An Interview with Eric Essix
Eric Essix is Southbound
by Paula Edelstein
SOUTHBOUND by guitarist Eric Essix is ever so smooth! Eleven great songs that Eric plays take you through the essence of the South. Songs which represent the birth of the blues to the sound of soul convey the feelings, the flavors, and the glorious beauty of the Southern landscape that Essix experienced when putting his musical visions all together. And together it is! From the love ballads, “Wichita Lineman,” to “A Rainy Night In Georgia,” Eric’s guitar tugs at your heartstrings. His “moodstrings” take you through a great stretch of musical emotions touching you deeply on “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” while the gospel-filled “People Get Ready,” takes you straight to church. The beautiful “Camellia” and “For Four” are laid-back sonnets that evoke a quiet mood. Backed by a very soulful Hammond B-3 organ played by Kelvin Wooten, (he cooks!) bassist Sean Micheal Ray, Lil John Roberts on drums and guest musicians, Melvin Butler on saxophone and flutes and Darrell Tibbs on percussion, Eric Essix turns in one soulful, gospel groove that his fans are sure to love. We caught up with Eric during a recent stop on the West coast and here’s what he had to say!
JazzUSA: Hello Eric. Congratulations on your new Zebra Records release SOUTHBOUND! It’s happening!
Eric: Hi Paula! Thanks.
JazzUSA: You’ve stated that SOUTHBOUND is a collection of some of your own songs and covers of your favorite musical stories told by southerners in their own inimitable way and that each of these compositions have a connection to your homeland. I can imagine the task of sorting out so many of your favorites must have been a mighty one since the roots of many jazz artists stem from the South. Did you use any special criteria when you began the selection process?
Eric: That’s a good question, because I really didn’t. The only criteria that I had for each one of the songs that I picked that were covers was that they spoke to me in some way and that I had a really, really, intimate connection with them. Such is the case with all of the songs. Every one of the covers that I picked were songs that spoke to me even as a kid growing up in the South. And of course, the original compositions are all heartfelt compositions; things that I wrote and have or were inspired in some way by the South.
JazzUSA: The new approach that you give to the influential music of many legendary artists including Brook Benton’s big hit “Rainy Night In Georgia” and Glen Campbell’s huge hit “Wichita Lineman” instantly gives the listener an experience that transports them from wherever you are to that particular place or situation. What kind of reaction have you been getting to these favorites in concert?
Eric: The reaction to every one of the cover tunes, with these two in particular, has been very positive. It seems like everyone that is pretty close to my age has some kind of connection to these songs. Not necessarily Southerners…the songs were just so popular. I think another thing that makes a lot of the songs that I pick really popular with listeners is the fact that the imagery is so strong to each one of the songs. On “Wichita Lineman” for instance, the whole text in that song, to me, tells a story and I have a really strong visual image from the beginning of the song to the end of what’s going on with this guy that is singing about the woman that he loves. The same thing with “Rainy Night In Georgia.” Strong imagery once again and I think that’s one of the reasons why people have connected with both of those particular pieces. I know that for me, the imagery is one of the things that really got me going with those songs. They just spoke to me when I was very young. I think they both came out around the 60s and that was a time when I was really into listening to songs on the radio and those were two that were powerful for me.
JazzUSA: Great! Great! From the birth of the blues to the sound of soul, SOUTHBOUND approaches an inner consciousness that is associated with living in the South. When touring, does this “southern sound” translate well overseas?
Eric: I hope so! (Smiles) My bass player and I were having this conversation. …We usually play in the Southeast region; we’ve done some East coast stuff and some stuff up North, but have never played the West Coast. So, I was telling the guys that the only thing I want to get across to the listeners and to the audiences when we perform is a sense of honesty. We’re from where we’re from and the people that we are and the music that makes up who we are should come out in what we do. And that’s the only thing I want to do is present that honesty to the people that come out to listen because that’s what I tried to portray on the record. We recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We mixed in Birmingham, Alabama. We mastered in Nashville, Tennessee. There are Southerners who participated in the making of this record from beginning to end, all the way to the performers. So why change now? Let’s continue that whole vibe with the listeners…let’s show them what we’re made of in the South and what we’re all about. Besides, people have always had a fascination and an interest in Southerners and what goes on in the South whether it is from a negative or positive perspective. We want to present that positive perspective. Hopefully that gets across to the people that come out to hear us play and for those that buy SOUTHBOUND.
JazzUSA: Well Eric, from the sound of the CD, I don’t think you’ll have any problem with that! What is the “energy” and ambience like at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals?
Eric: Oh my God! I was there to play with another artist and I stopped by Fame. I just love to look at all of the gold records on the wall and the pictures of all the artists as they were making records there. I’ll tell you, if you’re into soul music or if you’re into music at all, because everybody who has recorded there are all legendary artists. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, Little Richard, Otis Redding, etc. are all pictured on the walls at Fame. And to just go in there and realize that Aretha Franklin actually played this piano when she was recording and that Al Green was here on this Hammond B-3 organ; I mean, you know, for me as a true lover of soul music it’s an experience! When I was making the trip there, the whole time I was thinking, “Man. I’m getting ready to go into this room where all this legendary music was recorded.” The vibe there is just so strong. When we were recording, I called the guys into a meeting to talk about the history of this studio. I told them to just be aware of this energy and put it on our recording! Everybody kind of caught the vibe and did just what I wanted for SOUTHBOUND.
JazzUSA: As mentioned earlier, I really liked your arrangement of “Wichita Lineman.” I mean I’ve always loved the melody to that song and with the addition of the Hammond B-3 and the keyboards swirling in the mix, it really takes on another dimension. But your guitar playing is so right! Since the song had been associated with Glen Campbell for so long, did you take a lot of time to put the finishes touches on this one when you were traveling around so that you could get the “mood” of the project just right?
Eric: That’s a good question because I didn’t spend a lot of time conceptually with each song in particular. I took the approach that I wanted the whole project to have a certain feel, which is why I used the Hammond B-3. I wanted it to have a pretty strong gospel vibe. So I used the Hammond B-3 on just about every song on SOUTHBOUND. The original recording that Glen did has mostly orchestra in the background and no real sense of keyboards or organ. So I really wanted to take it in a different direction but stay pretty true to the original arrangement, and arrangement of the song and the melody…except at the end, I went off a little bit! But with everything else, I wanted to give it a different feel. So I played acoustic guitar on it to keep a little of the “country” thing going on because I thought that was a very important aspect of the song. But I didn’t really, conceptually, try to do anything different with it. If you listen to it, you get a sense of continuity with the instrumentation. I just wanted the whole record to have a sense of continuity.
JazzUSA: Well you certainly accomplished your objective. It sounds soooo good! You guys really go to church on “People Get Ready.” This is a fascinating story itself since Kelvin Wooten has an extensive gospel background and has the Hammond B-3 essence down! What’s the story behind the vocal chorus on this song…in other words, is this a choir that performs regularly or did you assemble them for this recording only? Their voices are awesome!
Eric: Well a lot of churches in the South have what they call a praise and worship team that precludes the service and the congregation sings along. Instead of using a big choir, which initially I wanted to use, it was more practical to use a small choir and just overdub their voices to get a big sound. The minute that I decided to do “People Get Ready,” and I was going over the arrangement in my head, I knew I wanted to use a choir on this song. They are actually a part of my bass player’s church…the church he attends. They are the GLC Praise and Worship Team directed by Valerie Harris who is a phenomenal musician in her own right. So yes, this is a group that sings together all the time and I taught them the vocal arrangement and in about 30 minutes, they were ready to knock it out! They did a fantastic job.
JazzUSA: Brilliant! Please explain to our “non-Southern” readers and listeners what a blues harp is! (Smile)
Eric: A harmonica!!
JazzUSA: (Smile) Thanks Eric! “Creole Strut” rhythm is based on a “second line” groove but still has a funk jazz feel to it. Did you spend any time jamming in the Crescent City with some of the great blues and jazzmen there before you started on SOUTHBOUND?
Eric: Well, I played in a band with Charles Neville and that’s where I got the idea to do this tune. So I said, “Man you’ve got to show me what the authentic New Orleans second line groove sounds like.” He went into so many variations of it that my mind was blown and he was just playing on some wood blocks. He was going through all these variations and that’s what inspired “Creole Strut” …just spending some time with Charles.
JazzUSA: How technically difficult was it to give SOUTHBOUND such a retro vintage feel in order to create that down home flavor? I mean it must have taken some time to prepare the studio for recording on 2″ 24 track analog tape since that is rarely used now with all of the of the year 2000 technology available. Was this a big task…the setup?
Eric: In some ways it was. I always compare this to the film producers in Hollywood…the way they always like to do things in an authentic way. For instance, the movie “Gandhi,” everything was exactly right, authentic…costumes, locations, etc. to the story. So I said, “if I’m going to do this, if I want to have this sound and this vibe, I have to try to be as authentic as I can. So I’m going to Muscle Shoals, I’m going to use the same piano that Aretha Franklin played. I’m going to use the same tape machine that they made all these hits on.” So I think, as a result of trying to stay as authentic with the sound as possible…it came out right. And fortunately I am with a record label and the president of a record label who understands and was supportive from the very beginning just said, “Go for it. Just do, and do it well.”
JazzUSA: It’s fantastic! You use two different guitars to obtain the sound on SOUTHBOUND. Why have you chosen these particular guitars?
Eric: I’ve developed a relationship with this guitar over time and it’s like an extension of who you are. I can articulate on it and can always get my sound on it.
JazzUSA: Do you have a favorite song on SOUTHBOUND and if so, which one?
Eric: It changes every two weeks!! Right now, it’s Camellia. Of the covers, “Wichita Lineman” is my favorite.
JazzUSA: Eric, thanks so much for this interview. We wish you continued success with SOUTHBOUND. It’s so fresh! So smooth and has just the right mix of soul, blues and jazz.
Eric: Thanks Paula.
Keep in touch with Eric Essix’s tour and other happenings at www.zebradisc.com Visit Eric at his website: http://www.ericessix.com.