Double Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Eric “Erro” Roberson has been a soul and hip hop staple in various capacities since his 1994 Top 40 Warner Bros. debut, “The Moon.” First a young heartthrob who had R&B next on the Al B. Sure market, Roberson morphed into a behind-the-scenes lyric man with a six-figure publishing deal after placing “Funny Feelings” with Atlanta’s own 112. Over 15 years later, the former pageant King has since written innumerable sides for such hitmakers as Musiq, Dwele, Carl Thomas, Vivian Green, Will Downing, and dozens more. Deciding to skip the major label game after too many stalled deals, Roberson launched his own indie label, Blue Erro Soul, and helped pioneer the modern independent soul movement.
Eight self-released albums later, Roberson has gone from scrappy newcomer to the indie soul scene’s go-to statesman and touring phenom, all before his 40th birthday. His latest release Mr. Nice Guy (Blue Erro Soul/Purpose Records/E-One) is the first expected to broadly hit major retail chains thanks to a recent distribution deal with Purpose Music Group and E-One. During Roberson’s tour supporting his radio hit, “Picture Perfect (feat. Phonte),” SoulTracks caught up with the newly-minted family man who once famously cried over love with “def ears” and female fans who “couldn’t hear him over the music” to talk: new wife and son (Shawn and Rock), fresh musical direction, and gracefully growing in the game over nearly two decades.
ST: After 17 years, innumerable song placements with hitmakers and now eight independent album releases, where does Eric “Erro” Roberson sit in the music industry today?
ER: I have no idea (he laughs). I think I’ve found my seat in this game of musical chairs. And the possibilities are endless and open. I am right in line for whatever is next in technology, my fan base is growing and I feel as creative as ever. But, I focus more on the process than the product, so I don't spend much time considering where I am. But, I feel like I’m elbow to elbow with the movers and shakers.
ST: You’re often credited as being the father of the contemporary independent soul movement; has that credit ever burdened or has the weight of that expectation ever been a factor in your not ever taking a major label deal?
ER: It’s never been a burden at all. I consider myself an important part of the indie soul movement, but if someone wants to give me that title I don't shy away from it. Either way, it’s my job to leave this movement in a better place than it was in when I started. All of my decisions have strictly been based on what my heart felt at the time. A major deal didn't appeal to me, and truthfully, me being in my 30s probably doesn't appeal to the majors either. But I have always been curious what would happen if we stayed focused on the indie path and continued to build our following from here.
ST: As a former Mr. Black [Teenage] World with a strong female fan base—and considering how badly the married image played out for fellow R&B sex symbol, Usher, how important or concerning was it for you to be open about your young marriage and new child?
ER: (He laughs). Well, first I was Mr. Black Teenage World. I doubt I would win Mr. Black World now (he laughs). But, yes I do understand I have a very strong female base and I truly appreciate them. I’ve never hidden my relationship or marriage and especially my son from my fans. My fans have had the opportunity to be closer to me and my family. So, they not only grow with my music, but with my family. If you come to my shows, you see my wife, you see my parents, you see my son, and so most of my fans connect with us in a different way than with an artist they only see on TV and magazines. It’s very important for me to be like my heroes. I have had in my personal life as much as my heroes in music. We've honored and respected Ossie and Ruby Dee, Ashford and Simpson, and many others; so, hopefully, my wife and I will be mentioned with those names one day.
ST: You’re known as a touring artist with more dates on the road than at home in any given year; how will Erro manage the tension between a new family at home and an industry whose revenue prospects are increasingly in ticket—and not album—sales?
ER: Well, I try and bring my wife and son with me whenever they can go. My son is one [year old] now and I've already brought him to Europe, Atlanta, Los Angeles a couple of times, and some other spots. I plan to raise my son on the road as much as I can, and I feel blessed to have a wife who is down and understands the extra steps it may take. But, I've watched others do it before me. Angela Johnson and her husband Russell pretty much brought their daughter on the road with them as long as I can remember. I've watch Kindred do it with six kids, so trust me I won’t have any complaints changing diapers right before I go onstage.
ST: You took some musical risks on Music Fan First and garnered two Grammy nods and a younger audience for going edgier and hipper in your sound. Are you staying the course with Mr. Nice Guy, or are you on to another musical direction?
ER: I really couldn't tell you. I’m probably better at following my heart musically than I am describing where it’s going. I think it’s different though. From a songwriting aspect I feel like I took bigger risks on this album, and that’s saying a lot when you think of some of the songs on Music Fan First.
ST: What Mr. Nice Guy songs would you recommend for that college student who has never heard of you and which for that Team Erro fan who’s been riding since your first album, Esoteric?
ER: For the college student, I would suggest the title track, “Mr. Nice Guy.” It has comical, but thought-provoking lyrics, heavy hip hop drums over a soulful melody. This is a format I've always touched on a few times on each album. And, for the Team Erro fan, I would almost say the whole album, but if I had to pick one I’d say, “Love's Withdrawal (featuring Omari Hardwick).” The song has that familiar feeling that I believe my fans love about my music, but a few layers deeper.
ST: What does the title Mr. Nice Guy mean to you and can today’s artists succeed in this brutal biz being nice?
ER: Today's artists can definitely succeed in this business being nice. Being nice doesn't have to mean being weak or silent. There are many times when I have to straighten a situation out but it’s all about how you do it. I would never name the album, “Mr. Perfect Guy” (He laughs). But, my parents raised me a certain way and I try to have that reflect how I am.
ST: How do you practice staying Mr. Nice Guy for your fans, wife, and brand new son on this next leg of your creative and personal journey?
ER: I just try to be me. For years, I have practiced a thing my uncle taught me and that’s organized growth. So, I plan to do everything I have always done, just a lil bit bigger each time. I created this album with my son lying next to me and sometime on my lap. So, I don't expect much to change. I love the opportunity I have to do the music I love, while raising the family I love.
By L. Michael Gipson