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Rock 'n' Soul Preacher Man: Arise For Anderson East

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Straight out of Alabama (via Nashville) and armed with a voice that sounds like Ray Lamontagne if he was possessed by the spirit of Otis Redding, Anderson East is on the cusp of the big time thanks to a heart-wrenching mix of smoking soul, super-charged R&B and gospel on his new record, ‘Encore’.

After releasing an EP and a couple of indie albums under his own name, the career of the man born Michael Anderson was given a sizeable shot in the arm when superproducer Dave Cobb signed him to his Elektra imprint Low Country Records. His debut for the label, ‘Delilah’, followed in 2015 and showcased an emotionally gripping artist who confidently combined vintage stylistic flourishes with modern storytelling.

But, despite that record’s many good qualities, ‘Encore’ is a different beast. A potential classic in the making, it offers a searing exploration of love and is already making big waves in the US courtesy of songs like All On My Mind, which landed him a handpicked slot on Ellen.

We caught up with East the day after his recent headline gig in London and asked the songwriter about everything from ‘Encore’ to his musical background and what it’s like to be on the brink of major league stardom. Please be warned: his answers contain content of a most humble nature.

If we can rewind to where it all began, when did music come into your life?

Well I think, really starting to have a love for it, was from growing up in church. My mom was a piano player in church, so she put me in all the children’s choirs and all that fun stuff. Some kind of initial bug got in there but what really got me going was getting a four track tape recorder. That was kind of the ‘ah ha’ moment. I thought it was the most fantastic thing I’d ever seen. Later it moved on and I went to school for audio engineering, did freelance studio work, but everything always stemmed off making records. Whether it was writing songs or playing the guitar, the goal was always to be able to make a better quality record.

In the best possible way, the music you make is a reminder of days gone by. Did you have similar tastes to your friends growing up?

I would say somewhat, but I didn’t really know what any of it was. It took maturing and being exposed to certain things to get the history of what music is. But growing up, whatever I got was precious because music wasn’t readily available. Anything I could get my hands on I just devoured. My teenage years it was a lot of jam band music, the Grateful Dead, Phish, the String Cheese Incident, all that kind of stuff. But there wasn’t any serious musical depth. Where I’m from there weren’t a lot of outlets to be able to get good music or be exposed to it. So it was pretty much whatever was on the radio riding around with my parents.

How does your gospel background feed into your live show?

It’s like you’re being a preacher at some point. You’re trying to lead a congregation to a moment that’s bigger than themselves, and even bigger than yourself, and take your mind off the world for two hours.

In terms of your early independent releases, have you always made the kind of music we hear on ‘Delilah’ and ‘Encore’, or was there a lot of trial and error until you found your style?

It’s still very trial and error. I think I’ve finally got comfortable enough with myself to actually do what’s truthful instead of just reaching for something. I think a lot of the music I was making when I was just starting out was, I wouldn’t say throwing noodles against the wall to see what sticks, but it wasn’t too far away from that.  

Your music is a refreshing throwback to classic soul and R&B, yet it boasts a contemporary energy.

The thing about classic music is it never gets old. It’s timeless records. So to have that kind of thought process as a starting point but, like you mentioned, I don’t want to be some retro throwback soul band or some shit like that. I want to make timeless music that’s now. What I can say is that we do our absolute best to service what the song needs and not really reach for what it doesn’t need.

How has Dave Cobb helped you achieve that?

Man, I can say without a doubt I wouldn’t be where I am today without that guy. I think he’s the first person, musically, I was ever able to let fully collaborate and fully trust when making a record. Dave just has a really good ability of being able to see the best of someone even when they’re not fully aware of it. And in doing that be able to steer a song in the right direction, to let that aspect shine as bright as it can be. Also, he’s good enough to know when he’s got it. The ability to make music is really incredible but the ability to know when to stop is probably just as, if not more, important.

Was ‘Encore’ recorded live in the studio? It has that feel.

Yeah, at its core it’s a five piece band going down live. Then usually we’ll come back and work out the horn arrangements or the string arrangements. For the most part it’s on the fly.

Do you work on getting the perfect vocal take or do you let the immediacy of the moment take hold when you’re recording?

Again, that’s another thing with Dave knowing when to stop. I will say, to my discredit, I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and have a really high level of expectation for myself. So if you left me alone on that kind of thing I’d still be in there recording. But that’s why you have somebody like Dave. I think when we tracked it like that, with the band, it makes a better take. Even though the flaws are in there, things that kind of make me cringe, I know that whenever I listen to records and there’s a flat note here and there, those imperfections are the beauty of being human that draw me into listening to those records. It’s hard to be vulnerable I guess.

At what age did you first discover you could sing?

Man, I think I’m still trying to figure out how to wrestle the beast. Again, like I said earlier, it’s always just been a necessity. Everything’s always a means to an end and I think now is probably the most I’m enjoying singing. The most I’ve enjoyed it thus far.  

You’ve co-written with some very talented people on ‘Encore’. What can you say about your collaborative relationship with Chris Stapleton?

Chris has been a great friend for a while now. I met him when he was finishing ‘Traveller’. I got to go in and help him put it all in order once they were done working on it and from there we just hit it off. We’ve played a bunch of shows together and written a bunch of songs. As he’s had a meteoric rise and success he’s been gracious enough to let us tag along for some of it.

Girlfriend is a standout moment and feels like it could be a huge hit. How did that collaboration come about?

It came about pretty randomly, actually. Avicii got in touch wanting to write and so we set up this appointment. Living in Nashville, and writing songs for as long as I have, you’re used to the first dates, but you don’t ever know how people’s processes work as another artist. So I invited Cobb and my friend [and regular co-writer] Aaron Raitiere. Me and Aaron had the structure of the song pretty much done and when we all got together we just got this thing going and turned it into the session that day.  I think we walked in at five o’clock one evening and left at three in the morning. And that’s what you hear on the record.  

Your rollicking version of Ted Hawkins’ Sorry You’re Sick is very different to the original. What drew you to that song?

I think it was just Ted’s voice. If you can listen to him sing and not want to be closer to it I think there’s something wrong with you. For myself and all the guys in the band we were incredibly inspired by listening to his records and so, when we were in the studio, we were sitting around playing some songs and happened to pull that one up. It was like, ‘well, we got nothing but time why don’t we just cut that song and see if we can add our own spin to it.’ Make it feel right for us but also keep the legacy of that song going.

The buzz around you really seems to be escalating right now, particularly after some of your recent TV appearances in the States. Were you prepared for that?

I try not to pay any mind to it. I mean, people aren’t going insane or anything. We’re just a working class band and far more focused on putting on a great show every night than the glitz and glamour of it all. Or having any interest in being famous or any kind of awful sounding thing like that. We really enjoy playing music to people and, the more people that hear the record and enjoy it and come to a show, I’m terribly grateful for that.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Man, I don’t have any and I don’t really want any. If I’d have come to you five years ago and laid out a list of wants and dreams and hopes I’d have fallen far short of where I am now. So, I’m totally fine not having a plan and am enjoying trying to play great shows and make great music.

'Encore' is out now.

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