Independent soul

Eric Roberson, who will perform at African American Heritage Festival, does things his own way

June 26, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

Eric Roberson saw the writing on the wall early.

In the mid-'90s, the soul singer-songwriter was signed to Warner Bros. Records. But after an executive turnover at the label, he was unceremoniously dropped from the roster, and an album he recorded for the company never saw the light of CD shops. Then he landed another major-label deal - this time with Island Records. But the same thing happened: An executive shakedown left him without a contract.

Understandably frustrated, Roberson saw only one way to go.

"I had a front-row seat to how things happen in the industry," says the artist, who performs Sunday night on Stage B at the African American Heritage Festival in Camden Yards. "Creative expression is important to me, so the independent route is the best way for me."

Roberson resumed his studies at Howard University, earning a degree in musical theater in 1997. Soon afterward, the Newark, N.J., native established himself as an in-demand songwriter in the neo-soul field, penning tunes for such platinum-selling artists as Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild. In the meantime, Roberson founded his label, Blue Erro Soul, through which he has released five albums. His latest effort, ... Left, is his most accomplished set.

"It's a gradual growth," says Roberson, 34, from his home studio in New Jersey last week. "I feel this album showcases that. While I was recording it, my tour schedule got busy. Family life became busy. How do you still find time to be in the moment creatively? I just learned to plot it all to music. I waited for the album to feel right."

And that's suggested in the album title.

"It's about completely giving myself to the process," he says. "It means that I'm leaving it all on the table, working until there's nothing left."

Evocative here and there of In Square Circle-era Stevie Wonder, Roberson's sound is thoughtfully layered throughout ... Left. He crafts swaying melodies overlaid with keen lyrics that often center on romantic love: longing for it, reeling from it, falling in and out of it. Roberson delivers it all in a smooth, even tenor. Although he comes from a musical theater background, the performer never resorts to showy vocal flourishes. His approach behind the mic perfectly matches his laidback but expressive music. The breezy "If I Had a Chance" and the swooning "Right or Wrong" are prime examples.

"Sometimes I get in the way of the message in the music - or I used to," the artist says. "My schedule doesn't allow me to sit in the studio all day. So I worked smarter on this album. I found the time to capitalize on being in the moment in the studio. If the inspiration wasn't there, I didn't force it."

Roberson is often recharged touring, averaging about 10 shows a month in clubs along the East and West coasts and overseas.

"My shows - that's my radio, that's my commercial," Roberson says. "If you enjoyed [the show], I hope you walk away with the music."

Roberson regularly plays events such as the African American Heritage Festival, which over the years has featured a smart array of established and burgeoning musical acts. This year, the hardworking artist will be in good company, as other like-minded black indie soul performers (Fertile Ground, Groove Stu, Wanya and others) pepper the performance schedule.

As an independent artist for more than a decade, Roberson says he has learned much about refining his craft. He has also been able to lead what he calls a "normal" life, which includes growing closer to his fiancee, whom he plans to marry by the end of the summer.

"I gained consistency," he says. "I have more control. I make mistakes. But I can sleep a lot better making my own mistakes. ... For me, it's ultimately sink or swim. I'm not trying to change the world. I'm just trying to make music that feels good, that's true to my creative spirit."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

The Seventh Annual African American Heritage Festival runs Friday to Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium Lots B and C. The event features interactive and educational exhibits, a children's corner, ethnic foods, a variety of art, and local and national performers. Headliners include Fantasia, Mario, Chuck Brown, Fertile Ground, Kindred and Bilal. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.

Schedule

Main stage

Tomorrow

6 p.m.-6:20 p.m.: Sankofa Dance Company

6:30 p.m.-7:15 p.m.: Lil Mo

7:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.: Mario

8:50 p.m.-10 p.m.: Fantasia

Saturday

1 p.m.-2 p.m.: Rayn Fall Dance Company

2:15 p.m.-2:45 p.m.: Axcess

3:05 p.m.-3:45 p.m.: Dave "Hawk" Dionge

4:10 p.m.-4:45 p.m.: C Clear

5:05 p.m.-5:40 p.m.: Ya'Mama'Nym

6:05 p.m.-6:45 p.m.: Lorenzo Owens

7:05 p.m.-7:45 p.m.: Angela Johnson

8:30 p.m.-close: MAZE featuring Frankie Beverly

Sunday

noon-2:40 p.m.: Heaven 600 Gospel Showcase

3 p.m.-3:30 p.m.: Tanya Reed

3:45 p.m.-4:45 p.m.: Jesse Yawn

5 p.m.-5:45 p.m.: Groove Stu

6:15 p.m.-7 p.m.: Fertile Ground

7:30 p.m.-8:45 p.m.: Chuck Brown

B Stage

Tomorrow

5:50 p.m.-6:30 p.m.: Ndelible

6:45 p.m.-7:15 p.m.: Substantial

7:30 p.m.-close: Kindred The Family Soul

Saturday

1 p.m.-1:30 p.m.: Sankofa Kids

1:40 p.m.-2:05 p.m.: Womb Works

2:15 p.m.-2:30 p.m.: Uplifting Minds Winners

2:45 p.m.-3:15 p.m.: Kanika

3:35 p.m.-4:05 p.m.: Alison Carney

4:15 p.m.-4:45 p.m.: Kokayi

5 p.m.-5:20 p.m.: Organic Soul All Stars

5:35 p.m.-6 p.m.: Curt Chambers & Franklin Bridge

6:15 p.m.-6:40 p.m.: Wayna

6:50 p.m.-7:15 p.m.: JSOUL

7:30 p.m.-close: Bilal

Sunday

1 p.m.-1:45 p.m.: Eubie Blake Big Band

2 p.m.-2:45 p.m.: Mark Prince

3 p.m.-4 p.m.: Proverbs Reggae Band

4:10 p.m.-4:35 p.m.: Courtney Dowe Project

4:50 p.m.-5:30 p.m.: Jessica Care Moore

5:45 p.m.-6:30 p.m.: The 5th L

7 p.m.-close: Eric Roberson

ONLINE

Hear clips from Eric Roberson's ... Left at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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