Anderson East can't listen to music while he's driving. "Really," he says, sitting beneath a shelf full of Ray Charles and Joe Cocker albums in the tiny office he keeps in the RCA Building on Nashville's Music Row. "I'm such a fan of music, I'm so analytical — I'll have a wreck. I'd drive 40 miles in the wrong direction, trying to figure out how they did that thing." Instead, East keeps his eye on the road by listening to something less enrapturing — NPR.
East, who releases his new album Encore on Jan. 12, 2018, is the kind of recording artist who leans into every detail of his work. As a kid fresh from Athens, Ala., he studied engineering and production at Middle Tennessee State University, focusing on the analog equipment in the well-stocked facilities 40 minutes south of Nashville. Soon he was going to writers' rounds (using his given name, Mike Anderson) and — like so many aspiring millennial artists in town — running a ramshackle recording studio in his basement. East developed his perfectionism in that old house, a dedication to the technical that aims to create a "transparent" environment — one in which musicians can simply relax and do their best. "It's all about being comfortable, forgetting there's a microphone in front of you," he says.
That was before he met Dave Cobb, his longtime producer, and turned from pensive singer-songwriter stuff toward the shouting vocal style he'd heard in his grandfather's church growing up. With Cobb, East developed his sound by traveling to the legendary FAME Studios in Florence, Ala. (where he found his 22-year-old keyboard wiz, Philip Towns), and back to Nashville, where they've settled into Cobb's home base of RCA Studio A, a room big enough to handle the arrangements on Encore.
For the new album, Cobb swathed East's limestone-and-gravel vocals in horns and strings, expanding on the Southern soul sound explored on the excellent 2015 album Delilah. The album shows him confidently pushing his own limits, supported by his road-tested band and a star roster of co-writers – Chris and Morgane Stapleton, Aaron Raitiere, Natalie Hemby – who have been part of East's everyday community for a while. (His companion, country star Miranda Lambert, doesn't appear in the credits, but one suspects that she's the reason for East's chills-inducing cover of Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.")
East's touchstones were recordings by Joe Cocker, Van Morrison ("we were super stuck" on Morrison's 1973 album Hard Nose The Highway, he says), and Donny Hathaway. "We wanted to have something that felt like a performance," says East, who's quickly gained a reputation as one of the most dynamic live performers in Nashville. "Not like a recording made in front of people, but still feeling like the show. When we were making the record, we'd come in for, like, a weekend in between going out and playing shows. We were trying to find that sonic middle ground — a live feel, but still special."
"King For A Day," featured here in a charming video by Nico Poalillo, exemplifies what's most exciting about Encore. East carefully lays down his vocal lines, going from tender to urgent, as the horns and Chris Stapleton's guitar form a double helix around them. The particular rhythms of Southern soul — aggression tempered by a commitment to staying in the pocket — are ideally realized, conveying the song's message that love is always worth it, no matter how long it lasts. "I have the purest intent when it comes to love," East says with a smile. "But it doesn't always work out that way. That's the truth. But you know, it's still pretty fun when you're in the moment."
Encore comes out Jan. 12, 2018, via Elektra Records.