Lee Fields, a 68-year-old soul singer, has a cutting tenor best suited for romantic pleas and songs of supplication. He believes that work is more valuable than ever in a time when public discourse is increasingly characterized by rancor and animosity. “There are so many things happening in the world today that would be seen as contrary to love,” Fields says. “People are becoming a bit removed from regular traditions.” He plans to counteract that with It Rains Love, which is due out April 5.
Fields has been recording intermittently since 1969, though he has never enjoyed anything so conventional as a hit. But he has amassed a small group of devoted fans, including Philippe Lehman and Gabriel Roth, soul aficionados who went from collecting Fields’s vinyl to founding the label Desco and signing Fields as an artist. “They looked on the side of his records — [Fields] pressed most of them himself, so they had the name of the town that he lived in,” explains Leon Michels, who has been playing with and producing Fields for more than 15 years. “They just looked up Lee Fields in Plainfield, New Jersey and gave him a call. Lee picked up the phone and went to the studio that week.”
That might be the most consequential surprise twist for Fields in a career full of them. He recorded an album for Desco, Let’s Get a Groove On, in 1998, and another titled Problems in 2002 for Lehman’s next label, Soul Fire. (Roth went on to co-found Daptone Records, famous for releasing music by Sharon Jones et al.) Problems contained “Honey Dove,” a should-be standard that remains Field’s greatest achievement.
“I’d obsessed over soul records for most of high school — to be in a room with someone who actually sounded like those records was pretty mind-blowing,” recalls Michels, who played multiple instruments on Problems. “It’s a type of singing that doesn’t really exist anymore. Even the way he makes records, it’s obvious he came up in the Sixties and Seventies doing it himself. He still backs off the mic on s’s [recording these can create technical problems], because back in the day you had to do that — there wasn’t a de-esser to put on the voice.”
When Lehman and Michels went on to co-found another New York label obsessed with vintage R&B, Truth & Soul, Fields followed, and when Michels started Big Crown Records in 2016, Fields jumped ship again. His alignment with Desco and its various successors coincided with an unusual late-career turnaround for the singer. In addition to receiving new levels of attention for his own work, Fields’ voice became known to dancers overseas after he collaborated with the French producer Martin Solveig during the end of the French Touch era in the early 2000s. (Fields also worked later with Bob Sinclair, another well known French house producer.)
And due to the choice timbre of Fields’ voice and his unerringly classic arrangements, he found his way to another unexpected group of listeners: young hip-hop-heads. Modern beatmakers searching for a jolt of retro have repeatedly turned to Fields’ records, repurposing them and chopping them up for use in in songs by A$AP Rocky, J. Cole and Jeremih. Travis Scott’s breakout single “Antidote” samples a Fields track, giving the singer his first link to the charts after more than 40 years in the business.
Those same beatmakers will find plenty to work with in It Rains Love: Sharp, chattery beats, meticulous drips of guitar, handsome horn lines, echoey backing vocals. Fields is in his usual form; thanks to a steady regimen of gargling Listerine, he says, “I can still sing songs I recorded in the past in the same key.” In the title track, Michels plugs a pretty swell of strings between the first and second verse, teasing a direction-change that never comes. A hard-to-discern instrument buzzes like a broken doorbell in the background of “Two Faces,” adding a rude thrust to the tender guitar soul. Background singers stalk Fields in “Will I Get Off Easy,” adding gravity to his pleas.
Fields and Michels enjoyed a rare luxury while working on It Rains Love — time. “Lee would come visit me all throughout the winter of last year [at my studio in upstate New York], and he would sleep over a couple days, and we would just write and record,” Michels explains. “That’s different from past records where he would come from Jersey and have to get back before traffic got too bad. And he was off tour. A lot of times it’s like, ‘we need a record by bla-bla-bla because festivals start at this date,’ so you go in the studio and sometimes you have to rush through it. We took our time.”
That helped Fields achieve his primary goal, which he describes as injecting “the theme of love into everything.” “I wanted to assure people that regardless of how humdrum things are today, love keeps everything fresh,” the singer says. He paid extra attention to his lyrics to help avoid cliche. “Sometimes [writing] is a quick process; sometimes I have to sit there and ponder for a while,” Fields adds. “The power of something when it’s said right remains in your mind.”
To that end: “Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing if it rained love everywhere and everybody got wet?” Fields asks. “That would be a beautiful place to live in, where everyone has compassion, everyone is drenched with love. Of course, that’s a dream world. But I can dream, can’t I?”
Lee Fields Tour Dates:
April 12 — Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
April 25 — Utrecht, NE @ Tivoli
April 26 — Berlin, DE @ Columbia Theater
April 28 — Antwerp, BE @ De Roma
April 29 — Paris, FR @ St. Eustache
April 30 — Lille, FR @ Aeronef
May 2 — Cambridge, UK @ The Junction<
May 3 — Manchester, UK @ Academy
May 4 — London, UK @ 02 Shepherds Bush
May 11 — Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
June 7 — Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theater
June 22 — Dover, DE @ Firefly Music Festival
June 28 — Rothbury, MI @ Electric Forest Festival
August 02 — Luhmuhlen, DE @ Summer’s Tale Festival