BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Blessed with the vocal wallop of fellow Alabaman Wilson Pickett and the electric stage presence of James Brown and Mick Jagger, Anderson East is a soul singer who defies genre classifications – and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Onstage, he’s just as comfortable covering rowdy rock anthems such as The Faces’ “Stay With Me” or David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel” as he is doing his sweet and tender take on the Van Morrison chestnut “Tupelo Honey,” all of which he performed for a packed and sweaty Sacramento throng sardined into Harlow’s Nightclub on Tuesday night.
These days, East is keeping very good company, finding time to work and pal around with industry heavyweights including Grammy winners Chris Stapleton and premiere producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, A Thousand Horses, Lake Street Dive). And lest we be derelict in our journalistic duty, East has also been seen arm-in-arm with another pretty fair singer, Miranda Lambert, who, along with East and Stapleton, all appear on the upcoming Cobb curated compilation album, Southern Family, available May 18.
East and I sat down in his dressing room following sound check and ahead of his headlining set in Sacramento, where we talked about his soul steeped current album, Delilah, his ongoing “Devil In Me” tour, which runs through March 26 in Birmingham, and his contribution to Cobb’s Southern Family album, among other subjects. My thanks to Brenna Sexton, Asha Goodman and Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co. for their efforts in setting up our conversation.
Well thank you for having me.
I wanna begin the conversation by taking you back to your musical beginning. Did you have the proverbial, what I call, Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? Did a song come on the radio, or did you go to a show where afterwards you said to yourself, “I think I want some of that! I wanna do that.”
I don’t really know, for me. I think it was, well, a neighborhood kid had a guitar. Yeah I don’t know if there was ever, for me, just a definitive moment, (but) I remember hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles for the first time, and just having some uncontrollable feelings. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I liked it. Yeah, I think just electric guitars really did it for me.
I know you started pretty young with songwriting. What was the first song?
It was a song called “Brain,” which was an awful title. And it was an even more awful song. We played at our, I believe our seventh grade talent show. I don’t think we won, though. We definitely didn’t win, but we did encore with “Free Bird,” and it brought the house down.
You’re originally from Alabama and now based in Nashville. What does it mean to (figuratively) have “Nashville-based Songwriter” on your business card or your LinkedIn? Is there added pressure to be at the top of your game because you’re in Music City and now a member of a historic fraternity of songwriters?
I don’t know if there’s added pressure – I think I put enough of that on myself as it is. But I think there’s an absolute wealth of talent and creativity in that city, and just to be able to feed off of it and be inspired by it and be inspired by the people there: it’s a really spectacular place. Coming up at the age that I was, it was just all input, you know, and there was something to feed on everywhere you looked. So I’ve got a lot to be thankful for from that place, and still a lot to live up to, for sure.
The pedigree there is obviously undeniable. You wrote or co-wrote all but one song on your record, Delilah, including “Quit You” with some guy named Chris Stapleton. I hear he’s pretty good (laughs). Take us into the writing sessions for that with Chris.
Well you know a lot of them I mainly just wrote with friends of mine, like Chris (“Quit You”), Aaron Raitiere (“Satisfy Me,” “Only You,” “Devil in Me”), Charlie Pate (“Satisfy Me,” “Only You”) and Mark Stephen Jones (“Devil in Me,” “Keep the Fire Burning”) and all those guys – they’re just buddies. It’s just a lot easier to get to the heart of the matter and have a good time and have a good conversation, and ultimately get a good song with people that you’re comfortable with. So yeah, it just kind of came about pretty naturally. I met all those guys, and some of them I’ve known for 10-plus years. It’s just all natural the way it all kinda came out.
Now I gotta ask you; where do you get a “PHD in TLC” (lyric line in “Satisfy Me”)(laughs)?
(Laughs) Well that is self-proclaimed! You can’t really go to an institution to get it (laughs)! You just find it along the way, I think (laughs)!
(Laughs) I still haven’t earned my degree, I think, but we’re working on it!
All you can do is try!
You and Chris also have a pretty decent producer in common, Dave Cobb, of course. What’s the secret elixir that this guy has that makes everything he touches turn to gold – or platinum?
Well, I think he has a very simple approach to things. He makes amazing records that everybody loves, but his approach isn’t anything outlandish, I don’t think. And I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. The people that he surrounds himself with are extremely talented, and no matter if you’re Chris Powell playing the drums, or Brain Allen playing bass, or you’re Chris Stapleton as a singer or as a songwriter, or your Lake Street Dive as a collective band – it’s just high quality at the very beginning. He has a way of seeing what’s special about somebody and just allowing that to shine, and not try to get in the way of it or try to soup it up or fancy it up in any way that it doesn’t need to. It’s just allowing what’s special to be in the forefront.
In the studio is he a one-take guy, generally? Is he live to tape? Give us a little insight into that.
All of it is live, unless it’s just some extraneous bells and whistles, but the core of it is live. For me t least, I don’t think we’ve ever recorded anything more than, maybe, four times at max. It’s a very quick process. You just sit around and kinda bang out the songs and everybody just talks it through before you even go in the room, and then it just kinda comes to life, and then you just make adjustments as needed, and then when it feels right – you got it.
Kinda like it should be, right? You just kick it out.
I think so.
Staying on the subject of Dave, he’s gathered a top shelf group of a dozen very talented friends of his, including you, Chris, Chris’ wife Morgane, some upstart named Miranda Lambert (laughs), Holly Williams, Jason Isbell, and on and on, for this record that’s coming out, Southern Family (March 18). Tell me about the song you’re singing, “Learning.”
That’s a song that I wrote with my buddy Aaron Raitiere, just thinking about what southern family is, you know, the concept of it. It’s a pretty broad term, but yeah, we just started talking about who we are now as aging men and whatnot [Note: at this point I look at Anderson and mouthed “Aging?”]. Well, you know, we’re 28, man, we’re growing up. You’re finally flying on your own wings at that point. So looking back on what all it was that got you here, and you are who you are, and just through that conversation it was just like, my old man – both of ours – were so instrumental in showing us what a good and decent man is. So yeah, (we) just wrote that song kind of as a thank you letter to him (Anderson’s father) and the story of me up until this point because of him.
Sonically, the song just oozes Otis Redding. Tell me a little bit about the sound of it.
Again, we just walked in the room and just played the song. We tried to service the song as much as we could. We wanted something that started one place and ended at another place. It’s got very tender moments, and it’s got very boisterous moments. But yeah, it’s just a matter of it feeling good and conveying the message that we were trying to get after, and so hopefully we did.
Tender moments? You mean you tried a little tenderness and you got there, right (laughs)?
(Laughs) Oh, yeah, we tried to (laughs).
(Laughs) I had to go there (laughs)!
I had the pleasure of speaking with Holly Williams back in January 2013, when we discussed the release of her album The Highway.
Oh, yeah, I’m very familiar with that one.
Yeah, I was gonna say, you’ve logged many a mile on the highway with Holly. Do you have a road story for me?
A road story with Holly? She has a way of making everything work out. I am way more anal than she is, but yeah, she just always has a way of it just happening. You’ll leave two hours later than you were supposed to, and you’ll get there 20 minutes before you should have been there! She’s an extremely hardworking gal and so talented, and she’s got so many facets of herself that I just can’t even understand. I think she’s about to have another baby today! [Note: as Anderson correctly predicted, Williams welcomed her second child, daughter Lillie Mae, on Tuesday, March 8, the day our conversation took place]. So yeah, I got nothing but mad respect for her.
When I spoke to her she’d just had her first baby, and in addition to the release of her album, she was itching to get back on the road. I brought up the same thing, about her juggling so many balls on top of being an amazing talent.
Just a couple more questions for you, and again, I appreciate the time. You’re about a month in on your current “Devil in Me” tour. You wrap on March 26 in Birmingham. Aside from the time you spend onstage, what is the most enjoyable part about being on tour and on the road?
Probably sleeping (laughs). That is a precious commodity – rest and sleep. Yeah, you know, just the simple things, just anything that gives you a hint of being like a normal person. Like if you get to cook food – even if you just use a microwave, that’s a big deal! Just the simple things in life that you take for granted when you’re at home, like walking into a grocery store and buying more than a toothbrush. That’s a pretty special day.
Yeah I’m definitely much more of a sit at home kind of guy. When your whole life is nothing but travel, the moments of stillness are precious, for sure. I think if it comes in spurts it’s always a lot of fun; like when you get out here you have much more enthusiasm to explore and have some kind of adventure, but like you said, we’re about a month in and we’re scraping every night just to make sure that for the hour and a half, two hours we’re onstage, it is the biggest we can be, and then the rest of it, (laughs) we’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
Sonically, I think you’ve got one foot firmly planted in soul, maybe the other in a little bit of gospel. How would you describe the sound that’s onstage and on record?
You know I get asked that a whole lot, and I think ultimately it’s just southern music. I think that having that as the definition, it encompasses it all. There’s aspects of my personality and my musical taste that are all those things. There’s R&B music, there’s gospel music, there’s country music, there’s pop music. All those things interest me, and I love and identify with, so if it weaves in and out I think it comes from roots in southern culture. For me, that’s how I identify it.
For me, if I was going to walk into a record store and ask the person behind the counter where I would find an Anderson East record, I would hope that they would say, “It’s in the good music section!”
Yeah! I’ll take that!
There are only two kinds – good and bad…
Yeah, that’s what Thelonious Monk said!
That’s right, you know it well. Final question: which is the better feeling; the feeling you get when you’ve written a song, and it’s done, and you go, “That’s it! I got it! I’m not gonna tweak it any more. It’s done! Or coming offstage after killing it at a great show?
Oh, man, that’s a tough one! I think one’s more of an immediate sensation, like, coming offstage (pause) I’ll tell you the best of it is when – and it can happen in both situations – it’s when you are outside of your own self and you forget about where you are and all it is is just consciousness. It’s not even necessarily being present – it’s like hyper-present, to where you’re just everything! That’s what it is. I think that’s why anybody keeps on playing music. You know there’s hard moments in all this stuff, but if you’ve felt that thing to where you’ve (pause) you know it’s like I can imagine how drug attics are. They’re trying to get back to that one place that they felt that one time that was more special than anything else. You know, some people keep falling in love, when they’ve had their ass handed to them so many times, you know, cuz they want that feeling. And it’s the same thing – it’s just trying to find that bit of you that’s intangible, and I think that’s what’s the special part.
Two different types of high, right?
Thank you very much, man. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.
I appreciate it. Thanks.