Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, recording engineer Erik Peterson. Over coffee at Borealis in Riverside, the East Providence resident …
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, recording engineer Erik Peterson. Over coffee at Borealis in Riverside, the East Providence resident spoke of his life in music, one that has taken him to both coasts, numerous stops in between and into the presence of legends in the music Industry.
He was warm, soft spoken and considerate in his thoughts, designs and deeds. While suggesting an air of worldliness and sophistication in his dialogue and narratives, he, conversely, conveyed the humility of a small-town boy who counts his daily blessings.
“Ever since I was very young, I’ve been attracted to music. It came to me naturally,” said Peterson. “Starting as early as 5 years old my mom said I would sit down at the piano and play songs that sounded like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I was playing by ear. Chords. Melody. Everything. I wasn’t taught or instructed by anyone.
“She thought I played beautifully and immediately signed me up for piano lessons, which I hated. I would memorize the music when the teacher played it. And the next week I played it note for note,” said Peterson. “I was fooling them for a while, but when the teacher pulled out new music and asked me to read it, I couldn’t, because I never heard it. I’ve always judged myself as lazy, but truly I must have a sort of musical dyslexia because I can only learn by ear.”
Peterson continued to play piano but soon fostered a love for singing and acting. Performing ran in his family. Both of his grandfathers were actors who lead very successful radio, TV and Broadway careers.
“I wanted to be a singer and a performer,” said Peterson. “My family are entertainers. My paternal grandfather was a TV star. His name was Arthur Peterson (my namesake. I’m Erik Arthur Peterson). He started in radio and became a character actor. He did countless TV shows. Bonanza, The Big Valley, Gunsmoke, The Guiding light, Starsky and Hutch. He was on the TV show ‘Soap’. He played ‘The Major’.”
“My mom’s father did voice overs for TV and radio commercials. If you hear his voice, you’d recognize him immediately. He did voice overs for Lyndon B. Johnson’s and Nelson A. Rockefeller’s campaigns for President. His name was Karl Weber. He also was an actor. He appeared in Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, Maverick, The Big Valley and many others. My dad was an actor as well and studied with Lee Strasberg. Entertaining is in my blood.”
”I was born in Pasadena, Calif., but when I was 5 my folks split up and my mom moved me, my brother and sister to Martha’s Vineyard, where my grandparents had a summer home there and we lived in the cottage.”
Singing and songwriting
Although Peterson loved the piano, formal lessons ceased after two years due to his disdain for instruction. While still playing keyboard, another artistic interest in his young life began to take hold.
“When I was in third grade, my school put a musical together with a potpourri of songs,” said Peterson. “In that musical I sang ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime.’ After I sang it there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole house. Every time there was a family gathering, they said I must sing that song.”
“By the time I was eight, my sister and I wrote a song called ‘The Lonely Boat,’ ” said Peterson. “We grew up on the Vineyard. We were walking near the ocean and we saw this boat. It was decaying on the beach, sort of half broken, and we wrote a song about it. Some of the lyrics were, ‘A cold and lonely wind blows through the tall marsh grass. Sending ripples over water to the other side. And the lonely boat sits nestled by the shore.’ ”
Although unaware of it at the time, he said, his destiny - his life as a musician, performer, singer, songwriter - was starting to emerge.
‘I did a couple more musicals at school until I was 13, then moved to LA to live with my father. I lived there in Jr. High and High School. My dad became a chiropractor but had a grand piano in the house, and that’s when my writing really took off. I’d sit down at the piano every day and I’d write. I wrote hundreds of songs.
“I attended University High School in west LA, it was the sister to Beverly Hills High School,” said Peterson. “I did musicals and acting in the drama club and was also in the jazz band. I started to do some solo composing.”
On to Berklee
The leader of the high school band recognized Peterson’s musical talent and encouraged him to apply to Berklee School of Music in Boston. In 1985 he applied and got accepted.
“Once at Berklee, I said this is what I’m going to do with my life. I buckled down, became a piano major, and did lots of singing. I went to Berklee for five years, and I still never learned to read music. I memorized everything and fooled my instructors there.”
“After graduating from Berklee, I moved back to LA and to a rude awakening, because the music business is so hard. In college my big takeaway was the phycology and the political nature of the business.”
Peterson discovered that it was just that, a business. Replete with secrets and sorcery, deals and disappointments, he learned quickly that it wasn’t one hundred percent about music. He pointed out an ominous quote made by one of the major record label presidents at the time. ’We don’t sell music, we sell plastic.’
Flirting with success in LA
“In LA I had a few close calls with major success. A friend of mine knew famed record producer Richard Perry (producer to Harry Nilsson, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Ringo to name a few) and introduced me to him. I started working with Richard doing some of my solo stuff. Richard was a very interesting guy. He was very methodical, he demanded perfection, and you would go over and over the track to the point of exhaustion. We did a couple of demos. Then I had a family tragedy. My grandmother in LA was killed in a car crash, which threw everything out of kilter for me. I couldn’t focus on music with Richard or anything else.”
After a period of grief, Peterson made a self-produced album and dedicated it to the memory of his late grandmother. It was a holiday album titled, ‘Always the Season’.
The dance scene
“Through a vocal ensemble that I was a part off called Millennium Dream, I met Victor Flores, who was Clive Davis’s right hand man for mixing and engineering. I began doing some production with him,” said Peterson. “Victor and I started with some grassroots dance stuff. I would compose a song and he would produce it. He was also a DJ. It was something I’d never done before - the dance stuff. We put out a couple singles for underground clubs. We would try out new songs at ‘Your Mama Knows’, which was a pretty big Hollywood underground club at the time. We even did some music with Taylor Dane. We didn’t sell a lot, but it was a great experience.”
All the while Peterson was earning a living as a working musician. He was the assistant musical director at the Agape International Spiritual Center in Beverly Hills. He also played solo gigs, performed with others and did studio work.
In 2000, Peterson changed direction in his professional and personal life. He fell in love and got married. She was originally from Connecticut, so the couple decided to move back east to her roots. Now married with two children, he focused on his new life and family.
Traveling the country
“To make a living, I started touring yoga centers and church-gathering gigs on the weekends,” said Peterson. “I’d go to Chicago, Houston, all over. I would play in Colorado at the Mile-High Spiritual Center. I’d do three services on Sunday there to a total of 5,000 or 6,000 people. I had some self-produced CD’s and would sell them after the gigs. I’d sometimes sell 200 CD’s on one Sunday.”
While back east a friend of a friend of Peterson arranged a meeting between him and the legendary record producer Phil Ramone ,whose clients included Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Celine Dion, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra.
“I arrived at Phil’s house in Bedford, N.Y., for the meeting. I played him some of my original music and he said to me ‘I love your writing, I’m very impressed, you can write hits, I want to work with you’, “ said Peterson. “He asked me to give him everything I had. I spent weeks putting all my music together. When I was prepared, I called his assistant to arrange the second meeting, but they didn’t call back. My repeated calls never got an answer. From what I had heard, Phil was famous for biting off more than he could chew and naturally would drop everything if Billy or Frank called.”
Today, the single Peterson lives and works out of East Providence, where he also owns and operates his own recording studio, called ‘Sounded Ground’. With a keen ear for production, sound, song structure and his vast musical knowledge, he is able to guide artists, helping to translate their musical ideas and concepts into cohesive musical forms.
“At the moment, I’m producing an album for Candida Rose Baptista. She’s Cape Verdean and a native of New Bedford. She’s a wonderful singer. I would describe her as a jazz, R & B, Gospel artist,” said Peterson. “Along with my studio work, I play solo gigs as well as in a duo, also called, ‘Sounded Ground’, with local singer, songwriter, guitarist Lisa Couto. You can see us together at Bluewater in Barrington and separately at Blounts and private parties”
Just before we wrapped things up, I asked Peterson how he felt about where he is now in this stage of his life and career and if he had any parting advice to musicians and/or audiences.
“I had to really get to a place with music where I just surrender to it. To use my talent not for the purposes of becoming rich and famous but because it’s a God-given talent to be shared - because people can be moved by it.”
‘‘My best advice is, listen from your heart, not from your mind.” Find Erik @ firstname.lastname@example.org or soundedground.com .
Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at email@example.com.