Lee Fields: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On It Rains Love, the seventh album from Lee Fields and the Expressions, the 68-year-old soul singer makes a case for people’s ability to love, and for love’s ability to transform people. “Love is the answer,” he sings on the album’s majestic closer. You get the sense he’s not just offering up platitudes. Love is a big idea for Fields. Love, both universal love and romantic love, is a force for the greater human good, Fields explains. “I try not to sell people just anything,” he says of the way he imbues his recordings with his full self. “The approach, man, it’s always about a good record.”

Over the course of our telephone conversation, the concept of making “good” music comes up a lot. It’s the quality Fields has aspired to for more than 50 years of music making. And It Rains Love, made once again with Fields’ longtime musical partner Leon Michels, certainly sounds good. Like his late contemporaries, Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Fields hews close to classic production techniques. It Rains Love sounds like it could have come out midway through the 70s, back when Fields was cutting a series of singles for various small labels.

But “good” goes beyond just velvety arrangements and beautiful vocals—though Fields is in full possession of both. It’s the center of Fields’ moral framework too. He wants his albums to serve the listener, to remind them of the connections we share. It’s a difficult task in the age of social media and a fractured political system, but for Fields, it’s about human connection, about connecting to the people he shares a stage with, people in the crowd, or the people who will be listening to his records for years to come.

“We’re using humans to make music. I believe the adversary is not man against man. I believe it’s artificial intelligence against human beings. Machines are taking jobs,” Fields says, whose words might sound like science fiction prophesy if we didn’t live in an age of algorithms scoring record deals.

Though he’s not opposed to making electronic music—his extensive work with French producer and DJ Martin Solveig attests to that openness—Fields prefers “human beings” to electronics and backing tracks. “I prefer looking on the stage and seeing another person actually there, making the music,” Fields says.

Here, he reflects on five decades of making music for and with people, discusses the line between the sacred and the secular, and offers up cosmic advice. It Rains Love is available now from Big Crown Records.

Aquarium Drunkard: It Rains Love is a really wonderful album. On your Facebook page, you wrote that people have told you it seems to “ease tensions in these times of great polarity.” Do you hear that quality in the songs?

Lee Fields: I guess the songs are talking about positive things. There’s so much untruth going on. If you were to build an airplane and put false parts in, the airplane is not going to function right. I think untruth is dismantling the government, [but] in my music, I want to write about positive things. I try to choose choice words and positive things and still stay true to what’s going on today. I like to make good music—when I say “good,” I mean really mean throughout.

AD: Did the state of our country lead you to approach this record differently than you had approached previous albums?

Lee Fields: Maybe a little differently, because we are what we see and what we hear. If I’m going to write about what’s going on in the world today, I have to write about what I hear and see. The music business is about more than just going out and trying to just make money. It’s just like a food company selling you bad food, food that’s making you sick or something. That’s something that needs to be shut down. That applies to the spiritual, too: we have to have good things go into our minds, in accord with what is good. That’s my approach.

AD: In addition to addressing a love for humanity, your records have always focused on romantic love. You met your wife in 1968—did your 50th-anniversary last year influence the tone of these songs?

Lee Fields: Every day I have a stronger feeling for my spouse, because of what we’ve been through in our lives. Every day it gets stronger. Our anniversary? Really, the first is just like the 50th, except I have more accolades and good things she’s done through the years. It’s just as new as it was 50 years ago, regarding our relationship. I’m just as in love with her. Matter of fact, more, because it grows. Her presence has always affected the way I write.

AD: Songs like “You’re What’s Needed In My Life” and “Blessed With the Best” sound like they really come from your heart. But when you’ve been doing something as long as you have, for more than 50 years, does it get harder to “mean it” as time goes on?

Lee Fields: If I was pretending, it probably would get harder. But I’m not pretending. I want to sing it in a way that people can feel that I mean what I say. The truth isn’t hard. A lie is hard. You have to catch yourself every time [laughs]. People get caught up in lies, but when you’re dealing with the truth, man, it’s easy. There’s nothing to remember. You just say what you did.

AD: When you sing a song like “Wake Up”—which is about forces in the world that try to convince us not to believe our own eyes—it almost feels like you’re preaching. Was that sort of delivery inspired by your own time in the church or in private reflection on your beliefs? Do you feel like there’s a preacher streak in what you do?

Lee Fields: [When] I was a young kid, six-years-old, my daddy and momma had a little speakeasy on weekends. Then, we had to go to church on Sunday. As far as I can remember, it has always been about the church, and it’s always been about secular life. On Friday and Saturday, they’d turn the house into a speakeasy…We’d peek through the door and see them doing all of these crazy dances. And then, on Sunday I’d see some of the same people in the church, kneeling and praying, ladies hands stuck up, looking at the ceiling like they were seeing something. I was trying to see what they were seeing, but it was just a ceiling, as far as a kid could see. They were looking at something like they were looking at somebody.

The line between church and secular life has always intrigued me. In the new stuff, you probably hear the preacher side of me, though I try not to get too political because I don’t know too much about politics. I can’t understand why it seems like everybody’s always fighting about something. I understand everyone wants their ideas to be heard. I’m not a politician but I had to write that song, because that’s what’s happening today. I’m not trying to tell people what to believe or who to believe, I’m just trying to say “open up your eyes and think.” As a democracy, we’re supposed to think and reason, and then the truth with manifest itself.

AD: In 1979, you put out a great record called Let’s Talk It Over. But prior to that, you released singles all throughout the decade. Did you release those yourself?

Lee Fields: I had various partners and we formed different labels. I couldn’t conform in the ’70s. The record companies wanted certain things [but] I felt like I was compromising. I didn’t really feel what they wanted me to do. I just couldn’t, inside of me, just make music for the sake of making a dollar bill. I had to make something I believed in. I tried a couple of times, doing what they liked. And they were received well, but then, I’ve got to live with the records I make. Once the record is released, you can’t go back 20 years and say “I wish I never made that record.” Recordings are here forever.

AD: In the 1980s you started working more in real estate. Did you ever make a conscious decision to say, “I’m going to focus less on music,” or did life just start happening and it led you that direction?

Lee Fields: Life dictated what I did in the ’80s. It seemed music had changed. It wasn’t about the songs I was making. In the middle ’80s, the music you got very, very raw. It was sexually oriented. It was hedonistic kind of stuff. Then in the late ’80s, it got to where guys were singing about “raise your guns in the air.” I can’t do stuff like that—which I’m not knocking. Artists have to do what they are supposed to do. But I can’t do that. I had to feed my family, so I had to find something to do. I started reading a lot about all these real estate opportunities, and it worked for me. I was a good landlord for a number of years. It taught me how to do a lot of things.

I wasn’t planning on coming back to music. I was planning on opening an eatery in Newark. I found this place that had three stories and a storefront. I was going to make it into a fish place, where you get your sandwiches and you leave. I showed my wife the building and she said, “I want to ask you something. What do you know about fish?” I was sort of thinking, “I think I know they taste good.” She said, “That’s what I’m talking about. You don’t know nothing about taking care of fish. You need to stick to what you do.” A wise man, any wise man, knows that if you’ve got an intelligent partner, you need to listen to your partner sometimes. I went back to music.

AD: You talked about the turn music took in the ’80s, and it sounds like you’re talking about hip-hop. A lot of rappers—people like Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, and J. Cole—have sampled your work. What does it feel like to hear your sounds put into new context like that?

Lee Fields: It feels like someone is paying attention. Regardless if my music goes to you the way I put it out, or if someone else has a new way of innovating the music and gets it out there, sooner or later the story of Lee Fields is going to surface. The type of guy I am, the things I believe. The story will surface at some point. It’s all about doing the right thing and trying not to do the bad thing. No one is perfect, you’ll make mistakes, but we’ve got to try to continue to do what’s right.

AD: And you feel like, even if your music is recontextualized into new forms, there’s something inherent that translates through?

Lee Fields: It’s all about getting the message out there, and the message is “Love is the answer.” Here’s the way I think: I look at the Earth, its surrounding planets, the sun—I look at all of the solar system we live in—as a spacecraft. Everything is moving in the galactic sea of the universe. We have all of the supplies to maintain our progeny until it’s time to meet God. It might be ten generations from now. But this is a spaceship. Therefore, if we become restless and don’t hold onto love, we’ll be like a ship adrift at sea. If everyone starts fighting, the chances of that ship getting where it’s supposed to get aren’t good. We must care about all the passengers aboard the ship. words/j woodbury

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