Lee Fields is currently on tour through North America, supporting his excellent new album Emma Jean. The soul singer has had a renaissance in the last 5 years, linking up with Truth and Soul Records in New York City. He told Zumic that he's been waiting 40 years for a band like The Expressions, and we believe him. Their string of albums together, My World (2009), Faithful Man (2012), and now Emma Jean (2014), show that classic funky soul music can still be as fresh, vibrant, and moving as ever.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Lee about a number of topics, ranging from his approach to performing live and recording in the studio to his approach toward life and how he's evolved over his career. As a singer and showman, he's one of the most talented people in the world, and even though he's a seasoned veteran, he's showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Zumic: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I was just at your record release party concert at the Bowery Ballroom.
Lee Fields: Oh man, it was off the chain! Did everyone have a good time?
It was amazing. Sold out show. People were dancing and having fun. It's the third time I've seen you guys perform, and every time is a real pleasure.
Thank you very much!
The first time I saw you perform was at One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans, and that show blew me away. Do you have any favorite places to play?
My favorite place is the show I’m gonna play next!
Because every night is the moment. The most important thing is the show I’m playing now. The most important thing of my musical career is the tune I’m playing at that very moment. If it's 50 people or 10,000, as far as I’m concerned, the most important audience is the one I’m playing to right now. I’m thinking I should give my all every night, because that’s the way it is.
During the show, there’s certain parts where you're dancing and interacting with the crowd. How much of that is planned? When you do rehearsals, are you like 'Ok this is the part where I’m gonna dance and spin around' or is it totally in the moment?
Totally in the moment. I try to restrict myself from doing a lot of dancing... Every once in a while I do a few moves, but if I do a whole lot of moves, people are gonna say I'm trying to be James Brown. So a lot of time I restrict myself from dancing, because I learned all of his moves and I don’t have time to create a whole other dance style. It's good for me to be as soulful as I can, and when I do a few moves, make it quick. I'd rather people leaving the show saying, 'Hey, I saw Lee's show, and he did his songs,' and not have people leaving the show saying, 'He was doing James Brown all night!' I've been under J.B. for so many years in my early career. James did that, ya know? So I do it in honor of him, but try not to do it too much.
Is there anything you want your fans to know about you, that they may not already know?
Well, I’m a very simplistic guy, and I don’t know whether they know this or not, but I’m a very loving person. I love people, and I'd like for people to understand that out of my music I try to be as responsible as I can with what I say. I’m in this for trying to make things that I truly believe I can live with. People say 'we are what we eat,' physically, I say 'we are what we hear,' mentally. See, I like to do things that I feel will be beneficial to people. I’m not trying to make a quick dollar.
I see where you’re coming from. Let me ask you about “Faithful Man.” It’s a signature song of yours. Was that inspired by a real life episode?
Actually, I didn’t write that song. Every song that I sing, I do become that person. When I’m singing “Faithful Man,” I am a person at that time being tempted to do something that will be against the core beliefs of my upbringing. When I’m singing that song, I am that guy. I am going through these changes, and there is a relationship there, and although the relationship is fabricated in my mind, while I’m singing that song, I am that person, and every song I sing, I am that person. How Leo DiCaprio could play Elliot Ness or somebody, he is the guy at that time, so I look at singing like more or less like you're acting with your emotions. When you go out there, you pour yourself out to people, so you become the person that you're singing. If you just wanna sing melodies and you don’t become a person, people are not gonna get it. You gotta become the person. So, that song wasn’t inspired by anything in my personal life, but I am that guy while I’m singing. [laughs]
In terms of songwriting, how much of the lyrics are written by you and how much are written by other people?
It varies. I did very little writing on this album. When we write, we just write in the studio and all the credits we give later. I co-wrote "Talk To Somebody," "Don't Leave Me This Way," and "Eye to Eye." When they bring an idea, although the song might be almost fully structured, I sing whatever comes outta me, man! I don’t know what I’m gonna say! And they say 'Keep it,' and we keep that. So that’s how we write. We are a group that believes that we go with the best ideas. So far, we as a group are able to recognize a good idea, and I pray we continue to do that.
Let me ask you about the Emma Jean record. To me, it sounds like a bluesy and emotional record.
We have some bluesy flavors in there, but we also have some country & western flavors, and a little Motown kind of stuff like "Standing By Your Side." What we tried to do with this record was make it as colorful as possible. And the main thing we try to do is have a good time at the studio, and we did.
Very cool, I was wondering what inspired you to do a song by J.J. Cale and a song by Leon Russell.
Well, Leon Russell and J.J. Cale were always people that I admired. And then Leon [Michels], the label head , said, 'Hey man, take a listen to this... You wanna cover this?' Oh man, I was totally, totally happy! J.J. Cale man, ya know, one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. Leon Russell is so different from things I normally do. If I do the same things over and over, without some kind of different flavor, people will become a bit bored of hearing the same kind of stuff. So what I try to do is put my head together with The Expressions, and say 'What can we do to be a little bit different?' To keep the spark there, ya know?
Absolutely. So, tell me about recording the album. I read that you were working on the album in Nashville and mixed it at Dan Auerbach's studio.
Yeah, well, actually I wasn’t at Dan Auerbach's studio, but Leon was there. Leon Michels went down to Nashville. He's been working with Dan for quite a few years. He went to Dan's studio and worked on the Leon Russell song, background and stuff. He made a beautiful choice to go down there and mix the tracks and put down different flavors in Dan's studio, because it gave us a whole other dimension. It was a beautiful thing, and I'd like to give a BIG shout-out to Dan Auerbach for taking his talent and sharing it with us on those two songs. So amazing, and he wrote a song for me as well, "Paralyzed." Dan is a great guy, man. Thanks for helping us out!
What would you say the biggest differences are between Emma Jean and past records you’ve made?
I’d say on Emma Jean we went out, like with the “Magnolia” song, we went out trying to get a little taste of country. We put steel guitars in a couple songs, like "Paralyzed." So the difference is that we sort of veered into other genres, but not leaving our core. We added different spices, like country & western, but still tried to keep the very fiber of what people like us for.
Is there anything else you wanna talk about? Anything you want people to know about the record? The Expressions? Music in general?
I want people to know that I waited 40 years for this band, and thank God he delivered this band to me. We, as a group, I feel like we have a lot of things, creative things, that we're gonna put into motion in the time that we have.
And, I wanna thank people for their support, and buying my music, and coming out to the shows.
How did you first link up with The Expressions?
I met them through Desco Records. A few of the members were working with Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth, they had a band called Soul Providers. Leon was in that band, and they later changed their name to the Dap-Kings, then Sharon [Jones] become their singer, and I was a singer with a group called The Sugarman 3. That's when we met. He was a kid, man. He was about 16, and the friendship has been very close ever since.
Anything else on your mind?
I wanna let everybody know that I love people. I think that love, itself, is is the answer to all that's going wrong with the world.
That's a great message. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. Good luck on the rest of your tour!
Thank you so much!
Check out Lee Fields and The Expressions' latest tour dates at their official website.
Photos by Brad Bershad