Violinist Lee England Jr. is an artist on the cusp of stardom but he’s so humble that you can’t appreciate the magnitude of his talent unless you’ve seen and heard him perform. Lee, who has been dubbed the “Soul Violinist”, weaves a sonic tapestry, moving effortlessly from covers of current hits, to classical, to his own compositions, which he describes as “a musical gumbo consisting of rhythm, blues, gospel, jazz, Hip-Hop and symphonic soul.”
Although Lee is not necessarily a household name, he is a coveted live and studio musician with a staggering list of artist collaborations. He has been featured on national TV and radio, plays at NBA games across the country and is a favorite performer at events and fundraisers hosted by entertainment luminaries. His talent is so undeniable that, after hearing him perform for the first time, Michael Jordan personally approached Lee and asked him to represent the Jordan brand.
Despite his pedigree (Lee holds three separate Music degrees from Southern Illinois University and is classically trained), Lee appears to be genuinely free of the inflated ego and sense of entitlement that many young artists develop after their first taste of success. In fact, to this day, he regularly performs on the street to keep his skills sharp and to get feedback from real audiences. Of course, the fact that he makes quite a bit of money doing it doesn’t hurt, but his core motivation for taking his act to the streets is grounded in the discipline and humility that have defined his persona and his career.
I had the chance to chat – it – up with Lee at the Mid in Chicago, where he performed with (and made believers of) Robin Thicke and Melanie Fiona.
So Lee, you’re based out of L.A. now. What prompted the move from Chicago?
I had been to L.A. several times and I was really trying to figure out where I wanted to be because I knew I was leaving Chicago. It was L.A, New York or Atlanta. If I had gone to New York, I felt I would have been limited to jazz. In Atlanta I would have been trying to break down doors. In LA, the mixture of the weather, combined with the amount of opportunities and the fact that I could street perform year-round brought me to my decision. Until I get to the level I’m trying to get to, the street performing is really a key thing because I can support myself doing it. People really don’t understand my truth in that.
Tell me more about that. Street performing is not something a lot of young artists with the kind of success you’ve had are willing or able to do. How did you start?
I started street performing in Chicago really out of necessity. After making the transition from being a full-time music teacher to a full-time artist, I was struggling and having a hard time making rent. I tried performing on various corners around Chicago and got really good responses from people. I eventually street performed at the Taste of Chicago and I made a significant amount of money over five days, three hours at a time. That was kind of the launching point.
Did you ever have any reservations about street performing, given your education and talent?
No not really. I am a very logical and analytical person. I figure if I get out the street and nobody gives me a dollar, I spent the time practicing. People don’t realize that a musician should practice in front of an audience, if possible because It allows for a more realistic experience for the artist. So I just go out and enjoy playing for people. If something comes from it then cool. I’m always nervous when I start because I’m not sure how people will respond to me but as I get the good response from the audience and they start buying my CD and tipping, I realize I am making money and I start to have fun doing it. I’ve realized that street performing is a platform that allows people to hear me play who never would otherwise. Because I bring it straight to them, they really have no choice. If they like my music, they buy my CD, they become fans…so when I go back to that street, I have people who will sit there and listen for their entire lunch break.
What’s your perception of the music industry and how you feel you fit into it?
The music industry is in such disarray right now because of the internet and all of these home studios. Back in the day, you needed a record deal because you needed a place to record and all of the technology and equipment. Now that I can do that at home, it’s like what’s the point of having a record deal when I can blow up off of a YouTube clip? So now I can just do me and at the end of the day the labels will come. It’s not the same as it was before when a label would really invest in an artist, build them up and give them a whole year just to get everything together. Now I can come to a label with all of my stuff together. I used to wonder why I hadn’t gotten a deal yet but now I realize that I need to stay faithful and its God’s timing, not my timing. I’m learning and growing to the point where I will be ready when big opportunities present themselves. I have matured as an artist and a man and I am prepared for the success to come. A year or two ago, I might not have been able to say that.
Do you want to be famous? If so how famous would you like to be?
I want to be global. I want to be internationally known.
What kind of music do you want to be making? What does a Lee England Jr. album sound like?
I’ve realized that as an instrumentalist, I’m not confined to any one genre. That’s the beautiful thing about an instrument. I feel like the chances of going platinum in the United States off of an instrumental album might be far-fetched. Not that it’s impossible or I’m not shooting for that, but why work so hard for such a small demographic? Why not drop ten CDs, in ten different genres internationally, and sell 100,000 copies per CD? Why try to sell a million in the U.S. in one genre if I have the ability to spread it out? If I have a million fans internationally, I can go into a city and do Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows and do totally different sets and have a large audience for each one. At the end of the day, I want to slay every genre. I want to show versatility in Blues, Jazz, R&B, Hip Hop, Classical, Bluegrass, Gospel…whatever it is. I’m going to put my soul in everything I play…that why I’m the Soul Violinist!