A Conversation with Eric Sommer

You mentioned being captivated by the sitar sound on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How did that influence your own music when you returned to the US?

Being captivated by the sitar sound on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band could have been what sparked a profound interest in incorporating unconventional and culturally diverse elements into my own music upon returning to the US. Perhaps I sought to experiment with incorporating non-traditional instruments or sounds from different cultures into my compositions, aiming to create a unique fusion of styles.
So much of this was on a subconscious level – as a young child I wandered all over SE Asia with my mom and dad, through Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Singapore and northern India, and I was exposed to the traditional music, especially what was played in the temples. It just seeped into me and became – and has become – part of my being and who I am.
Sure, I might have delved into studying various world music traditions, learning about different instruments, scales, and rhythms on my own, but my exposure at such a young age made it inevitable. This exploration and continual exposure enriched my musical palette and offered me new avenues for creative expression.
Additionally, the sitar’s distinctive timbre and melodic possibilities might have inspired me to explore alternative tunings, experiment with modal melodies, or incorporate intricate melodic patterns into your compositions. St. Joseph’s College took my Sitar away from me on the night I arrived, convinced such an instrument was outside of the realm of a serious Jesuit education. Who knows what I could have created if they had only encouraged my interest?
Overall, my fascination with the sitar sound on Sgt. Pepper’s could have been the catalyst, and influenced a broader exploration of global musical influences in my own work, leading to a more diverse and eclectic musical style.

Your time in various countries seems to have exposed you to a wide array of musical styles. Can you share how those diverse cultural influences shape your songwriting process?

The time I spent in various countries likely exposed me to a rich tapestry of musical styles, from the traditional folk music of rural communities to the urban sounds of bustling, chaotic cities such as Bangkok, Singapore, Calcutta and Hong Kong. Each culture I encountered had its own unique musical traditions, instruments, rhythms, and melodies, offering me a diverse array of sonic experiences to draw inspiration from.
These cultural influences profoundly shaped my songwriting process in several ways:
Melodic Inspiration: Exposure to diverse musical styles provides me with a wide range of melodic inspiration. I might find myself drawn to the lilting melodies of Celtic folk music, the intricate rhythms of African drumming, or the modal scales of Indian classical music. Integrating these diverse melodic elements into my songwriting infused my compositions with freshness and originality, but it was exposure to the people that shaped my narratives and guided my social commentary.

Rhythmic Complexity: Different cultures have distinct rhythmic traditions, ranging from the syncopated grooves of Latin America to the complex polyrhythms of West Africa. Immersing myself in these rhythms expanded my rhythmic vocabulary and infused my songs with dynamic energy and complexity.

Instrumentation: Exposure to a wide array of traditional instruments from around the world can inspire you to incorporate unconventional sounds into your music. That’s exactly what happened. Whether it’s the haunting tones of the duduk from Armenia, the percussive beats of the tabla from India, or the rhythmic strumming of the charango from South America, integrating these diverse instruments can add texture and depth to your compositions.

Lyricism and Themes: Cultural experiences can also influence the themes and lyrical content of my songs. My time abroad may have exposed me to different social, political, and environmental issues, as well as unique cultural perspectives and storytelling traditions. Drawing on these experiences enriched the lyrical depth of my music and offers listeners a glimpse into diverse cultural narratives I have always tried to authentically portray.
Overall, my exposure to a wide array of musical styles and cultural influences enriched my songwriting process by expanding my musical palette, inspiring creativity, and infusing my compositions with a sense of global interconnectedness. Embracing these diverse influences allows me to create music that is both deeply personal and universally resonant.

Transitioning from the punk/new wave scene to a more acoustic-focused sound in Washington DC must have been quite a shift. What prompted that change, and how did it affect your approach to music?

I was very attached to the punk/new wave scene, but the acoustic/folk environment was where I came from, and my evolution to a more acoustic-focused sound in Washington DC was a natural and significant shift in both my musical style and my creative approach.
Several factors prompted this change:
Musical Evolution: As an artist, I felt the need to explore new musical territories and evolve my sound beyond the confines of punk and new wave. Acoustic music offers a different sonic palette, emphasizing organic instrumentation and stripped-down arrangements, which can allow for greater emotional depth and intimacy in my own compositions.

Exploration of Folk Traditions: Washington DC has a rich folk music tradition, and immersing myself in this scene sparked a renewed interest in acoustic and folk-inspired music. Folk music often emphasizes storytelling, social commentary, and raw emotional expression, providing a platform for me to explore new lyrical themes and musical approaches. I loved it!

Desire for Authenticity: The punk and new wave movements of the 1970s and 1980s were characterized by their DIY ethos and rebellion against mainstream conventions. However, as time passed, I felt a bit constrained by the sometimes limited musical options available in the punk scene. I had a strong desire to explore more authentic and introspective modes of expression, which acoustic music often facilitates through its emphasis on sincerity and vulnerability.

Collaborative Opportunities: Transitioning to a more acoustic-focused sound opened up new collaborative opportunities for me with musicians in the Washington DC area who shared my interest in folk and acoustic music. I am not the easiest person to co-write with but collaborating with like-minded artists did enrich my creative process and inspire me, and it opened new musical directions.

I felt I wrote some of my most representative material in my DC years – material I still perform today because it has relevance and it’s authentic and it has evolved along with my audience.
This shift affected my approach to music in several ways, and it’s easy to look back on it and dissect it now, from afar, but it was a struggle and was very difficult and uncomfortable to make that transition then. This shift forced me to place my attention on three areas I’d neglected a bit
Emphasis on Songcraft: Acoustic music often places a greater emphasis on songwriting and lyricism. Transitioning to this style encouraged me to hone my songwriting skills, focusing on crafting memorable melodies, evocative lyrics, and more resonant and compelling narratives.
Exploration of Dynamics: Acoustic music gives me greater dynamic range and subtlety, especially when compared to the high-energy, electric-driven sound of punk and new wave. This shift may have prompted me to explore different nuances of expression, experimenting with dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation to convey a wider range of emotions in my music.
Connection with Audience: Acoustic music has a more intimate and immediate quality that fosters a deeper connection between the artist and the audience. Transitioning to this style allowed me to engage more directly with my listeners, creating a shared emotional experience through my musical expressions.
Overall, transitioning from the punk/new wave scene to a more acoustic-focused sound in Washington DC likely represented a natural evolution in my artistic journey, allowing me to explore new musical horizons, connect with different audiences, and express myself in more nuanced and introspective ways.

You mentioned overcoming writer’s block by entering an « alpha state. » Could you elaborate on how you cultivate that state of mind, especially during times of creative
struggle?

Entering an « alpha state » can be a powerful technique for overcoming writer’s block and tapping into your creativity. We all need inspiration and ways to get out of this “writer’s block” and I learned how to do this most effectively from reading Quincy Jones book “On Producing” and then working hard to incorporate his ideas into my life.
This state of mind, often associated with relaxation and increased mental receptivity, allows you to access your subconscious mind and unleash your creative potential. Here’s how I cultivate an alpha state, particularly during times of creative struggle:
Relaxation Techniques: Begin by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation. These techniques help quiet the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and create a conducive environment for creativity to flow.
Create a Ritual: Establishing a creative ritual can help signal to your brain that it’s time to enter a state of openness and receptivity. This could involve lighting a candle, brewing a cup of tea, or listening to calming music before you begin your creative work.

Mindfulness Practice: Cultivate mindfulness by staying present and focused on the task at hand. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing them to come and go as you maintain a sense of inner calm. Mindfulness can help quiet the mental chatter that often accompanies writer’s block and allow creative ideas to surface more easily.

Engage in Free Writing or Brainstorming: Set aside dedicated time for free writing or brainstorming sessions where you allow yourself to write without judgment or inhibition. Write down whatever comes to mind, even if it seems nonsensical or unrelated to your current project. This can help loosen up your creativity and bypass the inner critic that often contributes to writer’s block.

Immerse Yourself in Inspiration: Surround yourself with sources of inspiration that resonate with you, whether it’s music, literature, visual art, nature, or conversation with other creative individuals. Immerse yourself in these sources of inspiration to stimulate your imagination and generate new ideas.

Change Your Environment: Sometimes, a change of scenery can help shift your perspective and break through creative blocks. Take a walk outdoors, visit a new cafe, or work in a different room to stimulate your senses and inspire fresh ideas.

Embrace Playfulness and Experimentation: Approach your creative work with a spirit of playfulness and experimentation. Allow yourself to take risks, try new techniques, and explore unconventional ideas without worrying about perfection or judgment. This mindset can help unlock hidden reservoirs of creativity and innovation.
I had to work on this list, develop it and get so it comes easily and naturally. Leonard Bernstein also had a few well-developed techniques, but keep in mind that you need to find just the right one or combination of exercises that will work for you.
By incorporating these strategies into your creative process, you can cultivate an alpha state that fosters creativity, inspiration, and flow, enabling you to overcome writer’s block and unleash your full creative potential.

You’ve toured extensively and played with notable acts like Little Feat and The Pretenders. Is there a particular moment from your touring days that stands out as the most memorable or impactful?

I have been at this for a good bit of my life, and I have done so many shows that each one is a gem to me – I learn something from each and every time I am on stage.

I have picked up so much good advice from everyone from John Lee Hooker to one of the gas station guys in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that I can’t list them all. I put them all in my head, let them rumble around for a while, and the ones I need to pay attention will always rise to the top, stay in the center, and the less important ones will spin off into the universe for someone else to grab. Here are two that have stayed with me: “If you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast” from Pat Martino, Blues Alley, Washington, DC and “It’s never the guitar, it’s always the player” John Lee Hooker, The Catacombs, Boston.

And the others might be just things I have picked up over the years: you must love what you are doing and get up every day and try to make a difference. I try to improve just 1% daily in anything I am doing.

Every time I am on stage, playing either as a solo or with an ensemble, there are many, many moments that stand out – moments that slip by in a flash, moments that rush past you as they run down the hallways and the backroads, but are so memorable they stay with you long after the lights go up and the place is empty. Each one of these moments is a heartbeat, and they keep me alive and focused and “in the moment” and are a continuing affirmation as to why I am here.

They are all special moments – collectively I can’t pull them apart or single one out as more outstanding than the rest. They are all important, all very special, all very meaningful and when taken all together, they are the fabric of my life with music.

These moments are milestones on my road to getting a better understanding of the music, and how live performance and musical presentations are all connected and are all part of the journey.

With such a diverse range of musical influences, do you find it challenging to maintain a cohesive sound across your discography, or do you embrace the eclectic nature of your music?

Having a diverse range of musical influences can indeed present challenges when it comes to maintaining a cohesive sound across my discography. Each influence brings its own unique sonic palette, stylistic elements, and cultural nuances, which can sometimes lead to a sense of fragmentation or inconsistency in my music. However, I choose to embrace the eclectic nature of my musical influences rather than view it as a hindrance.
Embracing eclecticism allows me to celebrate the diversity of musical traditions and genres that have shaped my artistic journey. Rather than adhering to rigid stylistic boundaries, I see my music as a reflection of my multifaceted identity and experiences. I believe that embracing eclecticism enriches my creative expression, enabling me to explore a wide range of sounds, textures, and themes in my music.
While maintaining a cohesive sound across my discography is important, I believe that cohesion can exist on a deeper level beyond surface-level stylistic consistency. It can emerge through thematic connections, emotional resonance, and a distinctive artistic voice that transcends genre boundaries. By staying true to my creative vision and allowing my diverse influences to coexist harmoniously, I strive to create music that is both cohesive and authentically reflective of my eclectic musical journey.

Your approach to venues is quite open-minded, appreciating the unique qualities of each. Are there any venues or locations that hold a special significance for you, perhaps where you’ve had particularly transformative performances?

Indeed, my approach to venues is exactly that: open-minded, appreciating the unique qualities and atmospheres that each one offers. While there are many venues and locations that hold special significance for me, there are a few that stand out due to the transformative experiences I’ve had while performing there.
One such venue is a small, intimate café in Memphis, called the P&H Cafe, tucked away in the outskirts of a bustling city. The warmth of its dimly lit interior and the close proximity of the audience create an incredibly intimate and immersive atmosphere. It was here that I had a performance that felt truly transformative. As I played my set, I felt a deep connection with the audience, each note resonating with emotional depth and authenticity. The energy in the room was palpable, and there was a sense of shared experience that transcended the boundaries between performer and audience. It was a moment of profound connection and artistic fulfillment that left a lasting impression on me.
Another location that holds special significance is an outdoor amphitheater nestled amidst towering trees and lush greenery. This Boston landmark is a gem and remains a perfect acoustical experience, sitting between Berklee College of Music, Symphony Hall, and The New England Conservatory. Performing in this natural setting, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world, is a deeply inspiring experience. The sounds of birdsong and rustling leaves mingle with the music, creating a magical ambiance that enhances the performance. It’s a place where I feel deeply connected to both the music and the environment, and where I’ve had performances that feel almost transcendent in their beauty and emotional resonance.
Finally, there’s a historic theater with ornate architecture and a rich cultural legacy that holds a special place in my heart. It’s located in Terlingua, Texas and is a historic and beautiful high desert performance venue. Stepping onto its stage feels like stepping back in time, and there’s a sense of reverence and awe that comes with performing in such a storied venue. It’s a place where I’ve had the opportunity to share my music with diverse audiences and to be part of a tradition that spans generations.
These venues, each unique in its own way, have played a significant role in shaping my artistic journey and have provided the backdrop for some of my most memorable and transformative performances. They remind me of the power of music to create connection, inspire emotion, and transcend boundaries, and they serve as constant sources of inspiration and artistic renewal.

If you were to collaborate with any artist, living or deceased, who would be your dream collaboration and why?

My dream collaboration would undoubtedly be with Quincy Jones. His influence on the music industry is unparalleled, having worked with icons from various genres, shaping the sound of generations. Jones’ ability to blend different styles seamlessly and his knack for discovering and nurturing talent are awe-inspiring. Collaborating with him would not only be a masterclass in music production but also an incredible opportunity to learn from a true visionary. Together, we could explore new sonic territories, infuse fresh ideas into established genres, and create music that resonates deeply with people from all walks of life. It would be a dream come true to work alongside such a legendary figure and contribute to his legacy of musical innovation and excellence.

You’ve mentioned finding inspiration from a variety of sources, including literature and other art forms. How do you integrate those influences into your songwriting process?

For me, inspiration is a mosaic crafted from the myriad of experiences, emotions, and observations that life offers. Literature, art, and diverse forms of expression are like vibrant colors on this canvas, each adding depth and texture to my creative process, particularly in songwriting.
When I delve into literature, I immerse myself in the intricacies of storytelling, exploring the nuances of character, emotion, and narrative arc. From classic novels to contemporary poetry, each piece offers a unique perspective and a treasure trove of themes and motifs waiting to be discovered. These literary journeys often spark melodies in my mind, or they might plant the seeds of a lyrical concept that resonates deeply with me. One result of this immersive approach are these narratives: Http://www.ericsommer.com/the-twilight-narratives
Similarly, other art forms such as painting, sculpture, or cinema, offer rich wellsprings of inspiration. The interplay of colors in a masterpiece, the evocative imagery of a film, or the raw emotion captured in a sculpture—all of these can stir something profound within me, igniting creative sparks that find their way into my music.
Integrating these influences into my songwriting process is a fluid and intuitive endeavor. Trust me, I do not have the answers, just the answers for me.Sometimes, it’s a direct infusion, where a specific passage from a book or a visual motif becomes the focal point of a song. Other times, it’s more subtle, where the essence of a story or the mood of a painting permeates the atmosphere of a piece, imbuing it with layers of meaning and emotion.
Ultimately, drawing from literature and other art forms enriches my songwriting by expanding my perspective, fostering empathy, and inviting a deeper exploration of the human experience. It’s about tapping into the universal truths and timeless themes that resonate across different mediums, weaving them into the fabric of my music to create something that feels authentic, resonant, and profoundly human.

Your recent song « Boom Boom Titty » sounds like a lively, spontaneous creation. Can you walk us through your creative process for that song, from the initial spark of inspiration to its recording and eventual release?

It’s amazing what inspiration, happenstance, a little pressure, and the time clock can do to you! I was playing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at a place called The Mousetrap and I had almost finished for the night, still had a few minutes and I made it up on the spot.

A few years later I was playing in Knoxville, Tennessee and the time seemed right for a fun song in front of a great audience and pulled it out and played it loud and with reckless abandon and it was a little more fully formed and it worked pretty well!

It was a rough outline, but it had the groove and a few bits of the chorus, and it went. Fast forward 6 years and I was putting together a new record and wrote out the words in the studio, put the slide guitar part down and we engineered a drum groove from playing a few shots of snare, a kick and we mixed it all together and there it was. I love this arrangement because it uses my limited harmonica skills to great effect!!