Earl St. Clair’s Southern charm can’t help but make us feel like we were lounging out on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Alabama countryside. Last Tuesday, The B-Side had the opportunity to interview Earl St. Clair. The Cleveland-born but Southern-raised St. Clair has performed “Perfect” with Bibi Bourelly on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and has been featured on Avicii’s funky “Pure Grinding.” His first single, “Man on Fire,” showcases his gravelly, raspy vocals and timeless, soulful sound that we can’t wait to hear more of in his upcoming debut album, Songs About a Girl I Used to Know. Read on for his words about his musical path, following your dreams, and resisting the temptation of waffles.
Congrats on your TV debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert! How did you meet Bibi Bourelly, and how did you guys come up with “Perfect?”
We met last November 2014, and she came into the studio with another writer for a session. Back then, I was strictly producing and wasn’t even thinking about being an artist. I was a working with another writer when Bibi came into the studio while I was playing two beats that I sang on — one was called “Magic” and another called “Dangerous.” You know how Bibi is. “Bro! What the fuck, bro? What are you doing?! Why aren’t you singing songs, bro!? Let’s do a song today!”
Usually, I like to set studio sessions at least day in advance, but that day I was like, fuck it, let’s do something different. So we did a song called, “Go Back.” We might release it, we’re not sure yet. I left after my mom passed away, and while I was gone, Bibi showed my music to other artists who wanted to work with me, so I finally came back [to the studio] and started working strictly as an artist.
Later on that year, we had a session were talking about boyfriends, girlfriends, the shit they do, how they think they’re perfect and how they try to play a perfect role like they never did nothing wrong and they take anything they ever did wrong to the grave. Our producer played a beat, and we were like, “Stop it! That’s it right there!” and we wrote out our conversation. That’s pretty much how we work — we just write our conversations and write out our lives because music, to us, is never cookie cutter with whimsical lines. The song is based on our experiences and what we were experiencing at the time. That’s how “Perfect” came along.
Your music has a timeless and classic sound and is clearly influenced by James Brown, Ray Charles, etc. Who would you say are your favorite modern artists who influence you?
James Brown is one of the people I model myself around in a lot of different ways – he’s one of the greatest of all time. For modern artists, I’d say Andre 3000, CeeLo Green, and Kanye West.
How did your musical style evolve from when you were working with hip-hop artists in school compared to the music you’re releasing soon?
The style changed just by me not physically producing it, and the music becoming live and organic instead of computerized and digital. It wasn’t really hard to switch over because it’s all about the groove of the music and what you fit in with. With rap, hip hop, and trap, there a certain groove you can fit in, and I still use that groove, which I use to produce for artists and for myself when I’m singing. The only thing about the music that changed was putting my own voice on the records.
Can you tell us what experience or who inspired the record “Man on Fire?”
“Man on Fire” was inspired by a woman who is not the same woman as she is today. She was dating someone new during one of our breaks, and I was on fire! I was mad! I was mad as shit!
When I say “I’m on fire,” I mean I was upset and my temperature was boiling! The day I went in for a session was the day I found out and that’s how the song came about. My heart shot off my chest, like stop, drop and roll. Everything that I write about in my music comes from an interaction or an experience that I have been through or am currently going through. It’s hard for me to write about anything outside of that. That doesn’t make me a good writer because I’m not able to step outside what I go through, so everything you hear in my music is true.
What message do you want listeners and fans to take away from your upcoming album, Songs About a Girl I Used to Know?
Take away that no matter what you’re currently going through, it’s going to get better. You have to get through a lot of dark before you can get to the light – and this is what the album represents. The timeline of the album are the years 2009 to 2011, and now here, in 2016, I am a signed artist telling you the story…I am living proof that it’s gonna be alright. To be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to have someone cheering you on, and I want to be that person. I made it through the tunnel, and I want to get others through it too.
There are a lot of aspiring producers and musicians at Berkeley who’d love to hear any advice you have to give. Do you have anything to share?
Don’t stop; follow your dreams; follow you. Don’t follow somebody else’s dreams, follow yours ’cause as long as you do that, you’re gonna be heading in the right direction and you gon’ get there. I believe being true to yourself and following your dreams is, like, the key to happiness. If you wake up and have to work somewhere and have a boss you really don’t wanna have, and a job you really don’t wanna do, you’re not gonna be happy. But if you’re staying on your friend’s couch, getting up every day to get in the studio to make 45 beats in the hopes that you can sell some of them to pay your friend for staying on his couch, you’re gonna be happy doing that. Because you’re doing something that you love. Don’t get lost on the “have to,” especially, is what I would like to say. Don’t think you have to work a job in order to be successful…you can create your own job.
Could you tell us about how growing up in the South influenced you musically?
I was born in Cleveland and grew up in Alabama. Being down there, you pick up a lot of the South. All my uncles and aunties listened to was Al Green, Otis Redding, Isley Brothers, B. B. King — they work during the week, but on the weekends they go out to the shed and turn on the music, and in the country there’s nothing but trees and open space, so you hear the music playing loud and clear. You wake up, smell the food, auntie’s out there cooking bacon and biscuits and uncle’s out there cutting the grass while Al Green is playing, so you pick up a certain element from it…even how people are down there.
People down there I wanna say are more welcoming, so it kinda prepares you for the places that aren’t as welcoming like big cities like New York. I was afraid of New York for a long time, but you learn how to deal with it by being welcoming to people before they’re welcoming to you. The music down there, you get all the Southern artists — every car you get in, they playin’ Outkast or they playing Drama. So me being able to get a balance of both Southern music and music from up North kinda inspired me to be a weird combination of music, I would like to say. I really appreciate Alabama for that.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working on your music? What do you for fun?
*laughs hard* That’s a good question. This is such a good question. Um. Jeez. Well, when I’m not working, I take my daughter and my family out. And this is a hard question because I don’t really do anything besides work. Horseback riding, Six Flags, Legoland, Universal Studios, magical stuff like that. I like to cook, and I also like to travel. I like to see new places I haven’t seen. I haven’t had a chance to do much of it yet. Hit the gym, but that’s every day. That’s not even spare time. The gym is mandatory. The gym is…health is wealth, people.
That’s another thing, health is wealth. You know, that’s one thing I want to add to the last question, health is wealth – pleeease don’t eat 15,000 Belgian waffles at the lunch when they don’t limit it cause you got the food court. DON’T DO THAT. BE HEALTHY PLEASE. Health is wealth. Losing that Freshman 15 is hard. Please don’t do it. PLEASE don’t do it. Yeah man, that’s what I like to do…I like to cook. I love going to see new movies. There’s a lot of stuff that I’d like to do that I don’t get to do even when I have time ’cause I have a family. Most importantly, spending time with my family and friends as much as I can.
Interview by Kenneth Zhang and Debbie Zheng