Black Pumas’ Eric Burton Bets on Himself
After an abrupt break, Chronicles of a Diamond completely reinvents the band dynamic
A decade ago, Eric Burton returned home to California from college in New Mexico to help support his mom through health issues. It was then, in 2014, that he wrote the most serene track on Black Pumas’ sophomore album Chronicles of a Diamond. The lullaby-like "Angel" emerged while playing guitar in the laundry room of the apartment building his extended family shared in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood.
"I was trying to get some privacy," he recalls of that time. "And searching for a voice of clarity to hear myself."
"And my heart isn't made of steel, oh, isn't made of steel," he sings on the track. You'd have to be seriously bad at understanding analogies to not recognize the metaphor behind Chronicles of a Diamond. It takes 725,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to change the atomic structure of regular old carbon into Earth's most beautiful gemstone.
That's roughly the same amount of pressure Black Pumas were under making the follow-up to a debut so extraordinary that it took them from playing C-Boy's to a presidential inauguration in the span of 23 months – not to mention earning them six Grammy nominations over the course of three years, largely on a single batch of songs. Last week, they added yet another Best Rock Performance nomination for Diamond single "More Than a Love Song."
So it seemed appropriate that I ask both principal members about pressure.
Sitting in the cutting room of his East Austin studio, I question the project's guitarist, producer, and original visionary Adrian Quesada if he, in general, still feels pressure. Note, he's already successfully endured the two most stressful things in the world: raising two children as a young, broke musician and backing up Prince.
"I don't really feel a ton. It's more self-induced, like, 'I can't believe I haven't done this or that yet' – and then I keep moving the goalposts on myself and that never ends," Quesada laughs. "There's very little that can be thrown at me that I haven't dealt with already, but this album was definitely a new place. To be coming off a record that did as well as [Black Pumas] did, there was definitely some pressure.
"There was more on Eric, because he wrote a song that resonated with the entire world with 'Colors.' He's the guy who wrote a hit. There's less pressure on the guy who just has to make it sound cool and play guitar."
Getting to the Source
By the time this story goes to press, Black Pumas will have rolled out their hotly anticipated second album with midnight sales and autograph lines at record shops, national TV appearances, and their first shows after 15 months away from the stage – following an abrupt and mysterious announcement in August of 2022 that the band was canceling all future performances and pausing touring.
But right now it's early October and my recorder has already counted 63 minutes of an interview where we unpack Burton's fascinating and harrowing personal journey over the last year and half. And we're just getting started.
"As a recording artist and especially a frontman, the game is more than not influenced by perception," Burton explains to me. "I think the perception of what was going on in the people's eyes was 'Oh my God! Black Pumas is breaking up, Adrian's releasing [solo albums], nothing's being promoted, and Eric's not doing too much. What's going on here?'
"It was tearing me apart."
This kind of insecurity flies in the face of everything I've observed about Burton since we first met in 2016. He's one of the most confident humans I know. We're inside a locked-out Sahara Lounge, where Burton played his first Austin gig – an unassuming Wednesday opening slot in late 2015, just a couple months after he moved to town on his 25th birthday, alone and in the proverbial unknown.
"Being on the road for an extended period of time, coming off a relationship, figuring out how I express myself outside of Black Pumas, and just being able to finish a project without being distracted by fame or popularity – it was all eating at me," he says. "People [were] so thirsty for anything, to the point where we're coming up with stories for what was going on. I couldn't go out, like, 'Oh my God, aren't you the guy who used to be in Black Pumas?'
"Like, 'WHAT IS GOING ON?'" he adds, his voice raising an octave in exasperation. "I was like, 'Yo, I need to go meditate.'"
I always thought pressure rolled off of you, I tell him.
"Nah man, I'm a human being and I care about how I'm perceived," Burton replies. "I work very well under pressure – the bigger Black Pumas songs were completed when I was under pressure, but the solitude of coming off the tour and hearing the chatter and rumors, it was a lot of noise. Experiencing that, I needed to go sit out somewhere so I could finish this album."
Cue the title track's third verse, where Burton sings: "When I'm running on E and I'm tired, got to meditate."
Last December, when the noise was the loudest, Burton traveled to Kaufman County, east of Dallas, to participate in a Vipassana meditation retreat that involved nine days of total silence. He summarizes that self-work as digging deep within, toward "the source of what we all have an unlimited access to, which is love and peace."
It was Burton's second Vipassana residence. He describes the first as "life-changing" and the following as the "hardest thing I've ever done."
For 8-10 hours a day, he meditated, sitting so long that pain in his joints became unbearable. He learned to accept it and not react, following that pain to a place of inner peace where it would dissipate. Burton says Vipassana techniques, hinging on breathwork and mindfulness, provide him benefits on a daily basis, but the late 2022 retreat, in particular, helped him unload the unhelpful parts of his mind.
"I utilized that time to get to the bottom of some of the things I've been affected by for a long time," he reveals. "Things that have nothing to do with perception or with Black Pumas, but reacting to childhood trauma. It helped me come to see that if all this stuff disappears, I still have love and I still have peace. Even if this album is garbage, I still have value."
Out of the Blue
"We both had our heads in the same place that we didn't want to repeat the first record," Quesada explains. "My first instinct on every song, I would either resist it and not do it, or I would do it and then replace it."
While Quesada was serious about maintaining a live band feel on the Puma's debut, he's now adopted a "fuck it – whatever makes it sound cool" mentality. Chronicles of a Diamond features performances from the entire Pumas band: drummer Stephen Bidwell, keyboardist JaRon Marshall, bassist Brendan Bond, and vocalists Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller, plus contributions from the Point's Joe Roddy, multi-instrumentalist Colin Colby, and Greyhounds' Anthony Farrell, with tracking done in at least five different studios.
Quesada's production vision included making loops out of the band's live tracking like it was a hip-hop record, heavily manipulating sounds, and supplementing Bidwell's stone-cold drumbeats with programmed drums on top. But what really ensured that the album would have a different vibe than its predecessor was Burton taking on a co-producer role. While he used to show Quesada songs on an acoustic guitar, many of Chronicles of a Diamond's tracks spawned from recordings the singer presented to his partner.
"Some of Eric's songs that have repetitive synth loops happening – that never would have come out of my brain. It got my wheels turning. It was so perfect to start from a different place," says Quesada.
Prime example "Ice Cream (Pay Phone)" presents the Pumas' first song that could be accurately described as "a bop." Burton's breathless falsetto, assuring the listener that he "won't stay gone," candy-coats the sunny, strangely bouncy groove. The song was born at Blue House Recording Co., an entirely analog home studio in East Austin where Burton used to live and still frequently hangs his hat.
He and titular studio maestro Josh Blue had spontaneously fallen into a late-night session that hinged on free-form expression, beginning with a drum sample. Then Burton plugged an electric guitar straight into the board and cut the micro-riff that anchors the song before cranking up an amp and adding these big, borderline unreasonable power chords. Then came hi-hats that reminded him of Houston's chopped and screwed style, and a magnificently unorthodox bassline cut by Blue.
"When you listen to that song, those sounds really aren't supposed to live together, from the way I'm singing to the way the guitar sounds," Burton says with palpable excitement. "I wasn't being judgmental about the colors I was using and it turned out special."
It's perfectly Austin that the band that just performed on NBC's Today show recorded parts of their highly anticipated album at a studio without a single computer screen, inside an unassuming Eastside rent house. That "Ice Cream (Pay Phone)" demo eventually traveled to Erik Wofford's Cacophony Recorders for additional tracking and to Electric Deluxe for Quesada to imprint a standout guitar solo.
"At that time, most of my bandmates in the Black Pumas were working on their own stuff and I felt like I was traversing the unknown, but that song really flipped me over!" says Burton of the pivotal work, representative of him reinventing the band's production processes.
Quesada cites the playful "Hello," also cut at Blue House, among his favorite sessions from the album.
"We recorded that super informally – had a couple beers, kept it kinda live and raw, and left in all these sounds like the door closing and Eric laughing," he says. "Sometimes when you go into a studio, you feel like you need to get your headphones on and go to work, but this was fun with no pressure and no overthinking.
"I love that you can feel that looseness. It felt fun again, which is what we were always trying to chase."
Home of the Brave
Watching Burton transform an awkward corporate gig into a compelling moment of human connection, there's no question that he's a world-class entertainer. On October 21 at a heavily branded Formula One afterparty in Austin, at some venue that isn't really a venue, the room fills with people who traveled across states and oceans to watch race cars, not music.
Burton and Quesada take the stage as a stripped-down duo and ease into a campfire version of "More Than a Love Song." On the record, it's a densely orchestrated track, but with only backing guitar, Burton seizes the extra space with ad-libs and vocalizations. Before you know it, he has the whole room clapping and singing, "Fly together, fly together!" as he dances, wails, and soars. All entertainers can feed off a hungry crowd, but special ones, like Burton, can create energy – while also serving as a conduit for something bigger than themselves.
That being said, YouTube's search bar still auto-completes his name with "... botches national anthem."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" may be the most overrated song in American history. It's melodically awkward, virtually undanceable, reliant on embellishment, and basically a mash-up, setting an 1812 war poem over the tune of an existing British men's club theme. Every time I hear it, I regret that "Battle Hymn of the Republic" ("Glory, glory, hallelujah!") or "This Land Is Your Land" weren't ratified instead.
"I love my country," he tells me, making sure my recorder is running. "I really appreciated the opportunity. I was honored."
He's referring to being invited to kick off game one of the 2022 World Series in Houston. He recalls a funny, snakebit energy during an afternoon run-through at Minute Maid Park, with nervous participants screwing up their roles.
"During that rehearsal, I absolutely smashed it, dude," he laughs. "After that, I asked someone, 'Can we get a teleprompter? I feel like it's gonna be a little different once we get to the thing.' And they were like, 'Oh, you got this!'"
We both double over laughing, knowing what ensued.
With 11 million viewers watching, the broadcast focused in on Burton, holding a hat in his hand as he began singing, "O say can you see ..." But on the second line, he ended with the wrong word: "streaming," instead of "gleaming." Then, on line four, he started to sing line two again.
"When I sang that line twice, it happened in slow motion. I thought to myself, 'Do I stop and start over, or do I power through? I'm gonna keep going and finish strong.' I felt like I did my very best in that moment."
Fumbling the anthem on national TV is literally the stuff of nightmares for many, but no visible dread washed over Burton, nor did sweat rain from his brow. The performance actually started to get hot after the flubs, earning loud cheers after elongated words "glare," "wave," and ultimately "free." Watching from home, I'd never been prouder of Eric.
"When I finished singing, I was walking around and people were giving me daps and props like, 'Man, that was great!'" he recalls. "Then I go online and see all these people saying wild stuff."
Indeed, social media commenters accused him of being inebriated, disrespectful to the country, or an untalented singer. Singing the anthem at a game is like kicking a 30-yard field goal: Delusional people watching from their couches actually think they could do it. The lyrical lapse became headline news with ESPN, CBS, USA Today, and Yahoo! Sports using verbiage like "bungles" and "messes up."
"That was the first time I experienced online bullying – I feel for these kids growing up today," Burton says with wide-eyed exasperation. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is wild and funny, but also it's affecting me!'
"I was always the cool kid. From grade school onward, I was always the guy to make people smile and laugh – prom king, class clown, good at being popular and winning people over. But dang, dude, now I was looking like such a fool! At that point, I couldn't be saved. I couldn't be saved by Adrian. I couldn't be saved by my super brilliant management team. No one is here to rescue me."
Burton says that experience fueled his journey as a performer. How could he show that he belonged on those stages? By being true to himself.
I Know These Waters, Babe
"We didn't even know each other in 2017 when we made [the self-titled record] and we've been through a lot of shit together since," Quesada says of his and Burton's friendship. "So there was a lot more push and pull for the betterment of this album: just speaking up like, 'I'm not feeling this, I am feeling this.' The most pressure was what we put on ourselves."
As they did six years ago, the two poles of Black Pumas complete each other. There's Quesada, bandleader extraordinaire with a brain full of deep musical reference points, and Burton, charismatic kid with the voice of a legend. But just as relationships change over time, they can also change you.
At the collaboration's onset, Burton was so timid about being asked to sing over Quesada's instrumentals that he sought counsel from more experienced friends. Showing them takes from his first two sessions, he asked, "How do I even sing this?"
"They'd tell me I was singing too soft, from a folk disposition, when it should be coming from a razor-sharp soul place," he recalls. "That made me revisit Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Al Green – those were my big three, and I remember driving around with my friend just singing everything in an Otis impression. That helped me freestyle my lyrics and melodies for Black Pumas."
This was nothing new for Burton, having been deeply involved in musical theatre in high school and college and thus knowing how to embody a role. Obviously, the results were incredible – crafting songs that brought seven Austin musicians to huge stages all over the world and helped Burton recognize the power of his soulful voice. But the 33-year-old singer has a shocking revelation: "I feel like I failed Adrian on the first album."
Burton believes he leaned too hard on a vocal tonality he calls his "Otis Redding mask" and freestyled lyrics in the vocal booth too frequently, instead of being confident enough to compose them. He describes "finishing songs from a place that is Adrian's shoes and not mine."
"To me, it can come off a little pastiche," he says.
I might accuse Burton of strategic self-negging – you know, criticizing a widely loved thing you've done to create the perception that your next work is superior – but he does embody more contemporary and original vocal styles on Chronicles of a Diamond. The majority of material began with him and was finished by Quesada, effectively inverting Black Pumas' original writing process.
"It felt kind of lonely until I could bring ideas to the table for Adrian to take what he knows about arranging and build around what I'm doing – like the traditional producer and artist relationship," Burton contends. "This time around, the record is more true to who I actually am – not putting on a mask or my tap shoes or borrowing an affectation. It's taking a really big risk, but I didn't know what else to bet on other than myself."
Voice of Clarity
When fans lined up hours early down South Congress on November 2, hoping to get into C-Boy's for an underplay simulcast on KUTX, it had been 484 days since all seven members of Black Pumas were onstage together.
The band hadn't even taken that long a break during the pandemic, throughout which they were a livestreaming fixture, broadcasting on late-night shows. When the world reopened, the Pumas were roughly 11,000 Austinites' first big concert back – selling out a record five nights at Stubb's in May and June of 2021. That momentum propelled them into a relentless tour schedule on bigger and bigger stages, which suddenly ceased following a performance at Switzerland's distinguished Montreux Jazz Festival on July 6, 2022.
After that, Black Pumas dates began inexplicably falling off the calendar, canceling shows in Canada, the U.S., and Japan. The next month, the band made a vague announcement that they'd "press pause" and "step away from touring for the rest of the year." Rumors of a blowup ran wild.
At the time, Quesada worried most about his live bandmates, who didn't have the same catalog ownership that he and Burton do.
"That fucked me up," he says. "That's the stuff that keeps me up more than Eric and I – it was super fuckin' tough to think about. It got to a point where it felt like shit was gonna implode and we needed to press pause. I remember telling Eric, 'I think our best bet of us keeping this together is just to take a break.'
"We might have never gotten to make this album if we kept burning ourselves out. I was thinking about longevity."
Both principal members agree that exhaustion and issues, both personal and interpersonal, factored in the stoppage, but Burton was mostly in his head about his mother.
"My mom was the biggest impetus for getting off the road for an extended period of time," he reveals. "She needed me."
Burton says the band's 15-month pause provided his first opportunity to be present with his family out West since arriving in Austin in 2015.
"The holidays, the birthdays – for me, I needed to revisit that," he says, contentedly. "What I accomplished during the break was moving my mom to Texas along with my brother, who's been helping out with family stuff. They live three hours north in a sweet pad.
"I'd wanted to pursue this career and have real success, but then it came time that I needed to make sure all ships were rising as it pertains to my own family."
Burton says his family, spread across California and the Southwestern states, has always been the driving force behind his artistry. Just as the singer returned to L.A. to wrap vocals on Chronicles of a Diamond with producer John Congleton, Quesada ventured to his father's homeland of Mexico to close out his sonic arrangements in solitude. To finish the record, both, in a sense, returned home.
With the Pumas ramping back up into a tour cycle, launching with four shows at ACL Live in December, I ask Burton what he's looking forward to about being back onstage.
"I'm looking forward to embodying who I am again. I feel like I was cultivated to be a live performer," he says. "My mom was a dancer, my uncle was a singer-songwriter, another uncle writes stories and screenplays, my grandparents were missionaries who traveled the East Coast organizing how Sunday services would program music. It's a performative family.
"I come from the theatre, I come from performance, and I have a really big respect for it. So I'm looking forward to connecting with my family through that. I'm an offshoot of them."
Black Pumas play four nights at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Dec. 3-6, with Say She She and Danielle Ponder opening separate dates.Tickets are still available.