Interview: Eric Church Felt ‘Fat and Happy,’ So He Moved His Team to North Carolina for ‘Heart & Soul’
The fast pace Eric Church and his production team kept to record his new album was a response to an album recording process the superstar paints as lazy by comparison.
That's not to say a month-long retreat to the mountains will be his new normal. Church describes January 2020 as 30 days that nearly killed him. Talking to Taste of Country Nights, he admits that even when his wife and kids would visit the recording compound, he'd be present in body only. His was a raw wire, pulled taut by his vision and the sacrifices others had made to be there.
One has to think that Church figured if Casey Beathard could be there, he could gut it out, too. The songwriting veteran had just been to hell after losing his son, but he was willing to offer his best.
"It was really kind of freeing in a way," the 43-year-old Church tells Taste of Country Nights hosts Evan and Amber of the recording process. "I mean I remember listening back to this whole project at the very end — I had forgotten these songs. Keep in mind, I only spent a few hours with ‘em. I wrote it, recorded it the next day. And it was so weird to listen back to it, almost as a fan which I don’t really get to do."
"He came back and said, 'Nope, I feel led to be there, I’ll be there' and I’ve never seen anyone that is more inspiring that that and I believe there was a lot of divinity to what he was doing in the mountains."
"I remember four to five songs into listening back going, 'Damn, this is good," the "Hell of a View" singer says with a laugh.
Heart & Soul will be released in three parts, beginning Friday (April 16) and continuing through April 23. Look for Church to sing "Bunch of Nothing" from the Soul album at the 2021 ACM Awards on Sunday (April 18) on CBS. He's nominated in the Entertainer of the Year category.
ToC Nights: Was it difficult to convince your team, like the label, songwriters and everybody, just to jump into the new recording style?
What’s interesting Evan, is I kind of felt like that it was necessary. I felt like we rolled into the Desperate Man album — which I’m incredibly proud of, it’s a different sounding album ... I love what it was and what it is. But it was really, really hard to make because we had just come in off of a massive tour. We were playing two sold-out arenas overnight. And I felt like we were a little — for lack of a better term — fat and happy. And we came in and we just ... the hunger, the urgency was gone. I felt like the thing that made us who we were as an artist wasn’t there. It just annoyed me (laughs).
I think coming in after the Desperate Man project, what a lot of artists would’ve done is they would have changed producers. I work great with Jay Joyce. What I tried to do was the opposite which was, "Let me just mess this whole process up and make him as uncomfortable as he can be, and me as uncomfortable as I can be. And the musicians as uncomfortable as they can be."
So we packed up, moved to North Carolina, we basically quarantined before the world needed to and we sat there and my goal was to write a song, and then the day that we wrote it, record it that night. And let the chips fall where they may. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought there was a fair chance we’d get up there and four days in go, "This is a horrible idea." But it just started working. You could feel the musicians being drawn to it. I was drawn to it as a songwriter. The songwriters I was with, the co-writers were drawn to it. I think that as this thing started to unfold you could feel the hair standing up on your arms kind of feeling, where you know, "OK, we’re onto something here."
You dedicated this album to Mark [Earp], your fans and Clay [Beathard], which I think really speaks to the fact that you really created, not just a team but like a close family. Is that teamwork/family style of recording something that you’re going to continue to do on future albums?
It is. My last album, the Desperate Man album, I dedicated to my brother who passed away and then this album, we lost Mark Earp who was my main production guy for my entire career. Kind of like my — I called him a big teddy bear. I’d look over and he was my guy, you know? And then Clay Beathard was Casey Beathard’s son, and Casey’s the MVP of this album. I’ve never been more inspired by anyone than Casey, and Casey is one of the, if not the greatest, songwriters I’ve ever sat across from. His son died, I’ll never forget it. It was right before Christmas, mid-December, supposed to go record this album in January and son was killed in a ... was murdered. We talked about, you know, he’s gotta do his thing. But he was my ... he was the rock. He was my guy. He was the guy of the entire album. If you look at the throughline, it’s Casey Beathard.
As that unfolded, I said "Hey man, do what you gotta do, don’t worry about me. We’ll figure it out." He came back and said, "Nope, I feel led to be there, I’ll be there." And I’ve never seen anyone that is more inspiring than that, and I believe there was a lot of divinity to what he was doing in the mountains. He was by far the best writer in those mountains and the most inspired writer. I owe these three albums to him more than anyone else.
That’s really a beautiful thing to say. When you came back to your family after being secluded for so long, what was the first song that you shared with them?
I saw them. My family — where we were at was in Banner Elk, N.C. That’s where I spend my summers. So we had a house, probably about 15 minutes from where we were recording, that we spend our summers. So my wife would bring the kids over, like on a weekend. They would do school on a Friday, they would come over and I would leave the recording session on a Friday and I would tell Jay, "Hey I need, you know, let’s start back Monday morning." So I would take a Saturday and a Sunday and see my kids. The problem was I have never been more dialed in as a songwriter [than he was], so when I was with them, I was so far out there on that limb that I felt like I was still writing songs even with what the kids said. Everything was a song.
I remember, there was a song, I think it’s the Soul album, Katherine decided to have movie night and we watched the Rocketman, the Elton John movie. And we were sitting in our place in Banner Elk. So it’s a night off, right? We got a glass of wine, I got a glass of wine. I’m watching this and the very first part of the movie, Elton John’s going through something, he’s in rehab, and they show him in this character, and he goes [impersonating Elton John], "And that’s where rock 'n' roll found me." When he said that, I thought, "Crap" and I stood up. And she goes "What’s wrong?" And I said "Pause it, I’ll be back in a minute." I went to the kitchen and wrote the song, probably in 10 minutes. I said I love that line, that’s where rock 'n' roll found me. So, long story short, even though my kids would come see me I was not very present during those times [laughs].