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STATE OF CHURCH

Eric Church’s most recent set, Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville) appeared online—and on the doorsteps of his “Church Choir” fan club—without any advance word or setup. The more intimate follow-up to his monster The Outsiders has nonetheless had a huge impact, not only in the marketplace but among critics and tastemakers, and already earned Church an array of laurels, including an ACM Award for Video of the Year, and CMA noms for Male Vocalist, Album, Video, Song and Single (the latter three for “Record Year”), not to mention drumming up considerable Grammy buzz. But after enduring a conversation with us, he probably wishes he’d pretended to misunderstand our request for an interview.

I’d like to kick things off by asking you for your thoughts about the Grammys in general, how you reflect on what a Grammy nomination means, and also the place of country in that world. 
For me, the Grammys are that universal thing that, no matter where you are, always define you. When people introduce you, it’s “two-time Grammy nominee” or “second-time Grammy winner.” All the other awards and accolades kind of fall to the side when it comes to the Grammys. To me, they’re the holy grail of the music industry. The neatest thing about the Grammys is just the depth and the width of it: It’s not just popular music, the commercial stuff that we consume every day; it’s the layers of it. Whether you get into Latin or classical or all these other categories, it really is a broad representation of the music industry—and something that I cherish. 

Speaking of width and depth, it seems to me that there’s been a real deepening of what’s defined as country music over the last several years. You’re very much part of that, as are several of your very gifted contemporaries. 
I think it’s getting better, and as it relates to the Grammys, one thing they’ve always done a pretty good job at is making sure the nominees for Album of the Year—regardless of success—are usually based on a deeper measure of music appreciation. Rather than being about how many records you’ve sold, how many number ones and so on, I think the Grammys go that extra mile to find what’s better, to find what is important musically and that people need to be aware of. 

As far as the genre, I would say, yeah, over at least the last couple of years it’s gotten deeper. It’s a little more in the songwriter vein, since songs are starting to come back. The thing I love about country music is that it’s still the home of the true songwriter. For a couple of years, I’d been missing more of that song that just punches you in the gut, the true songs. I think that’s starting to come back. And the fact that a lot of those people who have those songs are starting to have some success is important too. I think that the format has gone through a lot of transitions—from where it was to maybe more of a rock and roll phase into somewhat of a hip-hop phase and then a pop phase, where it was pop-sounding and even EDM-sounding. What I love is that it always comes back to the songs, to the artist; right now, we’re getting a lot stronger in both. 

Even with the stuff that might seem like an odd combination of styles, that story-based, emotionally connected songwriting is usually there.
I think that’s what’s always distinguished country music. I was just interviewed for a documentary about the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. If you think about the beginnings of country, that was what it was even when it was very new, beneath the willow. Whether it was “Keep on the Sunny Side” or whether it was the Jimmie Rodgers songs—which were talking about the industrialization of America—you had all this stuff in the cities. But even as a lot of these cities were really starting to boom, and it was the roaring ’20s, not everybody felt that in Appalachia and everywhere else. He was really singing the poor man’s blues. 

The great thing about country is we’ve always dealt with the human element—with disappointment and rejection. There were positive things too. But it’s always been more geared towards that than I think the other genres have. In the last four or five years we’ve become a very happy format. It’s okay to have that, but you really need the blues element of it too—dealing with pain and hurt and overcoming things—and I think with country I’ve seen more of that in the last 12-18 months. That’s important for the identity of who we are. 

No matter how painful the subject, though, there’s always a wit and humor in the way it’s expressed. 
Yeah, that’s the craft part of the town. The level of craftsmanship in Nashville, if you come through that system, is just higher than everywhere else. 

What shaped you when you first decided you wanted to be a songwriter? Was it classic country, or did you discover that later through the more contemporary stuff?
I was a fan of the classic country but the thing I had to uncover was the songwriters. I knew a few; Kristofferson was my Johnny Cash. But if you start there and you go to Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine and Ray Wylie Hubbard, there’s a layer there that you gotta get through to go deeper to the songwriter’s people. Townes Van Zandt was a big one. Even in Nashville, when I first came to town, I had a few guys that I would go listen to, Tony Lane was one of them—he was one of my favorite songwriters—and Chris Wallin. These guys would kind of anchor the open-mic nights, and when I first came to town I treated it like an education. I’d listen to how they turned the hook and how they set a chorus up—how at times they played by the rules but other times it seemed like there were no rules and it was brilliant. I’d always been a fan of Springsteen too, but I really got into him, got into Dylan, I got into all these things that I can’t always say that I was an expert in. I think that’s when I really became more appreciative of the songwriter.

Were there a few that were a million miles from what you actually do that still helped shape you? Who are really outside of country?
Eminem is one; he’s clever and crafty, and just listen to the way he turns a hook. I feel like when it comes back to the songwriter, nothing’s that far away. Regardless of genre, if you’re a songwriter, you’re a songwriter. I don’t care where you’re at, what you do, how crazy it is. That’s really where I’ve found commonality with people. 

I wanted to talk a little about Mr. Misunderstood, which strikes me as a very songwriter-y album after The Outsiders, which was more of a rock-epic-sounding record. This was a little more intimate. 
Right. For me, The Outsiders was interesting because it was coming out of the Chief album, which was the first time we really had commercial success. The Outsiders is a little schizophrenic, but it was meant to be; I felt like I needed to explore, to go places and do things—and epic’s a great word—to get as far away from Chief as I could. I didn’t want to make Chief Part 2. Honestly, Mr. Misunderstood just happened. I’ve said many times that I did not want or need a record. We’d just wrapped up The Outsiders, just finished with “Like a Wrecking Ball,” and I was going to take a year and write and then all of a sudden, in 10 days, I wrote an album and didn’t intend to. 

10 days—that’s crazy!
It’s crazy. That’s never the way I work, and it’s not happening again. It was just a weird, an inspired thing, and I don’t know where it came from. I called Jay Joyce, my producer, and I said let’s do it this way: Let’s take the band and cut the first one, “Mr. Misunderstood,” and if it goes well, we’ll come back the next day, if not don’t worry about it. 

So we went in and it went great. All of a sudden there’s an album, and I love it; it’s my favorite album because it’s the most mature. Of my records, it’s the one I have the most connection to, and I think you can probably hear that. There’s so much of me in there. 

To me it’s the bridge from where we’ve been to where we’re going. This will be the one that really lays out what the next three records of our career will be, that shows where we’re growing and developing—not only artistically, but also me as a person and songwriter. 

And that’s why you released it so unconventionally?
Yes, that’s why we decided just to put it out and not go through the process. We gave it to the fans and let them be the mouthpiece. I didn’t do interviews; I just put it out. And we actually went and hid and stayed quiet. 

That was certainly unusual.
I know, and we went through a lot to make that happen. We wanted to do vinyl. What I was really trying to create with the fans, once we decided to do it this way, was something I miss about the consumption of music. I loved the feeling of knowing I wanted a record and driving store to store trying to find it. You’d get to the third place and finally you see it, and you grab it before somebody else does. You can’t wait to rip the cellophane off and hear it. I was trying to recreate that, and the only way I knew to do it was to just mail 80,000 albums, in vinyl form with a CD inside, to fans unannounced, so they just show up at their door. They wake up one day, or come home from work, and there it is. Nobody in the world knows about it, and I think the best part is we had fans calling the label, going, “What is this?” 

That’s great. 
I think that it really caused a lot of chaos for a while, and we understood that by doing it this way we didn’t really have all of our ducks in a row. We did the best we could; we knew we were surprising people, including retail. 

And you could have had 80,000 units on the board, but instead you just put it in people’s hands.
Right, and I’m still really proud of that, because usually the last people to get the album are the fans, and that’s who you’re trying to get it to. So the label gets it first, and then press, critics, and then radio, and all these people are getting it first so they can talk about it so the fans will buy it. And that always seemed backwards to me, so we decided to go to the fans first, let them be the mouthpiece. Let them be the ones to tell people and move it that way. It was a little challenge to the system. And you know what? If it’s a gold album, going to be a platinum album, before it’s over with, we’re still really on our second single with this one, and it’s built to go 6-7 singles. So we’re gonna write all the way through the tour, which doesn’t even start until January. 

I was wondering if you would say a little bit about the title track, because you were also talking about that kid—the one who’s obsessed with music and feels like a bit of an outcast.
I think one thing we don’t do enough is celebrate the differences in people. There’s so much homogenization—you have to do this and listen to this and be this, especially with the social media world. I’ve always been a bit of a different cat, and this was about saying, “It’s okay.” The weirdest part of this whole deal was when I was playing it for my manager, John Peets, I didn’t think he liked the song because he just started shaking his head. Then he goes, “I just met this kid.” And he tells about this kid, Mickey Smay out of New York. He said, “He’s 14 years old, he likes old classic cars, he’s a guitar player, he plays old blues music, all his friends are into all this EDM stuff.” 

So we contacted Mickey, who ended up being on the cover of the album and has been in all of our videos. Everybody talks about art imitating life. It was just odd that I wrote the song, we recorded the song, and then here’s this person who’s the living embodiment of the song—and ends up being in the video and being the only person on the album cover. I’m not on it. That was his writing, too—he wrote all the titles on a blackboard. 

Like he’d been summoned.
All of this is what I love about music. None of this had anything to do with us trying to sell a bunch of records, or trying to have number one songs. It really had to do with making music and writing what we felt—and all of a sudden here’s this person. That’s when I really knew that we were on the button. If we can write that song, and have “Mr. Misunderstood” and then here’s a guy who, in the current world, is dealing with all these things. 

It’s a reminder of how powerfully your songs can connect. 
I would say that’s the thing I love most about music. I mean, you can really get to places you never thought you’d get to. And now he’s the most popular kid in school. 

PHOTOS BY JOHN PEETS

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