Eric Hutchinson Hits The Throwback Road
Eric Hutchinson makes albums like guideposts, allowing him to check out where he's been and where's he's going. The 31 year-old singer/songwriter has spent the last three years since his debut studio effort, Sounds Like This, reflecting on his maturation as an artist and life as a rising star, and the results are found on the infectiously soulful and auspiciously titled, Moving Up/Living Down. Loaded with rock-solid melodies and rib-sticking rhythms, every track on Hutchinson's latest tour de force is more than a collection of songs; it is quite literally a soundtrack for a high-energy stage show that is fully realized on his current 41-city American tour.
"I was thinking a lot about the live show when I was writing songs for this record," Hutchinson explains from a quiet hotel room in Ames, Iowa before his show at Iowa State. "Having been on the road for a few years now and wishing I had written something to take the energy to somewhere else, it was fun to write a song like 'The Basement' and then see how it lets the band and the audience get there."
Through the prism of what appears on repeated listens as a living homage to the best of the Atlantic, Stax and Motown sides of the Sixties, Moving Up/Living Down spans the rhythm and blues genre from every angle, to the rousing Isley Brothers meets Sam & Dave driving rat-ta-tat-tat of "The Basement" -- which lyrically pays tribute to among others, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson in a raucous tale of heading down to where they "really wanna to rock and roll" -- to the bouncing vocal elasticity of "The People I Know," which rings the Stevie Wonder bell as well as it can be rung.
"It's always been in there," Hutchinson says when asked about his playfully derivative approach. "I kind of describe myself as a soul singer at this point, because 'soul singing' is so much about having it come from inside, that gut feeling, and that's what I'm looking for when I'm writing songs.
"A lot of what this album is for me is coming to grips with what I am rather than what I'd love to be as a singer," cites Hutchinson. "I love The Strokes, but I'm never going to be Julian Casablancas and I'm okay with that. I'm comfortable being me, processing my influences and having it come out through my own filter."
Hutchinson has always been a student of song styles and uses his education well on Moving Up/Living Down, as he flirts with Todd Rundgren smooth in "I'm Not Cool" and channels a 1983 version of Prince for "Living in the Afterlife." Yet these well-crafted compositions are no mere imitations. There is something wholly original and 21st century to Hutchinson's stripped down approach, which he honed while building his career entirely solo on piano and acoustic guitar.
It's what Hutchinson described to me in 2006 as "acoustic soul" after I sought him out following a stirring opening stint for Joe Jackson in New York City followed by a successful residency at the Cutting Room later that year. Hutchinson, a slave to the boogie in his head, used his instruments as percussive foundations, strumming or bouncing off the keys to keep the beat and allowing his vocal arrangements to soar above it. It was a natural evolution to his throwback flirtations so prevalent on Moving Up/Living Down as well as its predecessor, Sounds Like This (2007) -- a truly masterful pop effort. But to his credit, Hutchinson did not merely rest on his well-earned laurels.
"Sounds Like This was written as a solo musician and I got guys to play on it," Hutchinson recalls. "This time I knew I'd be working with a band and it changed my approach, and now I'm excited about people seeing the show. It's really hummin', more and more energy, and I'm especially excited for someone like yourself who saw me do the old show, 'cause I'm still trying to find ways to have that personality come through, but also make it be a rock show."
Two weeks later at the Highline Ballroom on the south-end of Chelsea, Hutchinson and his band -- Andrew Perusi on bass, drummer, Steven Robinson and Elliott Blaufuss on keyboards and guitar -- proved his point; from the opening fanfare and grand entrance announcement to song after song of heavy funk, sly soul and a wry wink at several forms of reggae, accentuated at two intervals when taking turns at The Beatles, "Obla-Di, Obla-Da" and Sublime's "Santeria." Rather than merely performing, something he aimed for after spending his time during the writing of the album attending concerts by stalwarts Bruce Springsteen and Prince, Hutchinson looked passionately joyful, a wide-eyed boy aghast that this was all hitting home.
As promised, along with playing every one of his most popular numbers, including the inescapably hummable, "Rock & Roll," the head-bobbing "OK, It's Alright with Me," and the cleverly structured "All Over Now," Hutchinson chided the audience (when a young woman shouted "I love you!" Hutchinson began asking her if that's such a healthy thing to get involved with someone that he hasn't met and already loved him; "That's gonna be a strange first date!") and spun touching tales about playing for change in Union Square in 2001. "Where the fuck were you guys back then?" he asked, smiling.
All the while, as I leaned against the top step of the waitress stand and glanced over the packed house of bouncing heads, I could swear, especially after a wise quip or classic "Hutch" tongue-in-cheek comment, I saw Hutchinson look over to me and smirk, as if to silently say, "I told you so."
The audience was treated to one moment of 'the old show,' as Hutchinson removed the veil of inspiration and went right to the source, strumming out a beautifully tapered rendition of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears."
Which brings us back to Moving Up/Living Down, which, according to random e-mail updates Hutchinson regaled me with throughout the process over the past year, was not only a gradual evolution from burgeoning club act to legitimate pop star, it was a painstaking battle to find the right musical mix, something he achieved after a random encounter with an industry legend.
"I pretty much had the entire record done and then I had this chance meeting with Quincy Jones," recalls Hutchinson. "We were at this charity event and they made him sit with me in a VIP section for a few minutes, and I couldn't let the chance go by without asking him about all the stuff he had done, Thriller in particular, and he said, 'When we had Thriller finished we picked the five best songs and we threw everything else out and found four more good songs.' And I thought that was a great idea and went back and tried to dig deeper and make the songs be as good as possible, and one of those became "Watching You Watch Him."
The first single off the record, "Watching You Watch Him" is Hutchinson at his lyrical best; playing the lovable loser in what he calls an "F'd up lover's triangle where no one is happy."
It was Hutchinson's self-effacing lyrics that first drew me to his work and many of the songs on Moving Up/Living Down center on the irony of maturing or growing in a fish bowl of constant touring. "I had to get off the road and back to reality in New York where no one cares who you are," Hutchinson laughs.
"I'm Not Cool," "The People I Know," and "Best Days of Our Lives," illustrate that all this maturing and growing has him ending up in an emotion cul de sac. In the ska-fueled and strikingly honest "Not There Yet," the message is more direct, to the point where his "I'm getting there, but I'm not there yet" refrain sounds eerily like he's singing "not dead yet," as if the protagonist is fighting the process.
Hutchinson concluded our conversation by slightly disagreeing with my assessment. It's not so much fighting, as surrendering.
"It's about being infinitely more happy thinking about things circularly rather than linearly. The big thing for me when I was just starting out I would think; 'If I could just get to this spot, I'll be happy -- play this venue or sell this many records', and as things began to go well for me I realized it's a moving target, there isn't just 'this place', there is no end. You just got to keep goin', I guess."