Lee Fields on the past, the future, God, and the cosmos
A soul singer with a preternatural power, Lee Fields is 50 years into a career that shows no signs of stopping. At the Russian Tea Rooms in Manhattan, he tells us about his new album, It Rains Love, jumping off on tangents when the mood takes him.
The house band is absent when Lee Fields walks onto Carnegie Hall's gilded, wide-open Isaac Stern Auditorium stage for the 17th annual Van Morrison tribute show. A hard-touring 68-year-old soul singer originally from Wilson, North Carolina, Fields spent decades searching for the right back-up — a group of musicians who could match the crackling, aching ecstasy in his lungs. He found that in the Expressions a few years ago, and he’s not about to change things up now. The horn players take their positions, the rhythm section settles in, and Fields saunters out in a black jacket with gold stitching that matches the room's grandeur.
Fields is here to perform “And It Stoned Me,” from Morrison's 1970 album Moondance. The crowd quietens down and Fields stands still, momentarily seeming intimidated by the spectacle. Guitar chords echo and the hi-hat fizzes while Fields sings the first verse: “Half a mile from the county fair / And the rain came pourin' down.” The crowd, entirely seated, stares back — but then the pre-chorus hits. From his first single in 1969 and the funk-addled R&B of the ‘70s through the unlikely house collaborations of the early ‘00s and the soulful love songs of his past decade, Fields has thrived on the crescendo — the rising tide of horns and howls, the swell of the band and the opportunity for his voice to burst through.
“Oh, the water,” he sings three times, his forearms slowly twisting until his palms are open. Suddenly, he seems to be covering more space, summoning energy from the beat and the room and the cosmos, which he thinks about a lot. He’s in command, and he won’t relinquish that. He leaves to a standing ovation on a night that includes performances from Todd Rundgren, Brian Fallon, Glen Hansard, David Johansen, and Patti Smith — a statement in itself.
Before Fields stepped onto the stage, we met at the nearby Russian Tea Room — itself gold-plated, luxurious, and strangely intimidating in a way that things just south of Central Park tend to be — to talk about his new album, It Rains Love, out today via Big Crown. We covered a wide range of topics spanning life, truth, God, space, history, and the future; he talked about his parents, who hosted raucous, well-lubricated parties at their home in Wilson to make ends meet when he was young, and about political anxiety — something that he confronts on It Rains Love’s stirring centerpiece, “Wake Up” (“Don’t be led in the wrong direction / Because it’s time for mass-correction,” he sings).
With his wife Chris nursing a glass of rosé, he sipped from a small measure of whiskey backed with a beer while talking about a stretch in the 1980s when he considered giving up music entirely. He stared straight ahead, drifting from metaphor to metaphor and stringing together sermons on the fly. “Truth is what we need,” he said, moving his hand across the crucifix around his neck. “I'm not a preacher, man, but that's what I write my songs by.”
This is your first time at Carnegie Hall. After 50 years, do you get nervous before you play shows anymore?
When a person stops getting nervous, they lose awe for what they do. When it's not a special event for them, they're in the process of burning out. You need that adrenaline. Being nervous is like being naturally high off of energy. If you have that adrenaline, you move and think quicker. You're going to sing this song urgently to a point where people actually feel what you say.
Rappers are sampling you, radio stations are playing your music, and soul seems to be working its way back into the public consciousness. How does that feel?
I'm not surprised, but I think soul music will always be of the time. You're using real people playing real instruments, singing about real issues. A true soul singer is very careful with what they put on records. Back when I was coming up, you were taught that either you're singing for the lord or the devil. It's not gospel, but soul music is singing about the here and the now, hoping that it would be pleasing to God. A true soul singer is not going to say just anything — and if they do, that person isn't as faithful to what soul is supposed to be. I believe that there is a God.
On It Rains Love, you have a song called “God is Real.” Can you talk about your journey through religion?
My mother and father would throw these parties on Friday and Saturday nights — they knew that what they were doing wasn't congruent with what they should have been doing, but for people of color living in North Carolina, there was very little means of making decent wages. Then we'd go to church on Sunday. I’d see the ladies with their hands up in the air, looking up at the ceiling. It was spooky to me. The preacher would touch one of the ladies and they'd fall out on the floor. I kind of feared the preacher, and I was hoping that he didn't touch me. It really did a number on me at an early age, put the fear of God in me.
I used to hear daddy playing Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and all of these gospel groups, so my whole formation was about the church and secular life. It stayed with me in regard to being careful of what I write. What we hear and see — to our brains, it’s just like good or bad food for the body. I try to tell stories that Ipeople can get something out of.
You say you have to be careful about what you write. Did you feel like you had to write "Wake Up" for that reason?
"Wake Up" is about the truth, and I believe the truth is God. It sets us free. That being said, as I watch television today, it's very dangerous to tell people "That's fake news" unless you show us why it's fake. It's a very dangerous thing to do for any society. I don't know that much about politics, so I can't really advise people what's right or wrong.
The majority of this record is made up of love songs. Why do you think love songs are still important?
This is going to sound strange, but I think our whole solar system is a spacecraft and we're travelling in this galactic sea. Without love and concern for each other, you've got all of these people on this ship and everybody becomes very antagonistic. You have total turmoil, and the chances of that ship making it to where it's going to go is much to none. The planets are like a gyrator, where everything is constantly turning, but we don't know because everything still stays in the same proximity to us. If we become restless and create great turmoil here on the living quarters, our chances of making it to that point where we would meet God are diminished. The thing is to remain calm, take care of the earth, love each other, and realize that this life we have is a gift — then, when we expire from here, we go to a higher state of existence.
Those that don't learn have to repeat. Particles of their intellect will be missing in the next go-around, so they have to start finding themselves all over again. They'll be constantly doomed. But I want to make a complete circle. I think we're all part of an everlasting dream. Nothing was actually created, per se. Everything was dreamed. The only things we actually see that were created were created in an everlasting dream. That's the reason why we all disappear and the world goes on. It's the everlasting dream, until we meet the creator at a certain point in time, where God will live among us. I believe that stuff. I might be naive, man.
How does romance fit into this theory?
My wife Chris and I have been together for 50 years, so romance plays a great part in my life. It's not only just between a man and a woman — it's your grandkids, your kids. People think money is everything, but the things you can't buy are more precious than all the money in the world. We have six grandkids, and just watching a child smile sometimes — that's what's important.
Tell me about the recording process behind this new album.
I believe that by having faith through the years, God sent me this band. I was on the verge of getting out of the business in the ‘80s, but my wife encouraged me to stick with what I know. I was frustrated because I had so much trouble with so many other bands, but this band — there's very few words we need to say. We see each other, shake each others' hands, and everything falls in place. It's proof that, if you believe, your prayers will be answered.
Tell me about the 1980s — you were trading in real estate for a while.
I was becoming very dismayed with the way things were going and I knew I had to do something to take care of my family. When I tell people my story, I want them to know it was hard. The '80s taught me that I can survive without music, but I was empty inside because I had no way of expressing myself. I did read constantly.
What did you read?
Everything from the Bible to Shakespeare — whatever I could get my hands on in search of the question: Is there something greater? After all that reading, I believed that there is something out there.
Do you ever think about retiring?
I consider myself retired now, because when you're doing something that you love to do, you're not working. My tours are like going on vacation. I get to see Russia, Spain, France, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Australia. That's vacationing, man. I'm not working. I'm retired. I pray that God allow me to do this until I die. But I'm not working. When I perform, although you see sweat, that's joy coming out of my body. Work is in the eye of the beholder. Everybody has a purpose, and mine is to make good records. They might not be as successful as somebody like Kanye and all of that, but I feel good about what I write. I eliminate ego.
How do you eliminate ego?
The guy that's on stage is not actually me. When I take that suit off, that's it for that guy until the next show. I lock him up. If I were to be that person every day, then I would be contrary to what I believe. It's theatrical, you're playing a part. When you come off stage, you go back to your natural self.