Phone interview conducted December 20, 2010
Eric Benét’s latest album, “Lost In Time” is undeniably a rarity inasmuch as it’s a piece of work that faithfully recreates the sound of the ‘70s with such authenticity that it’s hard to believe it was recorded in 2010. In line for being considered his favorite album of last year, David Nathan unabashedly waxes lyrical with the man himself on the making of a real soul record…
David Nathan: I want to welcome today to SoulMusic.com a gentleman whose music I have been enjoying immensely for several years. I remember interviewing him in 1999 on the occasion of the release of his album A Day in the Life, and that was for Billboard Magazine. And that was an album that I still think is one of the best pieces of work of the decade—the nineties—
Eric Benét: Wow.
DN: —and I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to say that here we are in 2010 and this gentleman has produced, for sure, my favourite—close to if not my favourite—album of 2010—
EB: That’s big [laughs].
DN: Yes [laughs]; so now he’s in line for making the best album of the 2000’s, I guess you could say. And just so you know, for those listening, I don’t usually say things like that ahead of doing an interview, but I really have to say that in this case. I’m referring to Mr. Eric Benét, and I’m referring to his absolutely brilliant, brilliant new album called Lost in Time. And of course those who are listening at SoulMusic.com know that I am from way back, and so of course because I am old school, but… I’m probably before the ‘school’ was invented [laughs]—having grown up listening to music in the sixties and on till now. And I just have to say, Eric, firstly; welcome, Eric Benet.
EB: Man, that is a beautiful introduction. Man, thank you so much.
DN: Well, as I say, I don’t usually talk about people’s music when I’m interviewing them, but this is one of those occasions where I have to, because it’s absolutely a breath of fresh air. It’s such a great record, and for those of us who are old enough, it so beautifully replicates the sound of the seventies and even the late sixties on a couple of the songs—the string arrangements and everything you do.
EB: Thank you.
DN: We’re going to get into it, so let’s start there [laughs]. I mean actually, for once, I actually almost don’t know where to start—because there are so many things I want to ask you about this record. But let’s start with…obviously you sat down with, I assume, your collaborator on this, George Nash?
DN: And I assume, although I’ll let you speak for yourself, came up with a concept for this. So would you like to tell us about that?
EB: Absolutely. Let me just say once again, thank you for that introduction, man. And also, I’m physically being driven to another location right now, and as mobile phones go here, as they do in the rest of the world, they are not always reliable.
DN: I gotcha.
EB: So if I fall out or break up, I’ll call back.
DN: Gotcha, gotcha.
EB: But yeah, the concept of the record, of doing an album like Lost in Time, really came when I started working on the last album, Love & Life. I had a single off of Love & Life, it was called “You’re the Only One”. Iit was a very successful single here in the States; it was number one for four weeks and people just couldn’t get enough of that song. And the idea… if there was a concept to Love & Life it was an homage to different eras of R&B. On Love & Life I had a couple of songs where I was trying to represent the eighties of R&B, and there were a couple of songs where I was trying to represent the nineties of R&B—And so the song that was the representation of seventies R&B was “You’re the Only One”. And people just could not get enough of that song. I mean, we released the song, it went right to number one, and then we were trying to release the second single off of the record but the radio stations were like, “Look, man, we’re not finished banging the hell out of your first single yet.” So it was hard for the second single to get any love because they wouldn’t let the first single go.
That really struck a chord with me because that particular song, “You’re the Only One”, I thought, okay, this song is ‘for me’ on the record. I don’t really see this being the single—I don’t think the record label is going to go for this as a single—you know, the retro paying homage to the seventies song. That was my thinking. And then of course the song blew up, so when that happened I thought, well, damn—I thought that one song was for me, but really the whole country loved this idea of doing this retro song. So I thought, well, let me do an entire album that is an homage to the sounds of soul music from the seventies—and not just in a way that… when you think of an R&B record in today’s music that’s recorded all live and with horns and strings, somehow it ends up in an alternative R&B category, you know? Or it almost ends up as: oh, that’s a highbrow, more sophisticated R&B. Really what I was trying to do with Lost in Time was, that was the pop music of the decade—that was how the popular music was made in the seventies. It wasn’t necessarily highbrow, it wasn’t necessarily too deep—it was just feel-good music.
But they didn’t have Pro Tools and Auto-Tune and all this stuff back then, so they had great musicians that just went on and wrote great songs with great hooks. And that’s really what I was trying to do: not make this 2010 alternative-live-vibe music how-cool-I-am record, but make this really feel-good, take a slice right out of the mid-seventies… almost like a cross-section. On Lost in Time you’ve got some Curtis Mayfield-influenced stuff; you’ve got some Stylistics and some Blue Magic-influenced stuff… You’ve even got some stuff that feels like Quincy could have had his hand in on it. So I mean, there was just so much R&B back then, and it was so much of the norm for it all to be recorded with live musicians; incredible string arrangements, incredible horn arrangements. So I just went to my cousin George who—we’ve been making music since we were, literally, eleven years old.
And I was like, “Look, man, we gotta do this record.” And I pretty much laid it out like I just explained to you: I don’t want it to be some, “Oh, this is only for the people who think they have a…” well, I shouldn’t say that. This is a live R&B record for everybody…to love. This is a live R&B record where the people my age will hear it and say, “Damn, I remember when music felt like this.” Or the people who—this new generation—they would hear it and they would feel some of those feelings I felt when I was eight, nine and ten years old and The O’Jays came on the radio. So I just thought it was time to make a record like this.
DN: Well, you certainly did, and there’s a few questions that come out of everything that you just said. And the first one—for me the most obvious one—is: who did you listen to, growing up? I mean, when I listen to this record I do hear The Stylistics, I do hear Blue Magic, but I hear other things too. So tell me, who were you listening to when you were eight and nine years old?
EB: Yeah, well that’s a good question. I mean, I’m the youngest in my family—all my siblings are very talented and very musical, and they all have this incredible taste in music and their music collection. And everything was pretty much represented in our house. Everybody had this very discriminating taste in music. We subscribed to Downbeat—well, I didn’t—I was the baby: I didn’t have to subscribe to anything, I would just see stuff running around the house. But Downbeat Magazine, Billboard and Rolling Stone, those kind of magazines, growing up were all over my house. And so between my three sisters and my brother, there was a representation of almost every genre of music, from jazz fusion to Frank Zappa to Steely Dan and classic—there was a lot of classic rock. There was Queen—Queen and Elton John and Kansas and Toto—
DN: Oh my God, wow [laughs].
EB: —and of course, the full range of R&B from Funkadelic to Luther Vandross to Donny Hathaway to Stevie Wonder. And a lot of classical music too; my father had this huge classical music collection that I would get into all the time. And my mother had a very extensive gospel music collection, and we were in church every Sunday singing in the choir. So there was just this plethora of music to just immerse myself in, and I loved it all. I loved it all, but I think what resonated most in me was the gospel and the R&B music. So I just grew up with all of these different influences. And it’s always interesting for me to write songs that… I understand how it is in pop music—I can’t get too sophisticated with the chord voicings or the changes, or else they’re not going to play it on the radio. But I like to slip some stuff in there that has some intricate harmonies, and maybe on the bridge I might do a little spin that feels a little atypical from what’s happening on the radio…
It’s really just been my passion in music that has sustained me. I’ve never been an artist that tried to follow the trends of what was immediately happening on the radio. I just really stay true to this inner passion of music, and the construction of making a song that really gives me goosebumps. So yeah, that was kind of my upbringing.
DN: Well, what’s interesting is something you just said at the end there, is that you’ve been able to sustain and maintain yourself as an artist who isn’t just looking to follow trends, which I’m sure is not the easiest thing to do. It’s never been easy, but it’s probably much harder now than it’s ever been, given the state of the music industry.
EB: Very true. And it’s been an interesting relationship over the years, speaking of that, with my record label Warner Reprise. I mean, there have been times when I’ve tried to stick to my guns, and I was pretty much butting my head against a brick wall, so our relationship has gone through these ups and downs in these last couple of records. Man, we’ve been great—the love affair has been wonderful [laughs].
DN: Well, that’s good to hear—that’s good to hear, because that isn’t always the case, as we know and as you just referenced. : Well, the next thing I have to ask you about is something really simple, which is your voice [laughs]—it’s not that simple—but it was the thing that I heard… the single “Sometimes I Cry” when I was on a visit to the States in—I think it was October or November. And when I heard it come on the radio I knew it was your voice, but I’d never heard you sing in falsetto for an entire song—and I’ve just gotta ask you: how did you do it? [Laughs]
DN: I mean, I know you don’t usually… obviously, it’s clear from listening to this album that you absolutely can sing in falsetto and that you’re good at it, but doing almost—I think it’s the entire song in falsetto, how did you do that?
EB: Well, it’s one of those things, man. I think I read or heard or something, I don’t know, years ago I was in my twenties, and I remember I was either watching a documentary on some vocal coach or something, and someone said a male singer’s voice reaches its peak right around his forties and so I remember thinking back then, I was like: “Damn, I can’t wait to get in my forties, man, so I can really blow.” [Laughs] So I don’t know—I guess I’m here, now. So I’m going to try to make this… you know, get in while the getting’s good. Stack up as many albums as I can in my forties as I possibly can.
DN: [Laughs] But specifically about your falsetto: I mean is that something you developed a long time ago, or you developed it more for this record, or the song just required you to sing that way?
EB: I think it’s a combination of... first, I think, the primary reason for the falsetto in the song is what you just said. I mean, the song begged for that type of a vocal. I mean, it’s a song about crying and I’m lamenting because you’re gone and I’m trying to get over your ass, and it’s just not working the way I want it to work and it’s killing me. So that kind of lyric just begs for this vulnerable, high, for lack of a better word—whine.
DN: [Laughs] Okay.
EB: So the song calls for it. And then I think going back to my first response to that, I’ve always done falsetto here and there. I don’t know, maybe I’ve… I can’t think of one right now, but I think I sing full falsetto on an entire song. But there’s just something about the marriage between the vocal technique, the lyric and the melody of the song that just resonated very powerfully and emotionally with people. And you know, sometimes you just get it right.
DN: Well, you definitely got it right there. Well, let’s talk about some of your duet partners, because I know you have a few on this album, and how you chose them and how they came to be on the album. So of course the first one I have to start with is Eddie Levert, of course of The O’Jays, because I have to tell you that that track sounds as if… [laughs] it does sound like it’s an authentic O’Jays track. I know you’re singing on it—obviously it’s your song—but it sounds almost like it was recorded—and that’s the song “Paid”—it sounds as if it was recorded in 1977, or ’76, in Philadelphia. So how did that marriage with Eddie Levert for this duet come about? How did that situation evolve?
EB: Well, it was interesting. My cousin George and I, we had just written the song—we had finished the demo of the song—and the demo basically consisted of the musical structure of the song and me singing this mumbling vowels and consonants over it and no real words. I think I was just saying the word “paid” in the hook and didn’t really know how I was going to use it. But after we listened to that thing we were like, “Dude, we just wrote an O’Jays song.” And… [laughs] I mean, because it’s so, so undeniably… you know, The O’Jays were a musical staple of my childhood, the soundtrack of my childhood. They always had a hit on the radio. And they always found a nice balance between making these happy, upbeat and feel-good songs like “Love Train” and “Used to Be My Girl”, and then they were also—
DN: “I Love Music”—yeah, yeah.
EB: Yeah, “I Love Music”. But they also had the pulse of the angst of the people, like “Backstabbers” and “For the Love of Money”. And so after it was clear that, musically, this was an O’Jays song, I decided to go more of the looking at the climate of the world today. And everybody is globally struggling with this crazy Jedi mind trick that these financial institutions are trying to pull on all of us. So then the lyrics for “Paid” came, and I just—since it was clear that it was an O’Jays song from the beginning we just said, “Look, I don’t know how or if, but Eddie Levert is just going to have to do this as a duet with me.” [Laughs] So I went in… after I had the lyrics, I just put a vocal down of me singing the whole song. Then we sent the demo to Eddie and he immediately loved it. He lives in Las Vegas, and so we’re like, look—we get two blessings at once: we get to go hang out in Vegas for four days and then spend some time with a legend of R&B. And Eddie, he was a joy to work with and a joy to be with, and he really just… his presence on this record is just like a stamp of authenticity to me doing this throwback record.
DN: Did you feel in any way intimidated, being in the studio with him?
EB: I felt intimidated before he got to the studio—
DN: Okay [laughs].
EB: Eddie’s energy—his energy is that he’ll come in cracking jokes and laughing and telling stories about the glory days, and before you know it you just feel like you’re at a holiday dinner with your favourite uncle. And so after that, all the intimidation and all that stuff just went right out the window.
DN: I gotcha. You had a good time.
DN: Well, it’s a brilliant track, and it really is authentically… you’ve absolutely re-created—and having his presence on there absolutely added to the re-creation of that sound very faithfully. I mean, it really does sound like it could have been recorded in 1975 or ’76; absolutely.
EB: Thank you, man. Thank you very much.
DN: Brilliant job—brilliant. Brilliant.
EB: Thank you.
DN: All right, let’s move on to “Good Life” featuring Ledisi, one of my absolute favourite singers of the last ten years—a great artist in her own right, as we know. Tell us a little bit about working with her, and also that particular song which reminds me—kind of took me to late seventies/early eighties club records. I mean, that’s how it sounded to me—I mean, I can remember dancing to records like that, and I was like—this is really clever, man—you’ve captured it.
EB: Thanks, man.
DN: So tell us about that.
EB: Thank you for that reference, because before even writing “Good Life” I said to myself, it’s like: “Look man, if I’m going to do this homage to the seventies record, I’ve got to have one dope disco song on this record.” And I wanted the record to feel like the heyday of Studio 54 in New York. I just wanted it to feel like straight-up disco…You’ve got your drag queens in one corner, you’ve got Andy Warhol over here, and Cher’s hanging out with Sonny, and Muhammad Ali might be in the other corner, and everybody on the dance floor… I just wanted the record to feel like that. And a quick story about Ledisi, before she was signed—this was years ago. I was in Oakland and I just stumbled across this little hole-in-the-wall club, and there was this girl and this band singing onstage, and my jaw was open the entire time because she was incredible, vocally. And immediately I literally walked outside and I called my A&R person at Warner Bros at the time who had signed me and I’m like, “Look, you’ve got to get on a flight, you’ve got to come here and see this girl sing.” And it was Ledisi. And my A&R person was like, “Okay, cool, cool, cool. We’ll fly out next weekend.” And we did. We came back, we saw Ledisi perform and she was phenomenal and my A&R person was blown away. Long story short, for whatever reason… she and the record label had a few meetings, but apparently the deal didn’t work out. And so I was very happy to see a few years later this girl Ledisi getting all these Grammy nominations and having her deal and this, that and the other, so I was thrilled. So I called Ledisi—by the way, she didn’t remember any of this—
DN: [Laughs] Okay.
EB: [Laughs] So I called Ledisi—I got Ledisi’s number from her management—and I was like, “Hey, what’s up, this is Eric Benet. I got this song and I know vocally I love your voice and I always hear your voice on like smooth R&B tracks, but I think your voice would sound incredible on like a seventies disco track and would you like to do this vibe with me?” And she was a sweetheart. She was like, “Oh, my God, Eric Benet—sure, sure, let’s make it happen.” And we got in the studio and we laid the track… yeah, and so we’re in the studio doing the song and she laid this incredible vocal down, and I said to her, “You don’t even remember me, do you?” And she said, “Well, I remember meeting you, I just don’t remember where.” And then I told her the story, like before you were signed, we came… and she just let out a scream and she was like, “Oh, my God.” So it was really funny. She didn’t even remember I actually tried to get her signed. So yeah, and “Good Life” just—it just feels incredible. It does just what it was supposed to do.
DN: It does indeed. Well I know we have a limited amount of time, so I’m going to have to run through the next questions as quickly as I can.
DN: How was it, singing with your daughter on “Summer Love”?
EB: Well, I mean, all kinds of joy and fun, being in the studio with India. But one of the most prideful and joyous feelings is, I’ve been working with singers for decades now and singers who have been doing it for years and who are professional singers. And trying to get background vocals out of them, oftentimes in the studio it might take quite a few takes to get something right. But with India… this was the second time I had India sing on a record; she actually sang on Love & Life also, but on “Summer Love”, she’ll just go in the studio and I’ll sing her a part and she’ll just knock it out, usually on the first try [laughs]. And she’s just an incredible talent, she’s an amazing person, and I’m really proud of who she’s developed into as a woman now—she’s nineteen. And any opportunity I get to work with her is just all kinds of joy, man—it’s like I’m overflowing with pride—
DN: That’s great, really great.
EB: —at who she is.
DN: Well, she has some pretty good genes right? Musically?
DN: So hey….
EB: Well, that may have a little to do with it.
DN: May have helped.
EB: Yeah [laughs], but she’s very much her own person.
DN: Okay, well, just a couple more questions, ’cause I could talk about every song on here and we won’t be able to do that [laughs]—but let’s do the best we can. And just to say that one of the people that I do notice is listed as one of the people who you worked with as an arranger is Benjamin Wright—and I remember Benjamin Wright…
EB: Oh, my God.
DN: —records with Tavares and Gladys Knight & The Pips, and I mean, he’s done some amazing work over decades. So how did you get to work with him?
EB: Well you know, that word genius is thrown around a lot, but Benjamin Wright truly is this genius of those kinds of arrangements. It was very clear that once I had endeavoured to make a record like this, I had to get not only a string arranger who does these incredible arrangements, but who was making them back then [laughs]. So Benjamin Wright, I mean, there’s so many songs that he’s done that we love—that he’s done the string arrangements for that we love—like “Boogie Wonderland”, Earth, Wind & Fire; Michael Jackson, “Off the Wall”, or “Rock With You”, Michael Jackson. So I actually worked with Benjamin on the last record, Love & Life, and he did the string arrangement for “You Are the Only One”. And so I just kind of reached out to him and I said, “Yo, man, pretty much every song on this new album is going to have strings and horns, or one or the other, and I would really love for you to be involved with this.” And he just made it happen. I mean, he’s an incredible person and an incredible arranger.
DN: The last question I wanted to ask you was, really, how people have been responding to the album?
EB: Well, I gotta say they’ve been responding very well. There’s been a lot of… I want to say just support for the effort of trying to bring that real R&B back. It’s resonated very strongly with definitely my core audience and it feels like I’ve been reaching people who haven’t necessarily really been checking for Eric Benet before, and—
EB: Yeah. That always feels good. But—obviously it feels good to have the true-blue fans that are there no matter what, but it’s really interesting to get the new recruits in, and it seems like this record is doing that pretty well.
DN: Now the new recruits—are they older, or younger, or both?
EB: I think they’re both.
DN: Wow, interesting. Interesting, interesting.
DN: But you definitely are reaching people who grew up listening to the kind of music that this album is an homage to, correct?
EB: Absolutely, absolutely. And that’s a great feeling.
DN: Yes. Well, I only have one—I thought I had no more questions, but I do have one which is: I notice there’s only a two-year gap between this album and your last one, and I know there were big gaps between the other ones. Is it likely that you’re going to be more consistent in terms of doing albums from now on, like every couple years?
EB: Yeah, man. Getting back to that last question about the singer reaching his forties and being in his best vocal shape, I’m going to try to squeeze out at least three more records while I’m in my forties, so…So yeah, I’m going to try to bang one out sooner than you think.
DN: Great. Well listen, as long as you keep making great music, as this album absolutely is, I think everyone will be very happy.
EB: That’s awesome. Hey, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, man.
DN: Thank you.
EB: And let the people know that they can keep up with me on Twitter at ebenet: E-b-e-n-e-t. And to go to my website, ericbenet.net, and keep up with my schedule.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, hopefully in your schedule there will be some London dates sometime soon.
EB: Absolutely, I hope so.
DN: And we’ll get to see you in person performing these songs. And I have to let you know, just in case you didn’t know, the soul music fans in Britain that have heard this album are responding very well to it. So I’m not the only one who thinks this is one of the best albums of 2010.
EB: Man, that is awesome. I’m really looking forward to coming and returning the love, man.
DN: All right. Well, Eric, thank you again for taking time. I wish you a very, very happy holiday season—
EB: All right.
DN: —and a great New Year, and all I can ask you to do is to keep being as soulful as you’re being [laughs].
EB: [Laughs] That is going to be easy.
DN: All right. Take care now, and thanks again.
EB: All right, thank you, man.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.