Eric Benet is admittedly amused when he reads headlines claiming R&B is back. "The music never went away," says the soft-spoken singer/songwriter. "But now, all of a sudden, it's cool to do the retro-soul thing." Certainly, with new artists like D'Angelo and Tony Rich achieving recent success, the way is more smoothly paved for vocalists like Eric. Yet it wouldn't have mattered to him whether harmony-laden R&B had a home at radio today or not. This is the sound that shaped him as an artist and, living up to the title of his exquisite Warner Bros. debut solo album, True To Myself, Eric Benet has relentlessly pursued his passion for the music.
Indeed, echoes of vintage Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Sly Stone, and other icons of that era can be felt in many of the album's fourteen tracks. There's even a funky remake of the 1973 Sly Stone classic, "If You Want Me To Stay," complete with horns, and bell-bottoms, produced by master funkateer Roger Troutman. Yet throughout True To Myself, Eric manages to put his own contemporary spin on soul music while drawing strength from and paying homage to the great artists of the past.
Just as the album shows several sides to Eric Benet's musical persona, so does his life mirror a dedication to fashioning anew take on a classic sound. He was born in Milwaukee, where he still lives, growing up with his parents and four siblings in a home so filled with music, it was akin to a non-stop opera. "My mother wouldn't just tell us what to do," he recalls. "She would sing, 'Go and clean your roooom!'" Eric's key influences after his own family were the music of the church and the aforementioned R&B stars of the day. "I remember listening to Steve Wonder's Songs In The Key of Life at age eight and being ripped out," he says. Together with his brothers and sisters, Eric developed an ardent love for music and harmonizing that determined his destiny.
Living in the midwest had its share of pros and cons. Says Eric, "It's really a good place to grow up. There's an overall conservative vibe in the midwest that in an ironic way is extremely conducive to the birth of R&B artists." That certainly proved true for Eric, who first gained professional experience as featured singer with a touring Top 40 band. "I Got a chance to experiment," he says of those early days. "We performed everything from pop and rock Eric had been writing songs all along, and together with his sister Lisa and his cousin George Nash, Jr., he formed the band BENET, which released an album on EMI in 1992. Unfortunately, the company was in the middle of corporate upheaval, and BENET was caught in the crossfire, and the album was sadly neglected. "It was pretty traumatic," recalls Eric of the experience, which was followed soon after by the death of his girlfriend. "For a while I was afraid to trust my heart with what I wanted to do. There was a particular kind of music I liked, but because of where radio was at the time I wasn't sure I could getaway with it. Finally I said 'I'm just gonna go home and write the music I like.'"
With True To Myself now done, even an incurable perfectionist like Eric acknowledges a job well done. "I'm pleased," he says. "I tried to interpret the emotions, which is far more important tome than technique." He's also anxiously looking forward to getting back on stage to perform. Above all, however, Eric looks forward to sharing the power of music with others. "There's a healing and empowering element in music people haven't totally tapped into," he says. "I'm trying to put that down on tape, let the music take me to other places and, corny as it sounds, just stay true to myself." As his new album shows, Eric Benet kept his word.