Soulful songwriter Eric Hutchinson burst into public consciousness with his upbeat hit “Rock & Roll,” and his fan base has grown exponentially since. Onstage, Hutchinson is equally adept at ivories and guitar, but when he sits behind the keys, he plays with the attitude and chops of a wellseasoned piano man. His debut record, Sounds Like This, was a long journey in the making — but the end result is a wonderfully melodic electric and acoustic piano album that is both fresh and timeless. And even if Hutchinson solely sang instead of playing, his stellar voice would still carry the music.
Sounds Like This is an organic record, one that sounds neither processed to death nor over-compressed. Keyboard sat down with Eric before a show to look deeper at the birth and development of a truly rocking album.
The liner notes on your album tell of many versions of your record before Sounds Like This was finally made. What was that process like, and what songs survived?
I tried starting it so many times and it never quite got finished. I started five years before the album was finally completed, and I was always trying to create a full album. The only good thing that came out of waiting that long is that I got more experienced, and I think the songs ended up being better. Every time I’d go to make the album, the better songs would survive — survival of the fittest. Even up to Sounds Like This, a lot of my favorite songs are ones I wrote while I was frustrated. As to the songs themselves, “Rock & Roll” is the oldest one and “OK, It’s Alright With Me” and “Oh” are the newest — actually, a lot of the piano songs are newer.
How do you feel now about the roadblocks you encountered making this record?
As I look back on it more and more, I think I probably just wasn’t ready for it. The product I was coming up with wasn’t as good [as it could have been], I didn’t know what I was doing as much, but things ended up working out. It’s given me some nice perspective now when things don’t go the way I want them to. I’ve learned from experience that other options will come around.
How’d you know that this record was finally it?
I didn’t know. I’d been dropped by the label I was on. I was going on instinct and putting everything out there. I’d exhausted all of my money and borrowed a little extra from my grandparents to finish it. I had to give it a try or otherwise I’d spend the rest of my life wondering, “What if?”
How are the songs evolving live?
Right now, we’re a trio and we’re limited in what we can do. I’m hoping to add another member soon and open the songs up a little more and extend the jams.
How are you evolving as an artist and a songwriter?
I want people who like this album to like the next one, but I also want people who had written me off to like the next album. I just want to grow. Fiona Apple did a great job of that. The difference between her first and second albums was really great. You have to take risks and make the album sound different than anything else out there. I have pretty “pop” tastes, so my inclinations are relatively radio-friendly on their own. I just try to write what I like. That’s really what makes people interesting; not that they were trying to please somebody else, cause you’re never going to get anywhere that way.
How has your approach to songwriting changed, now that you know people are listening?
That’s an issue that I’ve had to learn to deal with as I’m traveling and playing all the time. I forget that I started doing all this because I just like to play. It was a hobby at one point and now picking up a guitar or sitting at the piano feels like work — which is not necessarily a bad thing!
Tell us more about what you want the next album to sound like.
I want to make an album that sounds like it was made now, but has a familiar feeling to it. I really liked Amy Winehouse’s recordings. They sound modern, but also very retro. I’m excited to eventually work on the next album and hopefully keep growing. I knew it before, but I know it even more now — it’s so important to me to make an album that I really like. Picking the right songs is like the difference between having a friend and having a roommate — as in, I like this song enough to see it once a week, but I like this other song enough to see it all the time. It’s really about putting the songs on the album that can stand up to repeated listens.
How has your music changed from when you started?
Before, my music was slower and not quite as influenced by soul. I just played at home, or in the studio. Once I started playing out live a lot, I hated the slower songs because they felt boring when I did them solo. I started to bump the tempo up because I wanted a repertoire that was more upbeat and would get people involved. Now I have the opposite problem, where none of the songs are slow early on the album, so I’m trying to work on a few for the next one to balance it out.
What has changed most in your life with success?
It’s a paradox. On one side, I’m surprised to see that a lot of things in my life don’t change, if I don’t want them to. As long as I keep real people around me and don’t buy into my own hype, I don’t have to live that sort of celebrity lifestyle. On the other side, it’s been really great to see a whole lot of people in my band, crew, and label working in a concerted effort. It’s cool to see how our efforts can really start to get the name and music out there. It’s been exciting to go back to cities and see if people found out about me while I was gone.
Musical upbringing: I took piano lessons as a kid. I didn’t really enjoy them and felt like I was being forced to do it. As an adult, though, I took piano lessons voluntarily. I was interested in theory and chords, something specific. I kind of relate it to graduate school — I wanted to apply [new musical knowledge] to what I was already doing.
Idols growing up: I always liked Billy Joel and Paul Simon because they were both normal guys, not flashy rock stars. And John Legend and Jamie Cullum — I really liked both of their first albums. Elvis Costello also had a huge influence on me. But my first intro to pop was the Beatles. No matter what age I am, I appreciate a different side of them. Everything you could do with pop music, it begins and ends with them. I broke up with a girl once because she didn’t like the Beatles!
Current role models: Well, my manager wants Elton John-level success! [Laughs.] Two artists I admire are Fiona Apple and Ben Folds. They have both done it the right way, are well-respected, and make great music — they also have real fans and they can do it live. “Independent” is a good word for it.
Favorite music right now: I love Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I’m trying to work it into the show. Alicia Keys and Kanye West, too. With a lot of rock stuff, I find nameless bands with the same exact sound in every track — I was listening to a Top 40 countdown one day and it was like the same song over and over again.