Inspirational folk-rock singer-songwriter Eric H. F. Law released his latest album, Recreate, not long ago. Although the album speaks on themes ranging from the January 6, 2021, insurrection to the killing of George Floyd, the all-pervasive theme is a belief in the power of love to transmute any lower energies and provide renewal.
Law explains, “‘Recreate’ is a collection of songs that invites listeners to enter deeper into ‘why’ horrible things happened in our country and communities. Instead of angry songs of complaints that leave listeners overwhelmed and paralyzed, ‘Recreate’ invites discernments that lead to a spirit of action rooted in our identity as human beings with memory of respect and kindness, with eyes that can see great things in the small and with a common connection to the LOVE that is our true identity – I love therefore I am.”
Eric H. F. Law mines current events in an often-frightening world, while simultaneously turning within for clarity, wisdom, and hope. Eric’s authentic creative approach is inspired by a long lineage of great storytellers such as Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, and Daniel Lanois.
Ultimately, it is Eric H. F. Law’s mission as an artist to look at and understand the darkness in order to bring about the light of awareness and understanding.
Tattoo.com spoke with Eric H. F. Law to find out how he got started in music, his definition of tone, and his writing process.
What inspired your album, Recreate?
I am always inspired by contemporary issues. I want to respond to these issues with songs of healing, justice, and peace. In the last few years, there was no shortage of issues to address: amidst the pandemic, racial tension was heating up and people in the U.S. continued to be polarized made worst by the presidential election and subsequent attack on the capital on January 6, 2021. I used to write depressing songs naming the problems and not providing solutions or hope. Since the release of my previous album ‘Better Angels,’ I was determined to create a suite of songs that move toward the positive, energizing, and hopeful. You may call me naïve given the state of our nation these days. People either avoid dealing with these difficult issues or they jump into the fire of polarization by taking sides and pointing finger at the other side. The inspiration for ‘Recreate’ is to create a gracious in-between space musically so people can get some rest from the tension and exhaustion induced by the extreme polarization and hopefully emerge from the other side of my songs with hope, courage, and grace to recreate another gracious day. This is not only possible, but it is happening in different parts of the country facilitated by some very dedicated organizations like Braver Angels and the Kaleidoscope Institute.
How did you get started in music?
My parents owned and operated a music school first in Hong Kong and then in Chinatown, New York City. I grew up surrounded by music. But the moment I listened to a Peter, Paul and Mary album, I knew that this music was something that I could learn quickly and share. (I was tired of all the endless practicing sessions on the piano to prepare for a recital. I am the kind of musician who needed immediate gratification.) So, I learned to sing and play ‘500 Miles.’ I was singing ‘This Land is Your Land’ in Hong Kong without knowing the meaning and context of this song until I arrived in New York City in 1970 at the age of 14. Suddenly this music I learned and loved had a context. I had a singing partner in high school, Simon Chan, and together we sang covers of John Denver, Jim Croce, Don Maclean, and Tom Paxton songs. I began to make up songs about my Chinese immigrant experience – story songs modeled after Harry Chapin. They weren’t great songs to my present-day standard, but they were authentic, and we were invited to perform all over Manhattan and local radio stations. Since then, I have never stopped using my music, to tell the truth about people’s experiences and to inspire actions for healing and justice for the underserved and for the earth.
Did your sound evolve naturally, or did you deliberately push it in a certain direction?
I had always thought of myself as a folk singer. I did deliberately try to move beyond the simplicity of the folk music form and infused some jazz elements, especially in the 1980s when I had a lot more opportunities to test out my music and artistry with live audiences in the Boston area. The jazz influence is still in my music today, especially in ‘Recreate.’ When working on the last two albums, Dan Cole, my arranger, and guitarist, pushed me out of the folk genre and insisted that I was actually a folk-rock artist. One of the reviewers of my last album called me an inspirational folk-rock singer. I guess that’s kind of an accurate musical space where I stand and play in my recording work. But it’s always nice to come home to the good old folk genre which forces me to write deceptively simple but powerful and engaging lyrics. You will hear that in my next album.
How do you keep your sound fresh, and avoid falling into the trap of imitating either yourself or others?
Every songwriter has their signature in every song they write. It may be a musical phrase, a chord progression, or a rhythmic motif. So, I have mine. If a song began with a lyrical idea, I usually used a very basic musical progression of mine to work through the verses and the chorus. If I kept these musical motifs, the song would sound like many other of my songs. However, while I was working on the lyrics, I would be listening to a wide variety of music – classical, jazz, country, R&B. Sometimes, I would select a particular artist and listen to a whole repertoire of that artist’s songs. In the listening, I usually broke out of my musical world and found innovation that would infuse in the form I had created, and eventually, a song would take shape with the kind of freshness that I was looking for.
I also facilitate two songwriter peer-feedback groups online every month: one for the People’s Music Network and one for Braver Angeles. Sharing a song in progress with these wonderful amazing talented songwriters gave me insight into how to reshape, rewrite and make the song better, fresh, and relevant. All the songs from ‘Recreate’ had gone through these peer-feedback processes. For the Braver Angels group, we were particularly interested in helping one another write songs that can help depolarize Americans – a tall order but worth exploring. You can see the influence of this group in songs like ‘Winner-Loser,’ ‘Recreate’ and ‘Hold On-Reach Out’ in this album.
How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
I restarted my musical ‘career’ at the beginning of the pandemic. I actually had a whole plan to travel and perform in order to promote my album – ‘Up-Side-Down Town.’ But the shutdown put an end to that plan. So, I explored performing and sharing through the internet, starting a songwriting feedback group, going to online song swaps, and doing online concerts. I learned a lot to improve my sound online mostly through Zoom in the first three months of the pandemic shutdown. I am just getting started slowly with more in-person on-stage performances. I just came back from the Braver Angels Convention with over 600 people at which I was on the music team coordinating the music and performing live. It was great to share the same stage with Gangstagrass, Ben Caron, and Micah Christian -the lead singer of Son of Serendib. To sound consistent on stage for me means sound-check, sound check, sound check. Also, get on the stage ahead of time to get the feel of the stage and where things are. And if possible, get a feel of the audience looking out from backstage. I always focus on a group in the middle toward the back of the audience. That’s the people I am singing to and connect with, and make eye contact with. If I can do that, I know I will come through as a performer who cares about the people with whom I share my art.
Are there any special recording techniques you use in the studio?
I rely on Dan Cole, my amazing guitarist, arranger, and engineer for my last three albums. During the pandemic shutdown, we could not be in the studio with all the musicians at the same time. So, Dan would listen to my demo – my guitar and me. We would discuss the sound we wanted to achieve for each song. He then laid the guitar and other essential tracks first. I would record my first draft vocal at home. He then took my vocals and invited each musician to come in individually to record their parts – drums, bass, organ, etc. After all the tracks were laid, I came back to the studio with Dan and re-recorded the vocal. It was a great process. By the time I recorded the final version, I had already rehearsed many times and I could focus on the delivery, the emotion, and the meaning of the songs.
What is your definition of tone? And has your tone changed over time?
Tone for me has to do with the distance I put between me and my listeners through my voice and the use of the microphone. I used to project and sing with great joy and volume since I did a lot of song-leading in church totally unplugged. When I sang like that, I assumed a distance between the audience and me and therefore the high volume and projection. When I was in France learning about radio production, my teacher locked me in the recording studio, and he said that I needed to learn how to sing with a microphone to create intimacy. One of the reviewers of ‘Recreate’ said that my voice was breathy and it worked for these songs. Well, my teacher asked me to whisper one of my songs closely into the microphone. Once I got the hang of it, he then asked me to sing the song again in that tone. When he played back the recording, I realized what he meant about creating intimacy because in real life, one can only hear someone whisper when that person is standing very close. By amplifying the whisper, I can share that closeness with a larger audience. From that day on, I am conscious of the context and sound equipment surrounding me and how to choose the right tone through my voice to create community and intimacy.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
I read at least a poem a day – from classic poets and new ones; poems that rhyme and poems that don’t. Poetry tends to be very dense. Sometimes a 5-line poem can be the inspiration for a whole new song as I unravel the meaning and structure connecting them with contemporary issues. Of course, all of my songs address contemporary issues, so doing accurate research is essential – for example, the list of names in ‘Uneasy Glory’ may roll out of my tongue easily but they came from a considerable amount of time researching people who were killed in the last 30 years. I want my listeners to become interested in finding out more about the stories I was telling and the stories of the people I named. So, poetry and news media, and good research are where I draw my inspiration.
What can you share about your writing process?
The questions I always ask when I have an idea for a song is: why does the world need a song on this topic? Who will listen to it? Is there a song about that already out there? If someone has already written a good one, why not just learn it and do a cover of it? Another question is whose voice is not being heard but important to record and amplify. For example, in ‘Who Tells Us,’ I chose the voices of persons who were at the January 6 protest but became confused as to why they were there and began to question their identity. That’s a voice that has not been heard. I am working on a new album specifically about amplifying the voice of the voiceless. So, finding the voice is key for every song I write. Songwriters are like historians, especially these days when anyone can record and upload their songs on the internet, and they are there forever. We are historians in the sense that we record a moment in time through poetry and sounds and we share these ‘recordings.’ The voices these recordings represent are crucial to sustaining our society which tends to have a very short attention span and short memory. A song stays and a song of truth especially will remain, waiting to be heard and rediscovered. It is no accident that whenever there was cultural change and transformation, the powerful ones who didn’t want change and lost power always went after the artists, banning their writings and songs (in the old, burning books). So, songwriters who care about the transformation of our world for the good of humanity must take our roles as historians seriously and through our art, capture and tell the truth so that they can be heard and retold over time not just for this generation but also for the next. When these gems of truth are discovered in the future, they may energize and move people to act for constructive change in their time and context.
Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?
I had the honor of sharing the stage with Gangstagrass at the Braver Angels Convention in Gettysburg this July. I think they are ‘killing it’ in two ways, their forms – integrating hip-hop with Blue Grass bringing together a diverse fan base, and their content – writing lyrics and choosing songs that put forth challenging messages of hope, justice, and change. Of course, I am still in awe of the older artists who are still performing and writing new conscientious, and challenging songs like Jackson Browne, U-2, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen.
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
Due to personal issues, such as being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, I am not able to travel too much to perform live in the coming years. But I will continue to offer monthly mini-concerts every third Friday of the month at 4 pm online via Zoom. Go to my Patreon account and become a patron of my music-making. There, you will be notified as to what’s coming up – a monthly new song of the month, the mini-concerts, and other events. You can become a producer of my music as well there. Also, join me for the People’s Music Network monthly workshop called ‘If I Had a Song’ where we share new songs and offer each other constructive feedback. You can find that information on the People’s Music Network website. And finally, join me for ‘SongSquare’—a monthly song-sharing time for Braver Angels, where we share and offer support for the writing of songs to depolarize America. At both of these songwriter gatherings, not only will you hear songs I am working on, but you will also hear and enjoy new songs by other amazing songwriters.