Singer Robert Finley's real-life story is the stuff of a sentient algorithm striving to construct the most compelling narrative possible.
Except with Finley, 67, it's all true.
Finley served in the military, eventually becoming a carpenter. Glaucoma cost him his vision but returned him to music. Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, subsequently connected with him (you can't say discovered with a talent as big as Finley's; it would be like taking credit for discovering the sun). And because this is 21st century America, Finely finally wound up entangled with reality television, making it to the semi-finals of America's Got Talent.
Sharecropper's Son, his Auerbach-produced album, spotlights Finley's versatility, featuring improvised and composed songs, all centered around Finley's childhood on his family's farm, where everyone worked as sharecroppers. It's a personal story, and while the creation process might sound frenetic, the songs are thoughtful and deliberate.
Finley's vocals interact with a variety of song styles, and his soulfulness comes through in everything he sings. Whether he's using a falsetto or a lower register, Finley always sounds like himself. He knows that to sell music, it needs to be accessible, but he's not going to compromise his own story for the sake of commerce.
Finley first met Auerbach in Europe, while touring the continent, more of a draw overseas than in the United States. "I was always a sell-out show everywhere I went," he says of Europe. "I was in the military, in 74. And I always wanted to go back and then when I got a chance to go back, a lot of people remembered, once it was written, me being there, a lot of guys who were in the military with me, they all reached out to me."
On one of those trips, Auerbach found Finley, who wasn't up-to-speed on the prolific Black Key. "They called me and told me that guy, Dan Auerbach, wanted to meet me and wanted me to do the voice on a comic book [2017's Murder Ballads]," Finley recalls. "And really I hadn't heard of him before then, because I'm a carpenter, busy building houses, so I really didn't have a lot of free time. And I hadn't heard about the Black Keys at the time. But when my daughter pulled it up and looked it up, and she got excited about the journey. You know, 'Dad, this is big time.'"
Finley wound up touring as Auerbach's special guest, backed by Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound Revue Band, which is also his label's studio band. Those shows opened Finley up to thousands of new listeners. And while many musicians pay lip service to the idea and importance of fans, Finley seems genuinely appreciative of the role artists can play in the lives of their admirers. Especially given the exposure he got from America's Got Talent.
"A lot of people just didn't know what I was doing," he says of life, pre-televised singing competition. "But now when [I] walk into the local store, or anywhere pretty much, most kids recognize you before the parents do. And they want to take photos, which I don't have a problem with, because when people want to take a photo with [you], they're actually making you a part of their family history. People will share it with their kids and grandkids, the moment that we had together, even just a few moments."
Finley understands how these brief encounters become family mythology. "I've had people show me pictures they took with different artists," he says. "It's years ago, it probably wouldn't mean that to the artists, but it meant a lot to the people because they're still cherishing the pictures. Or when they come and show me a picture they took with James Brown, or Elvis Presley, or Prince, or whoever, it locks in."
Finley's approach to fans comes through in his songwriting, in that he takes on both from a place of empathy. He roots his songs and performances in the transformation of honest stories and emotion into music. In this interview, he discusses his process for Sharecropper's Son, as well as his thoughts on defining musical success, from commercial and artistic perspectives.
Making Sharecropper's Son
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process for Sharecropper’s Son?
Robert Finley: Well, on this particular album, it really wasn't hard at all. We had to think back to my childhood, because it's really a true album; it's not a make believe, it's not a fairy tale, it's actually looking at it from a sharecropper's son point-of-view, and knowing for a fact that we didn't get our share. So that makes it a little easier [laughs].
It wasn't hard at all because I was just allowed to tell my story, my way, and it's about my life and my adventures. It was a great opportunity to be able to express yourself, and it had to be real, [I] had to keep it real, because so many people experienced it, and they know. So that's why it wouldn't make sense to put on a suit and a tie, because nobody's flying with you in a suit and tie you know [laughs]. You got to make it to what it really was. So I had a good time, I had some great co-writers to work with me, you know, Dan Auerbach, Bobby Wood. They did the last one with me [2017’s Goin' Platinum], so it was a great experience, because they knew about those times, [that] what I said is all real stuff.
WM: Did the summer Black Lives Matter activities make it easier to do this kind of album for you? Did the world feel more ready to accept it?
Finley: It was supposed to have been released last year, which [means] it would have been out before any of this stuff was actually going on. The album was all ready. But it wasn't a good time to release because people were on edge, and we had so much going on, and nobody was really feeling safe going out in the public. And so we decided to wait and release it later and not knowing that all this was going to just happen to correspond with everything. And like I say, everything happens for a reason.
WM: Did you start with music when you wrote these songs? With lyrics?
Finley: Well, I do both ways. Basically, Dan likes to get the lyrics and then deal with the music. I like to have the music and go with the flow. So we found out it works both ways. Some of the songs we did, we never took a pen and paper. They played the music and I just kind of sang what I felt, what came to mind about [being a] country boy. Some songs we did actually sit down with pen and paper and write, and some of them we just played the music and I just did the, what do they call it? Freelance?
Finley: Freestyle! Yeah! So that's really how “Country Boy” and “Country Child” came about. Basically just freelance freestyling. But at the same time, in reality it was all about the childhood life of a sharecropper's son. It wasn't, you know, like no hard work or mind boggling things. It was just guys getting together and do what they do. Some of these guys have been on every record. In fact Bobby Wood's been on pretty much every album. When you're with the best, it brings out the best in you. I just take credit for only being myself.
The rest, we all made up, because the music arrangements and stuff, basically those guys, that was their profession, that was their field. I didn't arrange any of the music on this particular album. Because if I had [done] the arranging, it would have been from one or two styles. But the way it was done now, it was like you get a little soul, you get a little R&B, you get a little rock and roll, you get a little country and western. You get a little of everything on [the] album. And that's the great part about it, because you're not put in a box, you're not branded as a blues singer, you're not branded as an R&B singer, you're not branded as a Southern soul singer. You're more or less just an entertainer. I think it would be more like a gumbo; you get a little of everything, a little of every style.
The goal is to reach everybody and be able to go out and play for the public and have something that each fan can walk away with, whether they love blues or whether they love rock and roll, whether they love Southern soul, whether they love country and western—it doesn't matter. If they come to the concert, they'll be able to walk away with the fulfillment that they got what they came for. So you don't want to make it to where if you label it as blues, then all of the blues lover are going to come out. And a lot of people think the blues is a depressing thing, but the blues can be uplifting too. It all depends on the artist.
I like to sing positive things as much as possible. "Souled Out On You" just means life goes on. It's not meant to be a stopping point, it just means you've got to pick the next step. It all comes together. It depends on what you're looking for. And hopefully we have a little bit of everything for everybody. I'm not saying one person will love the entire album. It's got to be a song or two on there that they can connect with, that they can relate to.
WM: Did the arranging happen before or after the recording?
Finley: We were all there together and if there was anything we wanted to change, we had an opportunity to change it. So I think it just comes naturally. Because we didn't do a lot of redoing [of] anything. Everybody just did what they did.
[On] "Sharecropper's Son," the band was actually just warming up and having fun getting ready for the day. I was in the studio early, so while they were warming up, and they [were] having so much fun, I just started making up stuff, you know?
I had the idea in my head, but we hadn't written the song. So I just started saying what I felt and thinking back to childhood. "Country Boy" was spirit of the moment; it was all done freestyle. "Souled Out On You," we sat down and we put pen to paper. But the whole album was just fun.
Now the song that I did on America's Got Talent, "Starting to See," that was the reason we went back into the studio, because I had made it to the judge cut. And that was going to be my first song I did before [thousands of] people on the live stage. And so we went back to the studio and wrote it especially for the show. "Starting to See" was my way of saying that the vision was coming through. The dream was coming through. But other than that, everything else was original [to the album].
The truth sounds different
WM: With "Country Child" or "Country Boy" or "Sharecropper's Son," did you go back and fix anything or did you leave it as is?
Finley: We didn't do anything with this. We just played it back and everybody liked it. So we came up with this solution: [if] it ain't broke, don't fix it. But all of the musicians were satisfied with what they did. It could have been like a one-time take. I don't know if somebody changed it if something was a little bit off, but it wasn't enough for me to even notice. Because it all sounded just like it did the day we were in the studio.
So these guys, they were professional studio musicians. Because I never went back and I never changed a word of anything I'd said. Because the truth don't change. If the story ever changes, then that means it's been tampered with or something.
WM: Are you going to have to go back and learn these songs when you're finally able to go out on tour?
Finley: Nah. I've pretty much got it all. Like I say, if the song is a true song, and it's about the real things that happen in life, then that don't change, it won't be able to change. If it had been a song that somebody else wrote for me, I would have to learn it. But just singing about my life, my memory won't change. So it's easy to just let it be what it is. I don't think I really have to learn anything because if you did the actual writing, you just remember what you wrote.
I'm kind of more or less like a horse in the stall, just waiting on them to open the gate, so I can run this race [laughs]. I'm just excited about the chance to perform it, to actually do it live.
Robert Finley's Got Talent
WM: How did you get involved with America's Got Talent?
Finley: Actually, today I don't really actually know, because I never signed up for it, I never auditioned for it until I was actually there. One of the young producers heard something on YouTube and she liked it. And she said she went home and played it for her parents, and they liked it. And then she reached out to my manager to see if I would be interested in coming to the show, which, quite naturally, I was interested in it. But I didn't know anything about it.
My daughter [and I were] in the Bahamas, when I got the call that they wanted us to come. So we actually left from the Bahamas, instead of flying home, because it would have cost more to fly back to Louisiana for two or three days, than it would actually cost to stay in the Bahamas. So we stayed there, roughly a week on vacation, and then we flew into Los Angeles, first to audition, and then we moved from there to Hollywood.
[America’s Got Talent] was unexpected. It was a blessing in disguise. I got a phone call and I was like 'Yeah. Why not? Why not take the opportunity?' It was a four-month vacation that I really couldn't afford [laughs]. But it was a great time. I enjoyed every moment of it, even though it was a little stressful from the beginning, but not at the end. Because the further I got the less stressful it [was] because people knew that I knew how to do what I was doing, so there wasn't a whole lot of training involved: just let me be myself. The greatest thing I like about performing is when I can actually just be myself, and not trying to mold into what somebody else wants me to be.
Writing without sight
WM: Do you still work as a carpenter?
Finley: No. I had already given up the carpentry because of my sight. So it wasn't like I was making a big sacrifice. I was just taking advantage of an opportunity. I got to meet some of my favorite stars. I love watching Gabrielle [Union]. I love watching Julianne [Hough]. I watch them performing, acting in the movies, and stuff. And for them to tell me that I was the qualification for a movie, that was great. That meant a lot.
WM: How does being legally blind impact your songwriting process?
Finley: I use memory and recorders and [voice] memos. I don't sit down with a pencil and paper to write. I have to record. I can see enough to take care of myself, but at the same time, before the bright lights, it takes away what sight [I] do [have]. That's like driving with somebody that [doesn't] dim their headlights. So I have to wear the shades to keep the light out of my eyes. Because it does me more harm than good. I'm not totally blind, but I'm legally blind. I can't tell the difference between a three and an eight. So it made it difficult to try to be a carpenter.
If you're going to be something you want to be good at, and I always wanted to be the best, or strive to be the best. And you know, the price alone when you can't afford to be making missed [wood] cuts. So I went to get my eyes checked and unfortunately, I waited a little too late. I'm totally blind in one eye and I have vision in the other. So my songwriting ability has to rely on memory. And if I say something and I get reaction when I say it, I don't forget what I said. It may be a long song, probably enough material to write two songs, and then just focus on that one. So I kind of like it. It comes natural because it's something I always wanted to do. It's a childhood thing, so it's not complicated.
WM: You always wanted to be a songwriter?
Finley: I always wanted to be a songwriter. I always wanted to be an entertainer. Since I was old enough to remember. Since I heard the radio, I wanted to be on it. When I first saw the TV, I wanted to be on it. That was something that just came natural. You're having visions of things you want to be, or you want to become. So that's why I often say I'm living my childhood dream.
WM: Who did you want to be?
Finley: I just wanted to be me. I can name a lot of stars that I wanted to be like, or I wanted the attention of, but when it bore down, I really just wanted to be me. A chance to be myself and be appreciated for being who I am.
A finished song
WM: How do you know when a song is finished?
Finley: I guess when the story is told. The style of writing that I like to do, I like to tell the story. And at the end of a song, I need it to [feel like a] short novel, rather than saying the same thing over and over because that actually could get boring.
It can use the same point, but at the same time it needs to be telling a story, like reading a book. You can have good music, you can have a great voice, you get the world's attention, but at the same time, you need to tell them something once you get that attention. You need to tell them something positive and at the end of the day, the song should have made a point and explained a point for people.
Other than that, it's always got to be exciting. Keep people interested. I am my own worst critic. Any time I look at myself, I try to see what I could have [done] better, what I can do better next time. And there's always room for improvement in anything you do. If you're ever satisfied, than there's no purpose.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.