June 25 2014 02:12 PM

R&B singer preaches the gospel of feeling good

Lee Fields
Photo by Judy Miller

Lee Fields may have to get a pulpit. The man can preach.

Put aside the fiery funk jams and sweet soul serenades that define his remarkable 45-year career—when the veteran singer talks, it’s a different kind of sermon.

Part motivational speaker, part evangelical life coach, the charismatic frontman burns with the same wattage off stage as on. Coming from someone unafraid of mining the depths of emotional vulnerability for his songs, this is no surprise.

An undeniable and infectious passion defines Fields. And whether he’s talking about his just-released LP, Emma Jean, or the completion of household chores, it’s profound.

“I take pride in everything I do,” Fields says in a phone interview from his home in Plainfield, New Jersey. “I was just doing some yard work with my wife and son. We like to keep it nice and pristine around here. It’s just such a beautiful thing when the whole cul-de-sac is looking good! Oh, man. You come home and it makes you feel like coming home!” 

Fields bursts into a hearty laugh when he finishes this thought, but he and his longtime band, The Expressions, won’t be spending much time on lawn maintenance this year. Emma Jean will take them across North America and Europe through November.

It’s his third release for Brooklyn-based Truth and Soul Records, and except for covers of J.J. Cale and Leon Russell, the 11-song album was born from improvised slowjams. Fields was sure that this would be his most intimate offering to date once he chose the name for the album.

“I wanted to do something very personal,” he says. “I wanted the album to really move me. And the only thing that could do that was the loss of my mother. Every time I think of it, I can still feel the void. I can still feel the loneliness of her not being here. But it also reminded me of the truth that none of us will be here forever. We all have our time. So when we went into the studio, the only plan was to make something that would make us feel good.”

Mission accomplished. The new album also finds Fields and his band pushing their sound’s boundaries. Arrangements are comparably more intricate, and there’s a discernable undertone of country-blues in the mix this time.

It’s not exactly foreign territory for the 63-year-old soul man. He was born in North Carolina and spent a good chunk of the ’90s working the Southern blues circuit.

Collaborating with Dan Auerbach probably had something to do with it, as well. Not only did The Black Keys guitarist / singer pen slow-burner “Paralyzed” for the record, Emma Jean was both mixed and partially recorded at his Nashville studio.

Despite the big-name assist, there’s nothing forced or manufactured about the new sound.

Lee Fields and The Expressions plays Monday, June 30 at The Casbah 

“A lot of musicians these days are lost to fads or trends,” Fields says. “They want to be a part of the ‘next thing.’ I just try to keep up with what I’m feeling.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he continues. “I want to sing about things that my family can be proud of in years to come. If we lose our emotionalism, we lose our ability to reason. When you only focus on material things—cars, money, whatever—things become barbaric. People are more than that. I want to sing about things that will make a positive impact on lives.”

That, more than anything, is the Fields calling card. He is a man undeniably driven to push raw emotion and unconditional love to the forefront of his art. And even though his music is permeated with references to a higher power, Fields insists it’s all-inclusive.

“When I talk about God,” he says, “I’m not just speaking from a Christian standpoint. I’m speaking to all religions. I’m talking to anyone who loves with all of their heart and does unto others—all of it. We are spiritual creatures, as well as creatures of the flesh. I sing about things that try to bring us back in contact with who we are.

“Soul music is from the spirit. And the spirit is there forever.”

Fields will spread his unique brand of gospel around the globe for the rest of this year, but things are unlikely to slow down anytime soon. After nearly five decades as a performer, he’s experiencing his biggest revival to date. And while it’s impossible to know how much music the hard-working troubadour has left in him, there’s no doubt that every bit of it will come from the heart.

“I want the music to touch people,” he says. “I want you to get something positive out of what I say. And I feel that artists should be responsible. The same way that good food makes a healthy body, good music makes a healthy mind. That’s why I sing about how it feels when you lose someone, how much you love someone, and what we can do together. Nice things. What’s so wrong with being nice?

“Bad has been played out for a long time. What’s wrong with being good?”

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