Chris Thompson

Quick Q and A with Eric Lee

Eric Lee was born with music in his heart.  I first heard him on that fateful day in 2007 at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York when he wandered into a camping area and met the Strangelings (Pete and Maura Kennedy, Rebecca Hall and Ken Andersen, Chris and Meredith Thompson and Cheryl Prashker).  They invited him to jump in and play his fiddle along with them.  The next thing you know…Eric was on the main stage with the band. Eric’s virtuoso fiddle playing impressed everyone, and he’s been accompanying some of the biggest folks stars around ever since.  But Eric had that itch to grow as a songwriter and has been unveiling song after song at shows and festivals over the course of the past several years.  It’s been thrilling to watch Eric mature as an artist and as a songwriter.

To learn more about Eric, visit his website.

Here’s a video of Eric and the band playing some new songs.

Eric Lee will be opening the show for Tracy Grammer at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, March 9.

You’ve been giving a lot of your creative spirit to writing your own songs in the past few years.  What’s been the hardest thing about transitioning from musical side player to solo singer-songwriter?

I actually first started writing when I was about 14 (15 years ago), but I began really investing more of my energy into writing about 6 years ago, and I’ve spent the past three years directing my focus nearly exclusively to professional side of the promotion, booking, and marketing of my original material. Some people say that the experience of being the front person (a.k.a., the “one with the mic”) can be a real challenge, but since I was a little kid, I’ve always been kind of a ham (you’d be hard-pressed to find an early picture of me without my arms spread wide and a huge smile on my face!), so that’s never been a big deal for me. One challenge has certainly been breaking from the unintentional typecasting that happens in folks’ minds that have known me since I first started in the folk scene. They know Eric Lee the fiddler and sideman, and that’s what they expect. Breaking away from that expectation has actually proven to be surprisingly challenging. The other major difficulty for me has been the learning curve of the business aspects of self-promotion and booking. As someone whose idea of a great way to spend a day involves a pen and paper for writing and a metronome and stack of records for practicing my chops, it took a long time getting used to shifting that time towards a far more administrative set of activities, shall we say? Sending emails, managing and updating the increasingly complex web of social media outlets, keeping your website up-to-date, that sort of thing. When you’re a sideman, people send you dates, call you, and do all the scheduling for you. Being your own business team with no prior experience in office work and the like… that’s really not intuitive for me. I’m still working on that.

What’s your songwriting process?  Do you ever compose while driving in the car, for instance?  Or do you hide away in a quiet place and work until you’ve got some lyrics or melodies?

My car is my office, and my writing desk, definitely! I’ve never been someone who sets aside a regimented time each day to just write. I’m just not that way. I’ll get a seed of an idea, usually a chorus or a musical passage; like a loose chord form with a rhythm to it, usually when I’m walking or cooking or in the shower, actually. When that happens, I get really obsessed with developing that into a song and can’t let it go. I’ll work on it as I’m falling asleep, while I’m driving, whenever I have time to think. I like to use different devices to spurn an idea if none are arriving of their own accord. I’ll pick up a guitar and mess around with chords and rhythms or finger pick. Or I’ll go for a walk and just hum a note without thinking about it and see where it leads. I try to keep my mind a blank slate and see what comes in. It’s like fishing. You leave your lure in the water, and once you get a bite, that’s when it’s time to reel it in! That’s when I go for a drive or walk or start bringing the idea into the real world as a song. I’ve used sleep as a method of divining ideas, and even dreamt a complete chorus to a song once. Sometimes I get a whole song in one sitting, or in some cases, I’ve had to wait months or years before the time is right to finish the song, but on average, the whole process usually takes about a week or so before I feel a song is done.

Have you tried co-writing songs with anyone?  If so, how did that go for you?  I always wonder about the dynamics of musical collaboration.

That is a relatively new endeavor for me. I have a friend named Pete Nelson, who’s an exceptional writer that I met at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival a few years ago. He read my lyrics and reviewed my songs and offered to be an ear for any new ideas I have. So, I sent him some lyrics to a song I was writing called “I Wish I was a Plumber” (before I could complete my overly-obsessive writing process: read above) and he really liked the direction and feel. He wrote back with some ideas of where the song could lead, which were so visual and great that I ended up working them into the final verse. That’s one example. There’s also another song that my friend Neale Eckstein showed me that we worked on together. Matt Nakoa jumped in with some ideas as well! Songwriting is a very personal thing, but when you trust the people you’re working with, it becomes really fun. It’s like working on a puzzle or a car with someone.

You’ve toured with the legendary Eric Andersen recently.  What was that experience like?  What gems of knowledge did he bestow to you?

Ah yes, the great Eric Andersen! The man is a legend, possessed of rare intelligence, wit, and knowledge of American musical history. I was beyond thrilled to be in the company of such greatness, along with my dear friend and percussionist extraordinaire Cheryl Prashker, nonetheless! I grew up with the album Blue River and used to play along with it when I was first getting into improvisation on the fiddle. I loved the scope of its production, and the depth, beauty, and imagery of Eric’s writing, and I still freak out a little when we play these songs at shows. I’ll look across the stage, and there’s Eric. THE Eric Andersen! The experience on the road was awesome. We became very close; he began referring to me as his prodigal son! I love traveling in general, but what made it so different (aside from hearing Eric’s tales of being on the Festival Express, the lay of the land in New York City in the early 60’s, and his friendships with greats like Townes Van Zandt, Rick Danko, Joni Mitchell, & Guy Clark) was Eric’s observations about how the country and the music industry have changed from when he was living in the U.S. (he currently resides in Amsterdam). We’ll be touring again in April.

Tell us about your involvement with the Super Stanley Brothers Band?  How did that come about?  Who else is playing with you in the band?

I’ve always loved Dr. Ralph and Carter Stanley’s music, but it was a couple years ago that I got deeply acquainted with their catalogue. I was driving up to Maine for shows, and my car (a ’98 Honda Civic) was equipped with a CD receiver. It would receive any CD… actually playing it was a whole other matter! Pretty much the only ones this car played were the Stanley Brothers CD’s I had, and I had about three boxed sets’ worth. Around this time, I had a gig in Boston at a restaurant. Nothing special, just a low-key thing on a weeknight to help with gas and food. My friend Nate Sabat played bass on the gig, along with another friend of ours on mandolin. We were just calling songs out one after another, and at one point Nate asked me if I knew any of the Stanley Brothers’ songs. Well that lit a spark, and I don’t think we played anything but Stanley Brothers for the rest of the night. I made a joke that we were “Stanley Broing out” and kept the joke going, saying we should have a band called The Super Stanley Bros (to work a less-than-subtle reference to the Super Mario Bros Nintendo game)! Nate really liked the idea, and we got together with the best players we knew that also have a deep love and respect of the music to play at the Cantab for fun, and it’s been so much fun that we’ve kept it going! We played the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival this year and would like to do more festivals!  The band consists of Dan Bui (Twisted Pine) on mandolin, Evan Murphy (who plays in Mile 12 with Nate) on guitar, and Jordan Aleman (Damn Tall Buildings) on Banjo (though Gabe Hirshfeld from Lonely Heartstring Band has been filling in since Jordan moved to New York City). I mainly play guitar and sing (with Evan and I switching between Carter and Ralph’s parts depending on who knows which part best) and I sometimes play fiddle. The idea is to play the more obscure songs that we don’t get to hear as often as we’d like, as well as some of more well-known numbers that have more complex vocal harmonies. Older generations of fans have been really receptive to the project, which to me is the best affirmation, and the younger fans or newcomers to the genre also realize that there’s some real power in those old songs and the old style. It’s one of my favorite projects, we all have such a good time recreating this music that means so much to us.

What’s the latest with your upcoming CD? Can give you tell us a little bit about it?

I’m just getting ready for the final stages of mixing and mastering the tracks before sending them off to be duplicated, and I couldn’t be happier with how things are coming together! The album (which I’m calling Heartache Town) features eleven original songs, and covers a lot of musical ground, from obvious folk, country, and bluegrass influences, to some of the more obscure genres that have influenced me from my rock-and-roll days. Of course, there are some songs about personal relationships (affairs of the heart being arguably what spurns most individuals to begin writing songs!) but there are also songs that delve into more grand ideas: esoteric analogies and references, observance and reproach of our violent society, and encouragement to help our neighbors before ourselves. The album’s title track will hopefully tie in the vast span of genres, as I imagine the setting (a semi-fictional town of folks with various backstories) could encourage the listener to not get too comfortable with any particular instrumentation (one of my favorite records being Neil Young’s Harvest, after all.) Tracy Grammer (singing angelic harmony), mandolinist Jesse Brock, Jim Henry (electric guitar), Paul Kochanski (bass), J.J.O’Connell (drums), Matthew Thornton (cello), and Ryan Hommel (pedal steel) have worked magic in the studio, and I’m so fortunate to have these gifted and exquisite musicians (along with my engineer and co-producer) help breathe life into these recordings. And yes… there will be fiddle on the record, too! I’m aiming to have it ready for a late-April release.