In 2021’s long list of Grammy nominees, there’s one name that keeps appearing: Black Pumas. Hailing from Austin, Texas, the psych-soul pairing of singer-songwriter Eric Burton and guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada bagged nominations for Album of the Year for their self-titled debut, as well as Best Record and Best American Roots Performance for their euphoric, gospel-tinged single ‘Colours’.
The copious nominations are just the latest instalment in Black Pumas’ meteoric rise to fame. Since forming in 2017, the band have graced America’s most famous TV shows and attracted a legion of international fans called the ‘Puma Pack’. When you listen to the band’s debut album, ‘Black Pumas’, it’s not hard to understand why their appeal is so universal; their sound is the middle point between Motown and East Coast Hip Hop – a marriage of masterful production and iconic melodies that manages to be both classy and current.
The pair tell NME on a Zoom call from Austin that quarantine has given them a chance to reflect on their whirlwind journey so far. “I kind of had a premonition that things would take off quite quickly for Black Pumas”, says Adrian, “but it’s still been insane – everything’s happened much faster than either one of us could have imagined”.
Black Pumas’ beginnings are every bit as mystical as their album’s opening track, ‘Black Moon Rising’. The band’s frontman Eric grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley and, like many soul greats before him, honed his vocal prowess in church. After years of busking on the Santa Monica pier, singing Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay’ and Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ – which features on the recently-released deluxe edition –, he decided to take his troubadour act to the streets of Austin.
“Busking brings with it a certain lack of foundation”, he says. “But now, looking back at the ups and downs, I’m proud of how that time crafted my own musicianship”.
It was at Eric’s usual spot on a street corner in Austin that a mutual friend of Adrian’s heard his exquisite voice and passed on the producer’s number. “I had a lot of instrumental tracks with this particular vibe, and was searching for someone to collaborate”, says Adrian, who had previously toured with Prince as part of the Grammy-winning Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma. “The album came about from us just having fun in the studio with those instrumentals. Eric would write the vocal part and say ‘man, I’m not sure about it’, but every time I was like ‘this is amazing, I’m hitting record!’ Then he showed me some of his older songs, and they fitted perfectly”.
One of those early songs is the album’s stand-out single ‘Colours’, which now has over 50 million views on YouTube. “I first wrote the original version of ‘Colours’ about 13 years ago”, says Eric. “I was leading a lot of hymnals in my Presbyterian church, but really wanted to find my own voice as a musician. Those opening chords are me teaching myself to play guitar back then, and the song is an expression of feeling alive with God. I performed it on the busking circuit for a while, and then Adrian and the band helped to shape it into what it is today”.
The rest of their debut record is a unique blend of old-school references: whilst the groove and Cali-canyon imagery of ‘I’m Ready’ echoes Chicano Soul, ‘Old Man’ pays homage to both Neil Young and A Tribe Called Quest. Adrian’s production delicately layers combo organs with Latin rhythms and cinematic strings, and Eric is the glue that holds it all together – his voice spanning Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hendrix within its own velvety and theatrical timbre.
“Making this album, we were both really inspired by Rodríguez’s 1970 cult-classic ‘Sugar Man’ and his producer, the Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey”, says Adrian, “I really like that nuanced type of guitar playing and the way they created really visual songs with weird sounds”.
Psychedelia is going to loom large on their next album too, says Eric. “One of the tracks that we’re most excited about on the new album that’s currently in the works was written when I was microdosing medicinally on mushrooms”, he laughs. “I was out walking with my battery-powered keyboard in California and was just really inspired by the surrounding nature and started composing. There were a group of teenagers following me who thought I was pretty crazy, but it turned into a great song”.
Back in their Austin studio, the pair have also been mixing up their original songwriter-producer roles. “We’ve come a long way since meeting in 2017”, says Adrian. “There’s more overlap now than before in terms of sticking to our own musical lanes, and on our next album we’re trying to challenge our brains more by writing on different instruments”.
With news of a vaccine on the horizon, Black Pumas are starting to look forward to a 2021 global tour. Backed up by their band, Eric and Adrian have developed such a reputation for electric performances that this year, the mayor of the world’s live music capital, Austin, proclaimed May 7th as official Black Pumas Day.
“I had no idea that Eric was going to be such a showman”, says Adrian. “I had only seen videos of him busking, and then suddenly on stage he was busting all these moves that previously he’d only tried out in his bathroom. We booked a one-night residency at a famous venue called Austin’s C-Boys Heart & Soul for our first ever gig, and soon we were selling out night after night”.
For Eric, after all those Grammys, connecting with an audience harks back to his first performances in church. “I remember my uncle always told me to be honest, and I think I try to channel that feeling of inclusion and unity. We often close our set with ‘Colours’ – and after trying so hard to get to where I am now, it’s always amazing to see how people respond to that song”.
The deluxe edition of Black Puma’s debut album is out now