Taking His Time

He released his debut album in 2020, but singer, songwriter, and recording engineer Eric Mercer Jr. ’10 has been influencing R&B music behind the scenes for more than a decade.

The most daunting moments of Eric Mercer Jr.’s career have arrived in relative quiet, far from any spotlights or screaming fans. The audiences have been small but discerning, and each instance provided what Mercer’s mentor and manager, Thomas Jones, describes as “one of those things where you have to be prepared without knowing what you’re prepared for.”

Mercer ’10 goes by the stage name Blakk Soul, although here “stage” is deceptive, as it’s behind the scenes—in recording studios and collaborations with better-known artists—that he has quietly established himself as a rising creative force in the music industry. It was in the studio that Mercer first met legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre: Invited by a shared industry connection to a creative session at a Los Angeles studio in 2017, Mercer was told that Dre “may or may not even come in tonight.” Mercer wasn’t sure what exactly he was showing up for until he got to the studio. “And then as soon I’m walking in the front door,” he says, “Dre’s coming in the back.”

Eric Mercer Jr. ’10, aka Blakk Soul
Eric Mercer Jr. ’10, aka Blakk Soul

Mercer was introduced as a songwriter and production engineer, to which Dre—he of the six Grammys and walls full of platinum records—replied, “Oh, you write? Cool. We’re gonna see tonight.”

Game on the line, one second on the clock, down to the last shot—imagine whichever high-pressure sports cliché you like, and Mercer, a standout in football, basketball, and track as a kid, can relate. Here, with virtually no warning, was a moment to prove himself in front of a guy who has helped shape some of the biggest trends and artists in the past three decades of popular music. Mercer says Dre asked to hear some of his original songs, then challenged him to, essentially, build a new song from snippets and spare parts. “And I was able to knock it out,” Mercer says. Invited back to the studio, he ended up working with Dre over the course of the next year and a half, a collaboration that led to a co-writing credit on Anderson .Paak’s acclaimed 2018 album Oxnard and provided Mercer with what he calls a “master class” in songwriting and production.

Last May, Mercer released his debut album, Take Your Time, a slow-burning collection of ’90s-influenced R&B that highlights both his vocals and his versatility—he co-produced, mixed, and mastered the entire album. It’s a fitting introduction to an artist who has embraced a career path that offers a variety of routes. “Singing is what got me going,” he says, “but engineering is what got me in the door of the industry.”

The Tacoma native found his voice as a kid singing church hymns, but it would be years before music was anything more than a hobby or diversion. “My boys would have me singing for the ladies at social gatherings, that kind of thing,” he says with a laugh. Sports were his priority through his time at Foss High School, but by the time he enrolled at Puget Sound in 2006, he shifted his focus to longer-term endeavors. He thought hard about law school—inspired by Johnnie Cochran, he’d excelled in high school debate and imagined becoming a defense attorney—but a college internship at a Tacoma law firm cooled him on the idea. “That’s when I thought maybe this isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “I just liked the debating part, but I learned there’s a lot more to it.”

Mercer ended up majoring in philosophy, but he took advantage of opportunities—a music business class, an extracurricular voice class—that would inform the creative career he still couldn’t quite envision before him. Lacking any real industry connections, he immersed himself in the vibrant live-music scene around Tacoma and Seattle. He started showing up to sing at open-mic nights, including the notoriously unforgiving R.E.T.R.O. show at University of Washington. “It was brutal back then,” he says. “I went to case it out before I actually performed, and people were getting booed like Showtime at the Apollo.” 

Unproven, unpolished, and unsure of his full potential, Mercer says he relied on his athletic experience to help prepare for—and survive—those sometimes-dispiriting amateur showcases. “It was a sports mentality,” he says, “understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and getting ready to compete.” When things finally started to click a few years after graduation, his sports background provided a different sort of foundation—an appreciation for teamwork. At one of those open-mic nights, a Sunday evening jam at a Seattle café, he hit it off with an established local producer named Kuddie Fresh, who saw Mercer perform and invited him to join a songwriting group he was starting. It gave Mercer his first chance to do more than just show off his pipes; it was an opportunity to collaborate with other talented people, to start developing as an artist. It wasn’t his big break, but it was a step closer to making his dream a reality. 

When Mercer’s plan first started to take shape, Thomas Jones was the right man at the right time to help him mold it and push it forward. 

Better known to hip-hop fans as Rapper Big Pooh, Jones is one half of the critically acclaimed North Carolina rap group Little Brother. Their initial connection was built on fortunate timing and a hunch: Back in 2011, Mercer was friendly with Jones’ then-manager, who recommended Mercer as a vocalist Jones might want to work with on an upcoming solo project. Jones asked for an introduction and a sample of Mercer’s music, but for whatever reason, neither came. So, without a meeting, or having heard him sing a note, Jones found Mercer via his Twitter account, sent him an instrumental track, and asked Mercer to send him a vocal that might work on top of it. 

“He sent it back really quickly, and it was crazy,” recalls Jones, who eventually signed on as Mercer’s manager. “It was the first time I had heard his voice—I didn’t know his tone, I didn’t know anything—but I was thoroughly impressed. What he sent me is exactly what I put on my project.” 

It was just a vocal cameo, and that fateful meeting with Dr. Dre was still six years away, and so Mercer’s life hardly changed overnight. He worked a couple of sales jobs out of college, then spent nearly six years at Boeing in a shipping and receiving job that paid the bills while he honed his largely self-taught craft. He released a pair of singles in 2014, the first of a string of eight singles he wrote and recorded while commuting between Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle over the next five years, and in 2017 he released Never See, a five-track EP. None of these were hits, exactly, but all along he was making connections, collaborating with other artists, and figuring things out—how to build on his influences, how to fine-tune his sound, how to marry the growing confidence of his voice with his increased knowledge of production techniques. 

Marquee collaborations followed—that unforgettable stint working under the tutelage of Dr. Dre, as well as production credits on recordings by Grammy winners Anderson .Paak and Seattle native Macklemore. From .Paak, the versatile singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who won the 2020 Grammy for Best R&B Album, Mercer said he learned the value of artistic courage. “.Paak’s fearless in the studio,” Mercer says. “He’s not afraid to step outside his comfort zone. That was so dope to me.” 

From Dr. Dre, Mercer took not only a massive dose of confidence but an invaluable lesson in running an SSL board, the massive, knob- and lever-covered console that is a fixture at professional recording studios, and on which countless hit singles and classic albums have been produced. And then there was the chance to work with Little Brother, Jones’ group, which reunited after a lengthy recording hiatus for 2019’s May the Lord Watch. Mercer, by that time, had been working with Jones for nearly a decade, but had never met Little Brother’s other member, Phonte Coleman, who handles the group’s production. 

Mercer was hanging with the group in Los Angeles when Coleman shared a new beat that he hoped to use on the album, but which needed a vocal hook. Coleman had a portable recording set up in his hotel room, and while playing the track, he noticed Mercer humming a melody that caught his ear. “Next thing you know,” Mercer says, “he let me record the demo and kept all my lyrics, and that ended up making the album.” The hook you hear on “Picture This,” the 12th track on May the Lord Watch, is the one Mercer came up with that day in the hotel. 

For Mercer, it was another moment of being prepared even when he wasn’t sure what he needed to be prepared for. For Jones, it was confirmation that his friend and protégé is a true talent. “He’s got a tremendous skill set that not everybody brings,” Jones says. “He’s got a great tone and range, and he’s got the ability to write, to find melodies in things you wouldn’t think you could find melodies in.” 

A veteran of 20 years in the music industry, Jones knows that talent alone often isn’t enough. He says Mercer’s low-key personality and quiet professionalism have him well situated to succeed. “He’s just a man of his word, a principled guy, and that’s a rarity,” Jones says. “I tell him he’s probably one of the humblest guys I know in this industry. You take the artist hat off, and he’s just Eric. He’s as solid as they come.” 

The pandemic proved an unfortunate time for Mercer to release his first full-length album—touring in support of the new music is a non-starter for the foreseeable future—but Jones believes his partner’s reputation will continue to blossom behind the scenes. In 2021, Mercer will have production, writing, and engineering credits—not to mention a vocal cameo—on the buzz-heavy debut album from North Carolina rapper Lute. (Mercer also collaborated with Lute last year on a song that appeared on the soundtrack to the Madden NFL 21 video game.) 

And without a chance to tour, he’s been getting even more creative than usual: He’s working on a video series, Sangria With Soul, pairing sangria recipes with songs on Take Your Time as a way to promote the album. “In these times,” he says, “you’ve gotta think outside the box.” He’s always writing songs, and he’s been in studios in Los Angeles and Tacoma during the pandemic, further polishing his production skills. He’s equally dedicated to his art and his craft, ready for the next opportunity, too committed to ever be caught unprepared. 

 

By Ryan Jones
Photos by Sy Bean
Photo illustrations by Kristofer Nystrom
Published Feb. 7, 2021