By Kurt Wolff
Eric Church doesn’t mess around.
Then again, actually he does, at least when it comes to making music. He explores new sounds, travels in new directions, takes risks and pushes the limits of his ability to write and record songs with lasting appeal. Songs that are, as he puts it, “alive.” Which is why his latest studio album The Outsiders, which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, took so much out of him.
“It’s brutal,” Church said of the album-making process, when Radio.com sat down with him in Nashville for an early morning chat last week. “It’s why I won’t make a lot of them.”
Brutal as it is, Church is clearly proud of the result, a 12-song collection that moves from big barrages of rock ‘n’ roll (“The Outsiders”) to songs deliberately stripped down to just the slimmest of instrumentation (“Dark Side,” “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”). There are loud songs and soft songs, short songs and long (“Devil, Devil” clocks in at over eight minutes). There’s even a poem.
Church is adamant that The Outsiders is not merely a collection of radio-friendly singles packaged neatly together, but a full-blown album — that the songs are meant to be listened to not randomly but in sequence, start to finish. “Mix them all up,” he says, and it becomes “a totally different journey.”
He also sets the bar high for himself. He was determined not to just make, as he called it, Chief Part 2, referring to his hugely successful platinum-selling (and ACM Award-winning) album from 2011. He wanted to create something that was, in his words, “artistic.” For him as a musician, he said, it’s vital to keep “mining new ground” creatively. “I think the format’s better for it” and “the music’s better for it.” As artists, he said, “it’s our responsibility to set the tone for what’s happening in the industry. And I take that seriously.”
Radio.com: With The Outsiders, you’ve said you didn’t want to play it safe. You wanted to push the boundaries. Why was that so important to you?
Eric Church: Coming off the Chief album, I wanted to make sure people understood that this wasn’t Chief Part 2. I feel like at this time in our career, we’ve had enough success — it’s always been important to me, when you have that success, you have that relevance, that you’re not just taking the safe path, that you’re not just doing the easy thing. That you’re continuing to be artistic and creative and mining new ground. I think the format’s better for it, the music’s better for it. And I think it’s our responsibility as artists. This album from a creative standpoint is pretty far out there. It was made that way, it was a conscious thing.
You also said you were “emboldened” in the process of making this album thanks to the success of Chief.
Well certainly a lot of creative freedom. And with the success of Chief, I felt like we could do about anything, and people were at least going to hear it. I mean, early in your career you can do something like that, and nobody knows who you are, so you don’t know what happens to it. But when you get to a certain level of success, you can get it heard. Whether they like it or not is a totally different thing, or if it’s the right move. But I felt like we were in a place that we were at least going to get the ears on it, the eyes on it.
Again, as artists it’s our responsibility. People talk about the music — good, bad, indifferent, whatever. And I think a lot of times we blame radio, we blame industry. And I’ve always thought, it’s the artist that write the songs and make the records. And it’s our responsibility to set the tone for what’s happening in the industry. And I take that seriously.
And with this album, we made a conscious effort to make something that was artistic. I didn’t think about, ‘Am I gonna have enough hits on here? Is it going to sell as many records as Chief‘? I thought about, creatively, it has to be a better album, it has to be a more artistic album.
Can you describe what you mean by the word “artistic”?
I think a lot of times, artists and albums can become formulaic. You’re known for a certain thing, and you continue to do that. You just change the subject matter, but it’s the same song. And that’s what you do.
And I think for this one it was about going somewhere different. For example, there’s a song that’s eight minutes [“Devil Devil”], and four minutes of it is spoken word. That’s not a safe choice [laughs]. So that’s what I’m talking about. The first single was “The Outsiders,” and the last minute and a half has three different movements of music. So these are things that, if you’re making a commercial album, those aren’t decisions you consciously make and go, ‘this is a good idea.’ We didn’t think about that. We just thought about, ‘it’s cool, it’s creative, it’s alive. Let’s chase it and see where it goes.’
Did you get any pushback on the directions you were going on The Outsiders?
I don’t know, I never ask [laughs]. It’s just the way we work. I’m not a guy who can go in and go, “Hey, are we doing right or wrong?” I just do it. And whatever it is, it is. Otherwise it gets in my head too much. And so with this album, we just went in and made it.
It sounds like you’re in a place now where you don’t have your label breathing down your neck?
They’ve always been good about that. I mean, we were so ignored early on because we had no success [laughs]. Our career, it’s unique that way. The latter part of the Carolina album with “Smoke a Little Smoke,” and then the Chief album, caught everybody by surprise, myself included. So I think we have a lot of leeway there. They just say, ‘Go do what you do. You make great albums, go do it.’ And that’s what we do. So every time, it’s really up to us to dictate. We even dictate singles and what goes to radio.
You have said that the song “The Outsiders” and “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” acted as bookends to the album?
Bookends, yeah. I mean the first song we did was “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” which is just me and an electric guitar. That song talks about turning 36, it talks about finding your first gray hairs. And the honesty there — I think too many people, if you are 46 you want to look 36, and if you’re 36 you want to look 26. I didn’t want to do that. I’ve earned the gray hairs. So I wanted to show that level of honesty.
And the next song we cut was “The Outsiders,” which couldn’t be farther away from that. You know, the bombastic nature of it, the brashness. So with those songs being the first two, we had a big wide playing field in-between.
One thing that’s very striking about this album is the diversity of the songs and music it contains.
Absolutely. Every song is really its own journey. Normally when you get an album — and Chief‘s this way — you’ll find a groove and kinda figure out where the thing’s headed. Every song on this one pulls you a different way. I mean, you think you’ve got it figured out halfway through, and you go a totally different direction. I think that’s what makes it unique. I worried early on, was it going to be cohesive? And for whatever reason it is. I can’t tell you why it is, but it just seems to work. And it probably shouldn’t logically, because the songs go so many different ways. It’s one of those things you can’t put your finger on, and you can’t figure out why. It just does.
How important to you is the sequence of the songs on this album?
Crucial. Anybody puts it on shuffle I”ll come kill them myself [smiles]. It’s made to be listened to start to finish. You start with “The Outsiders,” you end with “The Joint.” There’s two songs on the album, “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” and “Talladega.” I love ’em both, but I don’t love ’em near as much by themselves as I do in the sequence. The space they get from the songs around them, and the space they give the songs around them, makes me love those songs more. If you take them out, mix them all up — totally different album, it’s a totally different journey. It’s one of the only albums I can think of that I really believe that, if you put it on shuffle, you’re going to have an entirely different experience than if you listen to it the way it’s presented. I don’t know that people do that any more, but it’s meant to be listened to that way.
Did you write the songs in any kind of sequence?
No. I just kind of went and jumped in. Honestly there’s eight or ten songs that did not make this album that would have been huge hits. Just because … they just were. And they didn’t make it. Because I felt like, we’d either been there before, or people were there now doing it.
So when we wrote this album, I just jumped in with both feet. And what I found was, out of every 15 or 20 songs, there’d be a song or two that would separate itself and attach to another one. “Devil Devil” attached to “Dark Side.” The poem wasn’t there yet [it’s the “prelude” to “Devil Devil”], I came up with that later, but they attached to each other. And when those things start to happen, that’s when an album starts to reveal itself.
Now we could have made a totally different album. We could have taken those 8 or 10 songs that were big hits and put them all on one album. But it probably wouldn’t have been an album, it would have just been a bunch of good songs.
On the next page, Church talks about his spoken-word piece, his current emotional state now that the album’s done, and the possibility of longform music videos…
Let’s talk about the spoken-word piece. You originally planned to include a Shel Silverstein poem on The Outsiders?
I did —“The Devil and Billy Markham.” I’m a huge Shel Silverstein fan. And we couldn’t get permission. That was last minute, within four days of the album being done, we got word we couldn’t use it. So I had four days to come up with something. And I stayed up two days in a row, 48 straight hours, and I wrote “Princess of Darkness” kinda using the same sentiment of what “The Devil and Billy Markham” was.
This town, she is a temptress/ A siren with gold eyes, she’ll cut you with her kindness/ She will lead you with her lies.
– from “Devil, Devil”
And it’s cool. I wasn’t sure what people would think about it, because being part of the town, I’m kinda calling the town out in a way [laughs]. But it’s honest. I’m always intrigued by Nashville, you can see one person [whose] dreams come true; and then you have a person playing for tips on Broadway. They’re both very talented. So what’s the difference? That’s always intrigued me about this town. She makes all the dreams come true of one, and then squashes another one, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.
That’s a bold move. You didn’t hold back….
No we didn’t hold back! [laughs]
You’ve said that the process of making an album is tough and takes a lot out of you. Do you still feel that way?
It’s brutal. It’s why I won’t make a lot of them. I think you have to put yourself there artistically, first of all as a songwriter [Church cowrote every song on The Outsiders not to mention nearly every song on his three previous studio albums, too] . That’s the most important thing, is you have to … go get em and write em. It’s hard. And the worst part for me, is after you know you got the songs, then you got to record them that way, you have to capture them. So what you wrote then has to turn into something that stands up to the lyrical content on the record.
And I’ve lost more songs that way, where you got the best song in the world, but for whatever reason you didn’t capture that magic. So that’s the maddening part. You lose that, song’s gone, and you’ve wasted it. And when you’ve written 121 and [edited them down] to 12, you don’t want to lose those 12. So that part’s maddening to me, and it’s the hardest part of what I do.
You really wrote 121 songs for this project?
I was shocked to learn that myself. We wrote about 60 for Chief, so we wrote twice as many. I don’t know why … it wasn’t something like, ‘let’s write twice as many.’ It just ended up being that way.
I wish I could take more credit, [but] my manager actually came up with that and shot those. I love a good mystery anyway, I love having fun. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, never have been, and never will be [laughs]. So it’s a way to interact with the fans without that. It’s a way to have some fun [and] add some intrigue. There’s a lot of mysteries and a lot of hidden messages that are in those cryptic things that talk about a lot of stuff that’s coming down the line, that [fans] don’t know yet. Maybe a single choice, maybe another video, maybe another character. And we put that in there just to see how many of them could pick it apart and find out. So that’s what it was, just a different way of interacting.
Is that also true of the story and characters that appear in your video for “Give Me Back My Hometown”?
Same thing. And we actually talked about that in the cryptic messages, we alluded to what was coming in the video. All the characters that are in that — light will be shed on them, as we go through this single process and video process. So throughout this entire album, that story line will continue to play out. And the ending is quite remarkable. So, we’ll get to that one day.
Are you planning to create a longer film treatment for any of the songs, the way you did with “Springsteen”?
Yes [smiles]. We are.
Interview conducted by Kurt Wolff and Annie Reuter.