Interview with Eric French, a New England Rock n' Blues musician with an introspective acoustic streak

"The blues shows up in art, in literature, in food. Blues is such an ingrained part of culture and society in the places it has found footing, that it’d be impossible to remove its influence."

Eric French: The Blues Messenger 

After twenty years playing guitar, fifteen years in remission from leukemia, and now two albums into a career as a singer/ songwriter, Eric French has even more love for the blues than when he started. Celebrating milestones is satisfying, but the constant change that brings new experiences is what keeps things passionate. His band’s roster, his tone, even his songwriting style has matured since his debut double record in 2010. The second album Old City Blues, is named for Eric’s second home of Boston, released on Eric’s own independent label French Maid Music.

It’s a high-energy study in modern, songwriter, blues-rock. A more focused endeavor than his first album, both in length and content, this collection of songs and the singing/ fretwork that present them are lean and instinctual.

Initially recorded with his band in the dead of winter while snowed-in at a cabin in Peru, Vermont, Eric finished overdubbing and mixing at his home studio. The New England based artist released small, serialized sections of the effort online over the following year, a first for him, one of a few for this project. Old City Blues includes Eric’s premiere instrumentals featuring the players with him in Vermont, snapshots of excitement and camaraderie over the music at hand.

Eric continues to play with both friends and family (brother Aaron often plays drums, father Ronnie guitar and bass), and to raise money and awareness for cancer treatment and blood donation. The new full record is set for release August 3rd in Providence, RI. Solo and band performances throughout the northeast at familiar venues as well as tours beyond the region are set to follow in the fall.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues is soul.  It's the most un-diluted presentation of that basic ingredient which makes anything worth hearing, seeing, or feeling resonate within us.  Playing and listening to such a direct expression of desire, regret, joy or bitterness provides insight into my own idea of who I am and how I'm feeling about my life.  One of the most beautiful things about blues is that its nature is so inclusive and communicative that it helps us all understand and empathize with each other as well.  It provides a particular kind of satisfaction to me as an individual performer, listener and part of a community that I don’t find anywhere else.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

My father is a blues guitarist and got me started early.  There's a picture of me as a baby with a tiny wooden carving of a guitar, which I still have.  I think you're supposed to hold onto your first axe?  Anyway, I was brought up listening to the great electric blues guitarists of Chicago, Texas, etc. and as soon as I started picking up a guitar I was picking out classic tunes.  Hideaway by Freddie King was the first song I learned on my own, and thankfully I just kept going from there.  I love playing other kinds of music too, but even when it comes out great I still feel a bit like I'm faking it whenever I'm not playing the blues! 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Well, I think a good bluesman knows a thing or two about hard times, and spinning them into relatable music.  Being a musician in general will give you a unique set of experiences and crazy stories to draw from, not to mention a fair dose of adversity to overcome.  But the thing that really runs deepest with me is my perspective and strength from having had cancer.  That experience gave my sense of identity, passion, empathy, and joy its strongest roots, and broadest wings.

How do you describe your sound and lyrics? what characterize Eric French’s music philosophy?

Aaron French is my younger brother and sometimes drummer.  I play with him and my father Ronnie often.  We play a lot as a family, and it's some of the richest musical experience of my life.  I write all of the lyrics and music for the original material on my records and that I perform live.  My musical philosophy is to put as little between the message of the song and the audience as possible.  Deliver your intent on a silver platter.  Give what you have to give, every bit of it.

What's been their experience from “studies” on the road with the blues? Which memory makes you smile?

My favorite experiences so far have been speaking and playing with the bluesmen and women I look up to.  I've gotten advice from B.B. King and Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, learned lessons firsthand onstage with Joe Louis Walker, and even my main Strat used to be Duke Robillard's.  Blues is tradition, and it's so rewarding to be encouraged to add to that tradition by those that have given so much to it already.  Every time I hit the road to a gig is my chance to help keep that tradition alive, and learn something about music and myself in the process.  I have fun when I play, I think I smile pretty often doing this.

"One of the most beautiful things about blues is that its nature is so inclusive and communicative that it helps us all understand and empathize with each other as well." 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

My dad was my first teacher, and initially my biggest influence.  An artist named Charlie Sorrento taught me to sing and reinforced all the important lessons my father instilled in me about musicality and soul.  Other than that, I've learned the most about the blues from distilling the masters note by note, lyric by lyric.  S.R.V. and Robert Cray were essential to my education, but I feel like the guys that came before and after that 80’s blues boom of players have helped me push forward more in order to find my own voice.  I look back to Freddie King and Albert Collins on electric guitar, Robert Johnson and Elmore James when I play my dreadnought and resonator.  In most recent years though, I try to learn from Doyle Bramhall II and Chris Whitley, I'm enthralled and inspired by what they came up with to continue the tradition and not just rehash it.  I hope to do the same every time I write, record and perform.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

'Get up there and do it, that's all you can do.  That's what I did.' - Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I definitely feel like both the best and most difficult moments are yet to come!  My proudest moments so far have been when I’ve been on the bill with an older artist and they’ve made it a point to tell me I’ve got something, keep at it.  Joe Louis Walker told me I’ve got some fire and asked to use my amp after I played in the opening set on a show; that was nice.  And I remember feeling great when my first album came out.  I think one of my favorite moments is when a producer that’d worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Doobie Brothers told me I was an artist, and not to forget it no matter how much side-work I do as a guitar-slinger for other people.

"My musical philosophy is to put as little between the message of the song and the audience as possible. Deliver your intent on a silver platter. Give what you have to give, every bit of it."

What are you miss most nowadays from the OLD DAYS OF BLUES?

I talk to older musicians and read a lot of accounts of how things “used to be”.  It’s almost unbelievable to me that there was so much incredible music going on every night of the week in cities all over the states where I’m from.  Unfortunately, it’s even more foreign to me that the music and the sense of camaraderie/ community it brought was the focus instead of the marketing hype I see as a barrier to the heart of the message in more recent times.  Musicianship and the power behind great songs takes a back seat to an idea that sells well.  It’s par for the course in the entertainment industry I suppose, and it probably always has been and will be.  I think in some ways it might have been easier to be a professional musician before all the technologies and tools were developed that have supposedly made a career in music more accessible than ever.  But then again, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk blues so readily with an audience in Athens from a studio in New England if it weren’t for the internet!

I had the opportunity to spend some time at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and I always loved their motto.  Esse quam videri.  To be, rather than to appear to be.  There’s a reason scratchy recordings of Robert Johnson in a hotel room with an acoustic guitar and a bottleneck have such power even after 75 years, while watered down imitations of the true innovators fail to deliver the same punch.  I think it’s every young artist’s responsibility to work their hardest to promote the tradition, say new things with unique voices, and get as many people back experiencing great blues music as possible.  That’s our mission.  Fuel the demand for truly great art and infrastructure to support it, and the booms like we’ve seen in the past will occur exponentially producing the caliber of artists and breadth of audience we wish to see all around us.

What the difference and similarity between the ACOUSTIC FOLK BLUES and MODERN ELECTRIC BLUES?

I’ve been playing solo a lot lately and feel such power with a single acoustic instrument and voice that rivals any experience I’ve had playing with an entire band.  I think the acoustic folk blues you can hear is most naked and lean, and therefore has even more potential to deliver truth to people without distraction.  It’s an opportunity for a more unfiltered presentation, and that intimacy can really get to people in a magical way.

The joy and excitement in a modern electric blues setting is unrivaled, however.  The thrill and chill of a singing bent note on the electric guitar, the visceral growl of an organ tearing into you, and the feeling of a bumping freight train bearing down on you in the form of a shuffling rhythm section can’t be understated.  I love each medium, and I’m thankful to be able to work in both.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jams I've ever played in are at The MET back home in Rhode Island.  My dad and I host every once in a while, my uncle Billy French comes over from Hartford to play guitar with us, Aaron sits in on drums, and we get to have all our friends there to play our favorite tunes with us.  Last time a buddy brought his Rhodes and I played slide most of the night, nothing like a great night of blues with a packed house of people excited to be there.  Probably the most memorable gigs I've had are the ones where something in the situation demands a quick rise to the occasion and adrenaline takes over.  When you’re thrown in the pool to sink or swim I think the best in you comes out.  You’re free from any deliberation onstage that can keep you from connecting and performing in the moment.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Blues is the foundation.  It’s intrinsically woven into the fabric of Jazz, Soul, R&B, Rock & Roll, Funk, Hip Hop, etc.  The blues shows up in art, in literature, in food.  Blues is such an ingrained part of culture and society in the places it has found footing, that it’d be impossible to remove its influence.  As long as someone, somewhere knows how to play the blues, another person is going to hear it and be transformed- arrested by this beautiful music we love.  They’ll be driven to make and celebrate it themselves and the blues will live on.

Do you know why the sound of slide and resonator guitar is connected to the blues?

That sound, it just gets inside you and clangs around while it lifts you up.  I love it.  I acquired a National resonator a couple of years ago, and I have trouble putting it down every time I pick it up.  I think that raw buzz, peal and bark of a resonator played with a bottleneck is so connected to the blues because it so deftly brings to life the sentiment inside the performer.  I think the old bluesmen who first picked them up must have instinctively known that, and that’s why they became such a popular staple.

Make an account of the case of the blues in New England. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

There is a heavy love of the blues here in my region.  I know Boston has a rich history of famous blues performers, many of whom still live around the area.  Some of the greatest practitioners of the blues are lesser known local artists I grew up loving who have kept blues alive in their towns for years.  Tommy Ferraro is one of my favorites in Providence, Dennis Brennan is a troubadour extraordinaire up in Cambridge, and I can’t believe some of the folk-blues and country-blues artists I’ve seen at open mics and jams in Maine, Connecticut and New York.  I think the most interesting period in the scene so far must have been in the seventies when it sounds like the most well attended, live blues-rooted music was going on.  I have a good feeling that right about now a storm is brewing and the scene is going to be more active than ever though.  Younger folks knowing music history are making their own contributions.  Independent labels and promoters are encouraging the market for great music for the sake of great music.  Venues and audiences are thirsty and starting to demand the real deal on every level.

What is your music DREAM and NIGHTMARE? Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

My musical dream is to play with all my heroes at a festival I put together like Clapton's Crossroads but that would raise money for the treatment of cancer.  My musical nightmare would be to lose my voice, hearing, or hands.  Basically if I couldn't play or hear music anymore, that'd be the worst thing that could happen to me.  Historical music personalities I'd most like to meet if time and space were not an issue would have to include Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Chris Whitley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Les Paul, Willie Dixon, Zappa, Miles and Coltrane.  Also pretty much everyone who performed at Woodstock, Monterey Pop, or Bill Graham’s Fillmore venues in the 60’s and 70’s!  I get a lot of inspiration from writers and poets so I’d also love to sit down with authors like Herman Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, E.E. Cummings, and John Steinbeck.  I’m also a big fan of more modern culture cowboys, artists, and entrepreneurs from Derek Sivers to Shepard Fairey.

What are Eric French’s hopes and Mr. Hyde’s fears on the future of Blues?

Well I’m both guys, and I guess we’re all the optimist and the pessimist at one time or another.  I hope the blues experiences another renaissance like it did when all the British guitarists extolled the virtues of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf.  I hope our music gets a bump like when Stevie Ray Vaughan brought a Texas shuffle from Austin to the whole world and helped a swath of great artists in the eighties come up in the wake of his success.  I hope for great practitioners, great songs, and great respect for the craft from artists, audiences, and producers/ promoters/ engineers/ DJs that carry the tradition forward.

I fear the next great blues artists coming down the pipe could be drowned out by high octane clones of artists we’ve already seen.  I fear talented music students are neglecting to study the music that forms the basic building blocks of so many other popular contemporary styles and therefore losing that element that is essential to the spark of great music in the first place.  I fear big chain instrument stores watering down the blues into a marketing campaign in order to sell more guitars.  Most of all I fear not doing enough on my part to preserve the future of the blues, but I’ll do my best.  We’re all here to do our part to keep the blues alive, and that’s only fair considering how much blues music adds to all of our lives whether we know it or not.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Kings (Albert, BB and Freddie) with Rockin SRV and beyond?

It's a tradition people are drawn to and accept like a religion because nothing else can synthesize the feeling the blues produces.  It’s a mantle handed down, sometimes directly and sometimes through records and radio-waves over large expanses of land and water.  I think each of these legendary artists committed to taking up their craft and mission like any warrior or evangelist, and through their work inspires each successive generation of artists to dedicate themselves to doing the same.

What would you say to Tom Petty? How you would spend a day with Hendrix? What would you ask Bob Dylan?

I'd say thanks to Tom Petty for writing all those killer tunes and for such a great example of how to lead a band.  He showcases everyone who plays with him, and I really love doing that as well.  I'd want to spend a day with Hendrix in the recording studio, but I'd just follow his lead once night fell... then I’d really get a story to tell.  I would ask Dylan who the hell did he think he was?  I love his confidence as an artist when he was such a young man.

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