Eric Sommer ”My Dad got me a guitar when I was 5 years old”

Can you share your musical journey with us, from when you first discovered your passion for music to where you are today as an independent musician?

Great question, but it would take a few volumes to round that one out! And my journey has been – and continues to be – a thread of coincidences and happenstance, a combination of being in the right place at the right time, only listening to people who made sense and keeping to my schedule of playing in the living room or where I could for hours and hours, reading off the Berklee Guitar Books #1-3 and trying to figure out what David Landau was doing when I’d see him in Harvard Square at The Oxford Ale House with The Chris Rhodes Band.

I started out as a 5-year-old kid with a Sears Silvertone my Dad got me at the PX. I had a few lessons and all I had to listen too was US Marine Band records, Perry Como, a few others Oh, and Stan Freeberg comedy records. One day my Mom took me down to Wireless Road and the USIS Auditorium to see Addison and Crowfoot – and early Americana Duo, and the asked if anyone could play something for them. I got up and played “Stewball was a Race Horse” and I never looked back!

I went away to school in India, at St. Josephs College, Darjeeling, and I bought a Sitar in Calcutta because the sound was so amazing. They took it away from me, but I was captivated by the sound and especially what the Beatles did with it on Sgt Pepper. I didn’t play a lot during my time in India, but I got my head and thinking aligned musically… and that saved me. It was very lonely in Darjeeling, being one of only three American/Canadians and there was very little camaraderie between us and the Sikkimese, Bhutanese, Tibetans, and Bengalis, so music – at least thinking and fantasizing about it – made my years there tolerable.

When I got to the US, I was in heaven. It was the incredible music scene in Boston that captured me while I was still in High School in Lexington, MA. I would spend every weekend in Harvard Square, listening to people, playing on a bucket in front of the Harvard Coop, on the steps at Holyoke Center, down on Charles Street, at The Nameless Coffeehouse on Church Street and at Passim’s Coffeehouse, then run by Bob Donlin. Soon enough I went to college in New Jersey, and a few years after that back to SE Asia.

When I left Bangkok, I worked my way through Tel Aviv, then Greece and Athens, and up to Geneva, where I stayed and made a few friends playing music and writing songs. Eventually I moved on, hitchhiked up to Amsterdam, and played on the streets in and around the Dam Square, and lived on a houseboat behind the train station. I got busted one afternoon, since I was making so much money, and they took my guitar away. I had to hire a lawyer and it was going to take about 3 months to get it back.

So I left Amsterdam, hitched up to Aarhus, Denmark and ended up living there for three years. I didn’t have a guitar, so a friend lent me one and I rehearsed for weeks in the sauna rooms at The University of Aårhus; I eventually got three gigs a week on a regular basis and wrote all my oen songs, played all my own material and did very well, and when it was time to head back to the US, I had a boatload of Danish Krone and landed in the US with some cash. I ended up back in Boston, and this time I was getting good shows immediately, ending up with Don Law, the biggest promoter in the area. I worked with him on and off for 15 years, touring with everyone from Little Feat to John Mayall and then back in Europe with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmonds, The Pretenders and John Hammond Jr.

By the time I had formed The Atomics, we were already a known quantity, and we were put on tours with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, The Dead Kennedys and Orchestra Luna… that went on for almost seven years, and then I had to get out.

The stage show was getting in the way of the music – I was writing and playing alright but not making progress and the punk/new wave scene had made its mark, scorched the earth, and moved on. There wasn’t much left, and I had been living in a South Boston Loft with no heat and no hot water, and I had enough.

So I shifted gears to Washington DC, dried out, quit smoking and drinking and got back to my acoustic guitar roots and never looked back. If you’re not improving, developing, and making a difference, what’s the point, right? I got back to my original loves of writing songs, playing acoustic guitar to small intimate audiences, and went back on the road to The Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, MN. I toured solidly for the next 10 years, ending up Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I played a steady series of shows up and down the East Coast.

I formed “Eric Sommer and The Fabulous Piedmonts” a year ago, and we are recording and making new music daily. We are touring and I am writing constantly, working in and out of Nashville, left SESAC for BMI, and I am enjoying my new sound, content, and musical writing process more than ever.

This is a journey, not a race.

What motivates you to create music, and how do you stay inspired to continue making new and unique music?

There’s a wonderful line in the Bob Dylan bio “No Direction Home” that I am sure most people missed. Joan Baez is told there’s a new singer in the Village named Bob Dylan, and he’s stirring things up a bit. Her response is clear and direct; she goes “What does he have to say?”

I ask myself that question every day: What do I have to say today? And that is the whole reason I am in music – I am trying to say things, I am trying to write about things I see, things I want to express and share, and it’s everything from the beautiful sunrise this morning, the way the lamp cord falls so beautifully from the table, the perfect alignment of the cars, the gas pump and the cones on a miserable, wet and rainy day under the canopy at the gas station on the outskirts of Chicago.

Inspiration is everywhere, as Picasso said, but it must find you working.

As an independent musician, you wear many hats – from composing to marketing. How do you balance these different aspects of your career, and what challenges do you face in the process?

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 at any stage 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, tell good stories, 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.

Could you tell us about your creative process? How do you come up with new ideas for songs, and how do you go about turning those ideas into finished tracks?

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. Give me ideas, gets my engine back up and running.

Independent musicians often face financial challenges. How do you manage your finances to sustain your music career while also covering your personal expenses?

Unless you have a great stage show, play covers and tour constantly, it is still hard to pay the rent and cover all the necessary expenses of daily life. The way to get around that is live very cheaply, don’t blow money on things that have no return, and find a relief to the intellectual trauma of songwriting and composing music. I love that trauma – it’s one of the great motivators around – but it’s helpful to walk away from it when you need to recharge the batteries, tank up on creative and find new and meaningful inspiration.

But a good side job is helpful, one that gives you freedom and a little cash to keep you going. And it should be something you love, something that enriches you and builds your emotional and musical reserves.

Miles Davis put his horn down for 6 years and did nothing musically. Instead, he painted, did a lot of enhancing substances, and came back to the stage when he was ready. He embraced a new philosophy for his players, and thru it created some of the most revolutionary music for the time: Bitches Brew, arguably the dawn of jazz fusion.

Can you share a particularly memorable or challenging experience from your journey as a musician that has had a significant impact on your career and personal growth?

The most important moment in my journey came when I walked into The Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square and saw David Landau playing “Bloomdido” a Charlie Parker song, in a rock setting. I was absolutely mesmerized and have tried ever since then to play as smooth as David and with his wonderfully fluid technique.

I am still working on it.

With the rise of digital platforms, the music industry has changed significantly. How do you navigate the digital landscape, including streaming services and social media, to promote your music and connect with your audience?

There are so many outlets, and so many ways to approach managing them that it can take all your time to simply manage those, posting every day, sometimes three times a day, looking at metrics, planning new postings, looking for content… ok, but what in that scenario gets you writing new material, playing new songs and writing important works?

Nothing. It’s dangerous because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the cult of self promotion, to go so far down that rabbit hole that you leave music, creativity, and your own soul out in the backyard somewhere.

I take one or two outlets, promote shows to my fan base, keep writing new material, and keep working.

Collaboration is a key part of the music industry. Have you worked with other musicians or producers, and how have these collaborations influenced your sound and career?

I have worked with many musicians, and with many, many studio producers over the years. Each interaction has produced something – some times good, sometimes exceptional. You can never tell what will come out of these collabs, but the process is always exciting and inspirational.

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 his head that he can’t help but come up with something that fits every time.

Your music likely reflects your unique style and perspective. Could you describe your musical identity and what makes your sound stand out in a crowded industry?

My musical catalog is a combination of all my influences, run thru a meat grinder, and then rolled up into individual songs… I have a very unique sound because I incorporate my acoustic guitar skills – finger-style, slide, open tuning – into a pop sound with a driving rhythmic center.

There may be people out there who have a similar sound, but I have not heard anyone who comes close to doing what I do.

What role does live performance play in your music career, and how do you approach planning and executing your live shows, especially in light of recent challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic?

Right now, we have quite a few set lists that we use as an ensemble. Each one defines the show, and it is all related to the song order. We keep everything very loose: we have played every combination so many times that we have it down, and then something will happen in the audience or on the aisles that sends the who thing off in a new direction.

No two shows are the same.

Many fans are interested in the stories behind the songs. Could you share the backstory or inspiration behind one of your recent tracks that holds special meaning to you?

“Panic in Passaic” and “Redneck Parking Lot” have wonderful stories behind them. Before we play these songs live, we always tell the story or at least the most current version. Want the story? Come and hear us live!

Since this is probably might appear in a place that might be hard for our friends and fans to reach, here’s the backstory of “Panic in Passaic”.

I used to hitchhike all over the US between high school and into college. I would go anywhere the roade or the ride would take me, and one time, coming east from Kansas City, the truck driver let me out in front of the Passaic Docks, in Passaic, NJ. It was in the summer, and it was one of those sweltering nights that was hot, humid and you couldn’t find a breeze for any amount of money.

As the gates closed, I found myself, stranded, at 3 o’clock in the morning, in the middle of an industrial wasteland.

There was a one lance access road that ran in front of the gates, along the fenceline both ways as fas as I could see, and there were huge white-hot floodlights 30 feet up and spaced every 15 years or so: the place was very well lit. So I stood there for about 30 minutes or so, trying to figure out what to do next, when two cars came speeding up the access road towards me, and screeched to a halt, barely 3 lights away from me.

I watched as two guys jumped out, one from each car, and began screaming at each other. The more they screamed, the closer they got, and they started swinging at each other. It didn’t look like either of them were landing any blows, but they kept swinging wildly at each other, and then I got it. Their bright white shirts started to turn deep red, and it wasn’t a fist fight – it was a classic knife fight, complete with screams as the girls in each car got out, screaming in Spanish, and began pulling the two guys apart, their shirts now showing little of their original white. It had all been replace by the dark, deep red of human blood.

Then, in an instant, it was over. Everyone got back in their cars, the screams and chaos disappeared, the cars vanished into the night and the taillights disappeared down the road just as the first cracks of light appeared in the eastern sky out over the Atlantic…

This song is about what I imagined the story might be behind this early morning brawl – what was it that led to this violent confrontation? Boy-Girl stuff? Someone done someone wrong? This song is an attempt to figure it out.

Looking ahead, what are your future goals and aspirations as an independent musician? Are there any upcoming projects or exciting developments in your career that you’d like to share with your fans and the audience?

I am learning cello, writing more short stories, writing more road prose and playing more shows as fast as I can find them. The goal is to keep working. Period.