Last November, Eric Church became the first country artist to pull off a surprise album drop, blazing through hush-hush recording sessions and then shipping limited-edition vinyl copies of his new record, Mr. Misunderstood, to unsuspecting members of his fan club. Such ambushes are common enough now in the pop world, but in country music, the tried-and-true advance-promotion cycle is still the most reliable route to a hit. Church dared to sidestep that system altogether.
It makes sense that he would be the one to beat his country peers to a surprise release and flaunt his independence from industry expectations. Over the last decade, Church has established himself as one of country’s smartest, most ambitious singers and songwriters, not to mention one of its most complex figures. He’s made peace with the fact that others will try to imitate his sound and sensibilities, yet he voices discomfort about being viewed as a mainstream success. He has a profound understanding of traditional country-song forms, yet he and his producer Jay Joyce have raised the bar for forward-looking studio experimentation in the genre.
In the four-plus months since Mr. Misunderstood came out, Church hasn’t done interviews. He’s been lying relatively low, spending time with his wife and kids before shows at Vegas’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in April, Colorado’s Red Rocks in August, and several festivals in between. Ahead of one of country’s marquee awards shows, the ACM Awards on April 3 — at which he will be up for six trophies, second only to Grammy-winner Chris Stapleton’s seven nominations — Church sat down with Vulture in East Nashville and offered a rare chance to get inside his head. Even his trademark aviators came off.
Is this really the first interview you’ve done since the album came out?
Yep. I’m terrified. I’ve not talked about the album at all. The idea was to let the fans be the mouthpiece for it, you know?
Other than a handwritten note — and having McKinley [Smay, the 14-year-old rock geek who appears on the cover of the album] announce its release.
That was it. We let McKinley — you know, Mickey — do the press conference before the CMA Awards show, which kind of weirded everybody out. [Laughs] But I loved it. I love that a 14-year-old kid ends up being the guy that helps to steer this thing.
Your fans got the album in the mail the day before the CMA Awards broadcast, and it became available to everybody else when you performed on the show. I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted there would be a bigger headline-making event in country music that day.
[Laughs] Right! Chris [Stapleton] went Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan on me. He was out on The Outsiders tour some with us, so it was fun to see his breakthrough moment. I’m glad I wasn’t performing right after Chris [and Justin Timberlake]. There were acts in between us. But, Jesus Christ.
Considering The Outsiders had just come out in early 2014, I don’t think people were expecting a new album from you that quickly.
Well, I wasn’t either. I thought we’d be working on it right now, and then it would come out maybe sometime this year. It wasn’t something that I’d planned to do.
Writing an album is often a more deliberate process.
For me it is. It’s usually doing a lot of writing and then whittling those songs down, and a lot of time in the studio. This time, in every possible way, it was totally the opposite. I had never written like that in my life. It was almost embarrassing, because I came home every day thinking, Maybe I’m losing my edge, because I really think these songs are great. And they can’t be great every day. Then the recording process was nothing. It fell together in no time. When it was over, I wished we could’ve kept going.
As much as you’re known for boundary-pushing, you do still work with country songwriting’s familiar forms and tropes. What does it take to squeeze something fresh out of them?
It depends. With past albums it’s taken a lot of songs, because a large majority of them ended up being in the same vein; 15 or 20 will be similar. When you’re the guy writing ‘em all, that’s gonna happen. You’re not gonna write a hundred songs and have a hundred entirely different ideas. It’s a matter of finding the ones that are the freshest and most unique.
That’s how it happens for me when I’m writing in bulk. I’m having a hard time explaining what happened this time, because when it was done, I couldn’t write anything. I picked up a guitar, like, twice.
The well is dry?
It’s all white pages. I have nothing. I have a tough time ordering fast food at this point. Whatever happened during the record of Mr. Misunderstood, God, I’d love to have bottled it. It happened so fast and explosively that there was no time to wonder where the inspiration came from. With this one, there was no writing in bulk.
You were in a songwriting frenzy.
Yeah. 20 days. It was quick!
At what point did you decide that this stuff needed to become an album, and quickly?
After about five or six days I started to see a record take shape. The first thing we recorded was “Mr. Misunderstood.” I said, “I’m just gonna cut that one song, and if it goes well, maybe we’ll cut another one the next day.” And we stayed in the studio for ten straight days. When we got to the end of the tenth day, we had a record.
That’s a lot different than your typical approach to recording, I’d imagine.
Oh, absolutely. It was just me and the band. We had no session guys. I played a majority of the guitar parts on the record, which is new for me, too. And it was a lot more stripped down, more sparse. Very different from The Outsiders, which is more bombastic and, I would say, exploratory.
The arrangements are a lot looser, too.
There’s a lot of air and space. One of my favorite spots on the record is in “Mistress Named Music.” The second verse is, “No hope, squarely solitary,” and at that line, for a period of time, there’s nothing happening but a ride cymbal. I love that we did that, because a lot of times the instinct is, “Let’s fill all that up.”
When did you come up with the release strategy for Mr. Misunderstood?
When we were in the studio, we came up with the plan: We were going to give it right to our fans, in a month. Actually, probably less than a month. In order to get it done, we had to actually purchase our own plant in Germany to get the records and CDs pressed. We couldn’t use our usual distributor because we’d have had to let the label know that we had something to distribute. It was a whole elaborate thing.
Anyway, we knew that in a quick amount of time this record was going to be out. Not a single. Just out in the public. It was kinda like it used to be: People would make an album or a song, get it down, and it’s out. You didn’t have to go through all these other channels.
I figured the motivation for snatching up the record press was that you would have had to plan far ahead to get vinyl manufactured otherwise. That was the key. We ended up having to purchase the plant to skip to the front of the line, because that’s exactly it: There are only so many plants in the United States. They just shipped it over here done. We did it and didn’t tell the label.
You really went to extremes to make this happen. It would’ve been much easier to pull off a digital release.
Some of that we found out along the way. But, yeah, the easy thing would’ve been digital release of a surprise album. I felt like it had been done.
Well, it has been done — in pop, R&B, and hip-hop, although I can’t really think of any other artist who’s attempted it in country. George Strait’s Cold Beer Conversation came closest last year. He announced it on a Monday or Tuesday and it came out on a Friday.
I’m a huge Strait fan, and I knew about that before. It was like the worst-kept secret, because it was shared with too many people in the industry. I knew it wouldn’t work if we did that.
Did the rollout go as you’d envisioned?
I didn’t really know what to expect, and honestly, I didn’t care what to expect, because I knew it was right to give it to the fans. And I knew that the way we were doing this, we would have to commit to it over time, because I’m not even on the road until 2017, so I can’t support it much. Everything about it was not something that people would say, “This is what you should do.” But it would’ve felt like a crime against that music to sit on that for six months when it happened like that [Snaps his fingers]. I couldn’t put it on a shelf and go, “The better time is June.”
You were talking about how late in the game you brought the label in.
Very. Fourth quarter, one second left. Three, two, one, tell the label.
So you only communicated with them once everything was sitting in a warehouse?
Yep. That’s the point. We had to let the cat out of the bag with Mike Dungan, the president of the label, when we started to have distribution meetings. Up to that point we disguised this as a Christmas album, but we had a little bit of a political problem: Our label didn’t know and we were having meetings with retail outlets. So we brought Mike in during the last week or so before release. It was a, You’re doing what? kind of response. Other people at the label did not find out. The fans were telling them that it was out.
You put them in a position to have to field questions without knowing what was going on.
Sure. I understood that. But I’d decided I wasn’t doing press and stuff on it. The music speaks for itself. We put it out, the fans got it, and I didn’t feel the need or the urge to come out and hype, hype, hype and try to sell first-week numbers.
I’ve said this a lot: The way the music industry works is all based on hype. The label gets the music first, and then it’s media or critics, and then it’s radio. All these people are telling the fans to get the record, which is backwards to me. You’re trying to get it in the hands of the fans, but you give it to everybody else before you go to the fans. I like flipping that.
I saw a guy in Kentucky who had gotten the vinyl — he ended up getting interviewed about it. Just some guy, right? He’s on the morning show and they’re asking him about the album. He said, “I’ve been a member of the Church Choir [Church’s official fan club] since ’06. I don’t have no idea what this record is. It just showed up. Maybe I’m the only one that got it.” [Laughs] I thought that it was great that this fan ends up being the guy that’s talking about the music.
It does seem counterintuitive for music to take so long to get to fans in a genre uniquely focused on its fans. Is that sort of what you were getting at?
Yeah. Especially with us. Our path’s been a little bit different. There’s a ton of freedom that fans have afforded us musically. We can really do what we want. They carry the flag for it.
That shows in your philosophy of choosing radio singles. Over the last several years, it feels like you’ve alternated between sure hits and deep cuts.
It’s conscious. We do.
There were some unlikely choices like “The Outsiders,” “Like a Wrecking Ball,” “Cold One.” Even “Mr. Misunderstood.”
I understand that not all this stuff may work on radio. We’ve had 20-some singles now; we’ve had four number-ones out of that. So when people say, “You’re mainstream,” I get it. But we’ve still not had a ton of radio number-one-song-type stuff. “Smoke a Little Smoke” wasn’t even a top-15 hit. “Homeboy” was not what you would call a radio hit. But these are the songs that are a must at the show. When we put a song out, it’s not just because we’re trying to see what radio will do. It’s because I think it’s an important song.
I’ve been in the crowd at one of your shows and had the sense that people are just as eager to hear your album cuts as anything else.
There are some commercial artists that have number one after number one, and you go to their show and the show’s one-note. Yeah, they’re all hit songs. But there’s no emotion because they’re the same kind of hit songs, because they’re what works at radio. That kills live shows, for me. We always think about the live show first, even when we release singles.
What made you think it would matter to your fans to have this album on vinyl? I think that’s still the most pure way for a record to be heard, because you don’t have the benefit of being able to easily skip around. Escapism, for me, is putting the needle in and sitting down, so you get more of what the artist is trying to convey. The closest thing I hear to the studio in my headphones is still vinyl.
I wanted the fans to know that it’s important to me, in a world where shit keeps sounding worse and worse with the way we’re delivering music, that we take the time to go in and make it sound the best we can, and we care about it, and you should care to hear it that way. I know I’m asking a lot. I get it. But if you really wanna hear it the way I intended, that’s it.
I love the collectible side of music. I love finding rare vinyl. I don’t mind paying a little more for it. It’s like a piece of art. I may never even pull it out of the package. I may just put it up on the wall. I wanted to share that too, with them, at least for this album, because this was their album. They’re always going to have something nobody else has: that white vinyl. We did that first run and won’t do any more.
Tell me about the choice to cast McKinley as the face of Mr. Misunderstood.
The song was written before we met Mickey. [Church’s manager] John [Peets] came in one day I’d just played him the song and he goes, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I’ve met this guy.” And he brought in this 14-year-old kid, rolled-up jeans, slicked-back hair, likes old cars and old blues music, gets picked on for not liking what’s out there right now. So we had him write all the titles on a chalkboard and took a picture of him beside it, and that was the cover.
Instead of having your face on it.
I’m nowhere! There’s no art that has me in it, or the band. It ended up being focused on him, kinda shining the light on that kid who truly is in a situation that he’s misunderstood by his peers.
There’s a connection between the idea of being an outsider and being misunderstood, but it feels like you’ve gone from claiming that identity for yourself on your previous album to turning it toward your listeners on this one.
I was surprised when the song got out how many people got underneath the umbrella of being misunderstood. They felt, for whatever reason, that somebody, society, didn’t understand them. It almost became a more powerful thing than when I sat down to write it.
In country music, artists constantly make reference to artists who came before them in song lyrics. But your song “Record Year” has an especially broad range of references: New Grass Revival, James Brown …
… Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life.
Yeah, and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.”
John Lee Hooker.
I kinda figured you meant the John Lee Hooker version and not George Thorogood’s.
Oh, I do! Not Thorogood. [Laughs] My guitar player, Jeff Cease, and I were talking about this the other day. He said he was dating a girl one time and he mentioned “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” She said, “You mean George Thorogood?” He broke up with her the next day. So, yeah, we mean John Lee Hooker.
What aspects of this album serve as a window into your personal experience?
“Holdin’ My Own” is where my life is right now. We’ve not been touring this year, so I’ve been at home. I’ve been Dad. I’ve been Husband. And not being afraid to write about that, not trying to pretend that I’m something else, is important. I’m not trying to pretend I’m 25. I’m 38. I have two kids and I’m married. I’ve been doing this for ten years, and longer if you count when I wasn’t a major-label artist. But there’s a line I love in that song: “Some nights I still miss the smoke and neon.” It talks about still feeling that pull at 2 a.m., of waking up and thinking I wanna be on a stage somewhere, and having to reconcile that with being here with my family.
Your song “Like a Wrecking Ball” was the most adult take on sex that I’d heard in country for a while. Then you’ve got sentimental numbers about meaningful attachment to your family and songs where you strike a tough, blustery posture. Which of those modes comes most readily?
Certainly the more bombastic, the more blustery, the more testosterone-driven would’ve been songs I wrote when I was younger. You can kind of see that path. There were moments on The Outsiders — one song that comes to mind is “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” — that you’re starting to see a maturation of a man, and artist, and songwriter. To me, it takes hold in this album; there’s really not a moment that’s testosterone-driven. “Knives of New Orleans,” maybe. It’s a little bit different tonewise because that’s a representation of where I am at this point in my life. The things that bothered me and maybe drove me years ago aren’t the same things now.
My favorite artists are the ones that I can take their eight or ten albums and I can see the arc of their life. I was listening to a bunch of Bob Seger recently, and I was hearing his music kind of evolve. Springsteen is another guy that does that great. You can really see where they were when they were young and reckless: the “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” That’s what I appreciate as a fan.
I guess to answer your question the long way, I find it easiest to write when I just focus on where I am at the time and not what I think it should be. Sometimes you get a reputation: “This is what you do.” I see it all the time around town. I just saw it recently on a pitch sheet: Three of the artists on there were “à la the style of rocking Eric Church.” That’s what they were after. You can fall into, “This is what people think you are and what they think they wanna hear from you.” I’ve always found that that’s when it gets harder.
For the past several years, there’s been a somewhat narrower notion of what it looks and sounds like to make popular country music, and an obsession with youth. Many people have called it “bro country.” What’s it been like to carry out your commitment to maturation against that backdrop?
You have to be resolved to the fact that you’re not always gonna be hot. If you’re making music that is truly representative of growth and maturity and of your heart, you’re not gonna continue to maintain the heat throughout that process. That’s okay to me. I’ve always looked at the long game. It wasn’t just something that we made a decision in the moment because we needed to sell another 100,000 albums or a ticket for a tour. When you start making those decisions, you end up regretting ‘em. I see the guys now; there’s a lot of them that are my age but try to act like they’re 25.
The problem there is you’re holding on so tight. My question would be, “To what?” To me, it’s just not commitment to the art. When you’re putting an album out there for everyone to compare against all the others, I can’t imagine ever having to make a decision and go, “Gosh, I need to do this in order to have success right now, but I know I’m gonna regret this in a year or two.”
I know a lot of people make those decisions. I talk to ‘em. I’ve tried to never do that, even if it cost us. What’s ironic about it is it really hasn’t cost us. We may not have all the trophies and accolades some other people have, but it all pays off when you’re at a show and people respect the fact that we’ve thought things through, no matter what the numbers are. I mean, if we cared about that, we wouldn’t have done a record this way.
How did you figure out which rules you had to play by in this industry and which you could afford to ignore?
That’s a good question. You’d have to go back to the beginning there. My 2009 singles “Love Your Love the Most” and “Hell on the Heart” were songs chosen by the label. We had cut a bunch of songs for the Carolina album. I had a couple more that I wanted on it, and they weren’t derivative like those two. But those two were deemed radio-friendly — and then they didn’t work.
As a caveat of that, I said, ” ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ has got to be the next song. I played your game twice; now you gotta play mine.” I was told it was career suicide: It’s a pro-marijuana song. You have no hits, no sales, can’t do it. And it worked. Now I no longer listen to other people about what works, what doesn’t work. I listen to the fans and follow what I see live, what I think, what I want our career to look like. I have a big-picture goal of what I want it to be at the end, and that’s my map.
In Nashville and the country music industry, there’s a premium placed on being cooperative. How have you managed to remain an artist that people want to work with when you do things like drop an album without their knowledge?
We’ve always been committed to the music. Regardless of what you felt about us, I hope that people could hear the music and go, “I dig that. I get that. I know what they’re trying to say.” Sometimes we’re not as politically correct as we probably should be. I think it comes down to your calling card being the music. We always try to make it about that.
I have to believe, too, that your fans connect with more than your music, that it’s also about all the other aesthetic choices that go into framing and presenting it.
Sure. If I’m a fan of somebody and I’ve been to see them however many times, when they put an album out, I want ‘em to act like they have thought about me — a lot. About the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it feels. When you do that, it gets the desired effect, and the fans feel like they matter. We care enough about their experience that we craft it this way.
There’s a lot of thought put into more than just what’s on the album.
But it’s still centered around the music. It’s how you experience it, how you relate to it. It’s a little more old-school. And, we’ll see. The story’s still being written on how we’re approaching all that stuff.
More than four months out, does it really feel like the story of this album is still being written?
I think so. We’ve not done interviews. I’ve yet to play the new stuff.
Would you do something like this again? Oh, no. Not because I didn’t like it. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with putting out an album. But once you’ve done something like that, if you did it again it would look like a shtick. I didn’t conceive of doing an album this way and then write the record. That would’ve been wrong.