Growing up, Caleb Eberhardt spent a lot of time at church. It’s not just that his parents were religious. His father, Arthur J. Eberhardt Sr., was a founder of the St. Paul Tabernacle Baptist Church in San Francisco in 1992, one of a constellation of Baptist ministries that dot the southeast side of the city in neighborhoods like Silver Terrace and Bayview. His mother, Dr. Albirda Rose-Eberhardt — Dr. Rose — became an ordained minister in 1999, and preached at St. Paul Tabernacle alongside her husband.
Over slow-dripping keyboards and insistent snaps, Eberhardt outlines his childhood routine on “Goddamn,” the second single from his debut album as Rosehardt, Songs in the Key of Solitude: “Church every weekend / Plus Bible study, choir practice, children’s church, and deacon’s meetings,” he raps. His low and growling frustration contrasts with the searching r&b falsetto he uses as the song starts, when he sings, “Mama asked me if I go to church / I said, ‘Naw, Mama.’ / She said, ‘Baby, what would it hurt?’ / It’s too hard, Mama.” In the bridge he poses a question — perhaps it’s mother talking to him, perhaps he’s talking to himself: “Where’s your faith?”
Growing up the way Eberhardt did, you’re often funneled into two outcomes as your faith matures. For many, the presence of the divine remains a guiding light through trying times, a constant source of gratitude and inspiration. Others reject the institution completely, becoming fundamentalist atheists who wield the zeal of the convert like a logic-forged cudgel. Eberhardt is something of a rarity. He hasn’t felt comfortable sorting himself into either camp, all he knows is that his relationship with God and the church has changed since he lost his father in 2010.
“All the people who grew up like I did or close to the way I did — I don’t wanna say nothing has swayed them, but they’re steadfast,” Eberhardt, 28, told me from his living room studio in Greenpoint. “I just wonder if they’ve ever had a moment like the one I’m having right now, which is just curiosity mixed with a little bit of panic and mixed with a little bit of paranoia.” Eberhardt smiles and looks toward his bedroom door. “It’s just funny that my mom is here,” he says.
Dr. Rose was sleeping in her son’s bedroom, on a visit from the West Coast. (Rosehardt is a portmanteau of his father’s last name and his mother’s from a previous marriage.) Even though Eberhardt was inundated with doctrine for most of his young life, he says that his family never made faith feel like an obligation. “I was never pressured in any kind of hostile way.” That freedom fostered a healthy skepticism in Eberhardt. “I’m confused about my faith, right now. I’m in a place now where I’m just allowing myself to be receptive to anything that might feel like it makes sense to me,” Eberhardt says. “It’s scary, but it makes me feel like I’m in a bit more control.” That confusion — about his place in the world or, really, in the cosmos — has yielded some of his strongest work to date.
Known as CE, Eberhardt began performing in New York as one half of rap duo Quincy Vidal, along with his close friend and collaborator Le’Asha Julius. He and Julius met as undergraduates at SUNY Purchase, where they were studying theater. Eberhardt can be guarded when you first meet him, but his natural state is that infectious calm native to northern California. His charisma coils and springs at different moments, like when he goes from a pretzel of limbs quietly curled on an easy chair to deploying an overpowering charm, a flexibility that no doubt served him well as an actor. (Eberhardt has had bit parts in shows like The Deuce and Law and Order: SVU.)
That theater background informs how he approaches live performances. At a recent show at Union Pool, he made the stage into a simulacrum of his bedroom, creating an extra layer of intimacy. Midway through an hour-long set that dripped in emotion, he stepped down into the audience with an acoustic guitar to perform the heartbreaking “Come Away Death.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but it just felt right for that show,” he says. “It called back to when I really started making music. I started on the acoustic guitar and would play coffee houses, at my high school, all that shit. It was just sort of a nostalgic trip for me.”
In many ways, nostalgia is a defining theme of Songs in the Key of Solitude. He began writing the album in the immediate wake of a dissolved relationship, composing the lead single “Fall Into You” only a few days after he and his longtime girlfriend ended things. The album title is an homage to Stevie Wonder’s opus, of course, but Eberhardt originally called his project Songs in the Key of Death. He scrapped that title after 24 hours, but he knew he wanted to explore loss, pain, and their ancillary and inverse values. “It helped me realize the difference between loneliness and solitude, both in terms of the music and in terms of the journey I was on,” he says. “Solitude is something you want, something you seek out for yourself. Nobody wants to be lonely, but that doesn’t mean you can’t like being by yourself.”
Solitude is album as catharsis, but it doesn’t ever feel overwrought or inaccessible. “Fall Into You” has all the isolation and detachment of Frank Ocean’s “Novacane,” and the exploration of physical and emotional numbness will be familiar to anyone who’s been dumped before. Ocean is an obvious influence on Eberhardt, from the combined crooning and rapping to the raw lyrical emotion. But where Ocean deploys a devastating falsetto, Eberhardt uses a gentler weapon without sacrificing anything in the way of poignancy.
He can also spit bars. On “Bartender,” a throwback boom-bap track, he takes his cues from Odd Future standouts Tyler, the Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt, using his voice to add some oomph to the uppercutting bass.
It’s on “Goddamn” where you can hear Caleb wrestling with his faith in real time, but the song is also a dirge for Eberhardt Sr., who died when Caleb was 20, after struggling with Alzheimer’s for the better part of a decade. “Pop is sick and I’m thirteen / Condition of his health, and my opinion of church, is worsening,” he raps. “Soul is growing hard, I’ll be damned if you catch me hurting / Pray and pray and pray with no indication it’s working.”
When we talked, Caleb outlined the familiar contours of a disease inevitably likened to watching a loved one disappear in slow motion. First his father stopped driving, then came the small stumbles and disorientations that signaled the coming decline. By the time the elder Eberhardt was put in hospice, Caleb was resigned to his father’s fate and started to question a god that would poison a man that dedicated his whole life to a higher calling. “All this together — the irony of my parents being so big in their faith and me as a young kid watching this — I’ve looked back and realized how it shaped who I am now,” he says.
Growth was the theme of Eberhardt Sr.’s first sermon as leader of his congregation in San Francisco. He read from Philippians, expounding on the need to forget what’s behind you and forge ahead: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Three decades later, Caleb echoes that message through his music, his pain of the moment put down on wax and his eyes trained on that light pulsing faintly in the distance.