Eric, thank you for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon about your latest album Dear America, to be released on 10th September 2021.
Eric B: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be able to talk about this record that I’m so excited about.
BD: Dear America, is intensely personal and insightful. In your seventh decade of observing every twist and turn in American culture, politics and relationship with the wider world, why is this the time you send this letter to USA?
Eric B: Well, I think everybody is in agreement that the last four/five years you know, if we start with that Trump administration and we continue to where we are now, including this pandemic that’s plagued the world for the last almost two years. I think it became obvious to me that many of the issues that were claiming the headlines in America, the George Floyd murder, etcetera the whole Black Lives Matter movement. So many other issues that have to do with equality and justice and respect. All of those seem to have really hit a higher pitch you know, in those last five years, that made it impossible to ignore and for a musician like myself who’s always been eager to include social issues in my writing. I write a lot of kinds of songs, a lot of love songs, a lot of encouraging kind of spiritual oriented gospel tunes, blues songs that contain current events are all of those things is nothing new. Blues for me has always been an idiom that’s reflected the life that the Blues person is living and the community is going through. So there’s nothing new about being what can I say? Yeah, being a scribe of contemporary events when your Blues troubadour like myself. But I just felt that. Me, being somebody who’s come from a family who was always aware of the civil rights movement and active with it, it’s my legacy and I’m just carrying on from what my roots have given me and there was never a better time to raise my voice and to put my two cents into the mix, you know?
BD: The lyrics are poignant, direct, and relevant to the times we are living in. Social movements, ills and challenges are wrapped in the melodic warmth of your music without losing the message. What did the guests bring to this cocktail of blues and so much more?
Eric B: Well, starting with the first track to have the legendary iconic Contra bassist Ron Carter play on that track that pays tribute to music and I even start the lyric with give me a little bit of jazz to have one of the most remarkable jazz bass players on that track was just a blessing beyond words. I actually played with Ron Carter when I was very young because my dad had a television show and run was the bass chair for the House Orchestra, for the first part of that season, and so as a 16-year-old, my dad hired me. Is the guitar player way out of my depth, but I had a chance to, you know learn from and observe some veteran musicians already at that early age. So this was a bit of a reunion for me, so just his venerable presence on a track that celebrates music seems so fitting and so wonderful as a way to start off that record.
Eric Gales is a guitar player who like a Hendrix, it’s hard to put into a few words how magical his playing is. He’s the best of all the old school styles when it comes to Blues and beyond, as well as being an amazingly adventurous and creative modern guitar player who seems to always be in touch with his muse. He doesn’t play gratuitously. He can shred. He’s one of the few guitar players who can play a lot of notes and still say something you know. But I find his Blues playing just incomparable and I loved his playing the first time I heard him on a Joe Bonamassa Blues Cruise and I asked him when I met him that first time. If he would guest on a track and he said sure I’ll be there.
The wonderful Lisa Mills, a fine singer who I hope people will get to know more and more because I find she’s got a very a captivating vocal sound, an heartfelt connection to the music, she’s a southern person who really has taken on board the essence of that Southern soul music, and it was a pleasure working with her.
Tommy Sims, the bass player and singer and guitarist, who’s on some other tracks, is another legendary musician who’s played with everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Bonnie Raitt. His own recordings, just a great musician.
Chuck Campbell, a wonderful lap steel player out of the Sacred Steel tradition, gospel tradition, fabulous player.
Steve Jordan, the drummer of all drummers. You know when it comes to contemporary music across many genres, he’s a man who will grace anybody’s project in a superb way, and it was a pleasure working with him. It was a dream to work with him and it finally came true.
BD: Emmett’s Ghost takes back to 1955. The lynching of Emmett Till the spark that galvanised the civil rights movement. This scenario sadly repeated with the murder of George Floyd and the voice of Black Lives Matters was this a conscious choice to include this track in the mix?
Eric B: I will tell you exactly how it started. I was watching a Netflix documentary about Sam Cooke, and in that documentary, which is excellent, I forget the exact title, but there was a reference to the Emmett Till killing in that movie and that sparked a memory of my first contact with that story while I was leafing through a book that my parents had. Chronicling the civil rights movement up until that point I came across the Emmett Till story and more specifically came across that horrific photo of his battered face, and I was quite young and it really shook me up, and I remembered that experience as I was watching this documentary about Sam Cooke and a day or two later that song just kind of poured out of me at the kitchen table. This was prior to the George Floyd murder and when that happened I knew I had to include this song on this record. With many of this sort of song, even the song the Whole World got the Blues that was written before this covid business and I’ve had the experience before of discovering that my songs tend to almost be prophetic. I don’t take personal credit for any of that. I just feel that as a songwriter, I’m probably not alone in having an experience of feeling that there’s a co-writer somehow on another plane, prodding me to include certain things which may be apparent some entity on another plane, you know that sees a bigger perspective than I do, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to perhaps be in contact with a muse that wants me to use my voice as a way of stimulating a needed conversation.
BD: You describe the album as a love letter. Can tough love delivered by song impact the nation narrative once again mirroring the protest songs of the sixties and seventies?
Eric B: Yes.
I think it’s funny you mention that I think what we’re seeing is not a repeat but a kind of echoing reverbs of the energy of the 60s, when many people, particularly young people were in big numbers getting involved in big issues. The war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, etc. and after decades of some kind of what can I say? Self-absorbed apathy. I think the world in particular young people are now kind of feeling an urgency and a real need to play a part in basically saving humanity from its own worst tendencies, you know and the conflicts around the world within nations between nations seems to be intensifying, and music, and particularly songs, have always played a role in waking people up, to the need for real engagement. I mean we can blame politicians, but basically, they are people who we’ve more or less, you know, at least in most countries that were talking about in the West, we’ve elected these people and maybe we’ve been asleep at the wheel and too self-satisfied with the comforts of modern life. Technology has distracted us tremendously from essential issues. And I think we’re seeing that return of a wave of consciousness-raising and I’m happy for it because without it I think we really quite lost.
BD: Do you had a favourite track that encapsulates the message in the album?
I listened to the album from top to bottom late last night and I was thinking about that whole subject of favourite tracks. This is an album that has many tracks that I could pluck out as my favourites. You mentioned Emmet’s Ghost, that would be one of them, but I actually think at the end of the day, I might even go with Talking About A Train part one. I love it because sonically, it thrills me what my producer has done with that track. It contains so many elements that I find really groovy and it makes references to my heroes in an indirect way, so that would be one of them, yeah. BD: one of my favourites is the opening track, it reminds me of Pockets. Eric B: Ohh, that’s good you’re right there is a very similar vibe and that is definitely one of my favourites. The fact that it’s basically so harmonically simple, there are basically two chords in that song, three at the most you could say, but I love playing it and I love listing those different musical genres. And I love itemising favourite foods and the music, food, marriage, you know, goes way back. I love songs that talk about food and this particular kind of music. Rootsy Blues music is you know, inextricably connected to cuisines. So yeah. And I also knew that there was heavier stuff coming, and it was really important for me to bring people into that a little easier than just bang, you know. So I thought when it comes to America, the good, bad and the ugly certainly way up at the top of the very top of the list of the good is the music and the food. BD: Yeah, and lots of good people. Eric B: Well, you don’t get the music or the food without those groovy people. So yeah, yeah, definitely, and it’s inclusive. You know, I really wanted to kind of like I said, bring people in as completely as I could to set things going, you know and get their ear.
BD: How have you curated the album so that it is never haranguing or a series of cliches of American Roots Music?
Eric B: And yeah, well that’s a very tricky balancing act. You know you want to say stuff that makes people think, but you don’t want to harangue. I don’t consider myself a protest singer. However, I was certainly influenced by the great protest writers of the sixties, Phil Oaks, Dylan, to an extent, and others I grew up in the middle of that folk renaissance. I grew up in New York in Greenwich Village where there was just a cradle of emerging songwriters who were saying a lot of wonderful things about. The world they were living in and I think after a while, you realise if you’re a performer and I’ve been touring for a long time. You’re sensitive to how much an audience can take, and you have to really be yeah aware of when you’re losing them. And when you’re preaching to them, instead of including them in a conversation that is interesting to you and you assume it’s interesting to them. And at the end of the day, I also really wanted to just make some groovy music and include lyrics that made people think, but I certainly wasn’t trying to be up on a soapbox. I just wanted to let my fans know that these were things that I was thinking about, and I hope they were thinking about them too.
BD: Lastly, the impossible question. Tell our readers musician(s) or albums that have influenced you or impacted you the most?
Eric B: I can tell you right off the top of my head and I’ve met many of my heroes and sheroes, but I will tell you that, Mavis Staples. Is probably one of the top three influences when it comes to not only putting a message across, but her way of phrasing with this wonderful sense of… she just embodies so much of what I consider the best of African American music, and her integrity is a match for her amazing voice. So yeah, she’s a real shero.
Thank you Eric for your time and the joy your music brings. Food for the ears and soul.
GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Eric Bibb Reveals New Album – Dear America
Released: 10 September 2021
Via: Provogue/Mascot Label Group