An Exclusive Interview with Eric Sommer

Would you share the story behind your latest song and what inspired its creation?

Our latest song is called “I’ll Let My Drinkin’ do My Thinkin’” and it is dedicated to all the guys out there who get tongue-tied in front of a pretty girl – happens all the time, and it’s sad – it is like watching two ships pass in the night with no connection – if only someone would put up a flare.

People pass each other all the time, and they might have a wonderful undiscovered connection with that person if only they would wave, say “hello” or simply smile – do just that alone, just smile, and the opportunities might surprise you – you may be amazed at the responses and the results may be exciting and endless!

How do you approach the process of songwriting, and are there any specific themes or emotions you tend to explore in your music?

There are many ways to get that song out, and sometimes it’s easy, sometimes the song writes itself, and other times it is hard – here are some approaches I use from time to time… I start writing every morning at 6:30 or so, never later than 7:00am. My head is fresh, the vision clear and I dig right in. To warm up – if necessary – I look at a series of pictures, Edward Hopper is my favorite, and I go over stories in my mind about what is taking place in the scene before me.

Then I might look thru early comic books or the newspaper – there are lots of interesting headlines and sub-heads that get the motor running and the ideas flowing. Once something grabs my attention, I focus in, and I may write a series of song titles and then try a chorus or a middle eight based on the ideas before me. If I am stuck, I have a large bag full of story ideas, song titles, interesting scraps of paper and notebooks full of ideas and lyrics, words that I find interesting and sets of words that convey some sort of emotion… I have been collecting these for years, so I am never out of source material, and always have what I think is one of the best emotional and wordsmithing references at my fingertips: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom.

When I am stuck on anything: character, emotional eloquence, a phrase, or a hint of a phrase tied to some emotional twist I need to finish a line, a moment in those pages works very well.

As an indie musician, how do you navigate the balance between creative freedom and commercial appeal?

I don’t. I can’t balance anything. If I am writing a song, whatever it may be that day, the idea of writing a “commercial song” doesn’t enter any of the process. I write what I think is a good song, one that has a point, a message, a purpose, whatever that may be – and that is the most important thing at that moment. I craft a chorus, perhaps a middle eight, a bridge if necessary, and finish it off. I look at, play it, then walk away for a few hours and see what it sounds like when I get back to it. The name of the game is re-writing and editing until it sounds as perfect as it can.

I think if I write good songs, the audience will respond, and if I write what I feel, what I want to say and do it using all the tools at my disposal, it will be successful.

What do you find most challenging about being an independent artist in today’s music industry?

That is a question too big for this small specific forum. However, here are a few thoughts: there is so much clutter out there that in many ways it’s clogging up the system. Touring has become much more expensive, and touring is where you can make your rent. I don’t do live videos. I believe in Bill Hand and his philosophy with ZZ Top: ”If you want to hear the band, you gotta see ‘em live” And that’s best for the venues, the fans and the local economy.

Plus, playing live and doing it well is an art, and it is something that you learn and polish as you go. You don’t get any of that energy, sound and electricity from watching a video.

Can you talk about your experiences collaborating with other artists or musicians? How does it influence your creative process?

There has to be something there that is worthwhile, that will add something to what I am thinking. With The Piedmonts, we have such a depth of musical knowledge that I don’t have any reservations working on material with Jimmy or Amanda. I have a lot of respect for their skills and especially Jimmy’s experience and ear – he has played in so many different ensembles and is a touchstone of musical styles and that’s his master groove: he has so many bass lines running around in the head that he can’t help but come up with something that fits every time.

What role does technology and social media play in promoting your music and connecting with your audience?

There are two parts to live music: performance and promotions. The promotions part of this has become an energy and money sucking black hole. You have a limited number of media outlets to promote yourself, and success is generally based on the fundamentals of communications as formulated by David Ogilvy from the golden age of advertising 1955-1970: rate, reach and frequency.

The bottom line is frequency – repeat, repeat and repeat. That process has become very expensive, and almost out of reach for most bands who are making a minimum amount per show. Postering is probably the best approach, and if you tie that into the theory of “concentric circles”, it can be successful for you, if your goals are realistic. On average, it takes about $4 million to break a new artist nationally in the US, and the best way to counter that, and succeed, is to have great music, a great show and a loyal fan base.

You build that fan base by reasonable promotions in an ever-expanding concentric circle from your base.

Are there any particular artists or genres that have had a significant impact on your musical style?

My Dad got me a guitar when I was about 5 years old and I started playing what was happening at the time: the early folk scene in the US. That included Joan Baez, early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and a touring duo called Addison and Crowfoot. 

I picked up all those influences. On top of that I was exposed early to John Renbourn, Davy Graham, and a number of pretty obscure folk-based guitar players. I was most influenced by a guy who gave me a set of fingerpicks one afternoon as I was playing a show in a small bar. That simple gesture opened a whole new world of fingerpicking-style guitar music for me. I never looked back.

When I was playing in Boston, I was a committed folk music artist, at least until I heard the Cars. Their sound, their energy and lyrics turned me around. I became a follower of the New Wave – The Cars, The Clash, The Pretenders and many other artists from those days and the amazing Boston music scene. I played in that style from then on, incorporating the acoustic style I had been perfecting for years which now incorporated harmonica, open tunings and slide guitar.

At this time, I was listening to Steve Howe (YES), John Mayall, Duane Allman and I had become heavily into the jazz side, too. Joe Pass, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery became huge influences.

Now I try to incorporate all, yes, ALL those styles and influences into my daily practice schedule and then into our live performances of compositions and songs reflecting those influences.

Indie musicians often have a close relationship with their fanbase. How do you engage with your fans and build a dedicated community around your music?

Our approach is based on the Concentric Circle theory. We play locally on a very consistent basis. That gives us direct access to our fan base and our email lists, our articles in the local paper and blogs all help that. We give out lots of cool schwag at shows, urge folks to get on our mailing list and try to play a very rewarding show for our fans EVERY time.

Could you describe a memorable live performance experience or tour that has had a lasting impact on you and your music?

Honestly, there have been so many moments, so many memorable and important exchanges that to single out one might be a bit disrespectful to the rest – anytime we interact with our fans, it is a wonderful and engaging experience.

In an era of streaming platforms, how do you feel about the changing landscape of music consumption and its impact on independent musicians?

My personal view is that there is nothing authentic about a video of a band playing a live set. The energy exchange is hollow, the experience emotionless and it’s just chewing gum for the ears, and after a few minutes it goes stale.

Whatever one may think about Taylor Swift, the fact is her shows bring in on an average $100-$200 million into the local economy of the city she’s playing. That is what makes music work – the live show is irreplaceable, and there isn’t anything that can take its place.

Bill Hand, the manager of ZZ TOP, refused to let them do TV or Radio: if the folks from Houston or Texas wanted to see them or hear them, they had to get a ticket and see a live show. I support that point of view. Look, streaming is a fast and cheap way to get music into the hands and heads of the consumer, but that stream of electrons is worthless compared to a record you can hold, read the liner notes, see the song order and sometimes lyrics (The Beatles Sgt. Pepper was the first record to put all the lyrics on the sleeve and the actual gatefold), and being able see the artwork (YES: Closer to the Edge or Tales From Topographic Oceans, The Clash London Calling are a few examples that come to mind) made buying a vinyl LP a visual and intellectual party… streaming takes all that away and denies the listener of the experience a record jacket can give.

Bigger isn’t always better and most of the time more is just more.