“Feeling the Notes”: An Interview with Anderson East

With his album Delilahon the horizon, Anderson East talks with PopMatters about the lead single "Satisfy Me" and connecting in the Nashville music scene.

Anderson East‘s song “Satisfy Me” has been featured on iTunes, and was recently christened “song of the week” over at the Bluegrass Situation. The track is the lead single from his forthcoming full-length debut album Delilah, out 10 July on producer Dave Cobb’s imprint Low Country Sound. Currently, East is on tour with Brandi Carlile but before the tour began, he had already come through New York City three times this year, including an opening slot for Sturgill Simpson. He took time out after an industry show to chat with PopMatters.

Other than TLC, what would you like to get a Ph.D in?

I think a Ph.D in TLC is probably the first. If I had to go back to school for anything, I’d go for astronomy.

Your forthcoming record is called Delilah. Who or what is Delilah?

Well, Delilah is one of the characters in the Book of Judges, [it’s] the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was like the strongest man alive. God blessed him with this superhuman strength but it all laid in his hair. He’s infatuated with [Delilah], totally in love with her, told her secrets and that was the crumbling of the strongest man that’s ever lived. That’s kind of the thread through the record: the woman that saved the crumbled man.

Are there characters or stories, Biblical or otherwise, that are carried through each of your songs?

A lot of it is very personal, so yeah. A lot of it is with someone in mind and probably, there’s a thread throughout it. Then other people that songs are about ultimately lead back to one person.

You cover a lot of different kinds of music on stage — it’s not entirely country, obviously; it’s more than country. But with your vocals, you kind of go gospel sometimes; you kind of do a mix. Is that something you strive for, or does it just come naturally?

I don’t think I really strive for it; I just try to have the right emotion to the right part of the song or the right song in general, and what the story calls for. The human voice is pretty versatile as it is. I think mainly it’s just like trying to tailor the song, the attitude and the emotion. As a singer, you kind of are able to feel notes. And there’s some singers like, I can’t feel. Like Aretha Franklin, she’ll go up to a place and I’m like, “oh, I know what all those feel [like].” And then, she goes up here and, like, I don’t know where those are.

But, for me it’s like, mentally it’s like, “OK, where are those notes that I’m feeling?”, you know what I mean? And so it’s just really trying to find if I can get to them. So that’s really what it is, it’s like trying to match this with what’s inside.

So it’s like stretching for the stars?

Yeah, absolutely! Sometimes you get there and sometimes you don’t.

Rolling Stone placed you on their 2015 Country Music Preview: 20 Reasons to Love This Year list. How does that make you feel?

I feel honored they would say that. I don’t really know how strictly we fall into country music by any stretch, which nowadays is quite the broad term. But, just that somebody would be kind [enough] to mention [us as] top 20 anything to watch is very humbling. We’re very grateful for that. So, yeah. Bring it on.

“Satisfy Me” is your first single off the new album. It’s quite a powerhouse. What’s been the reaction to it on tour?

So far it’s been great. There’s people that know it, and that’s really cool and strange and it’s never really happened that much before. But it’s been good. Mainly the track is fun. That was kind of the thing with the whole record, too. Trying to have really great songs that felt good.

As a solo artist, it’s so easy to be lumped into a singer / songwriter genre and writing sleepy, sad songs that are very emotionally rich that mean a lot to you and people just get kind of tired. But yeah, that was mainly my thing: let’s write the best songs we can, but let’s make them feel really cool.

Are the guys you’re playing with now the same guys you recorded the album with?

These aren’t. We kind of did the record very minimal. It was just three or four of us that did the whole thing. But the rest of the guys here, Johnny and Scotty, we’ve been roommates for years and practically brothers. They’re actually brothers. So, it’s friends right now.

I’ve been lucky enough to have great friends that I love playing music with. And they’re really incredibly talented. So it feels good to look over on stage every night and not only [see] one of the best guitar players you’ve ever heard, but one of your best friends.

Yeah, he’s pretty wild out there.

Oh, he’s insane. Everybody’s great.

“Satisfy Me” and “Fool You” are two of my favorites, but I actually love “What A Woman Wants To Hear” and “Lying In Her Arms”, which are two quieter takes. What do you appreciate doing more live? Quieter stuff, or…

Well, it depends on the atmosphere; it depends on what you’re there to do. Right now, my head is into being a catalyst for a good time. Not just a drunken good time — hopefully other people view it as that — but like a highly artistic good time. That’s where my head is and has been for quite a while, but for years it was just me with the guitar, traveling around. There’s only such a threshold you can hit with just you and a guitar. So you have to start to learn how to play with an audience, and figure out how to make them react to nothing, really, beyond what you’re able to produce by yourself.

So, I still love that. I love going and playing a quiet little show with just me and a guitar, because time is irrelevant at that point. You don’t have tempo, you don’t have other guys relying on you for a vocal cue and so on and so forth. So you’re just up there, and you’re just free floating, and you’re able to do whatever the hell you want, and that’s a beautiful thing and a special thing if the audience is there to see that. But it’s hard to get that audience as it is. But, [that’s] not to say that can’t be done. I did it forever and had a really great time doing it, and people seem to really enjoy it.

Now, it’s trying to pair those two and right now it’s a lot more fun to go hoot and holler and get a little wild. I love seeing people smiling, dancing. There’s enough sadness in the world, man.

Going back to “What A Woman Wants”, is there someone it’s specifically written about?

There sorta is. But it’s more just the phrase of it all. Because in the song, it never really says what it is. Because there’s nothing, you know? There’s nothing! But, I don’t know. There’s something about that phrase that really lit me up. I was like, “all right, that’s something cool.” It’s not a personal plot line but it’s a plot line about someone in an imagination sense.

What is the most personal song on the record?

I don’t know, that’s so personal! There’s this song, “All I’ll Ever Need”, that was probably at the time. Like you’re handing somebody a letter. At the time I really meant it, it’s like “you’re all I’ll ever need.” But, you know, shit changes.

Who were some musical inspirations that you’ve drawn from for the album?

It’s very vast, man. There’s so much classic shit. I’m listening to Travis [playing in the background of the room] right now. People like that all the way to the classic R&B stuff. I grew up on that stuff. That’s the best feeling stuff, you know? Like all kinds of gospel music, hip hop music, country music, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, all that kind of stuff. New cats, you know. Jason Isbell’s amazing.

For Delilah, you collaborated with a producer Isbell has worked with, right?

Yeah. Dave [Cobb] did the past two records of Jason’s. Foy Vance is devastating as well. Mike Farris, another guy that’s around singing gospel music who I think is unbelievable.

I’m not one to really search out music but what I’ve found I really grab on to. Hopefully, we’re just making our own appreciation.

How has the Nashville scene supported you as an artist?

Yeah, I’ve lived there for about eight years now and Nashville’s a great place. It’s a really good community. I don’t think it’s like a music business town; it’s a town of musicians that are very supportive. I honestly think that’s far more important than the business of it all, so there’s great places to play that are always willing to take a chance on people they’ve never heard. We were lucky enough to have that be the case with us.

But I think it’s a really special place and it’s changing drastically but whenever I first lived around there it was just easy to move into a scene that supported musicians that were doing what they wanted to do. And it still is.

Is that how you found Cobb or vice versa?

Yeah, I was playing a show — this is the most Nashville story in the world — but I was actually playing at the Bluebird Café, which is a Nashville staple for singer-songwriters, and he was just randomly there. I don’t know how in the world that happened, but we just hit it off after that.

Will this be your first time touring with a full band? Or a fuller band?

Definitely the first time with as big a band as this, and for as long. We’ve done regional stuff. But this will be the first full band thing. I’ve been a sideman for a long time, so I was able to travel around. We’re really looking forward to this.

Are you playing any big festivals, separate from your tour with Brandi Carlile?

We’re playing a few smaller festivals. We’re kind of just getting our feet under us for this year and we’re kinda waiting to make our festival splash.

Before I let you go: you’ve been here in New York before. Have you been up to anything fun this time?

Man, it’s hard for me to get going in here, it stresses me out. I’m not a big city kinda guy. The food here is amazing. I love great food and you all have an abundance of it. But I’ve had some great times here. There’s always something to do, there’s always something to not do. But it’s great man, it’s a beautiful place. I can imagine it would just crush people’s souls left and right, and build you up to the tallest of these fuckin’ skyscrapers.

Anderson East Tour Dates:

July 1—Tempe, AZ—Marquee Theatre†

July 2—San Diego, CA—Humphrey’s by the Bay†

July 3—Santa Ana, CA—The Observatory†

July 10—Mt. Pocono, PA—Sherman Theater Summer Stage†

July 14—New York, NY—Mercury Lounge

July 18—Gateshead, U.K.—SummerTyne Americana Festival

July 21—London, U.K.—The Waiting Room

July 24-26—Chillicothe, OH—Paper City Music Festival

July 27—Pittsburgh, PA—Stage AE*

July 28—Cleveland, OH—House of Blues Cleveland*

July 30—Grand Rapids, MI—Meijer Gardens Amphitheater*

August 2—Minneapolis, MN—Cabooze Plaza*

August 4—Bayfield, WI—Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua*

August 5—Fargo, ND—Fargo Theatre*

August 12—Spokane, WA—Knitting Factory Concert House*

August 15—Morrison, CO—Red Rocks*

August 16—Salt Lake City, UT—Red Butte Garden*

September 16-19—Nashville, TN—Americana Fest

September 30—Denver, CO—Gothic Theatre‡

October 1—Durango, CO—Fort Lewis College‡

October 2—Phoenix, AZ—Musical Instrument Museum‡

October 7—San Francisco, CA—The Fillmore‡

October 8—Portland, OR—Aladdin Theater‡

October 9—Vancouver, BC—The Imperial‡

October 10—Seattle, WA—Neptune Theatre‡

October 27—Columbus, OH—Lincoln Theatre‡

November 12 & 13—New York, NY—Webster Hall‡

*appearing with Brandi Carlile

†appearing with John Butler Trio

‡appearing with The Lone Bellow