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Interview: Eric Sommer

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your latest album, and what themes or stories you aimed to convey through your music?

The next record is going to be a collection of creative endeavors based on lessons learned, forgotten, learned again, and vignettes of personal experiences in travels, loves lost, won and maintained…as you can imagine, I have lots of material to draw on. The other thing that’s driving this is our new relationship with Patch Boshell, a mixing and studio wiz who has done – and IS doing – some wonderful work for us.

And that’s the other thing – this record will be more of an ensemble approach, not a solo record. We have such remarkable talent in this trio that it’s our collective belief that we structure the songs using our best players for the music, our best singer for the vocals.

Music often has the power to transport people to different places and times. Can you describe a moment in your life when a particular song or album had a profound impact on you?

Ok, this is such a wonderful question! I was in Lexington, Massachusetts for high school, and Harvard Square was the place to be in the evenings and weekends. I had a job at a local copy shop, and I had some money and wanted to hear something new so I was wandering around Harvard Square Records one Saturday afternoon and the music they were playing in the store was mesmerizing. I it was playing over the big store speakers, and I leaned back on one of the bins and just aside of the speaker, and I was in a musical trance… it took me to a place where anything seemed possible, where all the doors opened and the magic of creativeness, originality and circumstance all flowed into one stream, then into a wide river.

I have never heard that record since without feeling an emotional connection to that day, that moment and the opening note of the title song “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock.

Many artists have rituals or routines they follow before performing or recording. Do you have any unique or quirky pre-show or pre-recording rituals that you find help you get in the zone?

I am usually so intent on making sure the instruments are in tune, my voice is in good shape, all the pedals are connected and set correctly and the set is what I have rehearsed, that I don’t think about much else.

It’s that process, that total immersion into the moment and the task at hand which keeps me centered, emotionally calm and ready for the show so when the lights go on we are all ready to have fun and delivera wonderful set for the audience.

On the physical side, I always do a few vocal warm-ups, run thru some finger exercise on the Telecaster, do a few finger-picking runs and then a few tension-releasing exercises to get rid of the tension in my neck and shoulders. I sing so much better after doing that!

Your lyrics often tell a story or convey a message. Can you share the story behind one of your songs and the inspiration that led to its creation?

Two of my favorite songs we do in our live show are “Panic in Passaic” and “White Knuckle Girls”, and they both have stories and ideas behind them that have remained fresh and relevant from the day I wrote them.

Let’s start with “Panic in Passaic”, ok?

When I was still in high school, one thing I loved to do was hitchhike around, and as I did more and more of it, I thought nothing of grabbing my sleeping bag and a shoulder bag from behind the kitchen door and head out to parts unknown. I did this all the time, and I would usually head to Minnesota by way of Chicago.

On one trip to Duluth, I was heading back to the Boston area, and I was standing at the onramp to Interstate 90 and a big 18 wheeler picked me up and 18 hours later we were pulling into the Cargo Gates at The Port of Passaic… I had to get out because security was pretty tight and since it was August and around 3am, it seemed ok at the time. When I got out and had two feet on the asphalt, it was hot, a heavy, thick and oppressively sticky heat.

So the truck went into the yard, the gates closed, and there I was at 3:00am on a hot August night, all alone standing, in front of a double chain-link fence topped with two rows of razor wire; there wasn’t even a slight breeze to keep me company.

The chain-link-topped-with-razor-wire fence went off into the distance both ways; there was a two lane access road that ran the length of the fence and disappeared into the dark, and the stark, industrial loneliness was highlighted by bright white security lighting flooding into the asphalt from 30 foot lighting poles with bright white lights every 30 feet or so.

Suddenly out of the darkness, two cars came into view, screeching along the access road at a very high speed, one behind the other. They skidded to a stop about two light poles from me, and in the glaring light I could see everything that happened next in bright, clear color… two guys in white shirts jumped out of these cars and started screaming at each other, then the was a bright flash, then another one – not a gun shot, but a flash of light on the steel of a knife, and both guys had knives out and they were swinging and dodging each other…

Slowly, red appeared on their shirts, it got darker and there was more of it. As the fight grew more intense, girls jumped out of each car, screaming, they pulled the guys apart and it was clear the shirts were now dark red, they each staggered a bit before being pulled back into their separate cars… the doors slammed shut and each car headed off in opposite directions, the tail lights vanishing into the dark.

In a minute the road was clear, the cars were gone, and thin slivers of faint light appeared on the horizon as the sun struggled to rise above the eastern skyline…
I was left standing there, trying to process what I had just witnessed. It took me a long time to make sense out of what I’d seen, and this song it the story I created to explain it all…

If you could curate a music festival with a lineup of your dream artists, who would be the headliners, and what would the theme of the festival be?

The theme would be a cross between “Yeah, I’m still here”, “Why Can’t you Listen?” and “Peace, Love and Just Pay The Bill”. If I were running it, it would be like getting on a tour bus with “Guy Clark” on the Radio, Elvis Costello as Tour Director, Amy Winehouse mixing drinks in the back, Dwight Yoakum taking tickets and Taylor Swift as Tour Guide.

I am not sure who the headliners might be – because the ones that I’d be so interested in having don’t seem to be around. I would love to have Miles Davis, for example, and The Cars, maybe a few unknown artists from France, Brazil and Germany, Denmark and Cape Town, SA.

I thought about doing something with a Peace and Love theme, but of all the concerts that have done that, there’s never been an accurate accounting for where all the money raised went. For most charitable activities, I have seen reports that 90% of the revenue raised went for administration and %10 actually made it to the stated beneficiary.

Music can be a powerful tool for advocacy and change. Are there any social or political causes that you’re passionate about, and how does your music play a role in promoting these issues?

I am a musical creator and I write music and my poetic musings based on what I see. I try to champion the underdog, stand up for the little guy and support the most vulnerable. I do that every day through my actions, my behavior, how I treat those around me.

Politics is for the politicians, and you can see what a mess they consistently make of it. If I am going to make change, I do it through my personal example. I am going to be the example, as best I can, given that I am only human, and that is my goal.

The music industry has evolved significantly with technology. How do you see artificial intelligence and emerging technologies impacting the creation and distribution of music in the future?

As long as a human is directing it, the advanced tech is fine. There is something exciting about AI, something magical and powerful at yur fingertips, it’s easy and the results are not too bad.

But there is something lurking just underneath the tech veneer that is unholy, unnatural and non-human and it comes out in various ways, some subtle and some glaringly obvious. When we remove the creative power of the human mind to make music that matters, we get lyrics by a machine, music by an algorithm that is simply calculating the responses to various chordal and melodic sequences and taking the highest average and manipulating those results in some sort of song… WHAT?

It’s why so much music sounds the same – and there is really very little creativity involved. The Genie is out of the bottle, It’s happening, it’s already here… and I won’t be getting too close to this stuff.

Many recording artists evolve over time. How do you see your musical journey changing and growing in the next decade?

I will continue to explore the things that most interest me: writing, singing, playing live and learning how to play a variety of instruments: Cello being the main one. I will continue to write, create and in the process try to make my thoughts more precise…