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Eric Krasno: Leap of Faith

Playing guitar is natural for Krasno. The challenge for his new album, which focuses on vocal tunes rather than instrumentals, was to come up the curve as a singer and, then, frontman. Photo by Jay Sansone

The Soulive and Lettuce guitarist-producer turns singer-songwriter and goes for the soul—plus rock, blues, jazz, and funk—on his new album, Blood from a Stone.

Since his emergence with jam-oriented bands like Lettuce and Soulive in the 1990s, Eric Krasno has built one of the music industry’s most diverse careers. He’s earned popular and peer respect as a producer, songwriter, bandleader, label owner, and—thanks to a fluid style that knows no genre boundaries—guitarist. One title that hasn’t appeared on his CV is lead singer.

Until now. Technically, Blood from a Stone is the Connecticut native’s second solo album. But it’s the first to feature his talents as a singer-songwriter. His solo debut, 2010’s Reminisce, is mainly instrumental.

And fittingly for a guy who’s worked with Norah Jones, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Matisyahu, Aaron Neville, Talib Kweli, 50 Cent, John Scofield, Phil Lesh and Friends, Snoop Dogg, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and many others, the music brings together influences from rock, R&B, hip-hop, and blues—all unified by soulful performances.

If Krasno—a producer for great singers—was hesitant to put his own voice in the spotlight, he needn’t have worried. The strong songwriting, tasteful playing, and deft production that have defined his career so far serve him well as a singer-songwriter. From the opening track, “Waiting on Your Love,” the music pulsates with strong hooks, shimmering sounds, and the kind of organic performances that hearken back to the classic rock and soul of decades past, without sounding retro.

The wah-driven start of “Torture” recalls Hendrix’s Cry of Love-era grooving, while the focused soul of “Jezebel” provides a platform for tastefully melodic blues guitar, leading into the Motown-esque pop of “Unconditional Love,” and beyond. The album’s one instrumental, “Curse Lifter,” is a simmering duet with Krasno’s longtime friend Derek Trucks.

As Krasno explained when we spoke on the phone this summer, the making of Blood from a Stone had its fits and starts, thanks largely to his incredibly busy producing and touring schedule. But the process did more than yield one strong album—it opened yet another creative direction he expects to explore in years to come.

Was it challenging to make the transition from band member and producer to solo artist? Having been a producer on a lot of projects that were different styles, it was hard for me at first to kind of zone in on what style I wanted to represent on my own album. I feel like we have elements of all of it in there. But that was an interesting thing with this record. The record covers a lot of different stuff, because I have really eclectic taste.

It was really cool to work with David Gutter, who wrote the entire album with me. He was the lead singer for Rustic Overtones, a popular band in the ’90s. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ve always loved his songwriting style, but he’d never really written for other people. When I started making this record, I had some lyrics written, but I mostly had grooves and ideas. I sent him a couple of my tracks, and he called me and was like, “Aw man, I have [a lyric] for that.” He hit the ground running.

How did the songs come together? I went up to where he lives in Portland, Maine, with the intention of getting some demos together. When we got in the room, it just totally caught fire. We didn’t really sleep for 10 days. We just went hard. And, last minute, we kinda pulled a band together. The London Souls’ drummer, Chris St. Hilaire, was off the road. I knew he would add the right touch to it, so he came up. And Stu Mahan, the bass player—he also played in the Souls at the time—lives in Maine, so he came. We got into the Rustic Overtones’ old rehearsal space and cobbled together gear to take into a studio. We took an old 8-track tape machine and hooked it up to a laptop with ProTools. Most of what you hear on the record was initially recorded that way. What we thought would be demos ended up being tracks on the record.

The musical styles are varied, but the album as a whole has a unified quality. How did you create that? That was the hardest part. We created a bunch of the tracks up in Maine and then I brought Dave down to New York. While this album was being made, I had a million projects that I had to do. I kind of put it on the back burner while I did Lettuce [2015’s Crush] and Soulive. And since the beginning of making this record and now, I’ve produced, like, five other albums for other people. But I picked up a lot of things from other people’s projects, which kind of bled into my project. Even though I was frustrated that I couldn’t finish it, it was good because: a) I added these other elements production-wise, and b) I worked on my vocals.

“The guys I’ve been around, and I can’t escape their influence, are Derek Trucks and John Scofield.”

What inspired you to step out as a lead vocalist on this record? I didn’t go in thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be a singer.” It just kind of happened. Originally, I wasn’t sure I was going to sing lead on the album. I wanted to sing some, but I felt like, “Oh, maybe some other singers will come in. I’ll feature some guests.” I’ve always sung on my demos, and as it evolved, it was like, “These songs are done!The demos are good.” I just needed to nail it a little better in certain cases—but also really develop a [singing] style I can perform live.

Did most of the material grow from that initial Maine session? We recorded about 15 tracks, but I kept recording other ideas, so I had about 30 songs. The songs that didn’t seem right for me were used on other people’s albums. A couple for Tedeschi Trucks, a couple for Aaron Neville, and a couple I’m holding onto for other people. So we have a stack of songs that didn’t make this record for one reason or another.

Now, fast-forward to six months ago or so, and I was hanging out with Jeremy Most, who’s one of my favorite young producers. He produces an artist named Emily King. I listen to her albums religiously and I really wanted some of those elements on the record. Jeremy and I did “On the Rise,” which was one of the last songs I did for the record. And you can hear how that one is very different, approach wise. We did that all pretty much in my apartment, starting with a percussion loop. He added a lot of cool samples and different textures. And when that track was done, I was like, “Oh man, I want to make an album that sounds like this!” But then I also loved all the other songs we had. I played him those and he was like, “Why don’t you just add some of this vibe to the other songs?”

Some of it was just mix stuff and some of it adding new sonic elements. So even though he wasn’t there for 80 percent of the recording, Jeremy helped me finish—take the last lap with it. He sat in on the mix sessions and added background vocals on a bunch of tracks. And, to be honest, I needed someone else to push me to finish. I had everyone pushing me to finish other projects, but no one really pushing me to finish my project. I was doing a billion things and at the time playing gigs a lot with people—so it was good to kind of have someone to push me to bring it home.

Did you find you had to turn off your critical ear while you were recording your own vocals? Well, that was impossible, which is why I had other people around me. I thought my vocals sucked all the time, even to the very, very end, and I was lucky to have friends around just being like, “Dude, it sounds cool.” Now that more people are hearing it, I’m feeling a little better about it. And the other thing is, I’m around these acrobatic singers. Nigel Hall—I also produced his record—can sing anything he thinks of. And I have to be aware of range and where it’s going to feel good. And that’s something I didn’t think about going into writing songs. A lot of songs, I would record them in whatever key, ’cause I was kinda murmuring while playing guitar. And then when I went in to actually sing, I was like, “Aw man, I wish I had done that in Bb instead of D.” But that was actually a good thing for me because it made me stretch out and try different things. And now I’m a little more aware of that when writing for myself. Challenge is good.

Krasno’s live performance schedule and studio work for others slowed down the creation of his new album, but has kept him in the public’s eye since the ’90s, when he co-formed the funk band Lettuce in Boston. Photo by Jay Sansone

Aside from all the singers you’ve worked with, who influenced your vocal style? Have you ever heard of a guy named Lewis Taylor? A long time ago, I heard his album called Stoned Pt. 1. He’s a producer and guitar player, and he sings his ass off and writes great songs.

Stevie Wonder is the pinnacle, but I would say my guitar playing is more influenced by him because I can’t do that with my singing. Donny Hathaway is incredible. I’ve been listening to Tame Impala’s Lonerism. I love the melodies and inflections. I’m a big Beatles fan and love when people bring that into their own work. I love melodies.

Your guitar approach on the album is also less funk based than what we’d expect to hear on, say, a Soulive project. What influenced your approach? I was drawing from my own thing. The guys I’ve been around, and I can’t escape their influence, are Derek Trucks and John Scofield. And from being around the Grateful Dead camp and doing their music … I would not have said this two years ago, but Jerry Garcia was an amazing guitar player. The lyricism of his playing and the way he played over song form, playing for the song and not for the solo, influenced me. I was a huge Zeppelin and Hendrix fan as a kid, so Jimmy Page and Hendrix will always be in there, and, in this album, I kind of go back to those roots more than in any of my other projects.

What equipment did you use? I used the Ibanez AS100 that I’ve had forever. I’m so comfortable on it. I put Lollartron pickups in it and they just scream. I used my new Ibanez signature models toward the end of this record, but the AS100, which was the basis for my models, is what I used on pretty much everything—maybe with a Strat here and there. Right now, my main amp is a Supro Jupiter. I really dig it. It has that naturally overdriven sound. I have a ’65 Super Reverb that I’ll use with the Supro at times. I’ve been trying out a bunch of different pedals. I just refit my whole pedalboard.

Eric Krasno’s Gear

• Ibanez AS100
• 2015 Ibanez EKM100
• 2015 Ibanez EKM10T (with Bigsby)
• Fender Stratocaster

• 2015 Supro Jupiter with Eminence HP12 speaker
• ’65 Fender Super Reverb

• Eventide H9 Harmonizer
• MXR Phase 100
• MXR M300 Reverb
• Dunlop CBM95 Cry Baby Mini Wah
• Supro Fuzz
• Analog Man Block Logo Envelope Filter
• Analog Man King of Tone
• Xotic RC Booster
• Two Dunlop DVP4 volume pedals (one to control expression for the H9; the other for volume)

Strings and Picks
• LaBella HRS-BL Nickel Rounds (.011–.050)
• Dunlop Tortex 1 mm

How did being the frontman influence your guitar playing on the record? When I’m playing on other people’s records, I’m like: “Okay, this is the vibe.” I have some parameters to work with. With this record, it was completely “blow the door open,” which gave me too many options at times [laughs], but most of the time was really fun. That was my favorite part, just trying weird crap. When we were in Maine, we borrowed a few amps and we had a Vibrolux in the corner of a garage cranked, and we had another amp with a bunch of pedals we were swapping in an out. That was really fun. The palette was massive. But the cool thing is, we made all the decisions on the spot. We didn’t say, “Let’s see how this sounds in the mix.” It was more like, “Plug me into three fuzz pedals and a Space Echo and let’s just record it!” The guitar was mostly recorded live with the band. I’m stomping on pedals in the middle of a song and you can hear clicks and weird shit going on—in certain cases buzzing from things. It was messy but fun.

Because you were also singing, did you find playing the guitar—your familiar territory—more liberating? For sure, especially playing solos and lead stuff. Now that I’m putting a band together, getting ready to tour, I actually have a rhythm guitarist [Danny Mayer], which is one of the first times I’ve ever had that. I’m used to doing it all, but I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself while delivering vocals. It’s an interesting thing, actually—figuring out what to play when I’m singing lead. But when I get to just rip, play guitar—yeah, that’s a big relief.

Singing changes how I play, too. I feel like I’m giving it more space, which is a good thing. That’s always my big critique when I hear myself back on a live recording: I play too much. So I feel like having to sing makes me make better choices as a guitar player, give it more space, and be a little more melodic.

Let’s dig into a few songs. What’s the story behind “Waiting on Your Love”? That’s one of the songs I did here in New York. I had a lot of loops of Adam Deitch playing drums, because he’s my favorite drummer. I took a loop of the drums and added Wurlitzer, bass line, synth, and added guitar last. I originally had that [sings] “waiting on your love” hook over a shuffle, but when I started playing that riff over this groove I thought it fit so much better. And the next time Dave came down here, he wrote the verses. Originally, we were going to take that to Aaron, and then I was like, “Man, no. I’ve got to do this.” I put on the guitar and made it grittier.

You’ve mentioned that you wanted a hip-hop feel to “Waiting,” but then “Torture” seems an homage to classic blues-rock. That has a Hendrix vibe. We did that one up in Maine. It goes back to psychedelic blues, too. I’ve always dug when people sing and play the melody together. That was a first-take situation. Dave had written some lyrics, but we hadn’t worked out the phrasing or melody yet. I was in a room with a guitar, and he heard me working it out. He said, “Record that! Record you singing with the guitar playing.” To me, that was the best first take because I was just following the guitar, which is very natural for me. So that’s one of my favorite vocal things. And I realized that was a thing I could do—like cheating a little bit—just following the guitar line with my voice. We wanted that gutbucket four-on-the floor kick drum, Muddy Waters style. I remember listening to [Waters’ 1968 album] Electric Mud when we were thinking about sonic references. It was one of the go-to things, and it’s definitely apparent on this song.

“Jezebel” has a live, almost lounge, feel. This was also a first take with the band. I’m sure I did the vocals later. The band just started playing and the melody set it off. Dave put the lyrics over that. He’d just broken up with his girl from a long time and he had a lot of lyrical content raring to go. I think two hours later we had pretty much what you hear on the record.

Nigel Hall played organ on it. We used this organ that was broken. There was one sound you could get on it, and this was it: this awesome reverby tone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t use that organ on anything else [laughs].

How about Please Ya”? That was also done in Maine, the same or next day as “Jezebel”—another one where Dave had the lyrics. I definitely did not think I was going to sing that one. I remember doing the demo and thinking I was going to get Gary Clark or someone to sing it. I was thinking about an Otis Redding style. Then, as it progressed, I thought it needed someone with a softer voice. So I did the demo. I ended up redoing the vocals. The solo was live with the band. The original version was, like, 12 minutes and we just went on at the end forever. I had to cut it down. That whole end part was totally spontaneous, actually. I was in the control room playing and they were in the live room, and I just yelled to them, “Do the one to the four!” And that really worked. I added the backgrounds, strings, organ, and stuff later. In the second verse of that song, I basically play a vocal melody on the guitar—kind of a solo, but kind of a guitar verse. In the end, for the solo, just taking my time was important. Even though I kind of freak out in the end, I was trying to leave room for the “breath.”

Did the lyrics influence what you played? I won’t say I literally sat down and thought about the lyrics, but they were there while we were doing it. It helped that most of the songs had the lyrical vibe happening either before I did the guitar solo or during it. Whereas, on other sessions, I’ll just play and not know what the song is about, we were very sensitive to what the song was about on this record.

There’s one instrumental on the album, and it’s probably especially interesting to our readers: “Curse Lifter,” which you played as a duet with Derek Trucks. That one I wrote a while ago. I’ve played in the Tedeschi Trucks band, and at one point I approached the idea of doing that song in that band, but in the end it just made sense for my record. And I always wanted Derek to play on it. I originally recorded that in Maine and did placeholder guitar parts. I was thinking about Santana and the Allman Brothers—that guitar harmony vibe. So when I was down in Florida hanging out in Derek’s studio—we were actually working on stuff for their most recent album, Let Me Get By—I pulled up that track. I erased the guitars that I originally put on there, set up two amps in the live room, and just took a few passes at it, took it home, and mixed it.

Now that the album is done and you’ve stepped out, what’s next? I’m really excited to perform my stuff. There’s so much room to grow as an artist and as a singer now. I’m excited to explore a lot of different stuff. Since making this record, I’ve been singing in other situations. I’ve been doing the Phil and Friends tour and he’s having me sing a bunch of the Dead songs. It’s a challenge to sing in front of thousands of people who know these songs inside and out. You have to deliver it in the right way. They’re also in keys that are a stretch for me, but that’s good training. One of the cool things about my own band is that there’s one dedicated singer and three other singers, so the harmonies will be really thick. So I’m excited about playing this material and writing new material. I think the next album will be a lot of fun to make— and hopefully will take less time to do! [Laughs.]

YouTube It

Eric Krasno displays another side of his creativity—jazz-funk—in this live performance from 2014. With an Ibanez AS100 outfitted with a Bigsby, he spirals out a lead melody that’s packed with highlights, from the chicken-scratch rhythms and lyrical staccato licks that start two minutes in to the wailing bends and slurs he uses to bring the song to its apex.