Eric Himan unplugged
Gay singer discusses his new music
by Jim Provenzano
While his new CD Gracefully includes an R&B big band sound, Eric Himan's latest stop through town will be an intimate, somewhat unplugged, solo show at Martuni's on Tuesday, February 25.
"I wanted to explore and do something different," said Himan in a phone interview.
After funding the album through listener support on the crowdfunding site PledgeMusic, he said, "My expectations were higher. I was able to hire people and have a full band sound. When the musicians lined up, everything filtered around it. It became the project I wanted, bringing a bigger game to the table."
Known for an intimate folk-rock sound in most of his previous eight studio CDs (plus two live albums and various singles), this new venture expands the repertoire of the award-winning openly gay singer-songwriter.
"My last album was recorded alone, at home. I used to go studios to record," including the Los Angeles Jim Hensen Studios, where, he said, "a good song came out of it, but it wasn't cohesive. It wasn't the vibe I was looking for. I wanted a bigger sound that didn't lose the depth."
Recording continued in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Himan worked with a crew of talented musicians, who also joined him in some live shows.
"We performed last summer at the Center of the Universe Festival, and it had a very full sound, he said. But it's hard to maintain that."
For most of his recent gigs, he performs solo and brings his electric guitar, or plays a three-piece set with accomplished musicians Brandon Holder (who has played with Leon Russell) and Matt Hayes (who plays for Wayne Newton). His friendship with Holder led to Himan's recent good fortune of opening for Leon Russell.
So, how did the roving troubador find time to create the full sound in Gracefully (which, by the way, is dedicated to his grandmother Grace Himan)?
"I'm not a writer in terms of arrangements," Himan said. "I write the structure and the lyrics. Brandon and Matt were given plenty of freedom to be as awesome as they are."
Himan offered an open creative process in the arrangements of horn section and backing vocals, saying, "You can only tell somebody so much without them feeling like a robot. It was more about finding the right players who got the vision. And they were amazing."
Horn player Ryan Tether, whom Himan cited as "just a genius," composed arrangements which Himan praised as "really dynamic."
Local fans who've enjoyed Himan's recent concerts, whether at the recent Accidental Bear party at the Eagle, his more rock-focused concert at Cafe du Nord, or solo shows at other clubs and bars, know that along with his many popular songs, the musician is known for his unique cover versions of popular hits by Fleetwood Mac, Annie Lennox and even Dolly Parton.
"My shows used to be about covering whatever I could do to get peoples' attention in a bar," said Himan. "With my originals and about 30 covers, I've turned that around. I still look for what is good for my voice, and what I find interesting. I like pulling songs out that aren't covered, that I can hear myself doing before doing it."
But despite Martuni's being known as a piano bar, where requests are often shouted out, Himan will focus on his own songs.
"I don't need to fulfill everybody's need to hear those songs," he said. "In the biggest places I'm playing this spring, in theatres opening for Leon, there'll be 3000 people, and none of them will be screaming, 'Play 'Jolene!'"
Despite being an opening act, Himan said he's found a new respect from fans.
"The first time I opened for Leon, I played 'Waiting for the Thunder,' [a song he composed as a tribute to Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousazfai]. When I played it, I got a standing ovation. I'm excited about the rest of the tour. Leon's audience is really about listening to music, lyrics, and songwriting."
In his own new work, along with the new bigger sound, Himan continues to expand his familiar themes of love, heartache and social justice. "Red Hot Tears" bounces into a fun funky beat with hearty back-up vocals. While the song "Symmetry" at first offers a lilting waltz cadence, the lyrics reveal a story about same-sex marriage and familial antigay resentment.
The song "Hard to Please" blends funk and country, while "How Can You Sleep?" stirs longing and desire for a loved one.
And he's often lent a hand to regional causes, as he did when he posed for a photo series produced by the Columbus, Ohio-based Project fight AIDS (see photo, and visit www.Facebook.com/ProjectFightAIDS ).
In addition to his new music, Himan will take advantage of Martuni's in-house piano by tickling the ivories for a few songs.
"I finally feel comfortable enough to perform on the piano, which I put off for a while. In all honesty, I wanted to be the best that I can be."
After his San Francisco show, the singer's headed up to Portland. When he's not trekking around the country for shows, he still finds time to do his occasional Tulsa-based cooking show.
Yep, he also cooks. But sorry, guys, he has a partner of several years. Himan's working on an expanded version of his 40-page cookbook, which blends homestyle and ethnic cuisine.
"The cooking gets attention, because when interviewers get tired of talking to me about music, there is this sidebar thing," he said. "Talking about cooking takes them off-guard. Everyone has an opinion about food."
Eric Himan performs Tuesday, February 25, 7pm at Martuni's, 4 Valencia St. at Market. 48 cover. To buy his music, visit www.erichiman.com