Eric Church was born in the year that punk exploded. Church has largely ploughed his own furrow with his edgy take on songwriting and performance. By his own admission he is not a traditional country artist, though he is marketed in the contemporary country genre.
Signed toCapitol Records since 2005, he has released five studio album and one live album. Church is a very successful artist and several of his albums and singles have reached number 1 on the Billboard Country charts. His most recent album, Mr Misunderstood, saw him confirm his ‘outside” status when it was initially released to fans without even his label’s knowledge.
Eric Church has the status now to do things his way and that is a positive direction for the artist. Lonesome Highway interviewed him prior to his performance at the 3 Arena, the Dublin leg of the 2016 Country 2 Country festival.
Mr Misunderstood was released with no titles and no credits on the artwork, Was there a specific reason for that?
That was because of inspiration actually, as I didn’t expect to have an album out. I’d sat down one day and wrote for the first time in a long time and wrote Mr Misunderstood. That was the first song and the next day I wrote Mistress Named Music (with Casey Beathard) and on the third day I wrote by myself. So all of a sudden this window opened for me, with creativity and inspiration. I’d never had that happen, as normally I have to write about 100 songs to find what it is I’m searching for, but not this time. I knew they were all exactly on the same album. The interesting thing was what to do with that, as we just came of from the Outsiders album and we weren’t supposed to schedule another album until this coming summer. But to me it’s a crime against the in aspiration of the writer to have to put it on a shelf and get back to it. It’s the worst thing you could ever do as an artist, so we looked for ways to put it out and, it was my idea, I said ‘let’s put it out’, and as I’m a vinyl guy I wanted to send it to the fans first. The label did not know about it and we ended up having to purchase a record plant in Germany to get it done without the label knowing. When we went to Walmart and the big distributors, we said that it was a Christmas album. So we kept it secret at every level and it arrived the morning of the CMAs and it was there for our fans. All of a sudden they became the mouthpiece. The interesting thing there is, usually the label gets it first, then radio followed by the critics and the media. That’s all to tell the fans about it and that’s backwards. You’re always trying to get it in their (the fan’s) hands. So you should go to them first and let them tell people about it. So that’s the one thing we tried to flip.
I love vinyl, to me it’s the closest thing to what I hear in the studio. It’s not exactly there but it’s the closest thing. When you get into CDs and MP3 and that stuff it’s just so different. I think that’s what the resurgence is, as people are getting back in to that escapism of what music is.
How important is the role of your producer Jay Joyce in shaping the sound for recording?
I think he’s critical and the one thing about Jay is that we understand each other. There’s many times in the studio where you can have a bunch of musicians that you may have to explain thins to, but with Jay I never have to do that because we understand what were thinking. That’s special when you find that. I can say “hey man, this is this or that” and everyone is looking at me in the studio confused but Jay gets it. So when you speak ‘music’ fluently with someone like that, that is rare. Jay and I have always had that connection, even early on. We have the two most different backgrounds that you could ever have, as we are two totally different people, but we really agree on what should happen musically.
On the album you mention a number of musical names such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy. Where they big musical influences for you?
Everybody finds muses, and when it came to Mr Misunderstood they were artists that I love that I don’t know that everybody knows. They are people that I look to, to get inspiration; people like Elvis Costello and Ray Wylie, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. I think it was important to put that in there to show that this record had a little more depth. I wanted the country fan who knew me as a quote ‘Superstar Artist’ that they hear all the time, may dig deeper than just what they hear on the radio. It is what makes us up, just look at the DNA and those guys are an integral part of my DNA.
There are elements of soul, blues, reggae …
Yes, there is.
Your duet partner Susan Tedeschi on Mixed Drinks about Feelings is not a usual choice to sing with.
She amazing. Her and Derek Trucks, and he’s one of the greatest guitar players on the planet. Again, they are people that I’m a fan of and I try to expose some different voices to country music.
Does what you’re doing now and the success you have had take away from your songwriting time?
No, the songwriting for me has always been about being committed to the craft. I can say when it’s all said and done, as it was in the beginning, that I’ll be a songwriter. All the other stuff I can’t control, but I would still write songs. That would be the most important thing for people to know about me; that I’m A, B and C a songwriter. Everything else, I hope, takes care of itself. If it all ended tomorrow as a recording artist I’d still be writing songs. It wouldn’t matter if I made money at it as it’s what I do.
In that light do you keep notebooks of lines or ideas as they might arrive?
I do, a lot I put on my iPhone. There are windows that open inspiration wise and when they happen, you have to pay attention. There’s no rhyme or reason and I wish I knew what it was. Some people write to a deadline, which is an interesting thing, as when you have one some people write better that way. But I don’t think I’m that way. I’m more into when it starts to happen I know to pay attention to that. I can go a long time without a song then I can write 30 in two weeks.
When that happens to you, do you feel an overall theme is emerging?
That’s interesting; sometimes and sometimes not. This time I realised about three songs in that I had the beginnings of an album and what surprised me was that every day after that I started to second guess myself. I was thinking ‘they can’t all be good’ and that I was losing my edge; because, as I said, I normally write a lot to get good ones. But this time four or five songs in I thought they could be on the same record. I started to go to people saying ‘Am I nuts, or is this good?’ That’s when it started to formulate and something was happening that had never happened to me. For this album I probably wrote 18 songs and there’s 10 on the record. That has never happen before from a quality standpoint. Normally I’d be a one-in-five guy. I think that this was a different thing.
You have been using your own band on this album. Is that something that you prefer?
As we were trying to keep it from anybody knowing, it was just us. The difference is that The Outsiders was more bombastic. It was restless creativity. I had had a hard time with the Chief album, as that was where we want from nobody knowing us to everybody knowing us. I had felt a little bit constrained as were in a format, and it had won (both CMA & ACM) album of the year, and we were the focal point of what was happening then and that bothered me. I’ve always been good on the fringe and not in the middle. I’ve never liked being that guy. The Outsiders was a little bit of rebellion against that. It was us going ‘let’s go nuts’. With Mr Misunderstood there was a lot of space. It was just the songs and a lot of them are just one-takes.
Do you feel misunderstood?
Well, I felt that as a younger person. So that song is less about me now. The younger person, male or female, who marches to the beat of their own drummer; as music lovers we’ve all felt that we may like something that not everybody else does - but that’s ok. Equally you may do something different and that’s ok too. For me it’s more about that.
The Mistress Named Music?
Well, that’s my favourite song.
What do you think of traditional country music?
I love it personally, but I’ve never done it better than other people. Really early on I realised that that is not my strength. I’d rather hear Alan Jackson or one of those guys rather than me trying to do them. They’re better at it. I’m a fan of it and it’s great to see it coming back. I love the singer/songwriter troubadour element of it. For me the harder country beat is in Americana. That’s where the true spirit of country is. What’s happening at radio is because of commercialism. It’s pop music. The biggest problem that all formats have is that when something begins to work then everybody then does that. Especially in Nashville where one thing worked, then everything begins to sound like that. That’s because it’s basically pop music. It becomes popular culture and becomes commercialized, then it loses the heart. It will work for a little bit but then it’s going to recycle. But now some of that realness is coming back. It’ll make the music better.
You toured on The Outsiders Tour with Dwight Yoakum as an opening act. How did your fans take to that?
It worked good. If you look at the kind of career that we’ve tried to carve out, that’s the career that he carved out 20 years ago. Some people wonder how it would go when it started, but I thought it worked great. I watched almost every night and he’s so good. He can still do it to the nines.
On the album you play both acoustic and also electric guitar. Do you like letting go with the latter?
I’m an insecure guitar player. I ended up playing a lot of parts on the record and that’s where Jay’s great as he tells me just to play and that “we’ll never use this.” So I’ll take a pass and it ends up being the one on the record. Because I think he is going to replace it I don’t feel that pressure. It’s the best when you’re not thinking too hard about what you’re playing. You’re playing from your heart and not from your head. One of my favourite things right now is playing the Mr Misunderstood album, as we haven’t had the chance to play it anywhere and we don’t know it that well yet. We recorded it and it’s been three months, so now playing it every night’s a little different. It’s at that stage where we don’t know it well enough to know what we should be playing. That’s fun. In the studio I know the feeling that if you chase a song too long and something starts to buck on you and it’s not happening. I believe that if it starts to get difficult to get a track then there’s something wrong. It’s time to move on. I do like to play acoustic and we are going to be doing two acoustic shows in Red Rocks. It’s not something I’d want to do all the time but I do love it. It is something that shows a different element of the songs.
Is Europe a place where you want to succeed?
A lot of artists come over and play Country 2 Country and then think that they’re big, but that’s not Europe. You have to commit to all of Europe. For us it’s been great. I happen to believe, and it could be naive, but I don’t think so, that music translates culture, it translates language. It’s a universal language. If you commit to it and play it, it works. This is a little bit of an exception as it is a kind of “soft ticket” as if I came to Dublin without this event, I wouldn’t be playing the 3 Arena. I’d be playing a theatre, which is what I’d rather do. The thing I can say is that I love the day that we’re on (with Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves) as I had turned this down a couple of times. I said I would if it was cohesive with who we are. You have people who are songwriters and troubadours who would go anywhere in Europe and road-dog it. For me it was important to get that right or I’d rather come and do my own show.
Interview by Stephen Rapid, assisted by Ronnie Norton.