We are delighted to have Lee Fields as Qwest TV's guest of the month for April. On the back of his new album, It Rains Love, he sat down with us for perhaps his most open interview to date.
Lee Fields has been singing professionally for as long as he’s been married: fifty years. Now, he stands tall as a veteran of the soul game and a champion of long-lasting love. Having famously started out with just $20 to his name, he is now in a position to call the shots. It Rains Love, according to Fields, is the first time he has found the confidence and the right context to say exactly what he feels like saying. Here, he is generous and enthusiastic in a conversation that ranges all the way from moonshine to nanotechnology, with notions of love and God being interchangeable throughout. Fields also opens up for the first time about a major turning point in his life.
You must be very comfortable with The Expressions by now. What stage does It Rains Love represent in terms of your relationship with the band?
Leon Michels [bandleader, co-founder of Truth and Soul Records] now has two studios, one in his house and one in the city. All he has to do is wake up and he can work on stuff and I think that has increased creativity on his part. In terms of me, i’ve been doing some real deep thinking about my life, some soul-searching about what I really want to say and hear said. I’ve opened up a bit more on this album as a result. Now, i’m at a stage where i’m only saying things that I really, really, want to say. To be able to just say what you feel, that’s a gift! We all have the ability to do it, but the context has to be right. This new album represents the right context for me.
Lyrically, what you say is often very simple, but very well put. Do you sometimes struggle to find that perfect combination of words?
When I write with The Expressions, we never try to make things fit that won’t. We write what we like and we have a good time doing it! We’ll start laughing when things happen … and one of us will say “time for a laugh break fellas” [laughs]! But seriously, looking at the world, we try to write what we see, and what we think is needed. We want to write something that makes a person realize their own happiness. That’s what the song “God Is Real” is about. When people think about God, they see an image, but when I think about god, first of all he isn’t a man. To me, God is all possibilities, all knowledge and all consciousness. It feels what everybody feels … [he leans forward to touch the table] God felt that [laughs]!
How does God manifest itself on It Rain’s Love?
“It Rains Love” is a double entendre. It means that God rains. God is raining now. But it’s also about love. Wouldn’t it be nice if love could rain all over and when drops hit you, you learn to appreciate others? The song, and the album as a whole, is about widespread human appreciation – about non-discriminatory love for everyone. If we all got soaking wet with the rain, maybe we’d start caring for our fellow man more, both now and in the future. Maybe we’d stop trying to get rich and start making sure the planet is still there for our progeny, that it remains the Garden of Eden that it started out as.
The video you directed for “It Rains Love” pictures a realistic romance between two hard-working people. Is it important for you to stay away from glamorized images of love?
Yes! I keep it as realistic as possible to help people to realize that the way to be happy isn’t by being like the Kardashians. It’s simple: you’re alive, you have a healthy family – and if not – you have the tools to help sick loved ones. The point is, we all have access to joy! Regardless of our personal situations, we can all find it. I want to talk to John Doe or Susan Doe. I have no interest in talking to the Kardashians, or to rich people who put all their confidence into things. Instead I turn to regular folks and say “I know we ain’t got a big mansion, but hey baby we can still be happy. This is what we got and I got you! Unrealistic love stories about the rich and powerful just make us wish, wish, wish that we had more, rather than focusing on living to the fullest. The album about the whole peripheral of love – of the planet, love of mankind, intimate love, family love …
What about the darker side of your songwriting? “Prisoner of Love” speaks of being trapped in a relationship and on “Wake Up” you seem to comment on your despair about American politics right now.
I try to cover the entire spectrum. “Prisoner of Love” is about a couple whose relationship has been ruined. They want to leave, but however far they go – you could go from New York to Hong Kong – the pain and the love are still with them.
In terms of “Wake Up,” I’ve never been too into politics. But in recent times it has been rather disturbing to be told “this is false or that is false” without there needing to be any proof. In our time, more than ever, it is truth that we need. Let’s stay focused on what’s right. Think about how you would apply that to building a machine, an airplane for instance: if you put the right parts in the right place, the chances are it would fly without a problem. But if you started putting in false parts, you’d get problems down the line. The same thing applies with our intellect. If we are repeatedly told falsehoods, the chances are society would deviate off course. It’s very dangerous. My lyrics then, however occasionally dark, are not said for specific political reasons … they aim to make people think. It’s like me saying: “are you thinking what i’m thinking?”
Do you think the so-called ‘soul revival’ in recent years has had a big part to play in reinstating some home truths?
Soul is akin to gospel, that’s how it started. When Sam Cooke started singing rhythm and blues or soul, people had to be very sharp with their use of words. If they were too obscure, too abstract, they’d start talking over people’s heads. Especially the more impressionable heads. In this sense, I try to write things you’d be able to play without worrying about the kids being in the room. In the same way that our bodies require proper nutrition, what goes in the brain must also be wholesome, healthy, and nourishing. I’m not speaking about adults so much here. If music is going to be played over the airwaves, we need to make sure the impressionable youth are not damaged by it. I wouldn’t want anyone coming to my house with vulgarity flowing out of their mouth while there are kids about. I’d say “you got to go bro!”
You recently paid tribute to Van Morrison at Carnegie Hall. How do you relate to his lyrics, which at times feel like your own, and at others plunge us into more abstract areas?
Van Morrison had to write in an abstract way to get his songs played on the radio. Recently I sang “It Stoned Me.” Man, I love singing that song. But my wife was struggling to grasp the lyrics. I told her it’s simple if you follow the words: it’s about two guys going fishing, who never went fishing, and got stoned instead [laughs]! “With a silver half crown” – that lyric is about Crown Royal Whiskey. Then, it starts to rain in the song and they hitch a ride up the road and they’re really getting into it … they’re already quite toasted by this point. Later the guy drops them off at a lake or a pond, and hey man, they just dive right in. You don’t hear nothing about no fish getting caught in the words [laughs]!
The lyric “our throats were getting dry / then we saw a man from across the road / with the sunshine in his eyes” is another example – it’s moonshine in his eyes, man! You can tell when someone’s been drinking a lot of liquor, cause they get that look in their eyes. They talk about getting it from a mountain stream. Moonshine always had to be made next to running water! But back in 1970, you couldn’t put a lyric like that on the radio, they wouldn’t play it, so you gotta read between the lines.
Have you ever fallen out of love with music – maybe in the late 70s / early 80s where soul took a dip in popularity and you were on the edge of quitting?
I was a bit disenchanted then, yes. But yesterday I pinned down what it was actually attributed to. My wife’s sister was murdered in the late 70s by her husband, who then committed suicide. Up until yesterday, I hadn’t really put that in my interviews because I never realized how much it affected me. Yesterday I revisited it for the first time, how I felt back then.
After their deaths, we took their son in and raised him as our own. From that point I had more important things than music to use my energies for. Things slowed down in the late 70s and early 80s because I was in a loop. I was worrying more about how to make a sure dollar and raise kids. I thought that it would only last a short period but I didn’t have time to sit down and listen to developments on the radio, and all of a sudden things had moved on. If that didn’t happen, the 80s would have been like any other period.
I just had too many responsibilities and I couldn’t show any weakness. It was a lot of pressure, man. I never mentioned this before because I didn’t want it to get out there, I saw it as something personal to me. But maybe my story can help others get through a horrific experience like the one we went through.
Do you think that experience fundamentally changed the way you approach songwriting?
It absolutely changed it! I had to become way more grounded. There was a time when I was even gonna get a fish restaurant rather than continue with music. I remember my wife looking at me and she was like “I wanna ask something … what do you know about fish?” [laughs]. She told me to stick to what I know, even when I thought I was defeated. She understood me and stuck with me when I didn’t feel like sticking with myself. Now, I’ve been married for nearly fifty years and I truly feel like i’ve been blessed for every single minute of it.
Fifty years! You’ve listened to a lot of musical developments over that time. What do you think keeps a song fresh throughout the years?
Anything that has the right attitude. Ariana Grande, for example, fantastic, fantastic! I listen to anything that is really creative and really real. In my own music, I’ve done dance, I could easily jump to another genre, but I like the idea of being on stage and looking at another human there with me and having that special moment. In the future, I believe our true adversary will not be other humans – it will be artificial intelligence. Purpose-built machines for construction, nanotechnology … i’m getting into dark areas here. Imagine when we have computers that are too small to see, that you could put in liquid and drink down, allowing them to medically scan your body. There is something inhuman about the direction we’re going in.
Can music be a defence against that?
Regardless of how great the algorithms get, computers are based on logic and emotions are not. Compassion goes against a computer’s purpose because it isn’t efficient. The first beat was a human heartbeat, and if your heartbeat stops, the music stops for you. The point is this: humans are not designed to be perfect, and music made with algorithms might start to feel non-human. I remember music always feeling very human.
When I was growing up, the only thing we could get to listen to was country music because that had the clearest radio signal. You might get soul for a couple of hours on a Saturday, but I still love country and western! Soul, blues and country and western are basically saying the same thing, just from slightly different points of view. Brooks, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner … I like all them jokers. For me, music listening isn’t about the trends, its about the stories that are being told. I listen to everything I can because if you don’t take everything in, you eliminate the possibility of finding the purpose for why you’re really here. Its about thinking outside the box, finding ourselves, man! I’m still doing it, even today.
It’s funny you say that … your songwriting sounds so sure of itself.
I’m sure when I’m writing music because that way my faith is in something that is non-material. My faith is in a higher power. I write what makes me feel good, something my family can be proud of in ten years time, like “your great granddad made this song here!” It’s about pride man.
Who knows how history will be written about these times. All I know is we have the ability in our hands to savage the planet and we have all these other encroaching forces. What’s needed are solutions that make people more valuable. Our problems can be fixed, and they need to be fixed soon.
Lee Fields – It Rains Love (Big Crown Records)