“I Try to Be as Truthful as I Can With My Songs, and in Every Walk of Life”: An Interview With Lee Fields

Over a half-century after his career began, Field’s raspy, aching voice remains well-preserved on his new album 'Sentimental Fool,' Liz Sánchez writes.
By    December 13, 2022
Photo via Adrian Dizon for Lee Fields

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On a rainy December night in Hollywood, Lee Fields and The Expressions are getting ready to wrap up their three-month-long North American tour at the Fonda Theatre. When it’s time, the velvet curtain rises and the six-piece brass and rhythm ensemble shuffles out. After heating up the room for a few minutes, they announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Pride of Plainfield, the soul of soul singers: Mr. Lee Fields!”

Leaping on-stage, Field radiates with the charismatic energy of Sly Stone or Sam Cooke – some of his early influences from the golden age of soul and funk. At 72, the North Carolina-raised singer remains one of the few artists from that era still putting out new projects and touring the world (his European jaunt starts next month).

Tonight, he’s wearing a black suit embroidered in gold floral accents over a black dress shirt that plunges into a soulful ‘V.’ Hitting the ground running, he spins around, coat-tails splaying behind him. Shuttling from corner to corner, he engages and entrances the crowd with his sugary falsetto. His sweat-lined face sparkles under rainbow lights. Throughout the nearly two-hour set, he weaves together James-Brown-esque cries with tender lyrics, atop the band’s slapping horn and bass lines.

Fields announces that they’re going to get into his new album, Sentimental Fool. He starts off with its title track, an aching ode to nostalgia. Brass wails, then cools, leaving room for Fields and his two backing vocalists to slip into a caressing, doo-wopping back-and-forth. Then he unleashes a liberating admission: “(Sentimental fool) Oh, I am / I just couldn’t see, it was only me / (Who believed in a lie) That could never bе.”

Sentimental Fool also reflects Field’s character. He’s a sentimental man, after all. In our interview, he confirms that for him, soul music “[is] about being real with yourself… It’s all about spirit. It’s about the soul. It’s about consciousness. ” You can hear him staying true to that principle in the album’s first track, “Forever.” Softly breaking the fourth wall, he acknowledges the cliche of love songs while submitting to their transcendent power to bridge connection, “So many songs have said the same thing before / But this one darling, is for you and me.” He’s singing in a place beyond present time, with the wisdom of a wiser, more weathered man winking at you and me.

Fields and his fans have a lot to feel sentimental about too. Perhaps it’s a feeling of wistfulness for that classic funk and soul era, around the time when Lee came to New York City in 1967 with $20 in his pocket just hoping he’d one day make it as a soul star. Performing at venues across the city, he brushed shoulders with greats like saxophonist and frequent James Brown-collaborator, Maceo Parker – as well as singer Solomon Burke, one of the founding fathers of soul.

When you see and hear Fields live, it’s evident that James Brown is a powerful creative inspiration. He’s said that Brown’s electrifying performance in the 1964 concert film, T.A.M.I. Show had a major impact. In the film, Brown and his band The Famous Flames, aggressively mash-potatoed through a 4-song set – including “Out of Sight” – in front of a flock of screaming local high school students. That performance would lay the foundation for Field’s style, landing him the nickname “Little JB.”

Sentimental Fool’s nostalgia partially stems from it being a reunion with some of Field’s longtime collaborators. During the 90’s soul revival, Lee first met Gabriel Roth, the soul musician and future Daptone Records co-founder. At the time, Roth and the producer Philippe Lehman played in a revival band called the Soul Providers. By day, Fields worked in real estate in New Jersey. After the rise of the 80’s disco and dance era – when more DJs were being booked than soul and funk acts – he figured his music career was “doomed.”

Then the mid-90s renaissance hit. During that era, Roth and Lehman unearthed some of Field’s older tracks, including Lee’s 1979 first full-length, self-released album: Let’s Talk it Over, which featured eight classic funk tracks and kinetic vocal performances. Without a distribution deal, Fields sold copies out of his truck and at shows. Eventually, that project and other 45s from the ‘70s became highly sought-after by music producers and record collectors.

In a Red Bull Music Academy interview, Roth recalled his first time meeting and recording with Fields. During a Soul Providers recording session, Roth said to Lehman, “Man, we should get Lee Fields to sing [on] this.” They made some calls, tracked him down, and asked Fields if he would sing on their project and bring backup vocalists. He quickly agreed.

Two days later, Fields rolled up to the studio with his close friend, the late Sharon Jones – who later signed to Daptone and became modern soul royalty. Roth remembers “right from the beginning, she was crazy.” She hopped in the booth and displayed her brilliance by signing backup vocals and freestyling on the rap/soul fusion song called “Switchblade.” Roth said she made everyone in the studio crack up with lines like, “I got a switchblade and I’m going to cut ya, and I’m going to split ya where the good Lord slit ya.”

This collaboration turned into the experimental funk-and-soul album, 1996’s Gimme The Paw. Two years later, Let’s Get a Groove On would be released under Field’s name – featuring production from Lehman and Roth, and vocals from Jones. Fields’ pioneering performance lay the roots for future soul music revival, and re-launched his career.

In the early 2000’s, Fields started collaborating with the-then-teenaged Leon Michels, who later started the El Michels Affair. They recorded under Michels’ Truth & Soul Records, including some of Fields’ most popular and commercially successful records, My World and Emma Jean. His projects continued to progress from classic 70s funk with orchestrated arrangements, to stripped down and something more hip-hop and pop-influenced (without relinquishing its classic soul feel). Around the same time, Lee met his backing band, the Expressions; they’ve been touring and collaborating ever since.

Over the last decade, his younger contemporaries began noticing and sampling Lee’s classic sound, including J. Cole, Travis Scott, Rick Ross, and A$AP Rocky. In an interview with Nardwaur, J. Cole said it was “incredible” how Lee’s album My World sounded like it was recorded in the 70’s rather than 2009. For his mixtape The Warm Up, the North Carolina rapper, sampled “Ladies” and “My World is Empty Without You”

Over a half-century after his career began, Field’s raspy, aching voice remains well-preserved, thanks to a vocal training routine that involves gurgling lots of Listerine. When we speak over the phone, his warmth and authenticity are immediately palpable. Fields quickly dives into philosophical takes on soul music, spirituality, consciousness, love, and truth. At the time of our chat, he’d been touring for a few months, going back-and-forth between home and the road. When I asked him if he ever gets tired of being on tour, he said, “No, I do love people. And I like meeting people from all over. Most of the songs that I sing come from experiences of what people have told me that happened in their lives.” – Liz Sánchez

As someone who’s been in and around these mega funk and soul musicians in the scene – the original scene – what do you make of the 3rd-ish wave of funk and soul revival happening today?

Lee Fields: Well, I think if the music comes from your heart and soul, regardless of who’s making it – everybody will have different techniques – but if it’s coming from your heart and soul, you got it.

Yeah. It’s in the name of the genre. So, on making a soul record: how would you do that the most authentically? Like, what’s your process?

Lee Fields: I think the process is, first of all, finding the right lyrics. Write words about something that means something to you. Whatever it is that you convey, make sure that you got the right words so people can feel exactly what you can convey. You know, soul, it’s all about spirit. It’s about the soul. It’s about consciousness.

So, I believe that Soul originated from God, when he put breath in Adam’s nostrils. He became a living soul. So this consciousness is about feelings and emotions. This is what consciousness is about. If we didn’t have feelings and emotions then we would just be no more than robots. But having a conscience, knowing what is right, knowing what is wrong, and trying to do the right thing, that’s what soul is. Soul is singing about things that try to put it in a way where people can feel what you say. You try to find [the right] words and try to say them as close as you can to the way you feel. And that’s what soul is. It’s about being real with yourself.

You’ve said in interviews before that music is like the love of your life. You’ve ridden the ups and downs over the years of music changing, sounds changing. You’ve also spoken about how the rise of disco and dance music meant you were “doomed.” How have you maintained that musical relationship throughout the years? How have you kept that energy of Soul music alive throughout your career?

Lee Fields: Well, being that soul is about consciousness, being aware. And knowing that consciousness is about feeling emotions. And that being said, through the years, I try to stay very close with my feelings, you know? I feel that when I feel something that I’m apprehensive about, or if I write something, I try to write something that will make sure that everyone is doing. Something that I’m just totally happy about.

I’m trying to put into words [those] feelings or emotions that deal with concern about someone loving someone. I try to get as close as I can to describe that feeling.

All kinds of feelings. Good feelings, even sad feelings, because it’s all a part of being alive. Being able to go to that place and find the lyrics and find the passion so that you feel the same way that you feel or understand the way that you feel. It’s all about communicating.

Yeah. And more on the idea of communicating, I feel like, on your new album, ‘Sentimental Fool,’ in some of these songs, you’re addressing somebody very directly. Like the first track, “Forever,” starts with an acknowledgement: “So many songs have said the same thing before. But this one darling, is for you and me. So if it’s alright with you, I’m gonna sing it once more.” It seems like it might be a lover, or like your wife who you’ve been with for over 50 years. And congratulations, by the way!

Lee Fields: 53 to be exact.

On that idea of commitment and dedication, maybe it even touches on your relationship with music or listeners. You’ve said, it’s all about consciousness making music and translating feelings. So do you actively think about the people who are listening to your music, and do you feel like you have a relationship with them when you make a record?

Lee Fields: Yes, absolutely. When it’s a song I’m recording, regardless who wrote it, I try to deliver what the song is actually conveying. So when I sing the lyrics, I become a part of that song. And I try to say the words, just like I’m experiencing that particular story of the song. So, that being said, I think that is [another] one of the factors as to why I’ve been able to endure all of these years.

Another one is that I try to be true. You see, the thing is, once we lose the ability to be truthful, we’re lost. We are lost souls. Truth is very important.

If I was going to the drugstore, getting some medicine or something, and [assuming] the ingredients in that medicine [have] been tested to try to address whatever the situation that I’m experiencing. If they are truthful and all of these degrees have been tested and suppose they help that situation, then I can expect to get some sort of relief. But if they add labels that are falsehoods, then I could die!

I try to be as truthful as I can with my songs, and I think, in every walk of life, that should be the case. Then the world will be much better. As a matter of fact, I’m feeling much better now just saying this. [Laughs]

I think that comes across in your music, too. I was actually kind of surprised and delighted by how honest some of your lyrics are, like on “Two Jobs,” you said, “I’m so tired when the day’s through, I’m working two jobs. And one of them is you,” like… [laughs]

Lee Fields: Well, that song was written by Gabe’s father.

Oh, yeah. Gabe, aka producer Bosco Mann, Gabriel Roth.

Lee Fields: Yeah. And the song doesn’t have to come from my writing to be true to what it is. I think “Two Jobs,” is a song that’s true to what it is. ‘Cause a lot of people know what it’s like to have two jobs. But in this case, one of the jobs that he has is his lover. Ha! So I can’t think of a better job! [laughs]

I think you were making a parallel between music and medicine. And I think, when you talk about the honesty of your lyrics, it sounds like your honesty is that medicine for some people. Like, for instance, when you hear a song and it really resonates with you. Oftentimes the lyrics are very similar to what somebody might be going through.

Lee Fields: Yes, but what works for me is that when I put together music, I’m being honest with myself. [If] I can feel something from those lyrics. I feel someone else will be able to do the same.

And speaking of honesty, Sentimental Fool is charged with some pretty honest emotional lines. And I think something that’s stuck with me is the last line of the last song, “Extraordinary Man.” And it ends with, “I tried to write you an extraordinary song, but this is all I got today.” And then the album and the song ends.

The way I interpreted that was like, you might be an ordinary person or man, but the love that you have can be extraordinary. And it definitely comes across in the music that you make. Do you feel like that was the sentiment behind that line? Can you talk about that?

Lee Fields: When I recorded the song, Gabe and I talked about, you know, veterans who had to go off and lose limbs. And when they come back, they’re not the same person, although they are the same person. So, I thought about that when I was recording the song. I’m thinking about the veterans and anyone that has lost. But now, although they’re the same person, they’re not as extraordinary as they once were.

The whole album — it’s even in the name of the album — is kind of a reflection of someone who is sentimental – reflecting on [the past], and on how things used to be and how things were. And it seems like you’re talking about it now, as a wiser, more weathered person. Is that right?

Lee Fields: Yeah. So other than just singing the songs or just melody, I try to live through each song I sing, I try to examine, in this case, putting myself through those changes. You know, as opposed to just singing the song off the top of my head, to actually live that experience as close as I can to imagining what it would be like. And I think in general, in life, if we put ourselves in an imaginary place and wonder what it would be like to be under [another person’s experience], I think we would be more passionate, there would be more compassion.

And you’ve mentioned working with Gabriel Roth, Bosco Mann. This is your first full-length record with Daptone, right?

Lee Fields: The first album. Right. I’ve cut some 45s for them, but this is the first album that we really did full-length. So it has been a wonderful experience. You know, he’s a very talented producer. But I didn’t I never imagined that he was this giant of a visionary until the completion of the album. And I realized that I’m working with one of the most talented producers.

What were some of the things that you felt were just like, next level that you guys were doing in the studio?

Lee Fields: He made me go to a place that I’ve only maybe just breezed through a few times. But he told me, relax just to be yourself. Go there. So, the way he’s encouraged me to… get in the zone and just be myself. I truly appreciate it because I’m very pleased with the outcome of the album.

Yeah, and you made magic. And of all the people that you’ve collaborated with, from Kool the Gang to B.B. King – what are some of the most creatively fulfilling or fruitful collaborations? Has there been a time when you came together and made something really magical?

Lee Fields: Well, I think this collaboration with Bosco Mann is the ultimate collaboration that I’ve ever done. Because it just feels so right. And it just seemed like it was meant to be. And I’m very, very pleased with the outcome.

My periphery has been broadened. Because, as I said, he [ Bosco Mann ] encouraged me to just be myself. And the songs… cutting them was almost like therapy because… I just felt more relief. All of the emotion that I didn’t realize I had.

Like catharsis.

Lee Fields: They’re being released, like from some sort of taper. And becoming free, like a bird.

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