Anderson East on Sensory Deprivation, A Trespassing Bear and the Myriad Experiences That Fuel His New Album Sounds Like Nashville
At a time when many singer/songwriters have embraced Zoom as a means for co-writing songs, Anderson East eschews the trendy technology. Instead, songs on his new album Maybe We Never Die boast some interesting back stories that include inspiration striking in a sensory deprivation tank and two songs that came to life despite a bear literally prowling the porch of the writer’s retreat.
“I can’t write over Zoom,” the Grammy nominated artist tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I’ve tried and I’ve written a couple songs over Zoom, but I’ve got other things to do than to sit and look at people on the computer.”
Maybe We Never Die is East’s first new music since 2018’s breakthrough album, Encore, which included the Grammy-nominated No. 1 AAA radio single “All On My Mind.” East says the bulk of the new album, his third release for Elektra/Low Country Sound, was written before the pandemic. The remainder were written after Covid 19 provided East and the rest of the music industry an unwelcome respite from the road.
“I went through all kinds of emotions,” East says of his response to pandemic life. “At the beginning, it was the first time I’d been off the road, so I didn’t know how to just be at home. For a week or so we were told it would take 14 days to flatten the curve and was like ‘Hell yeah! I get two weeks vacation! This is awesome!’ Then once that two weeks ran out, I had every emotion you could think of from just fear and bitterness and resentment and negativity and after a while, the only thing I could put in front of me is gratitude. There are people that have it way worse and have gotten sick or lost loved ones. I came out of this extremely fortunate and so my mantra of the day is gratitude. I’m grateful the electricity is on. I’ve got food to eat. I love my family and they love me. I love my friends. I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend that cares for me as well. In the grand scheme of things, everything is pretty good as terrible as it is outside. That’s the lesson I’ve learned and I’m trying to always maintain that sense of gratitude.”
East crafted the 12 songs on the new album with a cadre of like-minded collaborators including Trent Dabbs, Aaron Raitiere, Jake Mitchell, and producers Dave Cobb and Philip Towns. Cobb produced East’s 2015 major label debut album Delilah and the follow up Encore. Towns has worked with East for years, but this is his first time as co-producer.
“He’s been our band leader for probably six years now and I just figured who better to help make this record than the person that I’ve spent the most time musically with and that’s Phil,” says East, an Alabama native, who now calls Nashville home. “He plays on all kinds of records that Dave makes, beyond just mine. We’re all super close and really good friends and have a line of communication to where it doesn’t feel anybody is overpowering or anybody is overstepping boundaries. Everybody has the same headspace, and it was great.”
In addition to working with East, Cobb is also known for producing Chris Stapleton, the Oak Ridge Boys, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, The Highwomen and other notables. “For me, I think it’s a trust factor,” East says of why he and Cobb have such good creative chemistry. “Working with some people—whether you are writing a song or making a track or anything—you have to kind of learn how the other person drives their car and having the friendship that I have with Dave and us working together for so long, we know what we’re after. He knows how to push me, and I know how to push back on him. Ultimately, he just gets the best out of me and is super willing to go along with my crazy ideas and I’m willing to go along with his crazy ideas. Somehow it all seems to work out, but at the end of the day, I just like hanging out with my friends.”
East was hanging out with some songwriter pals at a cabin in Gatlinburg when they wrote “I Hate You,” a song about the complex emotions churning in a tempestuous relationship. “It was myself, Aaron Raitiere, Benji Davis and Jake Mitchell,” East recalls. “We were just hanging out and Jake went outside to have a cigarette while we were just messing with something. He comes back in just white as a sheet, just shaking and going, ‘There’s a bear!’ He walked out and was still looking at the lyrics and looked up and sure enough there was a bear sitting on the porch like 5 ft. from him. That didn’t really play into anything about the song itself, but luckily Jake didn’t get eaten by a bear that evening. We locked the door for sure.”
That same night they also finished “Hood of My Car,” a song he had started with Cobb and Towns. “I just had that title floating around and I said, ‘I just want to have this real American song, kind of like the songs Bruce Springsteen would write about like young love, something just kind of like a John Hughes movie.’ And that same night that the bear almost broke in, we finished all the lyrics for it at the cabin. It was kind of picture perfect for what the environment was. I remember it was Benji who had the line, ‘Your hair was all caught up in that necklace your sister lost,’ and it was like, ‘That is it! There’s the scene,’ and from there it just kind of went. I’m really, really happy how that one turned out. It’s so cinematic and it’s nice to have a vision for something and have it turn out how you want it.”
East penned the title track after seeing his grandmother wrestle with Alzheimer’s. “She passed away a little over a month ago now. It is for the best. It’s good for her not to be suffering the way she was,” he says. “That song was definitely brought about thinking about her and how all of our lives very easily could go down that road. I just wasn’t okay with thinking that that’s who she is. At the end of your life, you can’t leave this beautiful life and raise all these kids and grandkids and the thing that’s left at the end doesn’t even fully recognize itself. I don’t think that’s how it works. I don’t really have any answers, but I just had this kind of message from God moment like, ‘That’s not how it works. There’s far more than that.’ The soul goes on beyond the brain in some capacity so that definitely influenced the writing of that song. I’m not usually the most eloquent person in the room, but that’s hopefully where the music takes over and lends itself to help personify what words usually fail.”
East says the initial spark for the song came while he was in a sensory deprivation tank. “It’s called Float Nashville. It’s a box that’s full of water and you just close the door. There’s no sound. The water is the same temperature as your body, and you are just floating for about two hours. It’s wild and it’s a radical thing,” East says. “I go do all kinds of weird shit like that, hyperbaric chambers, just any kind of holistic thing. I do the [floating] once every month or so. It just settles the brain. It’s really relaxing, and you are in a couple thousand pounds of Epson salts. You get out and you feel incredible.
“I was laying in the salt water and I go, ‘Why am I in here?’ You just start to have this really intense dialogue with yourself and it was like I’m in here to help at least become a better version of myself whatever capacity that is,” he continues, “and then I started thinking about my grandmother and I was like, ‘What does it even matter if I do all this shit and become a better person and at the end of my life my brain fails and all of the memory of everything is gone?’ It was this kind of ‘ah ha moment,’ and it’s like you’re none of those things. You are much more than anything in this reality, so I just had that line of ‘maybe we never die’. . . The message of it lyrically, the arrangement and the production of the song became the cornerstone of the record. Looking at these 12 songs as a collection, I felt like that song just kind of tied the bow around all of it.”
East wrestles with the meaning of life, the complexities of love and so much more emotional grist on his new album. His bluesy, evocative voice has an old soul quality that is perfect for bringing these heartfelt songs to life. Fans will have the chance to see East deliver the new material as well as favorites from his previous collections when he embarks on the “Maybe We Never Die” tour. The extensive itinerary includes more than 30 shows before the end of the year, including stops at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, Austin’s Mohawk, Los Angeles’ Troubadour, Chicago’s Vic Theatre, New York’s Webster Hall and Soul Kitchen Music Hall in Mobile, AL.
When asked what he hopes listeners take away from this new collection of songs, East pauses for a moment and responds, “I hope there’s hopefulness in it and I hope it’s comforting. We tried to just have a palette of kind of like a big hug in a way that takes you in and it feels good. I just tried to be really thoughtful, be it musically or lyrically. I don’t know what I want people to have from it. If they like it, that’s really the end of my job. I just hope they like it.”