This interview originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Now Then Manchester.
You can listen to a recording of our chat on this episode of the Groovement podcast, around 40 minutes in.
Pic of Lee & Agent J by Akse P19 Crew
Having recorded music for close to 50 years, Lee Fields is a legend in his own right. The man hasn’t let up – his last three albums (released on the now defunct Truth & Soul Records) have cemented his reputation as a soul singer with his heart worn firmly on his sleeve, and his latest visit to Manchester is in support of brand new work Special Night. Together with his band The Expressions (Special Night sees the first time every song has been written as a joint effort with the band), Lee spearheads the roster on newly formed Brooklyn label Big Crown Records, a team which includes killer acts such as Lady Wray (late 90s RnB royalty with the single Make It Hot, with Missy Elliot and Timbaland), Hamburg-based Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band (the steel pan incarnation of The Mighty Mocambos, who recorded the single Where Do We Go From Here? with Lee in 2015) and the mighty El Michels Affair (label boss Leon Michels and crew, most recently best know for reworking Wu Tang tracks but with a healthy library of their own). I catch up with him at Gorilla in Manchester just after soundcheck, a rare opportunity to chill with him in casual wear, out of the suit he’s well known for sporting on stage. The Expressions are ironing out a few creases in the set list before donning their faux-snakeskin jackets for the public later on, so Lee and I head into the bar for a chat.
I think Sharon Jones’ legacy would be: if you believe you can do it, you can. The only thing you got to do is believe.
Lee’s poked me a few times over the years, since our last chat at Band On The Wall. Facebook is the major platform he uses to keep connected with his supporters, one on which he posts genuine love, thanks and best wishes couple with snaps from his latest tour destination. This is a process which he sees as becoming even more intimate in years to come. ‘I find with social media, everybody’s locked in together. I think what social media is, is telepathy. Through the years, we won’t need the apparatus, the iPhone other apparatus, to communicate. They’ll find a way of embedding some small chip into all of us, where telepathy will be the thing of the future. I don’t know if you ever watch science fiction movies that depict the future, they always depict the future as a race of individuals that don’t have to speak. They speak, when necessary, but telepathy is the way and I think social media is the first form of this.’
Bearing this in mind, what does he think of the public’s attention span? He works with The Expressions to create full albums full of beauty – is the album format still relevant? ‘Depending on what a person put on their albums,’ he smiles. ‘I think what we are doing, we examine, we go through the thought process prior to recording. We want songs that’s going to keep your attention, so we write about things that people want to think about. Two things that keep your attention: things that you really want to think about, and things that you really don’t want to think about. So we try to be in that happy medium.’
Is music capable of healing? ‘I believe that not just music heals, but I believe that faith heals. If you believe in something and you put your faith in that, faith heals. But I wouldn’t advise a person to put their faith in nothing other than God. No thing, no material. So put your faith in God, and that’s the true healing of all.’
On Special Night, there’s a song called Make This World that put me in mind of the struggle America is going through at the moment, with lines about watching each others’ backs and creating a future we can live in. It turns out my interpretation wasn’t wholly accurate. ‘That song wasn’t written to be a political song. The song came to me… from a dream. It was like two parallels in the dream. I dreamt of a world with pollution, and with the negligence of taking care of the world, I saw everything was not pure. Water was bad, the atmospheric conditions were almost impossible to live in, there were mutants, there were all kinds of diseases… everything was just like hell. It was a nightmare.’ Like a soulful Chuck Norris, Lee Fields won’t abide that – he retained control and changed that dream right around. ‘So I woke up, out of that nightmare. Then I went back to sleep. Then I saw the opposite. This parallel was where we took care of the Earth, and everything was like brand new. Years from today. Earth was still beautiful, our progeny were doing fine, all diseases had been remedied. Like a garden of Eden. It was a beautiful, beautiful experience. So, that song was a nightmare and a beautiful dream.’ It’s one of the standouts on the album, and one of the most energetic stompers on there: ‘You’d better watch out / If you want to survive / Listen to me / Or just step aside.’
I dreamt of a world with pollution, and with the negligence of taking care of the world, I saw everything was not pure. Water was bad, the atmospheric conditions were almost impossible to live in, there were mutants, there were all kinds of diseases… everything was just like hell. It was a nightmare.
What other songs would Lee recommend people hear from the new album? ‘The new album has a variety of moods. If you gonna play something, and want to make a special night with your spouse or your girlfriend, or just a party group of people, I think Special Night would be the song. And I think if you a mood of where you really concerned about the order of things in the world, I would say Make The World Better. If you were a person who’s observing what’s happening in the world today, you would play Where Did The Love Go. This album is comprised of songs that fit all kinds of moods, that’s what we write. And to help people in those moods, in other words help them think clearer. So this new album, Special Night, has songs that are designed to help people in whatever mood they are in. But I like when people get in a happy mood so I would say Special Night. Especially if you in a relationship: always keep that night special regardless of how many years pass by.’
Sharon Jones first recorded as a backing singer for Lee, so he saw her come up and radiate in her successes. With her passing in November, what’s the legacy she’s left behind? ‘I think Sharon Jones’ legacy would be: if you believe you can do it, you can. The only thing you got to do is believe. She was a talented individual, a loving individual. One of the greatest persons that I have ever met. Just by being just herself. There’s so much about her… I could go on and talking about Sharon. But she was a great woman. I think she would want everybody, if they had to take something of her life and walk with it, I think she would want you to walk with if you believe you can, you can. And I think she would agree with that.’