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.”
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.