Anderson East Keeps The Fire Burning

Young artists like Anderson East are a rarity more than ever. Studying music engineering in school and moving to Nashville, he set himself up for a strong career, and it's paid off well. Taking in fans from just about every Southern genre, his soulful music has earned the respect of people from all over, touring with the likes of Chris Stapleton and more. We caught up with Anderson ahead of his set at RBC Bluesfest on July 12 to talk musical language, collaborating and being defined as country.

Ottawa Life: How have you found you degree in music engineering useful as a recording artist? Do you find it more as a tool to get an exact sound or more as some swiss army knife of an education?

Anderson East: I think it has equal benefits and negatives. Just having that language is really nice, to express a sound or an emotion for a recording, you're able to get to that point a lot quicker, and maybe even help experiment sometimes. But for a lot of it, just being able to step back from the technical aspect of the process is probably the healthiest thing that I've done for myself. It's really hard to be the racecar driver and the pit crew at the same time, instead of actually just focusing on what your job is that day, and trusting those people around you to have a great technical mind, so I can focus on singing or playing guitar. Just a matter of getting out of the way of yourself.

How did you start working with Dave Cobb and what has he brought as a collaborator?

I credit Dave with a whole lot. When I met Dave I was working in studios, engineering and mixing records. We hit it off from those  nerdy, gear-head personality traits. He's an incredible engineer in his own right, and just has such a fascination for equipment and technology. He knows how to make the equipment match what's in his head and he's also got a great musical mind as well. We just hit it off from that passion and he saw me perform once and that's where the conversation started. He asked me to come engineer some sessions for him, and work on some records that he was doing. I got to learn a lot about his process of making records. Then we just decided one day to make a record. Also I think beyond great music, he's great at bringing out the best attributes of yourself, and when to stop.

What's been the biggest upside of working in Nashville?

Honestly I can't think of a negative. When I moved here I was around 17/18 years-old. I was terrible but I had this desire to write music and play better songs, make great sounding records. Coming from Alabama, as great as it is, the music scene is virtually non-existent where I come from. Coming here there were people that were just as broke as I was that had the same passion for music making that I did. It took a while to develop my own music community, but within that there was so much great support and inspiration. Somebody came and said "Hey check out this song I wrote" and I would think "That's amazing, I have to write something better than that." I still owe a lot to this town, I'm still inspired to go out any night of the week and see some of the best musicians in the world, it's an amazing place.

I know there are more obvious religious connections in your songs like Delilah but considering your families connections to the church do you find religion a frequent source of inspiration?

I don't ever think of it as some conscious, pre-meditated thing. It's just part of my DNA growing up in the church, gospel music especially, it's just part of who I am. It comes out whenever it's appropriate. I'm just glad I have that vocabulary lyrically and musically where I can use those coloured crayons for what I'm trying to say.

How did you get involved with Brandi Carlile's charity album and what drew you to Josephine for a cover?

I remember we were in Spokane, Washington, and we were hanging out after the show. Somehow I brought up, "Why don't you ever play 'Josephine' anymore?" and I remember when the song came out I drove around in my Volvo singing it. Apparently it stuck with her, so when she had the idea to do this record she called me and said "I remember what you said about that song and I wonder if you're willing to do it." I said "Absolutely, that's still one of my favourite records." I was just thrilled that she asked me to do it. I put my producer hat back on and did that, it was really fun. It was a great chance to get away from my own brain and do something out of the box.

Why do you think you've been lumped into country genre so heavily since you started despite a much more Rhythm and blues and soul leaning? Is it that annoying or do you consider any mention good enough?

I don't really associate myself with either of those categories. I'm glad people are talking about the record period. They can call it whatever the hell they want as long as they're talking about it. I'm just drawn to good songs, I don't really care where they come from. They could be anything from Sam Cooke to Skrillex, I don't really care. I'm just trying to make sincere songs, that I believe in and want to play every night, that excite me. We're just making Southern music, it just has all those influences. I look at like this. Willie Nelson's version of "Crazy" is one of the best recorded soul songs of all time, it just happens that it's Willie Nelson singing it. It comes from the same roots as gospel, blues and jazz music. That's what I'm trying o do and people will call it what they will. 

What's the rest of 2017 looking like for you?

We head out this week with Chris Stapleton for the next little while, so we're excited about that. We're focused on the new music for later this year. Keep playing music, making records and playing shows.