Inside the Mind of an Outsider: A Conversation with Eric Church

In a rare interview since the surprise release of 'Mr. Misunderstood' this past November, we talk extensively with one of country music's biggest stars.
April 1, 2016, 4:00pm

Illustration by RXCH

Eric Church has never played it safe. One of country music’s most successful artists, the man who sells out arenas and notched a number one album on the Billboard 200 with 2014’s The Outsiders, the North Carolina native who gives not a damn what you or I think of him, has made a career of taking the road less traveled. But even Church is willing to cop to the anxiety that surrounded his decision to surprise release his latest album, Mr. Misunderstood, last November. “We took a shot and did it and just trusted it would got to the fans first and let the other stuff fall into place,” he says recalling how, unannounced, he sent a vinyl copy of the album to the members of his Church Choir fan club, performed the title track at the following evening’s CMA Awards before putting the album up for sale on iTunes that night. “I knew that whole ‘falling into place’ thing could be a little clunky,” he adds. “But I really went back to the fact that this was the way the record arrived to me.”

He describes the creative burst that led to _Mr. Misunderstood—_ten days in the studio with his band that resulted in the ten tracks comprising the album—as a “portal” of sorts. “It was a new thing for me,” he says of the LP, which finds the singer flexing his country-rock bonafides (“Mr. Misunderstood,” “Chattanooga Lucy”) while also penning some of the most heartfelt songs of his career with “Record Year” and “Mistress Named Music.”

“It was a new sensation,” Church continues. “I normally have to go looking for an album within the songs I write. But it just happened.” He still sounds almost bewildered at what he created. “It happened so fast! Everything was right in the pocket. I knew it all fit with what this record was. It all revealed itself.” Upon completing the album, he says, “it just felt wrong to sit on it for six or eight months which would have been the plan if we went by the script.”

But when has Church ever be one to fall in line? In a rare interview since the release of Mr. Misunderstood in anticipation of the ACM Awards this weekend (for which he leads in nominations with five), Church goes deep with Noisey on the album’s inspired conception, the current state of country music, and why he feels his latest work is his most mature effort yet.

Noisey: We loved how you let your fans be the first to hear Mr. Misunderstood as opposed to critics or other industry folks.
Eric Church: It was pretty cool. And the best part was not having to do what normally happens around an album, which is always hype. It was pretty refreshing that way. I hearken back to an era where people would go into a studio in the afternoon, record a song and a lot of the times it was on the radio that evening. So I loved the freedom of just being able to make it and put it out. The hard part though was knowing that it was going to take a lot patience.

How do you mean?
When you do it this way you really have to commit to the project for a long period of time. It’s kind of flying by the seat of your pants a little bit. The way we did it, a surprise release, we didn’t do a lot of the things we normally do: whether it be with retail, press, distributors. We took a shot and did it and just trusted it would go to he fans first; we’d let the other stuff fall into place. But I knew that whole ‘falling into place’ thing could be a little clunky.

Why the surprise release then?
I really went back to the fact that this was the way the record arrived to me. It was almost like a portal. It just happened. And it happened so fast. It just felt wrong to sit on it for six or eight months. That would have been the plan if we went by the script.

I imagine you’re aware you were only able to pull off the surprise release because of your massive level of popularity.
Certainly. It would have been a lot harder to do if this was the [2009] Carolina album or even the [2011] Chief album. It would have been a lot more difficult. But I think that freedom… maybe it even allowed the songs to happen. Because I didn’t go sit down to write a record. I didn’t go looking for an album. It wasn’t time for an album. It just felt right. The way it arrived to me is the way it should arrive to the fans: direct. By not telling anyone, including the label, we were really able to truly let the fans be the mouthpiece. We had some fans that wound up doing radio interviews with local DJs the day it came out. There was a guy who was in Kentucky who ended up on a morning show telling people about the album and how he was a fan. That’s what I wanted.

Tell me a bit more about the burst of creativity that spawned this album. Normally you’d write near 100 songs before narrowing it down for an album. For this one you knocked all ten tracks out in as many days.
And that’s what freaked me out! I thought I’d lost my edge. I think the first day was “Mr. Misunderstood;” the next day was “Holding My Own;" the next day, I think, was “Knives of New Orleans.” I just started getting to a place where four or five days in I really did not trust my judgment. Because I left every day going “Damn, this is good!” I hadn’t really brought people in on the process yet. I’d just wrote a bunch of stuff by myself. I finally said to my wife, who I run most of my stuff by, “I don’t know what’s happening. But every day I feel like there’s magic happening and I can’t turn it off. I’m that locked in.” That’s when I knew it was a special thing. But it was a new thing for me. It was a new sensation. I normally have to go looking for an album within the songs I write. Usually I write a bunch of songs and start looking within that: Where’s the record? This time I didn’t have to. Everything was right in the pocket. I knew it all fit with what this record was. And I had a pretty clear vision on this album once it started revealing itself. When the song “Mr. Misunderstood” happened first it gave me a pretty good look at what the record was going to be. And then “Knives” came and “Mistress Named Music” and I started to see a pretty clear picture of what the album was.

Who was all involved in those sessions?
I got my band and [songwriter] Jay [Joyce] in the studio one day and we were gonna cut one song—“Mr. Misunderstood”—and just see what happens. We may come back, we may not. At the end of the day I said, “Come back tomorrow.” And eight to ten days later we had the album done. We just kept coming back every day. But then after you sit down and go “Well, now what? Do we put it out? What do we do?”

What are we talking as far as the total turnaround time from day one of recording to release?
Less than two months total. It was so fast, oh my god! It was nuts. It was from no songs to a record in marketplace within 60 days.

What’s amazing though is that despite the speed of recording the songs on the album are definitely your most mature.
I think it’s our best work. And for me it’s the one I have more points of connection to than any other. It’s just more personal. I can go through this album and I’m just more attached. I think you saw some of the maturity start on The Outsiders. “A Man Who Is Gonna Die Young” is a great example of where you start to see it. You started to see, OK, an artist is growing up. This was the one though that is really the next part of where our career goes. At least that’s the way I saw the album when it happened. It’s almost like a gift in a way. I didn’t choose this; it chose me. Because of that it really lays out a path of going forward that should be fun to see where it takes us.

Why do you feel this album is your most important?
It’s one of those things. It feels right to me. We’re just going to have to lock it, buckle up, and ride it. It’s a disservice not to. The maturity is so important if you’re going to be an artist for a long time, if you’re going to do this into the next part of your life. It’s one thing to be hot when you’re young but it’s quite another when you start rounding it into art and being an artist. This one is more of that than any we’ve done. It’s important to have these in the catalog and have that be in the discussion.

One skill you excel at is in depicting the intricacies of small town life. We saw it on The Outsiders’ “Give Me Back My Hometown” and now again here on “Round Here Buzz.” The line “**Another Friday night / There's a line of cars leaving / Home team's got an out-of-towner / Me, I'm sitting on the hood of mine drinking/I’m just a parking lot down-and-outer” just kills me.** I think a lot of that comes from being from a small town and having that perspective. I’ve done that. I know people that have done it. I’ve experienced that. There’s a lot in that song. And one of the loneliest things in that song is definitely the line about the line of cars leaving, he’s laying on the hood of his in an empty parking lot.

Does the album title Mr. Misunderstood stem from long being labeled as some sort of country music “rebel?”
I don’t know. I don’t really feel I am misunderstood. Some of that is low-hanging fruit. Especially when you have commercial success you have a number of people trying to follow things and they just go and get the highlights. Sometimes it’s in the past, whether it’s the Chief image or The Outsiders; it’s those things that people latch onto. To me it’s just a shallow view. Even “The Outsiders:” it was more of a champion song, it was more about being different than it was that I’m an outsider. “Mr. Misunderstood,” I don’t find that one very autobiographical, except on the last verse when it talks about Music Row; I take more ownership there. Throughout the song it’s more me trying to relate to somebody who is different. And that’s OK. I’ve been different. Everybody’s different. In a way it’s about owning it and making that a flag that you fly for good.

It was important though for that to be the title of the album?
It felt like the right title. We could have called the album anything. But when that song happened the way it happened it felt like it couldn’t be another title. It had to be that.

At the start of your career many in country music viewed you as straying from the Nashville norm. Now with the success of artists like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves we’re finally seeing a lot more similar-minded honest, sincere country artists.
These are artists that I like a lot. I don’t know what my part is in that honestly. Here’s the thing: When you get locked in a career and you’re doing it a lot of the stuff you did is reactionary to what’s happening. We put out a song like “Smoke a Little Smoke” because I couldn’t get anything to work that mattered. I was reacting to things. You just kind of keep going. I will say that we’ve always tried to have a bar on our music as far as the quality of it. And I’ve tried to make sure that I wasn’t just doing what I thought was happening right now: This is what’s of the moment and they’ll play this. I think we’ve always been pretty good at making sure the music had heart, it had soul. It’s been cool though with the Sturgill’s and Jason Isbell, who I love, and Stapleton and Kacey—all that stuff. It’s widened the format out regardless of what anybody’s individual role is. Country music is way, way wider and way better than it was even 18 months ago.

I saw you recently attended a Kris Kristofferson benefit, someone I know was a major inspiration. It feels like country music is perhaps moving back towards Kris’s era of storytelling.
Yes. It does. And it’s a great, great thing to see. Especially because country at times has gone through dark periods [_laughs_]. But if you look at it it’s the same thing that happened during Kristofferson’s time. Now there’s just a lot more of the depth of what country is. We just came back from touring in Europe and the thing is you have to be deep enough to play over there. They don’t have a concept of what country really is; they don’t experience it all the time. So if it’s not of depth lyrically and not of depth musically you’ve got no shot over there. Now it’s starting to get to the point where there’s some country music that can not only play in the States but play on a world level and have a world appeal. That’s important for country music and for Nashville.

From a strictly musical perspective you’ve started to push the limits in your songs a bit more. I see it in the mid-song breakdown in “Mr. Misunderstood” but it can even be traced back to a song on The Outsiders like “Roller Coaster Ride.”
The entire Outsiders album to me was restless. Coming off of Chief it was meant to be that way. So many people say it’s the least cohesive, but it was supposed to be all over the place. That’s what I felt like at the time. I felt like chasing a rabbit down every hole. Doing some wacky stuff and having that work certainly gives you some confidence. But this album, the difference is this is probably our simplest album but it’s also simply complex. It’s one of the hardest ones to come back and re-create live even though there’s less going on. It’s just myself and the band. It’s interesting to realize that though it sounds like it’s sparse and sounds like it’s got a lot of space there’s still a lot in there that’s complex. It’s the most interesting in that regard. Though we didn’t fill up all the holes on this one—I would say The Outsiders is way more bombastic and busy—this one is way simpler and way more direct. I think it relates to how it arrived.

Are you still feeling creatively stoked?
One of the biggest regrets I have is when we finished this album I wanted to keep going. It was so good in the studio and I was still writing every day and I couldn’t turn it off. What’s funny though is when there was no longer a goal of making a record I’ve not written at all. Nothing. I have a hard time ordering food at a restaurant [_laughs_]. I’m completely blank. Whatever that portal was, whether it was because it was a surprise album, whether it was the excitement of having something nobody knew about, whatever those things were, it really got me going creatively.

Though I imagine it’s nice now to just be able to relax with your family and not worry so much about what’s next?
It’s very important. But normally that "getting away" leads me to the next project. When people wonder about our motives with putting this album out, it makes no sense business-wise to do what we did. None. We have an album in the marketplace that I’m not really promoting as far as touring. The shows we’re playing are a few festivals shows throughout the year. We’re not touring on Mr. Misunderstood until next year probably staring end of January or early February. It really should show people that this truly was something that was pure of heart. At least from my side. The smartest thing to do would have been to sit on the material all year, do a big push, the album comes out, you tour, the same thing every artist does. But it just didn’t feel right.

Dan Hyman is a misunderstood man who lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.

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