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.