Anderson East is definitely on the A-list — that is, the RCA Studio A in Nashville list — as he performs live from the historic facility on a new episode of “Live From My Den.” The singer-songwriter offers a tour of the studio, which has lately served as the den of his producer, Dave Cobb, and answers questions from viewers for the series, available exclusive on Variety.com.
Joined by a pianist and three backup singers, East performs no less than five songs from his new album, “Maybe We Never Die” (which came out on Cobb’s imprint, Low Country Sound/Elektra, on Friday), including the singles “Madelyn” and “Drugs” as well as “Lights On,” “Hood of My Car” and the title track — all in a stripped-back fashion that offers an even clear sense of the R&B, pop, Americana and rock influences that come together in his music.
In a Q&A between performances, East tells about his eclectic musical education. “I’m from a pretty small town in North Alabama, and all we really had was WZYP, which is the pop station… and it was also a dry county, so there was no bars or live music ever happening. But I knew that I was super passionate about music. And so one of my first jobs was working at (the now-defunct record chain) Sam Goody… I would just recycle my paycheck and get the Snoop Dogg record and a Widespread Panic record and a Vince Gill record, and it was all great. It didn’t matter that it was (different) lanes; it was just like, ‘Give me the information! Let me get this into me.’ So I think growing older now, all that stuff really excites me and it all still has a pretty large influence on my music now. There’s so much good things, and to be confined to one little lane seems like you’re driving down the highway and you never look either direction.”
Offering a tour of the studio, East notes that “we’re sitting here in RCA, in which Dolly Parton recorded ‘I’ll Always Love You,’ like, 15 feet over there.” It’s since become the domain of Cobb (Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton), who adopted it as his home base.
“When Dave and I became friends, he was not the acclaimed Dave Cobb that he has grown into nowadays,” notes East. “It was just the friendship. And then we’re both from relatively similar places, so we had the same music taste and spoke the same language. And musically we were just on the right page. He was one of the very few people that I was around that I actually felt like provided credible input in the creative process. And I trust him, which is a really big hurdle to get over with most people.” They’re joined on the new album by a new co-producer in the mix, East’s longtime band leader Philip Towns. “With Phil, I haven’t spent time with anybody more than him, be it on stage or in a studio. … It only felt natural to ask him to have a little heavier hand in shaping the direction musically.”
Which took some interesting turns, on record. With the song “Drugs,” “when we started making the record, it turned into this pseudo-disco track,” notes East, although that’s not necessarily what you’ll hear in the acoustic version they whipped up for “Live From My Den.” “It’s an odd chorus when you’re talking about ‘Everybody’s on drugs,'” laughs East, “and it’s not a glorification of drugs by any stretch. It’s this sober look at either yourself or your surroundings or the environment that you’re in.” Drugs, in this song, means “everything from going to the gym or coffee or religion or you name it — whatever is that device that you seem to fall back on or that influences the way you’re interfacing with reality.”
“Hood of My Car” is more straightforward: “I wanted to make this all-American, almost John-Hughes-movie kind of song where it’s like this classic muscle car in the parking lot, when you’re in high school with your first girlfriend, and you have all of your life in front of you. Just this longing to have somebody else want you and to have your entire life in front of you so… We tried to tailor it into this cinematic experience, to where it lived in that romanticized and idealized concept.”
When East was in school himself, he wasn’t always following the path of his peers, at least not musically.
“When I was a kid, everybody was always into either Nirvana or Pearl Jam — all this grunge and rock stuff — and I was just never that angry. I remember ‘Hotel California’ really blew my mind when I was 8 years old. And I was a Phish head, Grateful Dead fan all through my younger days. I’m going to see Phish when they’re here coming up; I’m still a huge fan of that. Aretha Franklin — we were right down the street, from Muscle Shoals (where she recorded her most influential tracks). So all of that R&B and soul music definitely creeped in there. And I was raised in the church, so gospel music was an everyday occurrence for me as well. Once you start learning about the evolution of popular music, you can trace all the routes: country, R&B, soul music, even rock ‘n’ roll always filters all the way back down to gospel music.”
Of his current favorites: “I just wrote a song with Marcus King. I really love that guy. I think he’s really, really special. And there’s so many people. That SZA ‘Ctrl’ record that came out a couple years ago, I thought that was really devastating, and I’m so enamored by the way she writes. It’s not like anything I would do. I’m always more drawn to people that don’t think how I think.”
With a return to the road looming, East says, “I’m obviously looking forward to the shows and all that. But I think I’m most excited to get rid of the anxiety of playing the shows. This is the longest we’ve been without being on stage. And… I’ve been having gig nightmares. Like, I don’t know if I still got the thing to go be a frontman of a band. So I hope I didn’t lose that in this past 16 months. But just playing today, it’s so nice just to be around your friends and make music. I’m excited to see if we still got it, and really excited about seeing how all these songs translate live.”
Part of the upcoming tour includes two nights headlining Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, one of which is already sold out. “Honestly,” he says, “I remember the first time we sold out the OG (rock club) Basement here in town, and that was one of the highlights of my life still to this day — like, ‘Oh shit, I think this might be working.’ That’s a pretty radical feeling.” Check out all of East’s fall tour dates here.
And look for other recent episodes of this season of “Live From My Den,” hosted by Variety and the Artists Den, including shows spotligthing Yola and Girl in Red, with Mickey Guyton and others still to come.