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Arts + CultureMusicSoul legend Lee Fields: 'Look deep enough, the answer...

Soul legend Lee Fields: ‘Look deep enough, the answer is there, right in front of you’

Playing over New Year's weekend at the Chapel, the 73-year-old singer talks about his long career and 'scientific thinking'

The term “living legend” gets thrown around a lot these days, but there are few who can actually claim it. As far as soul music is concerned, Lee Fields has earned the heck out of that title. Now 73, Fields started making music in the late ’60s. His career came to a halt in the ’80s, before he returned to his true calling in the ’90s. And it’s the perseverance to keep treading down that soul music path that has fueled his palpable late career surge at the forefront of the soul music revival in the 21st century, along with his dearly departed contemporaries Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. 

His latest album, Sentimental Fool, came out last year and was his Daptone Records debut. The imprint was founded by Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), an early collaborator of Fields who came back into the fold to produce and co-write much of the album. It’s some of Fields’ best work, soul music of the highest order where he’s sounded as classic and timeless as ever. In fact, there’s a classicism to everything he says in conversation and an instantly timeless quality to his words. 

Ahead of Lee Fields & The Expressions’ two-night residency at the Chapel—which includes a grand New Year’s Eve performance—Fields checked in with 48 Hills shortly after returning from an Australian tour, where he notably played at the Sydney Opera House. For Fields, it’s the music that is everything. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

48 HILLS I saw you earlier this year at the Pickathon festival and one thing I noticed was you just being totally in the moment up there. It was a beautiful thing to see you in that zone. What do you think about on stage to sink into those moments where it looks like nothing else matters to you but that? 

LEE FIELDS That’s what it is. When I’m on stage performing, that moment is the most important thing in my life at that time. I’ll be wrapped in the moment and try to stay in it for the whole show. So when I get in that zone, everything seems to flow naturally, and I don’t have to think about it; I just do what I do. I love that because when an artist starts thinking too much, that’s no good. People can tell that you’re not there with them, that you’re thinking about something else. I don’t want to think when I’m on stage. I just want to feel it and drift on the same wavelength as the people and their mood.

48 HILLS It definitely comes through. You’ve been touring steadily this year all over the world. What kind of person are you off of the stage? 

LEE FIELDS Off the stage I’m very serious. I think about life itself, how everyday you’re using up your time until one day there’s no more of it. That being the case, everything that I do, I try to do it as well as I can. Even greeting friends, I try to savor the moment when I see people that I know, because I know that one day it’ll be the last. I try to live to a point that I pray that I have very few regrets. Everything’s about a choice. And I’ll put it like this: I’m very serious about every second of life, because many of my comrades are no longer here and one day it’ll be my turn. So I try to get the best and make the right decision for the moment. 

48 HILLS On that note, the songs on Sentimental Fool are indeed some of your best songs. What clicked on this album that you put out late last year? What’s different about it and how it came across so beautifully?

LEE FIELDS I think with this album, it’s been reuniting with Bosco Mann, Gabriel Roth. We started this whole music adventure together, and reuniting, collaborating with him on that label and seeing what’s on his mind, combined with what’s on my mind, is the reason why it turned out so well. Gabe is just like myself. He listens to me and I listen to him. I think with that sort of working relationship, you get more cheese; we’re open with each other. 

48 HILLS The Expressions have been your backing band since 2009. What is it about these players that jives so well with you and feels built to last as “Lee Fields & The Expressions” for the future

LEE FIELDS I think of the Expressions like my musical sons. Matter of fact, all of the cluster of musicians that started together, from Gabe to Leon [Michels] to Toby [Pazner]… all of these guys are like my musical sons. When I met these guys they were kids. When I met Gabe I think he was a freshman in college. So we’re family; not blood, but it’s just as deep. When you gather yourself around good people, the chances of getting a good product is very likely. So I try to be around people that think the way I do and can recognize good ideas when they hear it. And that’s the Expressions. 

Photo by Rosie Cohe

48 HILLS You say that they think the way that you do. Musically speaking, how can you describe the way that you think?

LEE FIELDS My thoughts are scientific. Everything that I think, even music itself, the words…everything has to be scientifically put together. Every word has a meaning. If it’s said a certain way, you get different results. You can say things in a way and with feeling… like say, ”I Love You,” you could say “I love YOU,” you can say “I loooove you!” you could say [hushed] “I love you,” you know? Every way you say it, you’re gonna get a different feeling from it. 

All of this is put together in the making of a song, so people can feel the passion and what you’re really trying to say. I try to say it with as much feeling that possibly can be garnered together and chances are people are gonna like the song. ‘Cause you start it with something that touches them and you keep touching them the whole way through. The song develops a life of its own, so when people hear it, they wanna hear it again and again. Because you carefully thought out and crafted the song all the way to the end with feeling. That’s the way I operate… So that people can feel the same thing and like it’s their song or their story. And it becomes theirs. 

48 HILLS I think a song like “Forever” fits into that so well, taking on a life of its own. There’s been this narrative around you having this epic late career surge. What do you think about when you reflect on the path it took to get here, this winding journey to get to this point where so many people consider you a living legend now?

LEE FIELDS I’ve had a great time. I’ve been super busy since I got back into it in the late ’80s. In the ’70s I was pretty busy, but the ’80s were the really slow period I had when things slowed down. When I was soul-searching in the ’80s, I did a lot of reading. First, reading the Good Book and trying to find the answers from what is written. But I believe that everything to be known is already here, it’s up to us to find it. And once we find what it is that gives us energy and our life’s purpose, that’s when everything starts to fall in place. 

From the early ’90s all the way to now has been busy, busy, busy. Because I did some searching. Each and everyone of us should soul-search for their own answer. If you look deep enough, the answer is there, right in front of them.

LEE FIELDS What is it about that life story that you shared with your contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley—people that you’re inextricably tied to in this generation of soul revival?

LEE FIELDS I think about that soul-searching again; searching and listening. The answer is not coming from a direct voice. The answer is when you see the picture and what should be done. When you do things to a certain degree. Like with songs, you get what you really put into it. Putting your heart and soul into that so people can feel it. They can tell if you’re pretending. It’s like when two lovers are talking, the other person can feel if the other is really sincere. It’s the same with making a song. The more serious a person is when they are cutting a song, it’s gonna show in the final mix. You gotta do it like you mean it. 

48 HILLS You’re playing two nights here in San Francisco including New Year’s Eve. What’s different about performing at midnight for people that are already all in their feels about turning over a new year?

LEE FIELDS That’s even more rewarding. ‘Cause in the new year, you get the chance to start all over again. I’m hoping that the songs put the people that might have veered off track, put ’em back on the right course. So I pray that something that I say or do, makes a person realize, “Hey you know what, I’m feeling this. So next year I’m gonna do it this way, a better way.”

48 HILLS The power of the music is the word and I can tell you believe that with everything in your soul. 

LEE FIELDS No doubt about it. 

LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS w/ Sun Hop Fat, Sat/30 and Sun/31, The Chapel, SF. More info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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