All photos by Danilo Parra
I listened to Lee Fields as I got dressed this morning, on the bike ride to work, as I wrote this introduction, and I know I’ll listen to him at least one more time today. I’ve pushed his last record, My World, onto every human I know. If I had a dog, I would have sat him on my bed and put headphones on his ears so he could listen, too. I’ve sent Lee’s music to coworkers and then turned around to make sure they immediately started listening to it. If they didn’t, I’d IM them all like, “What the fuck, dude! Listen to it NOW!” Such is the extent of my love for this man and his band, The Expressions. I may sound like a crazy superfan bordering on restraining order-level enthusiasm, but I can't help it. I FUCKING LOVE THIS MUSIC!!!!!!!! Lee’s newest album, Faithful Man, came out today, and, unsurprisingly, it's fucking great. Here’s an interview I did with Lee a few weeks ago. He’s a very nice, extremely positive guy who kindly refrained from commenting on how nervous I was (so nervous that I stuttered a few times and was sweating profusely even though we were walking around Brooklyn in the middle of February).
VICE: The first time I heard your album My World, it sounded like an old soul 45, but it came out in 2009. Did you purposefully give the album an older soul feel or is that sound just something that’s ingrained in you?
Lee Fields: No, what it is is the band. I’m a true soul singer, probably one of the few that’s left. So, when it comes down to soul, that’s what I do. That’s natural. And so what the band did was listen to a lot of records from the soul era, and they were highly intrigued.
Who did they listen to?
They listened to everything: Otis Redding, The Delfonics, Carla Thomas, all the Motown stuff, Major Lance, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs… Everything. But they also keep their hand on the pulse of what’s happening today. So since this is what I do, and they are aware of the way that it’s supposed to be done, instead of imitating or trying to re-create the old sound, we create the sound as if it’s right now. Although our music has the feeling of that era, it sounds fresh and brand new because we’re not actually imitating. We’re taking on the new continuation of soul.
I think many people who are really into soul get caught up in the old sound and the musicians who defined and dominated the genre back in the day. You know, James Brown, Al green… I think there’s a bias against newer soul where people just assume it won’t be as good as it was back then. What do you think?
It all just depends on who’s doing it. I think a lot of people probably have that kind of attitude, but when they listen to what we’re doing, I think those doubts are removed. And I’m not trying to be pompous or egotistical, but what we do is from the heart. It’s so real and it just comes so naturally to us.
I agree. I watched some of your live performances on YouTube, and I notice you’re very keen on silky suits. Is that look important to you? Would you ever go on stage wearing just a t-shirt and jeans?
Well, as a matter of fact, we’re going down to Texas for SXSW, so I’m gonna have on a t-shirt and some jeans… But I’m gonna have some cool boots! There has to be something cool about it. I’ve always been taught that you come on the stage with your best, so if it takes a customized suit and some real sharp shoes…
Do you get your suits custom made?
Yes, but if I see a suit in a window that I think is gonna look good, I think, “I gotta have it, baby!”
You’ve been around for about 40 years now and you’ve had your different styles—funk, dance, soul—now that you’re working with a pretty large backing band, how do you guys write your songs?
We get together and discuss what direction we wanna go in and once that’s done, we’ll start to write. If somebody comes up with a catchy idea… And you know when it’s there because it hits you, you know? Then you think, “Wow, that sound nice, man! Let’s roll with that.” But it has to be natural. It has to be something that’s a “Man, I feel where you’re coming from” thing.
Let’s talk about your new album, Faithful Man. Does this album pick up where My World left off or is it a whole new chapter?
Well, I think My World was the first chapter of what I hope will be of many. That album touched on a lot of things, but the new album is a little bit deeper… It’s bright, it’s colorful, and we tried to put a little bit more of what attracted people to My World into this new album.
“Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do)” was the first song I heard from My World. I loved it. I though it was fucking great. Do you have a favorite?
I really dig that whole album. Every song on there is special. All of these songs are like your children, so it’s like asking a father, “Which child do you love the best?” I deeply, deeply love all of them.
Are there any bands from the past few years that you’re into now?
Everybody. I like everything that’s good. I like The Black Keys, Jay-Z, J. Cole, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and, of course, the late Amy Winehouse.
I love Rihanna!
I could go on and on and on!
What about soul bands? Do you have a top five list of favorite soul musicians?
Fred Wesley, Prince, Miles Davis… I like Eminem. I like just about everything if it’s hot.
I assume there’s always a lot of girls in the audience when you perform. So when you’re onstage and you have your nice suit on, you’ve got a whole vibe going… How do you connect with the ladies? Do you look them in the eyes and point to them to try to reel them in?
Oh absolutely. I try to get in contact with the audience because it’s all about real emotions. When I’m singing a song—whatever that song is about—I’m actually living that moment.
Do you think you ever fall in love with girls you see in the crowd?
Well, I love all of the audience. I look at them not as fans, but as my extended family. It’s a love of mankind—trying to get that moment of euphoria… A few moments where we can escape from whatever it is that’s causing discomfort in our lives. We’re gonna escape. That’s what I’m trying to achieve in the course of that performance, so although we’re in one building, we’re not going anywhere, but we do go somewhere. There’s a small excursion to a place that words cannot describe, and we try to go there for a moment, and although we want to stay there, we can’t stay there long. But that one moment is worth all of the efforts.
Do girls rush the stage while you’re singing?
Yeah, all the time! But that’s a good thing! That’s always what’s happened ever since I’ve been singing. It’s always nice to know that somebody appreciates you. But I like for people to leave the show and feel like, “Hey man, that felt good.” When I’m on stage, it’s definitely not about me—it’s about them. The audience gives me energy and I try to return it. It’s a reciprocating process. The more energy they give me, the more I wanna give, until I’m to a point where I’m almost totally drained of all of my energy and just wishing I could drum up more, you know? ‘Cause if I could, I would never stop. I’d never stop.
So you’re in it for the long haul.
Until I try to grab the microphone and I just can’t make it there… Until that last song is sung… I don’t see myself ever quitting unless the audience stops coming, then I don’t have to quit. As long as they feel me, then I have something to offer. But if I was losing the ability to do it well, then I would like to leave as a strong warrior. But until then, as long as I got the energy, hey—let’s bring it on!
Obviously, I had to have my picture taken with Lee. In my mind it’d be the perfect photo—my hair would be naturally windswept with a relaxed, glowing smile on my face… In reality? My eyes are closed, but I look so happy, right?!
Faithful Man is available now through Truth & Soul Records. And if you live in New York, he’s playing a show this Saturday at Williamsburg Music Hall that I’m sure will be amazing. I’m going, and I may (definitely) cry a little bit.