Finding Music Where There Was Little: A Conversation with Anderson East

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Anderson East

Slightly past 1 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, Anderson East was just waking up to a chilly, grey day in Covington, Kentucky.

“Yeah, perfect,” the musician said with a smooth drawl and a lighthearted laugh, less than seven hours before his performance at the Madison Theater that night — a fusion of roots, soul, rhythm and blues, and country from his studio records, “Delilah” and “Encore,” with a few unexpected band favorites sprinkled in.

“I’ve been recording records since I was 13 years old and putting them out, here and there,” he said. “I have no idea why the hell I did it, because they were not good. I was just trying to make noise somehow. I don’t know why the hell I thought sharing it was a good idea. Down the road, it seems to have worked out alright.”

The Sag Harbor Expresscaught up with the Grammy-nominated musician before his show on Saturday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, rewinding to his earliest musical days as a kid in small-town Athens, Alabama — deadpanning almost the whole way through.

The Sag Harbor Express: Take me back to Athens. What was it like growing up there?

Anderson East: Man, it was really a great little town. My best friends in the world were awesome people — we’re all still super, super close. For me, at least, it was a great place to grow up, but not necessarily a great place to be. As I got older and wanted a little more out of life, there wasn’t any kind of music scene. It was a dry county, so there weren’t any bars and nobody was playing music beyond what you heard in church on Sunday.

But there was a youth pastor, a guy that was smart enough, or kind enough, to put on a coffee house at the Presbyterian Church on Wednesdays, so that gave our teenaged selves some kind of outlet to play some music. That was pretty much the extent of it.

How did music come into your life? 

East: A neighborhood friend of mine, his older brother got a guitar and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So I begged my grandma to get me one, and she went along with it and ended up getting me some guitar from Toys “R” Us, had a speaker built into it — some kind of gangster guitar, all in one.

That was how I got the love for it. I was fortunate enough to get a four-track tape recorder, and that was it. And I was hooked. It was giving a junkie a taste right there, and I’ve been on that road ever since. I was 11 or 12, something around there.

You made your debut at a talent show?

East: Yeah, a great talent show — seventh or eighth grade.

How’d that go?

East: Oh, it was the greatest music experience of anybody’s life. It’s the best thing they’ve ever heard. I wrote a song and me and my buddies played it. I can’t remember how it goes, but I’m telling you, it was an instant classic. And then we broke protocol and we played “Free Bird.” It was a great idea.

Did you guys win?

East: No, we definitely did not win [he laughed]. But we won in our hearts.

That’s all that matters.

East: I was pretty proud.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue music professionally?

East: I don’t think there was this breakout, sensational moment. I think it was just the only thing I was interested in. It was guitar, girls and skateboarding — and the last two, you can’t get a job with them. I guess music was the smarter of the three choices. It was the only thing that could actually keep my attention. And it was the only thing that I was actually any good at.

And also, it was kind an odd environment, considering there wasn’t any kind of music or anything like that. It was anything you could find, or learn, or listen to, was even more precious because you just didn’t have access. So it was like this forbidden fruit, almost, that you keep pursuing.

What was the pursuit like once you made the decision to chase it? 

East: My parents were both very insistent that I get an education beyond high school and so I did a little research and found out you could go to school to learn how to make records. I was like, “Well, if that’s the case, that’s what I want to do.” I went to school and was finally put in that environment of like-minded people with access to things I’d only seen in magazines. And all that was great, and I got a technical proficiency I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and I met some really great people that had that faraway look in their eyes, as well, and that was probably the biggest benefit out of that whole experience.

How did you grow from “Delilah” to “Encore”?

East: “Delilah,” I approached that one as actually making a record, like as a being-in-the-studio process or exploration. And then I think “Encore,” we were trying to harness what we had been doing in a live performance — still with the intention of making a record, but having the grandiose-ness and the emotion of having a live show component with this record, instead of just track-by-track studio record.

What was it like getting your first Grammy nod for “All On My Mind”?

East: I felt like they were just giving these things away, apparently. It took a couple days just to sink it. It was a big shock. I’ve never won anything, besides a karate trophy when I was 8. We were up against our dear friend Brandi Carlile, and I’m always okay with losing anything to her, she’s so incredible. Just to be recognized on that kind of a platform was just ridiculous and made me lose faith in the whole system.

I kid, though. I kid.

Is it your favorite song to perform?

East: “This Too Shall Last” is usually my favorite song to play. I think that one has some kind of dark comedy to it now, but that meant a lot to me writing it and getting to play it every night. It’s always a lot of fun. We explore new territories with it, and it’s usually the last one. We’ll change it up here and there, but it always seems like a good way to finalize an evening.

Where do you typically draw inspiration from? 

East: There’s no rhyme or reason for it — it just pops out. I’ve gotten thoughts from bumper stickers off of cars to dialogue in movies, or book titles, or things people say, or just force it into existence with some other people in a room. If it’s gon’ come, please, c’mon now. I’ll take all I can get from anywhere.

Are you writing now?

East: I’m flexing that muscle again. Over this past year, we’ve been traveling so much, I didn’t have the energy for it and was more focused on the job at hand, which is showing up and delivering the best possible show I could at night. But now, I’m getting back into it and, honestly, that’s more where my head is: creating some new stuff.

I’m keeping it to myself for now, and kind of just writing and forgetting about it until the time comes to make a record again, and then we’ll all sit back and examine the work that was done — and go from there. I’m just taking my time right now. 

Anderson East will play a concert on Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $45 or $55. For more information, call (631) 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.

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