By Jim Morrison
Get this straight: Anderson East is from Nashville, but he’s no country singer.
On his latest, “Encore,” East is a flat-out blue-eyed soul crooner, backed by arrangements Curtis Mayfield would love. He’s St. Paul without the Broken Bones.
He covers the most unknown soul singer of the past two decades, Ted Hawkins, and he contributes nine originals, including a couple of co-writes with Chris Stapleton, that sound timeless. The record burns from beginning to end, but burns hardest starting with the horn-fueled “Girlfriend” mid-album.
The album spans soul, country and more. There’s a Willie Nelson cover. Ryan Adams plays on it. Ed Sheeran has a co-write. So does Tim Bergling, listed as one of the co-writers on “Girlfriend.” Listeners know him as the late Avicii, the Swedish electronic music master, an example of how far East is willing to journey from Nashville.
East recently earned a Grammy nomination for “All on My Mind” as best American roots performance. His team couldn’t manage to arrange an interview in time so here’s what you need to know before his show at The NorVa on Feb. 27.
After a Bluebird show, he met Dave Cobb, producer extraordinaire to everyone, it seems, and his career transformed from a guy running a studio and releasing a couple of albums for fun into a, well, a NorVa headliner.
“He had seen me play a show and he liked some of my songs,” East told an interviewer about Cobb. “He had seen one of my shows and told me that we should record some of them. I couldn’t afford to do that, but he said he’d pay for it. I did two songs, and they turned out so much better than anything that I had done on my own. He was really gracious with me. I would do free sessions with him. I refinished the floor in his basement, and he let me do that kind of thing to pay him.”
Cobb was starting his own imprint for Atlantic Records. That became “Delilah,” an album with “Satisfy Me,” which crossed over to the AAA Radio charts.
“I heard him sing, and it freaked me out,” Cobb told The Nashville Scene, “just the sheer tone and rasp and weight of his voice. He started to sing, and about one minute into the song, he stops and he goes, ‘Scuse me, y’all, I gotta go pee.’ And he gets up and holds the entire crowd at The Bluebird. He comes back out and he’s patting people on the back — ‘My bad, buddy. I’m sorry for holdin’ you up.’ I looked around, and people started laughing and giggling. He had the entire crowd in the palm of his hand.”
East’s latest album title, “Encore,” came from Cobb’s studio instructions to make it feel live. “That’s definitely where the album title came from. Just talking to Dave Cobb about it, I said, “I want every song to be played as an encore!” I still wanted to cherish the fact that it’s a recorded piece of music and have it be well thought out, but still human and rough around the edges,” he said. “But, yeah, I think we just wanted to enhance the live show and have a great time playing these songs for a long time.”
East disavows the soul label. He disavows the country label. “I don’t think I am a soul singer and definitely don’t think that I am a country artist by any stretch,” he told Billboard. “I don’t think there is a clear-cut avenue for what I do, and I am OK with that. I am just a lover of music.”
“Country music and gospel music and R&B music, at the core of it, it’s all the same thing,” he says. “You listen to Willie Nelson’s early version of ‘Crazy,’ and its country because it’s Willie Nelson,” he added. “But that same song — same production even — you could hear Otis Redding or Sam Cooke sing it, with no changes, and then what do you call it? You strip away all the rouge and makeup, and you’re left with a song.”
He comes by the screeching, shouting singing on a cut like “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” honestly. He was born Michael Cameron Anderson in Athens, Alabama, and he grew up in a deeply religious family. “I love gospel music,” he said. “I hold religious tendencies, but I’m not devout by any means. I give credit to my parents. I was in church every time the doors opened. I took the good things that worked for me and applied them to my life.”
He’s played bars to four people. He’s opened for Stapleton, Dixie Chicks, Brandi Carlile, and others.
Now that he’s headlining, East says the venues have changed, but not the thrill. “The bare-knuckle truth of it is [my band and I] are all just a bunch of junkies,” he said. “We want that same high we got when we first started. All we are trying to do is just put on great shows that not only people want to be a part of, but that we want to be a part of.”
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