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Interview: Anderson East

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Anderson EastPhoto by Joshua Black Wilkins.
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With a Grammy nomination and the strength of his second album, "Encore," in his back pocket, East brings his brand of southern soul to Newport Music Hall on Saturday night.

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Anderson East was the first musician I interviewed after I started my tenure with CU in 2015. He had just released his outstanding debut album for Elektra, Delilah, and was on his way to Columbus on his first major national tour with The Lone Bellow. He was kind, humble, and wonderstruck by his escalating success.

His unostentatious commitment to his craft was so obvious both in his studio work and on stage – the audience that gathered to watch him on a cold, rainy October night at the Lincoln Theatre were just as in awe of his performance as he was of their support.

Three years later, East is coming back to the Arch City as the sole headliner at Newport Music Hall on Saturday night, this time with his hit sophomore release – the aptly-titled Encore – in his arsenal.

While he and long-time collaborator, Aaron Ratiere, are responsible writing most of the project’s tracks as they were on Delilah, East also recruited some less likely co-conspirators this round – namely the late Tim Bergling (better known as Avicii), and omnipresent force Ed Sheeran. Of the eighteen percent of the album that doesn’t feature strong original contributions by him and his songsmith peers, he’s turned in phenomenal covers of Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick,” and Willie Nelson’s late-career classic, “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.”

No matter who penned each of Encore’s individual vignettes, the energy and sincerity of East’s voice and his tightly talented band mates are its heart and soul – raising the proverbial roof with brassy horns and quavering organ in all the appropriate places, and letting a more restrained drum-piano-bass combo linger in soft support of his throaty lead in others.

Hours before our phone interview, East had returned from a west coast trek to the Grammy Awards, where he’d been nominated for Best American Roots Performance for one of Encore’s singles, “All In My Mind” – a category he shared with his hero Nelson, as well as Jon Batiste, and the eventual winner, Brandi Carlile.

But for all of the big life changes and milestones he’s encountered – including the day in late December 2018 when President Barack Obama added Encore‘s opening track, “King For A Day,” to his yearly list of favorite songs – East is still very much that awed guy from Athens, Alabama I talked to a few years ago.

You and I first talked just after you’d put out Delilah. What artistic evolution have you experienced between those recording sessions and the ones you did for Encore?

“It kind of just felt like a natural progression. It didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel, or anything like that. We just kind of tried to adapt what we were already doing during our live shows and capture that on record. Yeah, that’s an interesting question – if anything, it just reinforced our love of playing a live show.”

And when I last saw you at the Lincoln, it’s so evident that the stage is where you shine. Of course, I think your records are fantastic, but playing live seems to be where you’re in your element.

“Yeah, I would definitely agree with you on that. [laughs]”

In the last interview we did, I asked you about a song that you wished you’d written that belonged to another songwriter – and you specifically mentioned Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick.” I love that you decided to cover that on this album.

“Well, fingers crossed that wherever he’s at, he’s proud of it. It was a lot of fun to do. It’s amazing, I listened to the original track the other day, and just him and an acoustic guitar – it’s so moving. It really is just…staggering.”

Absolutely. It’s just this really lovely, understated devotional that you can tell comes from a place of such sincerity. And I like that you sort of left that original reading be and punched it up in a way that felt authentic to you.

“Well, thanks a lot. I appreciate that.”

There’s been a great effort by the media to try and define your music and fit it into a genre: ‘is it country? Or blues? Or gospel? Or R&B?’ How much does it matter to you that your music is identifiable – or maybe not identifiable – within the confines of a certain category?

“I don’t really know, and a lot of times I feel like I’m a lost little orphan when it comes to being put into some kind of genre or category, you know? I just…as many times as it’s been brought up, I’ve had to let go of caring anymore. I think that we’re just a group of guys actually playing our instruments and actually singing our songs. And I think just hearing that is the thing that’s relatable. When it gets associated with whatever genre you care to pick at the moment, whether it’s pop, or soul, or R&B, I just really haven’t focused on it or concerned myself with what anybody calls it.

If they call it good, then that’s all I’m worried about.”

When you’re recording your own music, or if you’re choosing a track to cover like you’ve done a couple of times of this album, what kind of connection do you have to have to a song in order to pursue it?

“As far as picking somebody else’s tunes, whether it’s Ted or Willie, I think it just has to spark my jealousy. If I can listen to it and be, like, ‘damn it! Why couldn’t I write that? I know all those words and I know all those chords! Why couldn’t I put them together?’ You know? That’s really what does it for me. But, as far as writing goes, man, there’s a couple of times when you know it instantly when you get goosebumps – or chicken skin – or something. That immediately tells you you’re on to something proper.

There are a lot of times where I have legitimately no idea if what I’m doing is any good. I have to have, like, five-thousand-feet perspective – usually years later – to hear if it’s actually quality. I’ve been lucky enough to have people like Dave Cobb, for instance, just to have another filter to run shit through and make sure I’m on the right track. And thus far, it’s worked out pretty good.”

You and Aaron Ratiere have written two really strong batches of tunes across these past two records. I know you two have been friends forever, so you’re more than just collaborators. How does that relationship manifest itself in the music you create together?

“I think we both look at each other as emotional support dogs. He’s just been my best friend for a long time, and we can just cut to the chase a little quicker together. I’m actually producing a record on him right now, and it’s really killer. But, yeah, we speak the same language and he knows ultimately what I’m going for. And I know his strength and when he needs to shut the hell up, or when to give him a little bit more time to get his lines about potatoes and shit out – and the greatness spills out. It’s been such an odd working relationship, but it’s been something I’ve been very grateful for. We both went to the Grammys this weekend, and his whole mantra was, [mimicking] ‘all we’ve gotta do it not die and we’ll be alright!’ [laughs]”

[laughs] Well, let’s talk about the Grammys for a minute. Congratulations on your nomination and I’m sorry you didn’t end up walking away with one. But what an achievement in and of itself…

“Well, if I lose to Brandi Carlile, I’m okay with it. I think we all felt that way.”

Of course. I would assume there was a lot of celebrating among you watching peers like Brandi and Kacey Musgraves getting so deservedly decorated for their work.

“Yeah, it was pretty awesome, just seeing our community in Nashville really shine on, I’d guess, the biggest stage you could get. That was pretty incredible to see all that and so many of our friends get acknowledged for the great work they do.”

So, on that ‘biggest stage,’ do you think music from Nashville has been represented fairly over the years? Or is it just cyclical?

“You know, I’m not really sure, because everyone I know, at least as far as I’m aware of, isn’t concerned with the outcome of what they create – it’s the creation itself. I was on the plane with everybody yesterday coming back, and they’re all at work again today. It’s all about showing up for your job. And if the good stuff happens as a result, then, great. But, if not, we all know what we’re here to do – and that’s the most fun.”

I watched an interview with you and Lori McKenna the other day, and you both talked about that process of creation and how you let go of the interference that’s around you – the expectations, the noise, the pressure to be completely original – and just focus on moving forward and making music. How do you do actually do that?

“I don’t know. I struggle with it every day. I saw this really beautiful TED Talk with Elizabeth Gilbert about creativity, and she pulled that card really hard about just showing up for your job. And I’ve really taken it to heart. Obviously, if you don’t do the work, the work doesn’t get done.  So, it’s this forcing yourself to sit down and try seriously, and not beat yourself to death if it’s not coming that day because, hopefully, there’s a tomorrow that you can capitalize on.

And, so, that’s been my mantra: ‘go to work.’”

Anderson East will take the stage at Newport Music Hall on Saturday, February 16, with special guest Lucie Silvas. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. General admission tickets are $20, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about Anderson’s music via his official website, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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