20 Feet From Stardom: Erica Falls Steps Up

It’s a question that Erica Falls hears often enough: “If you’re this good, how come I never heard of you before?”

As a soloist, she’s been performing for the better part of two decades; as a backup singer, she’s appeared or recorded with heavyweights from John Fogerty to Irma Thomas to Sting. But when she made two recent appearances at Jazz Fest—in the Jazz Tent as a frontwoman and at Acura with Allen Toussaint—more than a few were likely seeing her for the first time. “Yeah, I hear that kind of question all the time,” the soulful vocalist answers the oft-heard query with a laugh. “And I just tell them, ‘Well, you’ve heard of me now.’”

Erica Falls, Cover Story, photo, Elsa Hahne, OffBeat Magazine, June 2014

Photo by Elsa Hahne

If she’s been 20 feet from stardom all these years, Falls is at least starting to narrow the gap—moving from the overlooked lot of a backup singer toward getting her own name known. The Jazz Fest appearance showed she had the charisma as well as the voice: Falls was all exuberance from the start, doing a jubilant “Higher Ground” that was jazzier than Stevie Wonder’s original. A deeper side came through when she did “Sugar on the Floor,” a ballad about feeling neglected in love and life (Elton John protégée Kiki Dee wrote the song and John recorded it, but Falls heard it from Etta James). That tied in naturally with “Rolling in New Orleans,” an original that she said was about her own struggles in the music biz.

“When I wrote that one I was thinking about quitting singing,” she explains. “I was trying to get into certain venues and they don’t always know you, that’s a hard thing in this city with such an abundance of talent around. I was wondering if I was just chasing a dream. When I sing it now I do that little preach part at the end—‘I knock on doors, don’t get an answer.’ And I always think about what my father, who’s now passed on, would always say to me—Just keep doing what you do, and those doors will open.”

It looks like they’re opening now. The past year’s brought a tour singing with ex-Crusaders keyboardist Joe Sample and she’ll continue to be the featured vocalist of his touring band. She continues to appear with Toussaint, including his ballet show at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in mid-May. She was also featured as a singer in one of last year’s most acclaimed movies, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. And in the wake of her Jazz Fest shows, Falls’ own gigs are getting higher-profile. When we talked on a recent Monday morning, she was still on an emotional high from making her Snug Harbor debut the previous night. “It was a little audition in a sense, a no-pressure show with some great musicians [including her longtime musical director, Donald Ramsey]. Sometimes you want to rehearse it and make sure that every little thing is perfect, but last night I went out and, ‘Let’s have some fun.’”

That solo Jazz Fest set was put together by veteran keyboardist Larry Sieberth, who curates a set in the Jazz Tent every year. Usually they’re conceptual sets with a variety of singers—he’d done a gospel show, a soul show and one built around the “Joint’s Jumpin’” musical—but this year he wanted to do something more soulful with one voice. Reached by phone in Los Angeles, where he’s scoring a movie on the life of Bessie Smith, Sieberth explains: “I just really admire her vocal talents, she’s very authentic and just a wonderful person… We try to make the set different every year, and I thought, let’s go for a straight funk and R&B thing this year. I hadn’t actually done much performing with Erica before but I have used her in the studio. I’ve been doing some work with Riley Etheridge, a country-rock artist, and we brought Erica in to do some backing vocals. She got it so well that he said, “Why don’t you just improvise on the tag out?’ and she nailed that in one take. There’s a handful of people in New Orleans who are worthy of much greater recognition—I’d put her with people like Germaine Bazzle and Davell Crawford in that respect. So why isn’t she better known? Probably for the same reason I’m not.”

A child of the Ninth Ward raised on Pauline Street, Falls got her musical roots from church and family. “I was a pretty sheltered kid growing up. I didn’t go to second lines, never even heard of Irma Thomas until I became a teenager.”

She did, however, get to see Patti Labelle at the Superdome, her first concert and a pivotal one.

“I remember seeing her take her shoes off, get down on the floor and do her moves—that blew me away. But a lot of things that people may have known about for years are things that I’m just discovering. And I still learn about songs from the people I play with—for instance, [drummer] Herlin Riley told me, ‘You really have to listen to “Brand New Me” by Aretha Franklin‘ [she did, and sang it at Jazz Fest]. When I work with people like Joe Sample and Allen Toussaint, I feel like I’m a student; I can absorb their mannerisms and appreciate their ability to hear.”

Erica Falls, Cover Story, photo, Elsa Hahne, OffBeat Magazine, June 2014

Photo by Elsa Hahne

As a child, she had few designs on a singing career. “Most of my family sings. I’m the youngest of eight; so I learned jazz from my father, gospel from my mother, and R&B and soul from my friends—but I never thought I was a singer myself. I used to sing in choir and the directors would say, ‘You’re going to grow up and sing like your mom,’ but my mother sang with such emotion that everyone in the room would say, ‘You should do something else.’ I thought I’d open a hair salon, but what happened was that music came and got me. Whatever I would do, music would always bring me back to it.”

She made her professional debut on Bourbon Street two decades ago, fronting the cover band New Directions at the Old Opera House. “I was pregnant when I auditioned, so I came to the audition in a big jacket—but they noticed and said, no problem. Maybe that’s why my daughter became a performer as well—she writes, sings and does theater.”

Falls’ formative experience led to her joining the vocal trio ELS who also performed covers as a show band but were also the go-to backup group for sessions at Ultrasonic Studios. Her first notable session was with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and from there she sang on dates with Irma Thomas and Toussaint, and with John Fogerty, who was preparing to re-cut “Proud Mary” with Jennifer Hudson. She even sang “Every Breath You Take” with Sting when he rehearsed it for the 2003 Super Bowl. These sessions taught her a lot about working under pressure. “The thing about singing with those girls is that it really came so naturally to us. In the studios, time is money, so we learned quickly. We didn’t know the material until we got there and it’s not like we had to become acclimated to the sessions, there’s never time for that. I didn’t realize who some of these people were until I’d come home and tell my dad, ‘Yeah, I sang with someone called Gatemouth Brown.’ He took notice of that.”

She’ll only admit to getting star-struck while filming The Butler, another gig that came in through the studio-session pipeline—and one she nearly turned down since she was booked solid that week. “I had a session the day they called and Essence Festival was coming up, time was tight and I said no—and they told me, ‘I think you should make the effort to come.’ So I get to the session and Lee Daniels is there. What I didn’t know was that he was looking for someone to sing lead.” It also turned out that the choir scene was one that director Daniels was especially passionate about: “You can’t tell a story about the Civil Rights movement without the Gospel and gospel music, it’s just impossible,” he told an interviewer. After auditioning all 12 singers slated for the choir, Daniels picked Falls to sing the solo. Once again her session-pro instincts kicked in, even with one of her idols, Oprah Winfrey, standing a couple feet away.

“If I’d stretched my arm out I would have knocked her over; that’s how close I was. I remember running to the bathroom before the take and I hear her in my earphones saying ‘That voice is amazing’—that’s when it hit me what a warm person she is. That scene was important; I wanted to sing like the people in that era and do them proud. Everybody didn’t march but the singers were there to encourage the marchers, so they were important as well.” She’s been to theaters to see the movie, but don’t ask her about her own performance. “I haven’t been able to watch it yet. It was surreal, I tell you. I’m sitting in a theater and all of a sudden I hear my own voice. And my brain just froze; I was sitting there thinking ‘Really, that’s me?’ So I guess I’ll have to wait until the DVD comes out so I can really see it.”

Still, there’s one good reason Falls isn’t better known: Because she’s released almost no music under her own name. Her only CD so far is Me, Myself and Music, a five-song EP released in 2011. Blame that on the realities of working in New Orleans as a single mom. “I’m a one-stop shop—I’m the artist, I’m the management, I’m the road manager. I’ve had a great support system over the years and that’s helped me out a lot, and having a family that believed in my dream.”

Erica Falls, Cover Story, photo, Elsa Hahne, OffBeat Magazine, June 2014

Photo by Elsa Hahne

She plans to remedy the no-release situation in the coming year with her first full-length CD. It will likely include the Etta James and Stevie Wonder songs she did at the Fest, both of which were arranged for her by Joe Sample. Also slated is her favorite Toussaint cover, “Old Records,” originally written for Irma Thomas. “When I heard that one, I went to her and said ‘Miss Irma, I’m gonna have to steal your song’. She said, ‘That’s alright, honey—but when you do it, just make sure you do it your way.’” She also wants to do a soul version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” a longtime favorite. “I really love that whole album—and see, I just said ‘album,’ so you can tell how old-school I am.”

She also plans to include a handful of her own songs. “I’m an emotional writer, but the songs aren’t all about relationships. For instance, I have one called ‘Soar,’ which is about how life can be crazy sometimes and you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. It says that through it all, I’m going to open my wings and soar.”

That seems a fitting sentiment for Erica Falls over the past year. “Music is my sanity. It’s what I breathe; it’s what I eat. I love it so, and it’s where I get my release. Life happens and when it does I need a stage and a mike. I am grateful that I am able to do what I love and it’s my place of sanity at the same time. Really, you’re always going to have your peaks and valleys in this industry, and I’ve had my frustrations. But all that’s happened in the past year has made me feel like a fortunate and blessed woman.”