With a career that spans four decades, numerous collaborations with artists as varied as Kool and the Gang and Martin Solveig, and multiple records and re-releases under his belt, the strikingly talented and charismatic Lee Fields is truly a king of soul music. Earlier this year, he and his band, the Expressions, released a new album, Emma Jean, on Truth and Soul Records. The record, which immediately garnered the attention and adoration of critics and fans alike, is both a loving tribute to Fields’s late mother and a profound statement that his signature sound is timeless–and we’re hungry for it.
If anything, Fields, who started at the top of his game, has gotten better with age. His perspective on the music industry is certainly telescopic at this point, but his goal has always been the same: to make good music. “It’s been very interesting, no doubt about it, to have been in the game as long as I have, and to have met so many wonderful, talented people,” he says. “But the object still remains the same: to make the best music I can possibly make and try to touch the hearts of people.”
There is no question that Fields excels at connecting with his audience. His voice, which balances a smooth silkiness with a throatiness that is simultaneously mellowed and raspy, emerges out of a well of passionately-felt emotions. The songs on Emma Jean manage to summon a wave of feelings, from a longing for past happiness to the tenderness of true love and devotion. In “Magnolia,” Fields croons, “Magnolia you sweet thing,/ you’re the best I ever had,” inviting us into an experience of sweet sadness that also manages to remind us of the heedless, heady experiences of more youthful days. But Fields doesn’t stay in one mood for long, mixing it up by throwing in a healthy dose of funk on songs like “Talk to Somebody,” in which he chides someone for “bringing rain clouds on my sunny day.” “You need to talk with somebody!” he yowls at the end of the song, and I think we can all agree that whoever is responsible for bringing this man down needs a good verbal thrashing.
Fields’s songs have so much impact because they’re both heartfelt and relatable. “I sing about what people do, you know?” he says. “The songs must be real. Real life–that stays the same.” One of the recurrent themes, not surprisingly, is love. “It’s all about love,” says Fields, “whether it’s gone right or wrong, because the theme of love has always been here, since the days of Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and it goes on. It’s very much a part of human beings’ experiences on a daily basis.”
Fields’s songs explore all facets of love, from the early whispers of desire to the tragedies of heartbreak and betrayal. But for Fields, human love always connects to something greater: the spark of divinity that he recognizes in each and every person. Fields sees soul music as present, its existence in the “here and now,” as directly linked to a higher power. “Soul and gospel are very much akin,” he says. “Except the gospel singers sing about then, when, and what will be, and soul singers sing about what’s here and now, what we’re doing.” Through his music, then, Fields bridges what he sees as an artificial gap between the immersive and consuming experience of desire and the expansive, transcendent feeling of connection with a spiritual source. “We try to make music in a way that would be pleasing to God,” he says, “and then we try to make it interesting enough so that people who love what’s going on now can then say, ‘I like that too.'”
Lee Fields & the Expressions headlined the recent Transfigurations II festival in Asheville and Marshall, North Carolina, where they performed a high-energy set marked by the seamless union of world-class instrumentation and Fields’s formidable stage presence. Transfigurations II, which celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the locally-owned Harvest Records, brought together a hugely diverse and incredibly talented group of artists for a three-day event that culminated in noon to midnight performances on Marshall’s Blannahassett Island, overlooking a shady bend in the French Broad River. Lee Fields & the Expressions were the last act on the Outdoor Stage, and because of their infectious exuberance they also succeeded in being the most memorable. Fields, no stranger to collaboration, notes that their musical richness comes from a constant infusion of ideas.
“I think when artists get stuck on their own ideas, they become stale. We’re all in this world together, so it’s good to listen to what other people have to say. You’d be surprised, a lot of times a person can be saying something and you learn a lot of beautiful things. It’s not just about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘us.'[The unique perspective of each band member is balanced by the fact that] everybody has the same vision. We want to make the best music that we can, quality-wise. We’re not just trying to make a dollar. You can put anything out there and make a dollar, but we’re doing something we’ll be proud of, and hopefully that our children will be proud of.”
The show spoke to Lee’s vision in countless ways. Fields is a master performer because he’s also a master of connection. It’s rare to see an artist create such a sustained, deep relationship with his audience, but there were multiple times during his hour-long set that Fields verbalized his appreciation of his “beautiful audience,” singling out sections of the crowd and even individuals in a way that made everyone feel special. In his performance of “Ladies,” arguably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night, Fields, looking dashing in black pants and a dark, shiny jacket with a vintage vibe, showered praise on specific ladies and the gentlemen lucky enough to accompany them before universalizing his appreciation of “all the ladies.” By this point in the night, most people were fighting fatigue after an almost twelve-hour day and a heavy rain shower, but the music re-energized the crowd and ensured that everyone was moving, clapping, and swaying to the beat. The combination of new songs and old favorites made the band as happy as the crowd. Towards the end of the set, Fields, a mischievous smile on his face, informed the audience that it was “getting to be that time of the night where I need to sing ‘Faithful Man,'” an announcement that was met with yells and thunderous applause.
Lee Fields & the Expressions are currently touring throughout the country. Although Fields says he’s “always focused on the next record,” his goal at the moment is to continue making connections with fans past, present, and future. “Right now I’m focusing on the touring,” he says. “We want to make sure that one or two people say, ‘Oh wow, I get it.'”