Anderson East: Music in Flux

Heraclitus suggested that the only constant in life is change. “The way up and the way down are one and the same. Living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are the same.” Just as the living will one day be dead, so it is that the only thing we can rely upon as a species is a life in flux. Ironically, most of us don’t like change, unless it proves to be worthwhile, and, well, you just can’t predict an outcome.

As Woodstock 50 peeks its tentative head around the corner of our cultural musical heritage, it’s surely witnessing a backlash-at-the-ready; there’ll never be another Woodstock, what happened on that muddy dairy farm in the Catskills in the summer of 1969 can never be re-created, the line-up is too commercial, and so on. And so the constant nature of change plays out before us. Those who view the original Woodstock music festival as the only one will need convincing that this re-boot is even worthwhile. And yet those of us who have grown up with all kinds of music, including popular music, of which rock ’n’ roll is the very bedrock, understand that in order for it to survive, it must remain in flux. New traditions become old ones over time, and thus the form survives.

In order for the form to survive, however, newer iterations must grab onto at least some thread of the former iteration. Looking at our finest popular culture musical icons, most notably those who were at Woodstock in 1969, we view a handful of true originals who became Keepers of the Flame and Bearers of Musical History: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Creedence Clear Water Revival, The Who…and the list goes on and on. Each of these artists grabbed hold of a musical form that inspired them, that was considered popular in its day, and re-invigorated the form. The inventive, breathtaking line up of Woodstock ’69 breathed new life into the continuum of popular music.

In 50 years, will we look back the same way at this year’s tribute roster? The lineup includes Miley Cyrus, Halsey, Imagine Dragons and Akon. But it also includes Leon Bridges, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Sturgill Simpson, Gary Clark Jr., Janelle Monae and Anderson East. This second list of artists is encouraging; they’re already testing the limits of popular music by personalizing it, making it their own, re-constructing the narrative in the process, and pushing it into new directions. It’s not implausible to think that in 50 years’ time, names like Monae’s will still be relevant.

So, will the Woodstock Tribute have been worth the effort? Only time will tell, but for me there are bright spots in the lineup that suggest it will.

Recently, I caught up with Anderson East, one of those bright spots, who’ll be performing on Woodstock 50’s stage opening day – Friday, August 16th, 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York. The Alabama-native is perhaps best known for “All in My Mind”, off of his latest album, Encore. But East first captured my attention with Satisfy Me, the first single off of his 2015 album Delilah. Satisfy Me crosses genres and generations, simultaneously taking the listener back to the era of Wilson Pickett while also reaching out into a future of boundary-melting musical-genre cross-pollination.

When I arrive at the private guest house where he’s staying during a visit to the Napa Valley, East, polite and laid back, extends a firm hand shake. He’s staying at the Charles Krug Estate, gearing up for a private performance later in the day for members of the music industry and radio station executives. Tall, lanky and confident, he’s clearly comfortable in his own skin.

 

R.H. Drexel: Some of your music on Delilah really reminds me of Wilson Pickett.

Anderson East: Well, I’ll take that all day long.

RHD: So, who were your influences?

AE: My musical taste growing up wasn’t anything to write home about. I listened to pretty much what was on the radio [Anderson was born in 1988]. So I listened to bad late ’90s pop music. But then I got a job at a record store; it was one of my first actual jobs – the kind that takes taxes out of your paycheck, you know what I mean? And so I would just recycle all my paychecks at that place. Everybody assumes I just grew up listening to old R&B and soul music, but that’s just what comes out of me naturally. I’ve digested a lot of different music, and tried to experiment and go in all these different directions, but the common thread that comes out of me is that Southern heartbeat.

RH: Satisfy Me really does sound like it was recorded during some other era. How do you organically re-create the old-school sensibility to where it feels so real?

AE: I think it’s the approach we take in songwriting…a timeless song will always hold up. In terms of recording, we want to be human about it – to be human beings in the room. We show our flaws and all. We record everything live. When you go back and think about how those classic records were made, it was live. And we’re using a lot of the same equipment bands used in the ’60s and ’70s. Like I always say, a good pair of blue jeans never goes out of fashion.

RH: Yeah, nothing you do seems forced. Do you have rituals when you write a song? Favorite pen? Or a whiskey you sip on? Room you go to?

AE: Not really. I write a lot, and with a lot of different people. I like being a student of songwriting. There’s no right or wrong way, and everybody works differently. I’ve gotten to the point where I just let the craft take over. When I write for other people, it’s nice to have that utility, like a blunt-force instrument. When I write my own records, it’s nice to have that wheelhouse of inspirations, but what I’m after is truthfulness for myself. Having an intention. Trying to get a truth across.

RH: All in My Mind reminds me a lot of an Eagles song. They had so many great songs with a strong narrative arc; their songs told stories. There’s also a palpable amount of testosterone in that song, in a really good way. How did it come together?

AE: That one started with Ed Sheeran and Johnny McDaid (Snow Patrol). They sent it my way. I kind of tweaked it here and there. It took a long time to get that one right. I definitely know I wrote about seven different choruses for that song until we settled on the right one. We did something similar trying to record it. It took a long time. I really wanted to explore what it could be sonically. I would go down these rabbit holes. Somebody would play a synth line, and I’d think, “that’s cool, but it really doesn’t go with the aesthetic of the song.” Then we’d experiment with string lines, which would then morph into some guitar part. We kept having a cyclical thing happen with that song. Once something seemed in place, something else would come about and spawn a new idea.

RH: And yet it sounds so intentional.

AE: Well, it was very thought-out, but getting there was tumultuous. Just because we’re used to doing maybe five takes of something, but that song took a lot more. The more you gave into it, the more it took from you.

RH: Well, I predict that one might turn into a summer classic, but who knows. Good road trip song. Windows down.

AE: I like that.

RH: InKing for a Dayyou get pretty vulnerable. You wrote that one with Chris Stapleton. Is it hard to get emotionally vulnerable in a roomful of guys?

AE: That one kind of fell out. We were on tour together. After one show, Chris hollered at me to come to his dressing room. By the time I got there, he already had the first half of the verse together. I told him, you don’t need my help on that, but then we sat down together, and in 20 minutes it was done. As much as people think he’s the outlaw country guy, he’s a tender teddy bear. He just has a sweetness about him. And Morgane, his wife, was in there with us, and she’s been kind of a big sister to me, so it all felt very natural and unpretentious.

RH: That’s a really beautiful song. I dig that one.

AE: And Chris played guitar on that song.

RH: There’s a real old-soul vibe about you. If you hadn’t been born in the late ’80s, is there another era you would have liked to have been born in?

AE: Man, I don’t have the voice for it –1940s and ’50s. And it’d be cool because I’d get to wear a suit all the time. Smoke cigarettes. If I didn’t know they were bad for you.

RH: Yeah, there was something about the crooner aspect of that era. You could still be a man’s man, but the ladies would swoon for you.

AE: Yes, you could kick somebody’s ass if you needed to.

RH: You know, you don’t strike me as a huge self-promoter. Actually, I don’t think of you as self-promoting at all, to be candid. That whole world of social media…is that something you enjoy?

AE: No, if I didn’t have to be on it, I wouldn’t. There’s a lot of harm to the human mind with social media. It can harm your own personal empathy and compassion for other people and for yourself. It’s extremely unhealthy to always be fighting the urge to compare your life to somebody else’s. If I could I would choose to not participate in that. Also, the world’s too fucking big. I don’t need to see everybody in the whole world at a moment’s notice. And, also, thinking about creativity versus boredom. If you’re standing in line at the grocery store, and there’s a 10 minute wait, people just pull their phones out. How about just standing there? And waiting? Maybe daydreaming for 10 minutes? I mean, I understand the benefits of it if you’re trying to run a business, I guess, but ultimately I don’t think that it’s healthy. I’ll put things up once in a while to keep people in engaged in what we’re doing, but I don’t want to feel like a whore.

RH: Is it distracting when people are holding up a phone and filming you while you perform?

AE: Yeah, it is. I can understand people wanting to show their friends where they’re at. I guess I don’t know why people would pay to watch a concert through a phone. I do remember a time when people weren’t doing that because there wasn’t anybody there! I’d much rather have people there filming than no one there at all. At our shows, we try and have a communal spirit so that people feel they’re there to participate for a moment in time, together, and if you’re covering your face with a phone, you’re kind of isolating yourself. Shows are the best when everybody’s present together. I kind of like it when somebody just takes a picture if they have to, and then puts their phone away and participates. I think we’re all trying to be in moments that are bigger than ourselves.

After some time, East gets ready for his upcoming sound check, so I head out into a brisk spring morning.

Indeed it will be interesting to watch how Woodstock 50 differs from the original in that it will inevitably, largely be filtered through the prism of social media; hundreds of thousands of posts and reposts from every which angle imaginable. Just think of it: how would the original Woodstock have appeared to our civilization if it had been filtered through the lens of social media? With many of the original attendees in various states of altered-consciousness and various states of undress – many of them naked and covered in mud – it does beg the question…where would they have put their smartphones?