Chosen One: Lee Fields
Interview with Lee Fields.
“I look at every day of life like another gift. Every day God gives you another day man, that’s another gift. So I try to get everything that I can from that day, try to be as constructive as I can in that day because there is enough destruction — I try to be as constructive as possible.”
Words: Mark Carry
2014 marks the return of soul great, Lee Fields with the highly anticipated new record “Emma Jean” (named after his mother), recorded with The Expressions whose been his trusted ensemble and collaborators since 2009’s landmark LP “My World”. Today, the North Carolina-native — now 63 years old, having released more than fifteen albums in a career spanning 43 years — is in a highly creative period where the unique blend of emotion-filled soul music pours effortlessly from each and every heart pore of the awe-inspiring artist. “Emma Jean” masterfully combines country, gospel, blues and soul that includes an achingly beautiful interpretation of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia” and a guest appearance by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
The latest trilogy of indispensable records from Lee Fields & The Expressions — 2009’s “My World”, 2011’s “Faithful Man” and this year’s “Emma Jean” — represents a beautiful case of musical evolution as Fields and co. continue to refine a pure and sacred sound of soul music. The Brooklyn-based Truth and Soul producers and co-owners Jeff Silverman and Leon Michels share the desire to interpret and further the formulas of good soul music. In the words of Fields: “They’re like my musical sons”. A deep musical telepathy is forged between the like-minded artists as the latest “Emma Jean” LP showcases the soul veteran on top of his game — singing from the spiritual self.
Album opener (and second single) “Just Can’t Win” is a glorious soulful strut containing Fields’ sincere lyrics, intricate horn arrangements, mesmerizing harmonies and clean guitar tones. A song you feel you’ve always known. The heart-wrenching JJ Cale ballad “Magnolia” is a tower of a song that sees one of Fields’ most striking vocal deliveries ever put to tape. The timeless sound of Nashville country and Memphis gospel is effortlessly combined as a captivating and enthralling performance is captured. A love song so tender and pure radiates from the heart and fragile voice of Fields as Cale’s songbook is joyously celebrated by a fellow-luminary and musical colleague.
“Emma Jean” was mixed by Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) and partially recorded at his Nashville studio. The smoke-filled ballad “Paralyzed” was written by Auerbach that fits nicely alongside his previous collaborative work with legendary New Orleans artist, Dr John. The pristine instrumental cut “All I Need” is a joy to savour as a bustling rhythm and funk groove ascends into the forefront of the mix revealing the peerless musicianship on display throughout “Emma Jean”. In the closing section, some harmonies are supplied by Fields that serves the fitting close. One of the record’s defining moments arrives on the sublime ballad “Still Gets Me Down” with its gorgeous guitar licks and horn arrangements. The album closer “Don’t Leave Me This Way” matches the tenderest moments of Otis Redding’s deeply affecting ballads as Fields’ quivering voice is beautifully suspended in the air.
Since ‘79’s debut full-length “Let’s Talk It Over”, the cherished songbook of Fields has constantly developed and evolved; transforming the lives of all those fortunate to hear each and every achingly beautiful note or immense vocal delivery of the soul veteran’s treasured works.
“Emma Jean” by Lee Fields & the Expressions is available now on Truth & Soul.
Interview with Lee Fields.
Congratulations on the new album, Lee. It’s such a beautiful and amazing record.
Lee Fields: Oh, thank you so much, I really appreciate that.
I would love for you to discuss Lee how this recording differed from your previous album ‘Faithful Man’, because I know the music seems to be flowing out from you in the last couple of years, you know with The Expressions?
LF: Yeah, I think we are in a very creative stage right now, we are in a very creative state of musical intuition right now and actually, I’m very happy with that because everybody in The Expressions seem to have so many great ideas, you know. And that’s a beautiful thing.
The new album has some lovely cover versions, and like your previous albums, there’s a wonderful mix of different styles as always.
LF: Yeah, what makes it so beautiful now — with the group now, The Expressions — everybody is in their creative state of mind like our creative juices are working greater than ever. Thanks to this wonderful public, man for continuing to support us and people like yourselves who take their time to interview me like this, I really appreciate it.
Well, it’s wonderful to hear — it’s like that true soul music, it’s the sheer emotion and the feeling you get from the music is just amazing.
LF: Well, thank you, thank you so much. I am glad that you can feel what we try to convey. What we try to do is we try to sing about life as it is, you know we don’t try to get into the mould of what the — I call it the few programmers in the world who program all the radio stations — what we try to do, we try to remain as true, you know we’re human beings and we can sing about human feelings. We’re human too, other than the two or three radio programmers around the world, programming everywhere you know. So, I appreciate that as well because that came about because of a reason and a purpose but we try to stay as creative as possible.
It’s clear listening to the music how it builds so much on your life — as in life itself and the experiences — I’d love for you to discuss your roots in North Carolina please? It’s obvious your childhood and life, even before the music path began: it must be rooted in your voice, really.
LF: Well yeah you know, I grew up in North Carolina where there were a lot of country and westerns mainly, and then we heard soul music on the weekend. When you think about it, soul and country music have a common denominator, and the common denominator is stories. Country and western music and soul music always have stories detailed you know, and I appreciate growing up in rural North Carolina because I still have a value for those beautiful stories that were told in country and western music back in the day, and I try to embed that in my music today.
That’s very true, I mean the stories, and they are always poignant and hard-hitting lyrics to the songs. In terms of performance, I’m curious too Lee, you know in the studio — I wonder has the process changed in any way over the last few albums or does it just flow out of you, like this thing that you just leave the tape running and you just do what you do?
LF: You know, I think you said it, when we go into the studio we try to have fun. We go into the studio not to make a great record, we go into the studio to make a record that we really like. And most of the time, people like the things that are very real. So we go into the studio and try to do things that we really like so when we finish the song, we’re looking at each other man, and we’re laughing, and I like that man [laughs]. You know, we try to keep that element of happiness in the mix. I think that’s what the thing what we’re doing now is what’s causing it to be as popular as it is. People can sense that we are happy doing what we do, you know it’s not that we’re trying to get a dollar.
Exactly, well it translates from you to the audience because you can feel the love and the depth of it all, it really strikes you.
LF: Well, it sounds so good coming from someone because that’s exactly what we’re trying to get. Thank you very much for just saying that and I feel that we’re definitely on target.
Actually Lee, I must say that the choice of the JJ Cale song, ‘Magnolia’ is wonderful too. Your version is really beautiful.
LF: Thank you, you know I think that JJ Cale is one of the greatest songwriters of his time, you know and I’m quite sure of well-known individuals such as Eric Clapton and a host of others, would agree. But I’m just saddened by the fact that he’s not around to see the outcome of what we’re doing because when Leon suggested we should do a JJ Cale tune I thought it would be absolutely correct thing to do but what I’m saddened about is his demise, that saddens me deeply.
It’s something beautiful as there is a parallel between yourself and JJ Cale because of that spiritual power or strength in the music and that you’re both on a similar path in many ways.
LF: Yeah, yeah, JJ Cale and myself I feel have a lot in common. That’s one of my reasons for my attraction to his work because I can see what he was doing because I can see his life in my life. But I’m so happy to have done that song because I really and truly believe that JJ Cale is one of the greatest song-writers man, of his era and probably even supersedes that.
As you say, when you hear someone in your stature doing a version of a song, that’s a real testament to his art as well as your own.
LF: Oh yeah, no doubt.
I’m amazed you know, when looking over your career, just how you continue to evolve and get better all the time. What really strikes me is your enthusiasm and energy and the obviously the work ethic that never fades away. How do you keep on delivering? It’s quite inspirational.
LF: Well you see like, I look at every day of life like another gift. Every day God gives you another day man, that’s another gift. So I try to get everything that I can from that day, try to be as constructive as I can in that day because there is enough destruction — I try to be as constructive as possible. Because when you look on the news and see all the destruction going on in the world, it gives me great pleasure to see myself working as hard as I can — being constructive and coming up with something positive, you know what I mean. I think not only myself but many others are doing the same thing because I think in the final analysis good will prevail, good things you know, trying to make good songs, good buildings, good cars, good everything. It’s all about putting yourself into it and using this valuable gift that God has given us another day of Life as positive as possible. So, I’m trying to be more creative but I know that I am running out of days. [laughs]
Well you’re as youthful as ever. It’s a wonderful thing that your art and your music will always stand the test of time regardless of phases or you know, what’s hip and what’s not.
LF: Yeah but I do believe that fate and the realization that this time is very valuable. So I’m trying to be as constructive, to be as positive, as productive as one can be with this time that we have. And what it does in return it enhances a person’s life, like me in my case, sending me all over the world and meeting so many beautiful and wonderful people and seeing their traditions and just enjoying life man, it’s like a dream, it’s like a dream, man. Sometimes just a conversation with a person to me is more valuable than laying on some beach somewhere, depending on the conversation, you know what I’m trying to say?
Yeah, it’s even the small, minute details can be as significant as anything.
LF: Yeah that’s what I’m saying, so creating music man — looking at life the way I see life, trying to make the best of what we have and God has blessed me with this wonderful band, The Expressions that I really consider these guys as my musical sons, they’re my musical sons man, because I waited forty years for these guys. And they’ve finally arrived. [laughs]
It’s amazing to think too Lee — as you say they’re your musical sons — how you crossed paths with them when they were only teenagers in a previous label.
LF: Yeah they were kids man, they are here and everybody’s on the same page, and they want to make the best music they can, and I’m right with them man. And just having this experience it’s more than words can even describe.
I must say too Lee, I love your story — I suppose like so many people do — of when you turned seventeen and you left for New York.
LF: Oh man you know, my mother had a fit. She didn’t want me to go to New York City because she was so afraid for me, man. She just wanted me to finish school, go to college and do what all parents want for their kids you know, do their best. But New York man, it makes a wonderful feeling, those big buildings. Hey man that was an experience but you know I was naive there, I was so naive.
It seemed with your music that you straight away made an impact on the different club scenes. I can imagine it must have been a wonderful feeling to use your talents and your voice and the soul music and get all these audiences, knowing that you’re making that kind of reaction.
LF: Oh yeah yeah, it indeed was very rewarding and is still very rewarding to see how my music is still impacting the masses. In the beginning it was very difficult to break through because I was under the umbrella of James Brown but it took a while for me to find me. Now, I think now people recognize that me has found who me is, you know. There are so many things that I am so grateful for, man that has transpired throughout this period of time that I could go on and on and on and on, man I am so relieved and so happy.
Another thing Lee is that it’s so amazing to look back over your work and see how your music continues to evolve. Like what you were saying before, over time there has been different periods, like the disco era in the 80’s and then hip hop in the 90’s and what remains a constant is your soul music.
LF: But you know when I think about the 80’s — the 80’s to me — it made me very vigilant, it made me take very much notice to different trends and different things that were emerging. It made me observe all these different musical art forms and take a little bit from this and take a little bit from that because in the 2000’s I did some dance music with Martin Solveig and we had some very successful tracks. But I achieved that through the 80’s because in the 80’s I was listening and still, I learned to — although regardless of whatever artist’s particular style is, they should always be observant in all the sounds because music is integrative parts — you can integrate all kinds of different parts of all kinds of music. And do you know the steel guitar part in ‘Magnolia’? We put steel guitar on the new album to add a country and western flavour.
It’s very true Lee, and I think that’s what makes music so universal and what makes it so interesting, where there is no boundaries or limits.
LF: Yeah and I think we put some steel guitar on ‘Paradise’ as well. As a matter of fact I would like to give a special shout out to Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. He loaned himself out for me and played on my track and put some background vocals on the Leon Russell song on the new album, so a special shout out to Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
It’s a wonderful collaboration because it shows you the impact — like you and Kool and the Gang in a previous decade — it’s obvious you’re making a huge impact on music and people.
LF: But you know what I feel from people such as yourself that really appreciate when an artist has given their best and you recognise that and you take your time out to explore it and show and let other people see what this artist has done, so special thanks to people such as yourself as well.
The title of the new album is named after your mother. There’s something very beautiful about that you know, choosing a title after someone that is so close to you.
LF: Yeah man, you know Leon wanted to know what moved me emotionally. When you think about anything that moves you emotionally as well as something that has been very dramatic in your life. And the most dramatic thing that I could think of is the passing of my mother because every time that I think about that she is no longer here — although she has been gone awhile — I still get that feeling, man, I get that abandoned feeling you know. I can’t think of anything more touching man than my mother.
Another person where this a parallel alongside in recent years is your friend Charles Bradley. Again, it’s just that emotion and that raw power of your voice.
LF: Well as I said, I try to touch people in gentle ways and emotional ways because I think when you hear something that touches you, emotionally it sort of stimulates the senses. Because sometimes we can become so into what we do in life and we become kind of callous-hearted. Sometimes it’s good to listen to something tender; to touch the tender side of a person you know, keep them in touch.
I’d be curious to know when you were growing up in terms of music and songs and maybe the radio, was there a song or a certain record that made you think, oh wow this is something I have to do myself?
LF: Oh yeah, well Otis Redding. Listening to an Otis Redding record to me, and an O.V. Wright record and Solomon Burke, people like that. People like that have always been highly inspirational to touch the tenderest parts of my emotion because I think that people such as Otis Redding and Solomon Burke — people who sing those tender songs that touch people — that’s what triggered me off.
Well it’s obvious you have your own distinct mark in music with your voice too, you know like Lee Fields, you have your own category at this stage.
LF: Oh yeah, absolutely. It took a lot of listening to a lot of other people because we develop, you know, a child is born from a mother and a father. I think we are all being a part like a race, we’re all part of each another, and we learn from each other. As we come into the world coming from two different people, we come into the world and emerge into the world, we sort of integrate thoughts from others and we become a lot of different individuals in a way. So in this way, a person really finds out who they are is the mixture of different human intellect that they deem to be worthy of integrating that particular thought or mood into themselves. I think that Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, O.V. Wright, I could even say John Lee Hooker, people like that, The Beatles … there are so many people that have enforced me and we all were enforced by many a people. So when I think about where I got my ability touch — to connect with people emotionally and tenderly — it’s from those people.
I can imagine too Lee, the “My World” album, you know the fact that it took quite a long time to make or for it to come together.
LF: [laughs] I came in one day man, I thought they would hire me to do some tracks that we were going to try to sell to different people. And one day they said, alright the album is finished. I was shocked, man. It was a beautiful thing, I was so happy that I went over to my wife, “Hey baby, look we’ve got an album!” [laughs] And I’ve been rolling ever since.
Actually, I love the song ‘Love Comes And Goes’ from that album, it’s really amazing.
LF: As a matter of fact, we are incorporating on the tour, we will be doing a great deal of “My World”, a great deal of “Faithful Man”, a great deal of the new album so we’ll be doing a whole lot of tracks at my show because people have become so attached to those tracks.
Yeah that’s true because it’s like a cornerstone to your collection at this stage.
LF: No doubt, no doubt, absolutely.
Well I’m sure the forthcoming tours will be amazing as always just like your previous tours.
LF: Oh yeah well I’m looking forward to touring because I love people, I love meeting people and talking to them and seeing what they think and that gives me energy to write, and to prepare for the next musical collaboration.
While you’re travelling and touring, do you find yourself writing words and writing ideas and putting things together?
LF: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. Like a song, if a person tries to design a song — I don’t think that song is coming naturally. I think that a song should come from different things to spark that off, you know using things that you do in life, people that you talk to, that’s to me what real songs are about because they are things that people really do in life.
Looking over your career so far, Lee would you have a favourite song or a highlight?
LF: All of my songs are like my children. I think that the future is always to me, I look forward to the future. I embrace what I’ve done and I appreciate all of the things that have happened to me, I’m highly appreciative but I think it’s always the future to look forward to. And I think when people put hope into the future it actually inspires hope into all things because it gives a person incentive, oh wow, you know the dream of tomorrow. Because nowadays when you look at television you see a lot of things that make the future seem a very dismal place but the future is gonna be bright for everybody. So I look forward to continuing to record, to meet the future audience that I will be performing for and I’m very much appreciative of what has happened so far.
“Emma Jean” by Lee Fields & the Expressions is available now on Truth & Soul.