by Rachel Reeves
When Black Pumas was nominated for a Grammy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, reporters called the band “an overnight sensation.”
It’s true that the band’s rise to renown did occur rather abruptly. Black Pumas released its first self-titled album in June of 2019. In November, the band was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. The Recording Academy called Black Pumas the “defining Cinderella story” of the season, in deference to its seemingly sudden success.
But what really happened was that, in a serendipitous kind of way, two immensely talented musicians, each of whom had been honing his craft for years, met.
It started with a cold call.
Photo by Jody Domingue
In 2016, Grammy-toting guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada was searching for a vocalist to complete some of the tracks he’d been laying down.
Quesada had been a mainstay in the music scene of Austin, Texas for years. He was, in the words of an interviewer for Performer Magazine, “a monster on the guitar.” He’d played in a half-dozen bands, including a punk-jazz band called The Blue Noise Band, but made his mark as part of Grupo Fantasmo, a Latin-funk collective that toured with Prince and won a Grammy in 2013 for Best Latin Rock Album.
In his quest to find a vocalist, Quesada had listened to a lot of songs sent to him by a lot of singers. None of the voices seemed to fit his vision.
“Anytime I heard anybody, I was just like, no, that’s not it,” he said in an interview with The Recording Academy.
A producer friend recommended Eric Burton, a 20-something singer-songwriter who sang on a street corner in Austin. Quesada searched for Burton on YouTube. He discovered a guy with an acoustic guitar singing from the depths of his soul.
“I was like, how do I not know about this guy?” Quesada said on CBS This Morning.
He reached out. For two weeks, he didn’t hear back.
When Burton tells this story, he says simply that he didn’t know who Quesada was. Friends urged him to Google the producer. A few internet searches later, Burton called.
Quesada was driving when he took that call and reception was poor, but Burton sang to him anyway.
“I was like, this is it,” Quesada said on This Morning. “This is the guy I need to get in the studio with.”
The two artists came from different worlds. Quesada came to music via classical guitar training, played in bands, and had gained access to the most elite of music scenes. Burton, 13 years his junior, had virtually no recording experience. He grew up singing in the choir at a Presbyterian church in the San Fernando Valley. His experience performing outside church was busking on the Santa Monica Pier. He’d travel there by way of three buses, a couple of Metros, and a skateboard, and he’d put his name in a bowl and hope it’d be drawn so he could have one of the permits allotted that day.
Burton later followed his dream of musical success to Austin, a city whose official motto is “Live music capital of the world.” There, he sang at the corner of 6th Street and Congress Ave.
Despite their differences, the first time they met in the studio, in 2017, Quesada and Burton felt an instant spark. That day, they recorded “Fire” and “Black Moon Rising,” both songs that would later appear on Black Pumas’ first self-titled album.
“We kinda looked at each other like, man, there’s musical chemistry here for sure,” Quesada said on a podcast called Song Exploder. “That’s when we kinda became Black Pumas.”
Soon the duo had formed a band – Angela Miller and Lauren Cervantes on backup vocals, JaRon Marshall on keys, Brendan Bond on bass, Stephen Bidwell on drums – and booked a weekly gig at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, a club on Congress Ave. that bills itself as a “neighborhood juke-joint.” They told their friends, created an Instagram account, and released “Black Moon Rising” on Spotify. Within weeks, the line of people waiting to see them perform stretched for blocks.
“Colors,” which went on to become a Grammy nominee for Record of the Year and Best American Roots Performance, exemplifies their chemistry. Burton wrote the song when he was barely a legal adult. It came to him when he awoke from a nap on the roof of his uncle’s home in New Mexico to a sky awash in gorgeous color.
At first, he thought about saving “Colors” for his own solo project. But soon Quesada’s passion and song-making skills won him over. The producer took “Colors” and not only made it better but also honored its integrity.
“I remember telling people his rhythm guitar part at the beginning is a hook already so we can’t step all over that – we have to spread out that arrangement to let that breathe,” Quesada told Song Exploder. The drums are sparse on purpose, and the guitar and keys are pared to downbeat chords.
In November of 2020, “Colors” got two Grammy nominations and Black Pumas was nominated for Album of the Year. Two months later, Joe Biden invited Black Pumas to perform for his inauguration. The band also performed during the NFL Draft.
The music Quesada and Burton create is a titillating blend of soul and psychedelic rock, with other flavors ranging from retro-funk to Afropop. They count Otis Redding, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye among their heroes, and their influences include The Temptations and Alice Coltrane. But they are clear they don’t want to be a soul revival act. They want to make soul a little rock ‘n’ roll. As Burton told The Recording Academy, their mission is to explore ways to “make fresh this soul music.”
Black Pumas perform at BeachLife Festival on Friday, May 13.