Eric Hutchinson‘s new album Moving Up Living Down is a giddy patchwork of pop styles, tying up brass-laced arrangements and hip-hop beats with a Technicolor bow — but it starts off with nothing more than Hutchinson’s voice and the strum of a guitar, which gets pretty much directly to the heart of what separates him from his increasingly Pro Tooled and Auto-Tuned peers. Destructive as it is to speak in stereotypes, there’s no getting around it: this isn’t the type of album you’d expect to hear from a major label in 2012.
The sweet spot between “commercially viable” and “human-sounding” has shrunk almost to the point of invisibility for singer/songwriters in the 21st century (just ask the guys in fun., currently being raked over the coals by fans who think they sold out on their way to Number One) — but Hutchinson finds it on Moving Up Living Down, exploiting current technology while taking care not to suck all the air out of his songs. The result is that rarest of modern records: A pop record that sounds like it could be performed by a band on stage and fit in on Top 40 radio.
Currently touring behind Moving Up Living Down — which arrives in stores today — and its leadoff single, “Watching You Watch Him,” Hutchinson checked in with Popdose to talk about the new music, his songwriting process, and life on a major label.
So let’s talk about this new record, shall we?
Yes, let’s. If I’m not mistaken, you and I were tweeting previously…
Right — I tweeted that you sounded like Jason Mraz, only not shitty, and you retweeted it. I was impressed by your sense of humor.
You mean you were impressed by your own sense of humor!
Well, that could have been taken as a backhanded compliment — or you might not have wanted to send that out for fear of looking like you were insulting Jason Mraz.
No, no, he’s a pal. We’ve done some shows together.
It seems like you’ve done shows with just about everyone, actually.
It does feel that way sometimes, yeah — although one person I’ve never performed with, and would really like to, is Ben Folds. I think I’ve ended up on stage with everyone from that era except him.
But you’ve played with someone who influenced him — Joe Jackson.
Yeah, we used to share a manager. I was big into him during my teenage years, and it was cool sharing a stage with him.
We’re talking about all these singer/songwriters, so I think we should discuss the tricky business of actually being one in the current musical climate. You’ve clearly been influenced by artists who were around when rock radio was healthier, but I imagine you have to play the game where you need to think about fitting your sound into what happens to be commercially viable at the moment.
I agree to a certain extent, but I try really hard not to think about that. I mean, if I’m being perfectly honest, there were days when I was working on the album and I’d look at the iTunes charts and think, “Man, how am I going to fit in with this?” But, you know, Mumford and Sons broke out, and Adele is really big. Their success has been really inspiring to me. I think people just want music they can connect with, and they don’t really care how it sounds. I think the parameters are bigger than ever now. Hopefully if I can bring something with heart, there’s an audience for it.
Hopefully if I can bring something with heart, there’s an audience for it.
The parameters are certainly bigger, but the price for that is that every audience is just a niche now.
I think so. But I’ve given up on trying to figure out who my audience will be — all I can do is just make music that feels right and hopefully, people will like it.
What has your experience with being on a major label been like so far?
Warner Bros. have been very supportive, honestly. Making Moving Up Living Down was a very different experience from my last album, which I made independently, and therefore I had to deal with all the stuff: finding musicians, lining up studio time, things like that. I had less time to think about the music. Whereas this time, Warner Bros. handled that side, and hooked me up with some amazing producers, so it was the reverse situation — I got to spend more time thinking about the music, which is probably the opposite of what I think a lot of people would expect.
I look at it as a partnership. Like a lot of partnerships, it may not last forever, but I want to make the best of it now — and like I said, they’ve been very supportive. They were really excited when I turned this record in. There are a lot of great music lovers over there.
Well, their excitement is understandable. It’s a really solid set of songs, and a smart evolution for your sound. And that single doesn’t quit.
Thank you — that was definitely a goal. I hope it comes through. And I will say, sometimes when I’m out doing promotion, I’ll end up playing that song 5-10 times a day, and I’m always excited to do it. That’s always a good sign, and the number one thing I want out of the music — durability. I really road test my songs. I think that’s how you make an album that people don’t get tired of.
Did you write with anyone else for this, or was it all on your own?
No, I take a lot of pride in doing all the writing myself. I live in New York now, and I have a little studio where I write. I’ll go out and eat and drink at night, come back the next day and write some more. I feel like I hit the inspiration cycle that way. There are definitely times when I’m beating my head against the wall, but I like that struggle. You make fewer albums that way, but I like the idea that if my mother never met my father, this album wouldn’t exist.
Are you the type of person who clocks in and writes every day, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
I do tend to clock in. I’ve gotten a little more relaxed with it — when I’m not feeling it, or if I really don’t want to do it that day, I won’t make myself. But I have a friend who’s fond of saying “You’ll never get a home run if you don’t step up to bat,” and even when I’m not feeling inspired, sometimes I’ll sit down and something will come along. I don’t know that many authors, but I think my schedule is similar to that kind of work. Get up, write for a few hours, have lunch — that kind of thing. And there are days when it all just seems to flow, and there are days when I think I’m never going to write a good song again. I try really hard to give myself a break on those days.
Just like a painter, you have to step away from the canvas at a certain point, or else everything just turns brown.
What’s your songwriting split between guitar and piano?
I kind of go in phases. I try and keep it as 50/50 as possible — even if I’m not playing a song a certain way live, I’ll try and approach it that way writing-wise. A trick I learned from a Chris Martin interview was to switch instruments anytime I feel like I’ve gotten myself stuck in a corner. Different guitar, or a piano, or even get off all the instruments and hum it for awhile. Sometimes those chords can sound different, and it’ll lead me to a different place in the song.
What’s your method if you’re starting from scratch — just sitting down and picking up the instrument without having a plan?
These days, a lot of it is about rhythm. That’s how “Watching You, Watching Me” started — it came out of that conga beat you hear on the record, and I think starting from there got me to write the song differently than I would have if I’d just started playing it. I have a lot of rhythms I’ll put together and see what sounds good. I think the new album has a strong rhythmic component as a result of that.
Do you remember at what point you started to feel like you had an album here?
No, and in fact, there were times when I’d call my manager and say “I’ve gotta do more!” There are always more songs, but just like a painter, you have to step away from the canvas at a certain point, or else everything just turns brown.
That’s an interesting point, because I think learning when to step away is crucial for artists who are recording your style of music right now. With all of the available technology, you can do pretty much anything.
Yeah, and I’m zero percent Auto-Tuning on this album. The technology is interesting, because I want my music to sound current, but I also want it to retain those classic elements, and I want the recording process to be the same way. But, you know, if the Beatles were still together…I mean, they were always into the latest technology. They’d probably use Pro Tools. There are parts of it that are really cool — I’m a huge fan of hip-hop, and there are loops on the new album. Newer things, but I tried to do them with a classic sensibility in the songwriting.