IAA had the pleasuring of sitting down and talking with Eric Roberson, an award-winning vocalist, songwriter, producer and label owner. As one of the recognized movers and shakers in the independent soul music movement since his first full-length release, Esoteric, some ten years ago, Roberson has helped pave the way for – and in a growing number of cases, unknowingly mentored – many of today’s successful and aspiring entrepreneurs and creatives – independent recording artists, actors, painters, writers, photographers. In this interview Eric Roberson talks about his musical journey and talks about what it took to become the successful artist he is today
IAA: What inspired you to become an artist?
ERIC ROBERSON: I grew up in a creative household. I had an older sister who pretty much did everything. She could draw, make clothes, played in the band and did theater. Her being my older sister, I would follow her around. My parents put me into everything to keep me out of trouble. One day they brought me a keyboard, and there was no turning back for me. When I got my keyboard, I fell head over heels in love with music.
IAA: How long have you been in the music industry?
ERIC ROBERSON: As crazy as it is, I have been in the music business for twenty years. I got signed to Warner Bros. when I was 19. Although it has been 20 years, not every year was a successful year. There was a lot of time spent trying to struggle and make things happen. I have worked as a singer, producer, background singer, and artist. I did whatever I needed to do in order to stay in the business.
IAA: Having been in the business for so long you often call yourself a “Music Survivor.” What are some things that have contributed to the longevity of your career?
ERIC ROBERSON: My longevity has come from me understanding the long term goal, and really being in love with my craft. Whether I had a 9-5 somewhere else, my off time was spent writing songs and composing. You have to be able to deal with the highs and lows, the pitfalls, the negative, the critiques, and the door slams in your face. Music was my long term goal that kept me focused. My goal is to do music for the rest of my life and provide for my family. My goal is what made me look past a lot of stuff and get through the survival of it. I have found a steady path right now that I am enjoying.
IAA: What is your overall goal?
ERIC ROBERSON: My ultimate goal is to grow old doing music, and to provide for my family while doing what I love and following my heart. At the same time, I want to leave a piece of a foundation for those who follow me to stand on. I understand that I did not get here alone. The people who have help me now, and the artists who have come before me have helped me to get to where I am today. I hope at the end of the day, my track record and the things that I have done, will allow me to be looked at as part of a music foundation.
IAA: Who are some of the other artist who have inspired you throughout your career ?
ERIC ROBERSON: It starts with Stevie Wonder, a gospel group from Detroit called Commission, and a Tribe Called Quest. Each one inspired me in a different way. Listening to Stevie wonder for the first time helped me to see how someone thought out an idea for an album or a song, and really wrote down lyrics. It was the first time I understood that someone really understood and put music together, If he could do it, I knew I could do it. Commission’s music was the first music that really affected me. Their music really punched me in the chest and took the wind out of me. I was like 13 years old and I told myself, “Whatever that is I want to do that.” A Tribe Called Quest was the glue to everything. Growing up in jersey and having all these different genres in my head, I was suppose to commit to one. I love jazz, I love hip -hop, I love rock, “Why do I have to commit to just one genres?” A Tribe Called Quest mixed so many genres together correctly, and it showed me that I could do the same.
IAA: You are a highly successful independent artist. What made you decide to stay on the independent route?
ERIC ROBERSON: You know I wish I could say that I intelligently navigated my career, but I got signed and dropped a lot of times with major labels. I also ended a bad relationship 11 years ago, and the only way I knew how to heal was to close the studio doors and write about it. That’s where my first album came from. I didn’t have a record deal at the time, and it just made sense to share it. My intention was just to share that album with her. I don’t think I expected to sell thousands of records and tour the world. I just kind of wanted to get everything out of my system. It pretty much was my journal. I was knee deep as a song writer, but these songs were too personal to sell. The people that heard the records demanded more and challenged me to do more. I was just following the steps that were laid out in front of me. I was like, “What happens if I kind of stayed on this path? What happens if I don’t go to Def Jam, Virgin, or Columbia?” I tried that route, let me see what happens on this route. Thank God it worked. I think the fans are a big cause of that, and I am grateful.
IAA: Besides being an artist, you are an accomplished songwriter. You have written successful songs for Bilal, Vivian Green, Jill Scott, Dwele, to name a few. Can you take us through your writing process and how you put a song together ?
It changes daily. It changed a lot over the years. First off, I try to be observant to the beauty and ugliness around in the world. When I’m in a sad point I have no problem writing about it. When I am happy I have no problem writing about it. I told myself that nothing personal in my life was off limits. I write all the times. When I go in the studio, I go in and sit at my keyboard and start writing a song. I really try to be the character. If I have an idea or an objective I am going after, I try to get the structure of the music down and then I start chasing the idea whether it takes 5 mins or 5 years.
IAA: So I know you have been nominated for Grammys in the past, can you tell us how it felt to be nominated?
ERIC ROBERSON: Euphoric and intimidating, cause it’s something you have been dreaming and wishing for. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with a title like that, that can never be taken away. From this point on I have a title of being a Grammy nominated artist and I cherish that. I am an independent artist who fought for the independent soul music to be looked at as an equal to the R&B major market. There is a big challenge to make sure you represent yourself well for all the people who will be following behind you to possible get nominated. At the same time, one of the biggest obstacles of the indie soul music is educating people that the quality is still the same. As a songwriter/producer we record in the same studio where we write for majors. We use the same equipment, same engineer, but it’s just headed out differently. There isn’t major marketing dollars behind it, but the quality of music isn’t different. We don’t take shortcuts. Being nominated for a Grammy validates what we do. It allows some of the fans and our peers to open their heart to music rather than judge it on what it’s connected to.
IAA: The Grammys have recently cut some of their categories, one in which you were nominated for in the past, The Urban Alternative Performance category. How do you feel about that ?
ERIC ROBERSON: I am very disappointed. I personally feel that the music business is very unbalanced. To cut the categories down is to say that most music is in a similar lane. In reggae music there is different styles, in country music there is different styles, in soul music there are different styles. To cut down the list so substantially, it puts us all in the same box, especially in R&B. I’m competing with Usher, Maxwell, as well as Brandy. We all make such different music that we skip the opportunity to educate the fans on how special each genre is. I pray that it opens up so that it can shine light on the great artists and different genres. The way its cut down, it will be very hard for a fan who watches the Grammys to discover someone new. The people who had a big year, are the ones who are going to win. I think a lot of people looked into who Esperanza Spaulding was when she won Best New Artist last year. Whether you loved her music or didn’t, you sought after her to see who she was. That’s the beauty of the Grammys. You can discover someone new, and that new album you discover might can change your life.
IAA: You have your monthly showcase at SOB in NYC called Sol Village, can you tell us about it?
ERIC ROBERSON: We have been doing it for the past 8 years. It’s a monthly showcase every 3rd weds at SOB called Sol Village where we showcase about 4 or 5 acts. Majority of the acts are from the Tri-State area, but some come from different countries and other states as well. A great alumni list includes Jessi J who is doing extremely well, Algebra Blessett, Chrisette Michelle all who are doing very well too. It’s a very fun, loose night. The purpose is to educate fans. People can come to the show and know there are quality acts that will get on stage, and will leave you saying wow that person blew me away. A kid named TJ Hilton, I just saw his video on 106 & park. He did Sol Village about 4 months ago, and he tore the stage up. When he got done, I said, “That kid can really be something.” The beautiful thing about Sol Village is that it provides a lot of opportunities. When I was young I tried to change people’s perception of me as a songwriter and have them look at me as a performer. I struggled to get on Sob’s stage. Now, I am fortunate enough to be a part of a show that gives people the opportunity to get on the stage and showcase their talent.
IAA: I know you are releasing a mixtape for Valentine’s day, What can your fans expect from the mixtape?
ERIC ROBERSON: It’s called when When Love Calls. It’s a combination of my favorite love songs that I have written for previous albums. I’m known for my sad songs, but I can put a good love song together from time to time. For the fans that know me for my recent stuff, this album will shine a light on my earlier stuff. This is the soundtrack to a good Valentine’s day or date night.
IAA: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
ERIC ROBERSON: Focus on the word completion. Completion is the word that separates the successful artists from the unsuccessful ones. The word completion can carry you through a lot of things, from learning your craft to completing a song. You also have to understand there is a business side of music, and you have to complete that side as well. If you are collaborating with someone, you have to make sure that you talk splits and get that song to the right people. The word completion should be tattooed to the inside of your eyelids, as painful as that sounds. Completion is the word that we all have to hold on too.