How do you go from the disappointment of being released from a major record label deal to being referred to as the "king of the independent soul music movement?"
Eric Roberson is a Grammy nominated singer/songwriter that has independently released eight albums since 2001 on his label, Blue Erro Soul. He's been a role model paving the way for other artists to share their art without the support of a major record label.
I wanted to know how and why he did it. When and where his passion for music originated from. How he's been able to build such a passionate community around his music. So I invited Eric to Grind & Thrive to talk about his journey and what he's learned along the way.
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Eric Roberson is a Grammy nominated singer/songwriter that has independently released eight albums since 2001 on his label, Blue Erro Soul.
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Today's conversation is with Eric Roberson. Eric is a talented singer-songwriter and commonly referred to as one of the originators, if not the originator, of the independents soul music movement. That's because Eric has been releasing his music independently since 2001 with his first release Esoteric. To date, he's released eight albums with the latest being Mister Nice Guy which dropped at the end of 2011.
I invited Eric to Grind & Thrive to learn from his journey on the independent music scene and see what lessons just overall he can present to us so we can go out and do our thing. So with no further adieu, here's my conversation with Eric Roberson. Enjoy it.
Eric Roberson, welcome to Grind & Thrive. How are you?
Eric Roberson: Hello. I'm blessed, man. Thank you for having me. I appreciate the great introduction as well, man.
Torrey McGraw: I've got to do it big for you, big time yesterday. Like we talked about before — I press Record — we want to really just learn more about you. I know we talked about your music quite a bit. I knew you have a lot of fans out there but they may not know some of the valuable lessons you've learned just from your years of growing in the music biz.
So the first question just starting out, is there a particular time that you really learned that you had a real big passion for music?
Eric Roberson: I think so. I would say somewhere in my mid-teens I think music started separating the timeshare that I did with other things I was creative for – I was drawing, I was designing clothes, I was doing theater, I was doing BMX biking, skateboarding, breakdancing, club dancing, everything I could do in a creative sense. I had an older sister who was extremely creative. She's a floral designer and interior decorator now and I just followed her lead, man. She played in bands and a whole bunch of stuff.
But around that time, I was like 14. At that point, I had a keyboard and really started cultivating those skills in that direction. I spent more time in the basement playing my little chords and writing my little songs and very little time drawing at that point and very little time skateboarding and something like that.
So it's probably right at that time when I think music kind of took control. I was always buying records, I always listening, getting lost in music. It was always the soundtrack to everything I was doing, but then creating it kind of took over.
Torrey McGraw: What was it about creating music at that time? Because like you said you were doing a lot of different things just as a teenager just growing up. But what was it specifically about creating music that really captured your attention?
Eric Roberson: Well, I think it was always around us. I think I didn't realize I was creating all the time. My father always reminds me from the earliest time of when I started putting sentences together I was already writing poems. I got really into poetry. My father played guitar all the time. We were singing in church. I sang my first song lead in church at age seven, so it was always around.
And I remember this day like it was yesterday. I remembered sitting on the front steps of my church waiting to get picked up and praying to God that I can sing as good as Alby Shore. I remembered that day like it was yesterday. I remembered then: "God, if you could only make my voice as good as Alby Shore, then I'll be so appreciative." And I just go show them. It was always around. It was always around and then after a while you start doing certain things, the first time you actually really complete a song or the first time a song falls out of you.
But I had good examples too like when I listened to Commission's album. By the way I'm 13 years old. The first time I ever heard of Commission and the songs were like punching me in the chest. And I remembered telling myself, "That right there, whatever that is, I want to do that, whatever that is."
So, I started chasing it. I started chasing the opportunity to be able to create something that might motivate or move people. And it was levels. I have major levels, bigger epiphanies in college, after I graduated with a touch of jazz. And once I got my own equipment there were huge levels of learning like things got simpler or even just off the last school albums I started really using the pad and pen. I just kind of just started sitting down and writing, sitting down and just being. So there were always different levels, man. I've been chasing it ever since.
Torrey McGraw: So, we just talked about that growing up with the music, but then you got a scholarship, a music scholarship, to Howard University, HBCU.
Eric Roberson: HU stand up, HU!
Torrey McGraw: Not as good as Clark Atlanta University mind you but…
Eric Roberson: It's all good, it's all good. We go fight for your school. It's all good.
Torrey McGraw: But going to Howard, how was that experience in Howard and what were you getting as far as indoctrinated with the music and the things that you were doing on campus?
Eric Roberson: I cannot express to you the level of talent I was surrounded by at Howard University. And you'd walk into hallways that Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack and Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen walked down signing songs. I had the same English teacher as Donny Hathaway. I guess just that alone it was crazy. So many different levels, man.
And I was fortunate enough that my parents allowed me to bring my little music program at the school and that helped me get a lot of friends but also a strong nucleus of musicians. And that little dorm room, man, was always packed, always packed. Actually, I couldn't get a girl in my freshman year to stay in my life because I had too many people in my room, man. Do you know what I mean?
It was just constantly we were working on music and those relationships I still got to this day. They still work on my albums till this day. Even the most recent record, I got certain songs from two people I went to Howard with. And it was a blessing, man; it's just such a musical area. Part of my staff, my publicist, Jerrell Allen, who'd been a long time partner and at one point was my manager and he's still with my staff in general, he is a good friend – one of my best friends from Howard. Do you know what I mean? So, yeah, it was a great time, man, a great time.
I'll give you the best example. Walking up on a yard, sunny day, the girls got their little spring dresses out and you can here at a faint distance that somebody has set up some drums up on the front steps of the Fine Arts and maybe guitar players or horn players. You're not going to class that day, man. You're going to sit out there listening to their music and check out these girls as they walk by the steps. It was just a beautiful musical experience being at Howard.
Torrey McGraw: But at Howard, it is interesting because — I'm just going down your timeline — I see in 1994 you got signed to Warner Brother Records.
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: So what were you doing that allowed Warner Brothers to know who you ware at that time?
Eric Roberson: Well, you know what? I really got to give thanks to the group, Shai. All those brothers are real good friends of mine, more like mentors to me. They were older than I was, more like seniors when I was a freshman. And their chance encounter with the DJ and their record exploding and the next year they'd be on Arsenio Hall, all I do was give them a tape, man. I said, "When you get to LA, just pass this to somebody."
And I'm really appreciative that they did that. They passed it to somebody and before you knew it my little dorm room started ringing and I started going to LA a couple of times and I met with a whole bunch of different labels.
It wasn't an overnight thing. I did some demo deals which allowed me to get into some bigger studios and stuff like that. Before you know it we got a record deal with Warner Brothers. I released a song called The Moon and it did fairly, fairly well. But just the political stuff and the President leaving Warner Brothers, it didn't necessarily work out.
And eventually it led me back to finish school which truth be told was the best thing that could ever really happened because at that time it was a great situation but I wasn't ready yet. I wasn't ready as an artist yet to be out there on a full scale like that.
Torrey McGraw: What makes you say that? Because a lot of people, you get this record deal from Warner, were like "All right, baby, let's go. Let's make this happen." And I know you had the high and then the low of it not working out but, even that, why was going to school the best thing that happened to you.
Eric Roberson: Well, up to that point I don't say never experienced failure but like I won talent shows, I got a scholarship, I mean my voice had pretty much got me out of any jam I've ever gotten into. Do you know what I mean? It got me every girlfriend I ever dated; it was like whatever. So the artist that everybody sees now comes from me paying attention after that. The songwriter that people see now is from me paying attention after that – my work ethic that I dedicated after all that stuff and I really had to pick the pieces up and go back to school.
I became a better student all across the board. And I think back then I would have just done whatever I needed to do to maintain the light and I wasn't that good of a writer at that time, I wasn’t that good of a singer at that time — I could sing, I could write — even when I got the record deal.
When I sat down with Benny Medina at Warner Brothers, they said, "The guy could write a song a day," and he said, "Okay, put him in the studio. I want four songs by Friday." I remembered that day and I was like… and I immediately went to the studio to work. But I became a much better writer, much better singer, much better student, much better person to handle all of it after all of that.
Torrey McGraw: What is it like actually being able to sing? And this is a selfish question because personally I'm someone who like most people go in the shower and we put on that iTunes and we're like "Okay, yeah, we sound pretty good." But then my wife is like "No, no. Please. You're waking up the neighbors." So I'm curious, and you mentioned also that it got you out of a lot of jams.
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: So what is it like to have that talent, to be able to sing, first of all?
Eric Roberson: Well, it's a blessing first and foremost and I'm extremely appreciative of it. And hopefully you could hear my son screaming upstairs and hopefully he has the same pipes that his dad has. But it is a great gift. I tell you when I was single the dating scene, the singing to get girls, that grew old real quick for me because you get to a point where you want to find love. Do you know what I'm saying?
And the one thing that we have to realize as we grow older is what we usually use to pull someone in is going to be the same thing we use to push them out. And I've been a studio rat; I was a studio rat for years, I mean work ethic towards studio. I lost a lot of girlfriends because of music. I got a lot of girlfriends because of music but the same, playing the guitar in an apartment, "That's great!" Two years later when you walk in the house you pick the guitar first instead of hugging her. Now, she's like "Tsk!" — do you know what I mean — like "You put the guitar out" – it gets old. Do you know what I mean?
So you get to a point where I was at a point where I was more than happy when people will not know that I could sing and it'll be a pleasant surprise that may be added on later.
But from an artistry standpoint, putting out albums to allow people to escape away or sing something that you could see someone's face that it could help them, there's no better opportunity, man. I'm very appreciative of that opportunity and I remain appreciative to it.
Torrey McGraw: As you were telling that story, I'm curious because I can tell by the way you tell that you really feel how you connect with people, how people I'm sure remark or share remarks with you how you really touched them with your songs and that sort of thing. Is there any other arena, any other area that you think you could have a similar impact that will fulfill you like writing and singing?
Eric Roberson: Yeah, I mean anything. Truth be told, anything creative, to be honest. We did a Pen & Pad drive for kids in Afghanistan. One of my staff members named Bsews was doing work in Afghanistan.
And when I talked to him he's talking about how kids in the school they were building didn't have pens and pads. And immediately, I went to my whole studio and just every pad I had I ripped the lyrics out, put them in a box. While touring, we just left a box under the CD table – "Please bring pens, please bring pads." And we shipped out about six boxes full of pens and pads to Afghanistan. And I mind you I never got the chance to see the kids.
But knowing the stories of how they chased Brandon and the soldiers, and kids were chasing going "Pen, pen, pen!" trying to get their pens and pencils, to know that box went out there and you were able to give it to a soldier and if it helped the kid not be scared of the soldier or help the soldier get connected to the kid, I don't even have to see the face. That feeling already comes in. So anything creative, man, for me kind of gives me that fulfillment.
I love theater, I love acting – I majored in it at Howard. So I sneak a lot of my theater background I my music but I feel like if I wasn't in singing I'll probably be doing acting or probably doing a spoken word or something, it will be something creative, or even a flyer t-shirt, if I made some sneakers, some Eric Roberson-inspired Dunks or adult t-shirt and I was walking down East New York and saw some young skateboard kids with my t-shirt on I'm like "Ooh!" It will still give me the same feeling.
Torrey McGraw: Right, right.
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: I want to go back a little bit because we talked about how you got signed and then got released from the record label. But then you started writing songs with EMI.
Eric Roberson: Well actually I started writing songs first. While I was still at Howard, I landed a song on a girl group from Warner Brothers, a totally different situation, named Faja, and then from there I got back into the industry pretty much as a songwriter. And I wrote for years before I got to publishing them with EMI. But the EMI deal was kind of like the stabilizer.
Once I graduated from Howard, probably maybe three years later was when I got the publishing deal. Right before I put on my first independent album, I got the publishing deal. That really helped – that helped me build my studio and stabilize myself in the business. It was a great time for me. I mean I was right before everybody and their mom.
But I wasn't satisfied fully with where my career was at and what kind of music I was doing. And I think that was the part that kind of led me into putting out my own albums.
Torrey McGraw: But even if you weren't fully satisfied, why not just go back to try to get another major deal versus putting it out yourself?
Eric Roberson: That's a great question. I mean the one part that I did, I mean it was like that's the one part I will tell you by and say "The fans kind of rescued me out of my selfish decisions."
But I sat down in front of every label. I sat down in front of LA Reid when he was at Def Jam and performed Pretty Girl in front of him and he passed. I had a deal on the table with Columbia. I had a deal on the table with EPIC. At one point I was going to do a deal with Pharell in NERD. And a lot of that stuff just for whatever reason it got all the way to the point or sometimes it just fell apart.
And it got to the point when I said, "You know what? I'm going to do it but I'm not going to wait for them anymore. I'm going to put it out." And it's funny, even my meeting with Pharell. I don' know how I met him-but he was really, really into our music. And we'll meet a few times and I was getting ready to put out my second album.
And I remember my managers at that time we're going "Well, don't you want to hold the record? What if this Pharell deal works out?" I said, "I'm putting this record out and then let's see what happens with the Pharell stuff. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. And unfortunately it didn't happen.
It had nothing to do with the independent album I put out but I was glad I didn't wait. Do you know what I mean? I just got to a point in my life where I was saying "I'm not going to wait for stuff." I felt like I was developed enough, I have worked hard enough, I understood how to write a song, how to present a song. At that point, I was just about sharing it. And I have fans who wanted it. Do you know what I mean? So, it wasn't about doing all the big record deal stuff.
For me, most importantly, and this is one thing I stress to everybody to do is to have an honest conversation with yourself. And the moment I asked what I really want out of this (what do I really, really want?) kind of helped me understand my steps. Even with the publishing deal when I was a songwriter, I made a lot of money at different periods but I was very broke. I mean I might have made more money in a month than most of my friends made all year but that was the only money I made all year. Do you know what I'm saying?
Torrey McGraw: Right.
Eric Roberson: So, songwriting is a weird job because you're unemployed after every gig. You couldn't set the pace of how things work. I will work on an artist. I'm in some studio [0:18:35] [Audio Glitch] you don't get paid for. You're just like "Wow, I wasted three months." Do you know what I mean? And the guy who was delivering pizza every day was making more money than I was making to the studio. So when I started putting my own albums out it really saved me; it stabilized me. It really stabilized how, man, I'll be able to raise a family now. I might be able to really do this for the long run.
Torrey McGraw: But when you decided to put out your own record, I mean you knew about songwriting. Of course, you can sing. You had had that experience but I don't hear the experience of the "business side" of it, the marketing side of it. So how did you know what to do, how to do it? Was it trial and error? Did you have a mentor? Tell me about that.
Eric Roberson: I didn't know at all. I completely didn't know. I mean, truth be told, not only was I not really satisfied musically, and I had a bad break up.
Everybody knows I kind of started with the first album Esoteric. I had a real bad breakup from a long-term relationship. And it was really the first time I really have my heart broken up like that. I really ran into a brick wall. So I closed the studio door, man, and I wasn't calling anybody and nothing and just trying to heal, try to deal with it and all I knew how to do was write.
So I wrote this album which was really to her, to be honest. Do you know what I mean? I wrote this one album called Esoteric and when I finally opened the studio doors I was like "I don't care who understands this but if anybody wants it they could have it." If I sold five copies out of it, fine. And I was really going to just do that and then go back into songwriting for other people and stuff.
I was doing shows already. And it's funny because a lot of my friends come up here. They're looking me like crazy, like "You're going to put this album out? Why would you do that?" I was like "I'll just put it out" like I didn't really know what I was doing. And that's when I said, "I got to really thank the fans" because a year later once I kind of go back into songwriting, I started hearing back from different things.
There was this forum called Soul 24-7 which is this worldwide music forum. I remember one time somebody told me to check it out. He said, "Yo, people are talking about you on it. You need to really, really check it out." This was about a year or two years after I did Esoteric. And I went on in. I saw all this like "phrsst" – there are tons of people writing about it. So I typed in "Hey, this is Eric Roberson. I just appreciate everybody. I'm glad you like it."
And they were like "More, we want more. We wanted more." I mean we're talking about people from Japan and London like "How did it even get to them?" I guess it's crazy. So that was the start of The Vault. That was exactly how my second album started. It was like I'm going to give it to whoever is on this forum.
And from there, that's when it really started becoming a business. That's when my father retired from his job and he joined on and helped me with distribution and I just started studying, man, learning from scratch just trying to outhustle, outwork everybody.
Torrey McGraw: And that's interesting because today I mean we see all the outlets that you're able to share your music with fans directly, you can cut out the "middle man." But at this point, a lot of stuff was it available? I mean recounting the story now where we are in 2012 to starting out I mean how different is it for you?
Eric Roberson: There was no iTunes. There were no Twitter, Facebook, Myspace. There wasn't even Friendster when we started. There wasn't CD Baby. There wasn't any of that stuff. It was funny because when I first started, I remember my day consumed of I record through the night. I probably start recording around 8:00 and I'll finish around 5:00 in the morning. I was a very bad sleeper at that time too.
And then I was building my studio. I was building another studio at that time. So then, say, the early parts of the morning to afternoon I was with hammers and nails. Do you know what I mean? And then, at around 1:00 or 2:00, from there to 5:00, I was just mailing out CDs. I'll be at the post office literally mailing to Germany, Japan, California, Texas, whatever, just packaging.
And then my father came in. He said, "What are you doing, man? Are you packaging? Are you sending this stuff off? Well, let me send that stuff off. Man, go. Get back in the studio." And that was when I was able to really learn the other parts.
And a lot of it was really going into certain cities and selling enough CDs to get home. I'm picking up bands; I couldn't travel my own band. I couldn't afford it. I had a great band at home but, yeah, I couldn't bring them to California or Texas. So I will get myself to Texas, rehearse with a band, get on stage, perform. We stand at the door with the CDs like "I dare you to walk by me."
They finally end up buying one of these and I worked my hardest to sell enough CDs to get back home. And then next time you go back to that city, the crowd would double and the next time it will double. And that's really how I started, man. That's really how I started.
So when Facebook started, I went right there ready to take advantage of it and I'm appreciative of all that stuff because now we have a direct connection to other countries and other parts of the world where before we were literally travelling there to communicate with them.
Torrey McGraw: You mentioned towards the beginning of our conversation how when growing up you were a big fan of Commission –
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: — and that music really connected with you. So it sounds like they were a big influence on you musically.
And one thing that's challenging a lot regardless of what industry you're in is seeing somebody who you really like and they influence you but not copying their style, not copying who they are, and really creating your own voice, your own person.
So, from your experience how did you really hone your own style? Because now we know you have a really distinct style. So how did you not "copy" Commission or anyone else you were influenced by?
Eric Roberson: That's a great question and it's probably a point that I will really get a chance to point out. I think that's one of the great things about while I was thankful what happened after Warner Brothers to before because I remember when Brian McKnight's first album came out, not only myself, my entire circle at Howard we all start sounding like Brian McKnight. We immediately added air to our voice. Do you know what I mean? Or when Jodeci was out we became throaty.
And I think it takes a level of maturity to understand who you are. That's one of the first things you've got to do as an artist – you've got to discover who you are and I've always love the fact that I'm a Jersey kid. I didn't necessarily grow up in the middle of whatever was happening. While I was growing up, I lived in a spot that was close enough to get to where what's happening but not really was. It didn't really pop where I live right now. I'm 30 minutes from Philly. I'm closer to the farmland than I am to a club. Do you know what I mean?
And I like the fact that I'm not necessarily surrounded by it like I always get to Philly, I always get to New York, and capture some energy and some vibes. And I just thought that I think when I started recording or when I'm recording, as much as I love and I research music, I turn everything off. Like right now, I'm back into my enjoyment stage – I'm Thundercat, I'm blazing; I am The King or whoever, I'm blazing all these great records.
But when I start recording, I turn it all off because at that point I am only chasing the sounds in my head. If you are not careful, you will borrow someone else's energy or someone else's style if you're not careful. So I want to be very mindful of that when I'm recording and that's just because I already have enough music and lyrics in my head I don't really need much assistance in that field. So I obviously clear anything else so I get to kind of find who I am. But through life I found who I was.
Torrey McGraw: And let's jump because we're eight albums in now as of the last one was you released at the end of 2011. What have you learned, maybe some big lessons, either business-wise or just musically or even about yourself? Have you learned through this journey of releasing your own music independently from the first album to the last? Is there one or two big things that you've learned along the way?
Eric Roberson: Yeah, the most important in business is completion and the power of Now. I met a lot of people that have really helped me in this business tremendously. One that comes to mind is a brother named Bill Brown and not to be mistaken with Jill Scott's manager, Bill Brown, another guy.
Bill Brown, he used to work for a company called ASCAP. And the great thing about Bill was when he felt it or when he heard something, or when he thought of something, he took care of it right then. If you were in a meeting with him and he said, "You really should go across the street and meet with Vivian Scott Chew." As a matter of fact, "Hey, Viv! I've got a guy in front of me right now. I'm going to send him to you right now. He's going to hitch a taxi. He'll probably be over there in about 40 minutes. Is that all right? Cool, he's coming right now." "Here's the address. Go see her right now, leave."
That was Bill and you learn that like "Make sure you return that phone call." That's one of the strongest things – return the phone call. Just do what you're supposed to do. Make sure that you get to a point when you could sleep good at night. So it's just the power of Now; you're trying to take care of it because there's so much going on. With kids and stuff like that, it's tough to balance everything. But you knock it out now because we don’t' have the brainpower to remember it next week or two hours later.
But completion – completing a song, completing an idea, completing an album, completing the goal, the marketing plan, the business plan; completing everything about it – I think that's one of the valuable lessons. My grandfather taught me that. I think it's a reminder because this job could be really stressful. You get off a plane and you're exhausted, you have jet lag, and you immediately got to go on to interviews, the sound check, and the sound guy has been a jerk and don't want to get you a digital monitor. You can't hear yourself on stage.
You still get to remember, man. Hey, listen. A lot of people will be helping you get to where you're at and you got to mash this energy and build the relationship with each and every person because my goal is to have each person that's at my show bring somebody with them next time they come. Do you know what I mean? So it is to connect with them and realize that you are helping me get to where I'm at. And hopefully music is helping you get to where you're at.
Torrey McGraw: Right, right. That's a great place to leave it. That's a great thought.
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: Once again guys, the world-famous Eric Roberson here on Grind & Thrive. Eric, we know you got a lot of stuff going on. You're constantly touring this country and abroad.
Eric Roberson: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: For folks who want to catch up with you and just stay connected with you, what's the best way to do that?
Eric Roberson: That's a great question. We just launched a brand new website, ericrobersonmusic.com. We got an amazingly active blog. But you must see my twitter feeds. I'm a very active person on Twitter. The Twitter is "I Am Eric Roberson," Facebook is Eric Roberson, MySpace, all of them. I want all of them. Thank God we could connect them all up now –
Torrey McGraw: No kidding.
Eric Roberson: — each one individually. But you can start at the website, Eric Roberson Music. I'm easy to find that way.
Torrey McGraw: Cool, cool. Well, once again, Eric, I'm a big fan. I told you that before we recorded. I'm a big, big fan. I can't wait until you come back to Dallas, Texas.
Eric Roberson: Good.
Torrey McGraw: I'll come check you out and you guys check out Eric and thank you for watching another edition of Grind & Thrive. We'll see you next time
All right, guys, so there you have it. That's my conversation with Eric Roberson. And if you feel right now that you just need a little more Torrey and Eric in your life, hop over to my Facebook page, facebook.com/torreymcgraw, where there are some bonus exclusive conversation between myself and Eric only found on the Facebook page, so Facebook.com/torreymcgraw. See you there and tell a friend about Grind & Thrive.