Eddie Vedder and Andrew Watt Talk Spontaneity-Fueled ‘Earthling’ Album: ‘It Came Out of Nowhere’

The Pearl Jam frontman's third solo release features appearances by Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr.

For Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and producer Andrew Watt, all it took was a couple of guitar chords to unexpectedly jumpstart sessions for Vedder’s third solo album, “Earthling.” The project, due Feb. 11 from Seattle Surf/Republic, is imbued with the spontaneity of friends new and old jamming together for the pure love of music, while touching on a host of weighty subjects and featuring eye-popping special guests along the way.

Watt, a 31-year-old Long Island native and recent Grammy winner for producer of the year, has worked closely with such mega pop stars as Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa as well as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Elton John and Ozzy Osbourne. But he’s quick to confess that his first love has always been Pearl Jam. “I’m a super-fan who has probably seen them live more than 40 times,” he says. ”I grew up playing guitar along with their songs in my bedroom as a kid.”

From those humble beginnings, Watt broke into the business shortly after graduating high school and eventually landing a gig playing with Australian singer Cody Simpson. In 2013, he joined the rock band California Breed alongside Deep Purple vocalist Glenn Hughes and drumming scion Jason Bonham, and two years later released his first solo EP, “Ghost in My Head.” Every now and then, Watt and Vedder would have casual hangs at Pearl Jam or other artists’ shows, but their friendship deepened during the pandemic, when they would frequently share music via text.

“I knew of him,” Vedder says with a smile. “What I mostly knew was that he was a young guy who I’d bump into over the years on the road. I thought he was a very nice person for as big of a Pearl Jam fan as he was.”

So when it came time to rehearse for a May 2021 benefit concert in Los Angeles, Vedder asked if he could do so at Watt’s studio in Beverly Hills, which he’d yet to visit in person. During a break in the action while Watt was moving a microphone, Vedder began fiddling around on his guitar.

As Vedder recalls: “[Andrew] said, ‘What are those chord changes?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘But, you know, if you did this right after that…’ We started writing our first song without even trying. I stayed about three days based on that moment to finish that song, and then another one, and then another one that came.”

Indeed, as Vedder continued exploring other instruments in the studio, he tapped out a few ideas on synths and drums, resulting in the foundations of “Invincible” and “Power of Right,” which became the first two songs on “Earthling.”

Says Watt: “Ed started playing this cool melody on my Juno and I joined him on an ARP-2600 -[analog synthesizer] that Ozzy gave to me, that they actually used on all the [Black] Sabbath albums. We recorded this loop and started playing over it, very naturally, and that became ‘Invincible.’ Then he was like, ‘Can I check out your drums?’ While he was playing them, the riff for ‘Power of Right’ just fell out of me.”

At that point, Vedder realized he and Watt were, improbably, making an album — Vedder’s first rock-oriented solo project, following 2007’s solo singer/songwriter-leaning “Into the Wild” soundtrack and 2011’s “Ukulele Songs.” “I guess [I knew] after we did two songs, because then it’s beyond a single, right? Once you’ve written that third song, you’re fucked,” he says with a laugh.

Vedder returned to Seattle but he and Watt kept exchanging ideas remotely, including restructuring one of Vedder’s already completed songs, “Long Way,” into the version now present on “Earthling.” The track reached No.5 on Mediabase’s Triple A chart and features longtime Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench on Hammond B3 organ.

In July, Vedder came back to Beverly Hills for three more weeks of writing and recording, this time with assistance from Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and that band’s one-time guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who is now himself a touring member of Pearl Jam. They all wrote songs together, something of a first for Vedder outside of a Pearl Jam or soundtrack context. Once tape was rolling, they rarely needed more than a couple of takes. “It was really almost like two songs a day for awhile,” Vedder says. “Not completed lyrics and all that — that sometimes takes a little longer, although I kept up pretty good. It really flowed. No songs ever sat there or got stagnant.”

“Earthling” evinces that let-it-rip energy, particularly on tracks such as the breakneck “Rose of Jericho,” the poppy, Split Enz-tinged “The Dark,” the heavy-riffed “Good and Evil” and “Fallout Today,” which grooves with a bit of T. Rex swagger. Elsewhere, “Invincible” bridges “Red Rain”-era Peter Gabriel sonics with snappy vocal phrasing a la Joe Strummer, while “The Haves” is a piano-led love ballad inspired by Vedder watching an older homeless couple walking hand-in-hand at Venice Beach.

The musicians reveled in hanging out, shooting hoops, jamming and introducing one another to obscure music played at deafening volumes (“We lived the Maxell ad, with the hair blowing back,” Vedder cracks). One night, he led a wee-hours, beer-fueled listening session of Embrace, a short-lived Washington, D.C. ‘80s hardcore band featuring Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. “It got our juices flowing. Chad was actually staying at my house, so the next morning, we woke up, I had a riff in my head, we put on our instruments and ‘Rose of Jericho’ was written and tracked in 10 minutes,” says Watt, adding that its provisional title, “Andy Threw Up,” reflects his physical state that morning after the previous night’s excesses. “Ed was like, ‘This is fucking unbelievable, but do not play it again until the mic is up and I’m ready to go at it.’ He didn’t even waste the time. That’s one or two vocal takes right there and that’s what separates someone like him — he channels his emotion in an unbelievable way.”

Never one to shy away from investing his material with deeply personal experiences, Vedder channeled tangible grief, anger and compassion into songs such as “Brother the Cloud,” which has been widely interpreted as being about the 2017 suicide of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Without directly addressing the subject matter, Watt says, “We’re in a time now of a lot of loss — this pandemic and saying goodbye to people. A lot of things have gone away from the way they were. People that were with you are not. The song is a very honest display of that ambivalence, anger and sadness. The most important job I had was to shut my mouth and make sure the microphone was on so we didn’t miss a fuckin’ thing.”

As more material took shape, Vedder says he and Watt were guided by a simple concept: “let us write the music that we want to hear, and that we need to hear. Sometimes it’s few and far between, so let’s write a whole record of those songs. Andrew brought out in me patience to hear other people’s ideas. I was just very grateful for his attention to writing songs and making them sound great.”

Adds Watt of Vedder: “The way he lives his life is something I hope I can achieve one day. I learned so much about patience and craft. He taught me a lot about what I’d call liftoffs — when a song just seems to keep getting better and more euphoric and reaching for higher landings.”

A host of legendary guests elevated “Earthling” even higher. Elton John duets with Vedder on the rollicking, classic Elton-sounding “Picture,” while Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the frenetic, major-key punk song “Try,” which qualifies as perhaps his most unusual collaboration on record to date. Wonder kept Vedder and Watt waiting for six hours before he showed up to the studio (says Vedder: “In between, we wrote a song, and it’s gonna be a Pearl Jam song, and right now the working title is ‘Waiting for Stevie.’”). Upon arrival, he launched directly into his solo without ever hearing the full track.

“We had this theory that we’d get him playing on the fastest song he’s ever played on — something we’d never heard before,” Vedder remembers. “Who could imagine that? We kind of knelt in front of him and played acoustics to show him how the song went. He didn’t even flinch when he heard the tempo. It was an amazing thing to witness.”

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Courtesy of Danny Clinch

Adds Watt: “As the take kept going, we went from the couch to the floor, and then we were literally directly right under Stevie on the floor while he was sitting in a chair. It was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had.”

Ringo Starr’s participation on “Mrs. Mills” also tapped a rich vein of music recording lore. The song is a nod to beloved ‘60s-era British entertainer Gladys Mills and her 1905 Steinway upright piano, which is housed in Abbey Road Studios and was utilized on dozens of iconic Beatles recordings. After marveling at its presence there during a string recording session for Osbourne’s 2020 album “Ordinary Man,” Watt bought the closest vintage model of the piano he could find and installed it in his own studio back in California.

“Within a one-month period before the Ed sessions, somehow Elton John, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder all made music on this piano, in my basement,” Watt marvels. “It became its own Mrs. Mills. I told Ed about this and he was inspired to write a song about Mrs. Mills, but you can’t tell if he’s talking about a woman or a piano. It’s this double entendre, almost.”

“There was a theory that no one can own Mrs. Mills, and that Mrs. Mills was happy in the basement with all these different men just putting her hands all over her,” adds Vedder. “She preferred it that way, and in a way, it’s a song about women’s independence and empowerment, through a piano.”

On a lark, Watt and Vedder called Starr and asked if he’d play drums on the song, and not only did he say yes, but he used the same ride cymbal made famous on Beatles albums and the recent “Get Back” documentary. Watt says, “After we had finished, me and Ed went over to Ringo’s house. I said, ‘Man, thank you. You’re just the best. Nobody else could have done this.’” In the lilting, Liverpudlian-accented voice familiar to millions, Starr quickly replied, “No, Andrew, you’re the best. I’m the greatest.”

A final guest brings “Earthling” to an astonishing conclusion: Vedder’s late father Edward Severson Jr., a part-time lounge singer in Chicago who died of multiple sclerosis in 1981 at the age of 39. Vedder only met his dad on a handful of occasions as a kid but knew him simply as a family friend. The revelation of the true nature of their relationship is dramatized in Pearl Jam’s classic song “Alive” and has been a recurring theme in Vedder’s work ever since.

A few years ago, Vedder received previously unknown recordings of his father singing. After he played them for Watt, Klinghoffer and Smith, they hatched an idea to include them on the album as a sort of overture, built around the lyric “I’ll be on my way.” Watt sampled and looped the phrase, turning it into a mantra of sorts. Vedder played some guitar on top but let it sit until the final day of the sessions, when he asked Watt to cue up the tape and then began singing bits of lyrics from throughout the other “Earthling” songs.

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Courtesy of Danny Clinch

“Their vocal tones are so similar, it’s scary. A couple of times, they harmonized together,” Watt says. “His dad gets to be on an album with Elton John, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder and him — what a beautiful thing.” Adds Vedder, “He never got more pay for playing than the amount that could fit in a tip jar on the top of the piano. This will be the first record he was ever on, and so we take it out together. I’m very proud of him. As much as I didn’t know him, you can tell we have a connection.”

Looking ahead, Vedder recently told MOJO that he expects to continue collaborating with Watt on a new Pearl Jam album, perhaps as soon as this year in between planned tours of North America and Europe. Not surprisingly, Watt is ecstatic at the prospect of furthering his work with his musical heroes: “I worship each and every one of them: my favorite bass player, lead guitar player, riff writer, drummer and singer could all be in the same room with me at some point, and I’m gonna die and go to heaven.”

For now, Watt, Klinghoffer, Smith, Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney and multi-instrumentalist and longtime Vedder collaborator Glen Hansard (of “Once” fame) are banded together as the Earthlings to back Vedder on a short tour in support of the new album, which got underway Feb. 3 at New York’s Beacon Theatre. “What I’m happy about is that the band is starting to have a sound, now that we have music and now that there’s a clear distinction between it and Pearl Jam,” Watt offers. “That’s all anyone’s intention ever was. It’s not a Pearl Jam cover band. It’s its own thing and it doesn’t take away from the glory that those guys built. I’m just happy we’re getting to play our tunes.”

Adds Vedder: “It’s my picture on the cover of the record, but really there should be so many people on the cover, because it was a collaboration that just came out of nowhere. It’s been a great, great experience. We’ll always have these songs to play in the future.”