody’s down with it, be down and if you’re not look for what you can be down with. And that’s been my only rule. If you like it cool, but if you don’t like it this is to show you that there’s something out there that you like, so why don’t you go find it. From album one, “Esoteric” means only able to be understood by a chosen few. We weren’t trying to sell 5 million records, I’m trying to show somebody one thing and if you get it that’s great, but if you don’t get it, find something that you get. I’m not trying to please everybody, but there are some people out here that love certain kind of music and when they hear it they go ‘that feels good!’ and I’ve sustained my career by going to those people each time and in my off time that’s what I’m searching for.
MS: Tell me about your new album, “B-Sides, Features & Heartaches”?
ER: I’ve always enjoyed the collaborative energy of working with other people and this album, for the most part, showcases records that I did on other people’s albums for the last 10 or 12 years. But, being who I am I put three new songs on there as well just to say hey this is where we are at; and they are also fitting of the collaborative energy of what the rest of the records were.
MS: What drives you in the face of defeat?
ER: I’m a very competitive person. But what drives me in the face of defeat is who’s defining ‘defeat’. Everybody’s finish line is different. I grew up a very fast person, but I’ve always been a heavy dude so people never realized I was fast. My goal was to make sure I picked a distance that gave room for me to get to my full stride. If we ran 50 yards, you’re going to beat me, but if we ran 100 yards I’m definitely beating you. To me defeat was always, I didn’t win this Grammy, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not winning a Grammy. Epic records passed on this album, but that might not be the label that I’m supposed to be with. You feel what I’m saying. Defeat doesn’t wear me down too much, but rewards don’t wear me down too much. I walked out the Grammy’s the same way whether I won the Grammy or lost that Grammy. A lot of people walked out of there pissed; and a lot of people walked out of there ecstatic. I walked out of there blessed with the opportunity. I wasn’t going to let the win or loss change who I was. Staying true to the process. I’ll tell you something, you know Crash Cuts?
MS: Yeah, I’ve heard of him.
ER: Crash Cuts is a singer that everyone laughs at, but he has albums and he tours. He gets booked, probably so people can laugh at him. Not that he wants to be laughed at, but that’s just what they do. People don’t realize that when all is said and done Crash Cuts is going to have a more fulfilling career than a lot of singers out there who are way more talented. You may not want his career, but he is more fulfilled with his career because he’s getting on stage doing what he wants to do and not making any apologies about it. He’s giving his all to it and he’s being more productive than a lot of people. At no point is he even acknowledging that person who’s laughing at him right on the front row. But that dude has mad hits on Youtube and he got mad shows and his whole thing is I’m doing this to glorify God, so if they laugh at me I want them to realize that Jesus is real and that’s what I’m trying to speak to them. So he’s getting his point across.
MS: That’s an interesting point.
ER: The crazy thing is that a lot of people could easily win American Idol if they’d be willing to stand in that line. But so many people, their talent won’t let them stand in that line. And that line may be different. It may not be American Idol. That line may be a lot shorter than American Idol’s line and some people could get in that line and devour everyone there and easily win it if they’d only be willing to stand in that line. A lot of us don’t want to stand in that line; for whatever reason and that’s product not process. When you say process over product you straight. That should be your only rule. The theory of it and the theory of man I’m going to stay true to myself. Even in relationships, when we see somebody that we really like, we change who we are to think that we can appeal to them. But if I just be me, I’m either going to lose you faster or gain you faster and keep you faster if I just show you who I am because eventually I’m going to show you who I am and you’re either going to leave or you’re really going to stay. Same thing with music.
MS: What do you mean?
ER: In example, I do the Sol Village show, and we’ve done this for 10 years now. Every month we showcase different acts. I can’t tell you how many times I walk in and I see somebody doing sound check and they’re fly. Just walked off the street fly! Got a book bag on and some hat. They’re chillin’ and they’re singing! Checking their mic and they’re going for it. And I’m like oh yeah, that’s really dope. And then they come downstairs into this dressing room and they take off who they are. I don’t know whether it’s the stylist or whoever, or what they think people want to see them in but they put these other shoes on and they put this tight jacket on that don’t feel comfortable to them. And they get on stage and I’m like where is that person who killed the sound check? Where did that person go? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that person not be themselves later on and I say man I wish this crowd could see sound check because they would just be amazed by this act. But that’s the thing, just trying to be true to it.
MS: So, do you have any advice for aspiring artists, songwriters, producers, or anyone with a dream of pursuing music?
ER: Trust your senses. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. But if you’re not going 100% don’t complain. We work over here, so work hard at your craft, but at the end of the day trust it. If something feels good to you, it’s going to feel good to somebody. Soulja Boy proved that. By no means am I going to down that man’s record, but when he got behind that drum machine and he did something energetic, someone else related to the energy. It may not have been musically correct, it may not have been the hip hop historian’s rhythmically correct, but he caught a certain energy that he loved and he trusted. History has proven that when everybody was doing this, Kanye West did that; when everybody else was going here, Frank Ocean was going there; when rock music was going here, radio did that so you should be able to trust where you are and if it feels good to you it’s going to feel good for somebody.
Be sure to get Erro’s new album, “B-Sides, Features & Heartaches” today and stay connected at www.ericrobersonmusic.com or on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram for exclusive updates and upcoming performances!