New Jersey soul star Eric Roberson has just been over to the UK for a series of live shows. The gigs, in London, Manchester and Birmingham, were arranged in support of his newly released Dome Records album B-Sides, Features & Heartaches, a 13-song collection of not-widely-heard singles, features on other artists’ projects and three brand new tunes.
Featuring such as Angela Johnson, Les Nubians and DJ Spinna, as well as the tune Postcards From The Edge – where he teams up with Wes Felton, and background vocalists Raheem DeVaughn and Bilal – the set effectively marks time between Eric’s next studio album proper [due for release in the middle of the year] and his successful side-project United Tenors.
The latter, in case you missed it, is a gospel quartet put together by Commissioned’s Fred Hammond and starring Roberson alongside Blackstreet member Dave Hollister and Brian Courtney Wilson. The Tenors’ self-titled RCA album hit the Billboard Top 40 last year, since when Eric has been touring extensively with them.
Echoes: Lots of soul and R&B acts talk about making a gospel album some day, but few actually go ahead and do it in the prime of their career. So tell us, Eric, how did United Tenors come together?
“I’m a huge Commissioned fan but, somehow over the years, I’ve managed not to meet Fred Hammond at all. Well, eventually my amazing staff tricked me into meeting him and we bonded and became good friends. Shortly afterwards he called me up and told me about the idea to set up the group, and I was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’ It was that easy. Before I knew it, I was flying to his house in Dallas, Texas and we recorded the whole album there.
“It was an extremely emotional experience. We all pretty much cried through the entire making of the record. Really. And the first two or three shows too.
“I am extremely proud of the album and very happy with the brotherhood that was created out of that project. I was good friends with Brian Courtney Wilson already and a big fan of Dave Hollister, but when we got together as a group the blend sounded like we had been together for 10 years.
“Fred did an amazing job in who he picked. We were so like-minded. You can hear that we were united. We are all fathers, we are all married or have been married, we all have our own businesses… the experience made us better people. I wouldn’t trade those conversations we had for the world.”
So that’s where B-Sides, Features & Heartaches comes in – to fill the gap between your own albums?
“Yeah it does. To me this record symbolizes the collaborative spirit that permeates my music. I clearly didn’t get here myself. And I have always enjoyed working with other people. Not everything always works, but some beautiful, amazing things can come out collaborating too.”
One stand-out on it is the charity song Be A Humanitarian, which you [and others] made to help the people in Haiti get over the destruction caused by the 2010 earthquake. Unusually for a charity record, it’s actually a good piece of work from both the musical and lyrical standpoints too.
“Yes, I think it is. I was just honoured to be a part. Basically, it’s a ‘who’s who’ of East Coast indie artists. We are donating 100% of the proceeds to the charity efforts in Haiti. If I can give some more attention to the record by putting in on my album, that’s cool.”
Another strong track is Touch featuring Collette and Monet. Collette’s album from last year passed a lot of people by…
“Yes it did. Y’know, I do a show called Soul Village in New York, an R&B showcase with three or four acts on – in fact, right after we finish speaking I’m driving up to New York to do the next one. Collette was on Soul Village a couple of years ago. She went to Howard University like me and that fact caught my eye.
“She’s a great talent and I do think it’s our responsibility to mentor some of the newer acts, so when she mentioned she had this song we might do, I heard it and we did it. You’re right, her album didn’t really get the attention it should have got, so I decided to put it on my album to see if it might help re-direct people back to her.”
How is your own record label coming along? Are you yet in a position to sign up other acts – something you told us that you were heading towards last time we talked?
“We are getting very close to be ready to take on some other acts, yes. I’m still waiting to see what the next level of technology is going to be, though… with Mom & Pop stores closing and the majors struggling, I think we need to see what’s next. But we will do it. And I’m glad you keep asking about it because it’s easy to get lazy on that. We need to make it happen.
“My biggest worry, as it was before, is not being able to provide somebody what their dreams are showing them, from the business angle.”
Which is why you didn’t sign King when you ran into them a few years ago?
“Funny, I ran into them again last week and they played me their album – and it sounds phenomenal! If I were in a different place on a business level, I would definitely take on an act like them. Next time I run into a group like King, I think I’m gonna do it.”
And your own next album?
“I think it will be called Musical Monologue – that’s the tentative tile. I’m really excited about it. It’s coming together really well. There are some snippets on this album, as a matter of fact. I think sometime between July and October will see a release date for it.
“There are some great collaborations to put on there, but that’s about all that’s left. I can’t give you any names yet, because I don’t want to jinx it, but they’re gonna be great.
“Actually, I will tell you that Phonte is probably gonna be on my next album and probably I’ll be on his. In fact, I can exclusively reveal to you that Phonte and I have agreed to do an entire album together in 2015.”