Outlaw more in spirit than in druggy deed or liquored-up lyric, country’s Eric Church has always done things his own way. He’s been a flexible, emotional singer whose songwriting and curatorial skills go beyond country’s current crop of boys-own crooners, with an experimental edge, but without forgetting its traditions. The games of the country music game and the rules of county radio? Church has forever eschewed the game playing and broken the rules, releasing singles and albums in direct opposition to the hits that made him famous, always challenging audiences to come along.
For 2021, Church is truly poking the bear, dropping three new albums in one month, staring with April 16’s “Heart,” followed by April 20’s “&” and now, on April 23, “Soul.” This triple-album, all-in-one-glut release features 24 songs, including one single that all but dares country radio to play it (“Stick That in Your Country Song”), and another equally contagious track (“Hell of a View”) daring radio not to play it.
Church sweetened the pot with an arena trek hitting a full steam in autumn after a handful of festival dates throughout the summer to warm up. For a guy whose concerts time out at three hours a night, the pandemic’s break was but a way to rest up and blast off, ferociously.
VARIETY: The absolute ballsiness of releasing three new albums in one month — you didn’t plan the recording sessions as such. Was there any doubt in your mind as to dropping them in this manner?
CHURCH: The way I would have to answer this is that I didn’t start this project conceptualizing it as such, a three-album approach. Because we committed each day to writing a song and recording a song, each day, that day, was about that moment, that song. I really didn’t know, until near the end, if we even had one album. I wasn’t sure what we had.
Listening back to it all had to be a blast, hearing it all blossom at once.
The most fun I’ve ever had in my career was listening back to this project, because I got to hear it as a fan would. See, I didn’t have time to learn these songs, or get married to these songs. We just went in, wrote the song, cut the song, committed to the song, then the next day was a new day and a new song. Listening back to it is when I realized that, hey, this was pretty damned good.
Is that when the songs began to group themselves, during playback?
Yes. The songs began, at first, to group like two albums with two different feels. I could hear what was going to be on “Heart.” I could feel that those songs were different than what would be on “Soul.”
Could you have made just one album?
Yeah, but there is probably only a song or two from either “&” or “Soul” that would make it on “Heart.” Same with “Soul.” The triple part happens when I saw what was on “Heart,” thought I saw what “Soul” was — and, at this time, they’re just “Record One” and “Record Two” — and realized I had this other batch of songs that I just couldn’t figure out where they went. They broke my vibe. Now, I’m an old-school dude. I know that at this point in my career that I will never not make albums. That’s all I know how to do. I don’t understand how people just put out tracks and let them go out… without relevance or time frame. I can’t do it. Can not. So these five or six extra songs seemed like great songs. You have “Through My Ray-Bans.” “Doing Life with Me.” It was my manager (John Peets of Q Prime South) who helped me with this one. I told him I had all these “Heart” songs — “Heart on Fire,” “Heart of the Night,” “Never Break Heart” — then he mentioned calling the other one “Soul.” OK. He then went on to say that we should just call this third one “&.”
Exactly. But you can’t name an album “Ampersand.” So he figured out the next step, coloring each album differently. “Heart” is red. “Soul” is blue. “&” is purple. That was his thing. That’s when I saw it all in my head. So, looking back, the ballsiness that you mentioned… The real mechanism of it becomes “how do we get this project to the world?” The fun and ballsy part would be this: we currently have the No. 5 single, “Hell of a View,” on the “Soul” album. “Heart” has no single as yet, and we just dropped it. That’s the ballsy part. Putting out an album with no single.
It will be fun when they’re all out.
Yes. Because I want them to compete with each other. I want to have fans who say they’re a “Heart” guy, or they’re a “Soul” guy. Or an “&” guy. I want to see who identifies with what album the most.
The “&” guy sounds pretty cool.
I better start calling it “And.” My manager said “Ampersand” and I was like, “What the hell?”
Since we started with ballsiness, talk about being one of the first artists to commit to a new tour in 2021 that wasn’t already on the books or rescheduled, not quite being out of COVID’s woods. Any second thoughts?
Since this thing began, I’ve said that the vaccine would be the only way for us to tour again. I’ve looked at every possible scenario. Because nothing else has been going on, I have been involved in calls with municipalities, state authorities, epidemiologists and scientists, all this stuff. I never could see a way for us to test our way into touring. Not for the many people we play to. Maybe five or 10 states, but you’d never be able to play in 50 states without the vaccine.
This can’t be what you signed up for, talking to epidemiologists.
Once the vaccine becomes widely available, sometime this month or May, it became a little bit aggressive, but coming into summer, I felt as if we were going to be in a good spot going forward for fall. We could do what a lot of people did, and punt to ’22. But I’ve been as concerned about the country, and our psyche with the lack of music and sports and connection, the isolation… There was an opportunity for us to lead. We took the attitude that we’re going to do this.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done by 50 billion miles. Because the target moves every day. Things may adapt. But we’re doing this. We’re going to strap on guitars, gather people together, and we’re going to start to pull people out of this nosedive. Call it stubbornness. Whatever you want. That is the way I approach this. I am very direct with it. I’m holding my ground here — drawing my line in the sand.
Is this who you are, overall — think it, do it, stick to it?
One thousand percent. Like with this collection, I knew “Stick That in Your Country Song” was not going to be No. 1. But I had to release that. It’s just like how I knew that “Outsiders” [the first single off the album of the same name] had to come when it did. We’ve always been that way, and what’s interesting is that it’s always turned out well for us.
Rebel vs. sensitive singer-songwriter. Loud bombast vs humble quietude. Looking at the arc of your albums, what connects the dots up through these three albums?
The humanity. People aren’t just one way or another way. You can be bombastic and quiet. The complexity is there for me. I am a conflicted, complex guy. I couldn’t do bombast all the time without getting bored. Same with the singer-songwriter thing. That reflects my life. I’m a little restless. My wife would second that. Artists mess up bad when they start in with “This is who I am. This is what I do.” That’s dangerous. Artists should do what they’ve never done before.
You never wanted to be pigeonholed. This runs through your whole career, going back to the success of “Chief” [in 2011].
Right. A massive success. We went from playing bars to arenas almost overnight. “Springsteen” came out, and it was completely nuts. My first arena tour, the “Blood Sweat & Beers” shows, I hated it. I was miserable because I had been in these intimate spaces: fun, close to the fans, we were surgeons, slicing them up and really good at what we did. Then we get into these arenas and, because “Chief” had taken us to this place, I thought the shows were about “Drink in My Hand” and “Creepin’.’’ I spent the whole show racing to get there, to get to those songs.
As you grew that changed. Because the hits take care of themselves.
I learned that “the show” is about all the other songs, and nothing to do with the hits. My albums, too, are a reflection of who I am and where I want to go, and I don’t want you to know where I’m headed. “The Outsiders” was a direct reflection of “Chief’ being a massive success, a rebellion record. I never thought I’d be the guy winning all the awards and selling all the records, so I went the opposite way. I got freaked out, so then I freaked everybody else out. I want you to be unsure where we’re going next.
In 2018 you release “Desperate Man.” You have the worst year. Your brother passes. You wind up with a life-threatening blood clot. Do you think that coming off that album and that year, going for broke, was essential for whatever you did next being this new three-album thing?
I think that year made me more convicted. And more self-reflective. We all have an end date. And it was a bad period — that, and then COVID happened, so my 40s have sucked. That period has made me believe that if want to do it, I will. Because I don’t know if I’ll get another chance. I’m not going to compromise. I haven’t in a long time anyway. Maybe a little with the “Carolina” album [in 2009]. It’s fine, but there’s a few songs that the label and radio wanted that I don’t love. After that, I stayed stubborn and dogged. I’m not going to make music because I think it’s going to be No. 1. I’m going to make what I want to make, because I don’t know how long I’ll be around to do that. That’s what made listening back to — hell, making — the new albums so great. There were no rules. No filters. No thought process. Let’s have fun creating something today. And creativity loves a playground.
Your producer Jay Joyce and most of your band have been with you forever. Were they totally on-board with the new-song-a-day approach?
Not at first. Coming off “Desperate Man,” the hardest record I’ve ever made — maybe we were stagnant or tired — we usually come into a new album hungry. We’ve always been an underdog band. We have a lot of edge, and carry that into the studio. Not “Desperate Man.” I’m proud of the album, and fans get mad when I act otherwise, but it was just like pulling teeth. So I knew coming into this new album that if I was going to keep working with Jay, we’d have to shake things up. Most artists who get into this situation start making changes; you change your producer, your band.
Artists often react the wrong way.
Yes. They just want to clear the deck, and subsequently lose themselves. For me, I had another idea: to make every one of these people, including myself, uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. I took Jay out of the studio he always cuts in and moved to a restaurant in North Carolina. I brought in my band, but also additional players at the same time. We’re all holed up together, and you’ve got my regular guitar players looking at new guitar players, all eyeballing each other. It was a little bit competitive. And I brought the writers in, and said we’re going to write a song, today, that we’re cutting tonight, and it needs to be the shit. We’d beat our heads against the wall only to do it again the next day. Everybody was off-tilt. And that got our energy back, that tension. Two songs in, you could see the heads nods. That’s when it became fun.
The one constant through all three albums is their warm ambience, something that flows throughout the entire project. Did you choose that artisanal eatery in the Blue Ridge Mountains like Neil Young and Crazy Horse did Colorado, or Bowie did Philly’s Sigma Sound, or the Band did Bearsville at Woodstock?
You’re dead on. The main thing I hear, and I did this often during COVID — ‘cause what else could I do — is wood. The restaurant is all reclaimed barn wood. High ceilings. The whole thing. I’ve eaten dinner with my wife there like 30 times, and always told her, “Damn, this would be a great recording studio.” Now, the first sound-check was a fucking train-wreck. There’s two rooms, an upstairs dining room and a gravel/stone wine cellar — a cave. We tried everything to stop the bleed and dampen the sound. The only thing that worked was putting the drums in the cave; gave it a thump. Also there was just more gusto, more reckless abandon. We wanted everyone to treat it as live, because we cut it live.
You can hear the mistakes.
Count it off, 1-2-3, we’re in. Play it straight through till the end of the song. All live tracks, so you better get it. “Heart on Fire” has a few guitar notes, some half steps — that’s a moment, a feeling, an emotion. So it’s the room and it’s the approach of the players.
This is all you, without a doubt. But with so many of your voices, literal and figurative, at work on these three albums, do you feel as if you were ever writing in character?
Great question. More so on this album than ever. Here’s why: I was able to have more fun. Me singing a line like “Kaaan-saas Cit-ay,” and my falsetto stuff — I’d use the word “playful.” I was enjoying playing with my voice, trying things. Going for it. It was not very self-conscious. I was enjoying getting into characters: Sly & the Family Stone one minute, a Meat Loaf-Elton John-like song the next. Some Queen. About halfway through the whole recording process, I remember asking Jay, “Is this shit any good?” He grinned with a small nod. “Pretty good.”
So there’s a concept without there being a concept album.
Yeah. It’s not like (Willie Nelson’s classic) “Red-Headed Stranger” where you follow this one character through each song. The concept is what we did and how we tried to do it.
It’s funny you mention Sly & the Family Stone. Using your date with Jazmine Sullivan at the Super Bowl as a heady wine to complement a full meal, where does true diversity – racial diversity, having more women at country radio – fit for you?
Diversity is always the best thing for the music. It always takes a whole new genre in all other direction. Elvis was the first white blues singer to turn it into rock ‘n’ roll. Chuck Berry? You can say he was the first Black country artist… What we have to better do at country is not just provide a garden for that to grow in; we have to harvest that. The music that’s getting made — Black artists, female artists, Black female artists — is great. The “harvest” part is where radio comes in. As we go forward, it has to grow as a format.
If we’re tending to the garden, I have to bring up Morgan Wallen who recorded your “Quittin’ Time.” He says he’s taking time away to ruminate and reorganize.
That was a heart-breaking thing, but Morgan — I know Morgan knows — that was unacceptable, and that he messed up. He’s working on himself. And I’m glad he’s doing that. Morgan is a good kid, a good artist, and in my opinion, could help lead this conversation if he does the right things. And I believe he will. He can help here. He could bring about real progress and change.
When you won the CMAs’ 2020 Entertainer of the Year, you said that “music is the one thing that’s gonna save the world.” Do you still believe that?
More now than ever. The real thing about COVID, when this autopsy happens, is that they talk about the Capitol riots, the hassles with vaccines. What we don’t hear about are the moments of unity — how many have we had in the last 18 months. When I play a concert for however many people, that crowd Is not all Democrats and not all Republicans. They don’t care in that moment. They have their beers in the air, and their arms around each other. We’ve been isolated for so many months, and that isolation is dangerous. Too much of everything is about division. We have got to start having moments of unity again.