Eric Church triples his ambition on new album 'Heart & Soul'
Eric Church got a jump-start on quarantine.
In January 2020, he decamped from Nashville for a month-long Appalachian retreat with a smattering of players, songwriters and longtime collaborators — many of whom didn't know one another well, he said.
Church transformed a seasonal North Carolina eatery into a makeshift studio — a creative "boot camp," he once called it — where he planned to write and record a song each day.
Inside restaurant walls built from reclaimed barn wood, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and his cohort formed an artistic bubble months before it became a required social tactic to combat COVID-19's spread.
"Hell, we didn't know COVID was going to happen," Church said. "I was trying to quarantine and be reclusive and all that stuff before I knew the world was gonna make us do that. It snowed. It was cold. We all just hung out together. There was no outside influence."
And Church's bubble burst open this year with “Heart & Soul,” a three-part album that offers arguably the most expansive, driven work from an artist who's spent more than a decade kicking and clawing at Music Row's status quo.
The album invites listeners on a 24-song exploration of open road heartland rock, swampy roots storytelling, free-falling love and four-on-the-floor falsetto. Church plays a freewheelin’ narrator unafraid to push his limits as a songwriter and showman.
He adopted his song-a-day pace at the Blue Ridge Mountains retreat to feel uncomfortable, Church said — because "the best music we've ever made comes from those feelings, comes from those 'I'm not real sure' (moments)."
Church debuted "Heart & Soul" across three days this month. The final installment, "Soul," drops Friday.
"Going into that process what I wanted (with) writing a song the same day you record a song was really a sense of freedom," Church said. "Maybe the song's good one day; maybe it's bad the next. That happens. But you commit to the song, and you commit to the characters of the songs."
Searching for magic
Uncomfortable works for Church.
He veered from a straight-shooting mainstream with "Smoke A Little Smoke" in 2009 before molding his take on the arena anthem with best-selling 2011 song "Springsteen," only to detonate that with progressive rock ambitions on 2014 follow-up "The Outsiders."
He cornered heartland rock storytelling on 2015's "Mr. Misunderstood," an album that bucked country music conventions with a surprise release.
But Church said he and the band lost urgency during sessions for 2018 record "Desperate Man." He stands by the finished product, but the creative process "felt for the first time in my career that it was harder to find that magic."
So, again, Church blew up the mold.
"What I was searching for there was that tension, that hunger, that magic," Church said. "I think everybody was a little bit skeptical going in — rightfully so — but it was funny how fast it turned. By day two or three, people started to go, 'Something's happening here.'"
Cutting a song in a day removed time to second-guess arrangements or sweat about lyrics, Church said.
Some of the album's most ambitious moments — leaning into Jim Steinman-esque theatrics on "Heart of the Night" or channeling Bee Gees for "Break It Kind Of Guy" — came out of catching a song in one moment and moving on the next.
"Had we wrote these things and sat here with 'em for six months, maybe you start going, 'Do we do that? Or do we not?'" Church said. "Because it was the day of, it was: '(Expletive) it. Let's do it.'"
And working with Church gives songwriters a release to "go places that you love," said "Heart & Soul" co-writer Casey Beathard.
"One of the most fun things about writing with Eric is when he has a thought in his head that is hard to track where he's going and what he's thinking," Beathard said, "once you do grasp where he's going, man, it' awesome. It's not a ride I'm used to taking. I just go with it."
'Stream of conscious'
Church didn't set out for North Carolina with plans to pen songs thematically defined by "Heart" and "Soul." It could be a concept album in the frame of his recording process, he said, but lyrics don't follow pre-determined storylines.
Songwriters instead drew natural lines between tracks as a byproduct of Church's song-a-day push.
"What you really get to hear is a stream of conscious of a guy for 28 days in the mountains," Church said. "I was astonished that it actually grouped up in an interesting way."
"Heart" often taps into Church's instinct for fireball rock escapism. He howls about Elvis Presley and Guns N' Roses in ripping nostalgic opener "Heart on Fire," chases the horizon in "Heart of the Night" and "kick(s) Saturday in the a**" with jangly back porch jam "Bunch of Nothing."
"Soul" hears Church lean into roots (with "Jenny," and "Rock & Roll Found Me," which features a nod to Bobbie Gentry from ace sidewoman Joanna Cotten), classic R&B ("Look Good And You Know It") and wistful mid-tempo stories ("Hell of a View"). The middle release, "&," features six outlier songs that Church released exclusively Wednesday to his fan club, known as the Church Choir.
The song finds Church playing roulette with his radio dial, searching to escape songs with painful memories. The bridge adopts notes from one of his most famed tracks, "Springsteen," flipping the lyrics to "I need a melody without a memory/ Take me to where I've never been."
"It was one of those things, again, why the process was good: It's a split-second decision," Church said, adding a laugh. "If I was writing this song and had not written and recorded 'Springsteen,' this would be the right lyric for the song."
Return to the road
Music, of course, plays more than a character in a Church song. He sees how it can be a bridge in a culture that has become increasingly polarized since COVID-19 derailed normalcy.
Church led a charge earlier this month of arena acts of out Nashville to confirm upcoming tour dates. His "Gather Again" tour, the first major outing for Church since COVID-19 cancellations swept North America, kicks off in September, stopping in 55 cities through May 2022.
"We're so tribalized with everything we do in life," Church said. "I've seen (music) be that big unifier, specifically live. ... If there are 20,000 people, I am quite positive they don't all believe anywhere near the same thing. And I have watched them grab the rope at the same time and pull like hell. I've seen what music can do there."
And Church became one of the first in country music to publicly receive the COVID-19 vaccination, a key to full-capacity live music returning. He posed on the cover of Billboard magazine earlier this month with a vaccination needle in his arm.
Church said he isn't pro or anti-vaccines — "I'm pro-live shows; that's what I'm pro," he said — but the more people who receive a shot, "the better off we're all gonna be" to return to safe large events.
If vaccinated people gather safely at a game or live television event, gatekeepers and health officials should show these audiences as a message of what can be achieved with vaccinations, he said.
"I think this is something that we're struggling with," Church said, adding: "You're pushing people to get vaccinated and there should be a reward there. And the reward should really be: 'If you're fully vaccinated, here's what you can do safely. Publicly.'"
After all, Church wrote his quarantine record before quarantine started, and it's past time to hear these songs live.
"We've been not normal for so long that you're concerned that becomes normal, emotionally," Church said. "When we come out of this, do we feel comfortable in a crowd? ... I do believe the more this starts to happen and come back, just like the way it went away, it'll become more normal. It'll become more OK."