Eric Hutchinson Croons Soul, Shakes Stereotypes

Eric Hutchinson

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Eric Hutchinson was signed to a record label a few years ago, only to be dropped shortly thereafter. His career was revived and later exploded as a result of a nod from blogger Perez Hilton. Hutchinson plays music from his debut album and talks about bursting stereotypes as a white soul musician.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

To look at him now, you might think Eric Hutchinson has had an easy career ride to match his breezy tunes and playful lyrics. After all, his music video for his single "Rock and Roll" is on the top 20 on VH1. And his MySpace page has clocked more than a million and a half hits.

But you would be wrong. His debut album was more than five years in the making. He signed to a record label only to be dropped when the album went into production. But all's well that ends well. His album is a critical hit, he's winding up a 40-city tour, and he was nice enough to stop long enough to join us in NPR studio 4A. Welcome Eric Hutchinson, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ERIC HUTCHINSON (Singer): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what happened with the first album? How did you - what, what happened?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I was trying to make an album for about five years, and it was just time after time of things falling apart, you know. I saved up some money, and then I would go into the studio, and it would all come out horribly. And then I got signed to Maverick Records, which is - was Madonna's label. And I thought, OK. At that point I was doing it for about four years, and I was like, OK, it's finally my break, things are taking off, here we go. And then I was just doing the demos, getting ready to start to make the record, and then the label folded. It was pretty night and day. They called me up, and they said, you know, I was like going into the studio, they go...

MARTIN: You were literally going into the studio� ?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: But we were already in the studio, yeah. And I was, I get the call. Maverick's freezing, everything's on hold. You can't stay in your hotel tonight, we're flying you home. Like very, very, very abrupt, and�

MARTIN: It's like getting a Dear John letter.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Exactly. It was pretty bad, you know. And it definitely shook me a lot. And so, I went off and made this album myself.

MARTIN: How do you make an album yourself?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I don't - and I was actually, it was probably one of best experiences of my life, you know. It was kind of like that. I was sort of thinking, how do I make an album myself, you know. I'm tired of relying on other people, they keep flaking out on me. And so I started kind of calling everybody that I knew, that I'd met over the years, and trying to get people together. And you know, the internet turned out to be really amazing. I had this mixer that I had found, you know, just kind of looking for people. He'd mixed some of Outkast's albums, and Stevie Wonder's last album, and a bunch of different things that I really liked. So, I just sent him a, you know, a MySpage message shot in the dark. And I just said here's my music, you know, I'm looking for people to work on this album with me. And he actually, you know, wrote back and ended up mixing most of the album, and stuff like that. So, things like that were really cool, you know. It was people who just believed in the music, you know, which was good.

MARTIN: And I understand that the internet also played a role in your being discovered again, that the celebrity blogger Perez Hilton...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah, Perez Hilton.

MARTIN: Heard about you and raved about you.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then what happened?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: So, I mean pretty much I made the album, and I've spent so much time and energy and resources making the album I didn't really know what I was going to do with it once I was done, you know. I was just mentally exhausted. And so, I was just selling it at my shows, and we had it on iTunes. And then, like maybe a week after it came out, a friend of mine from high school, I'd sent the record to him and he really liked it. And he put this glowing review up on his site, which gets, you know, four million hits a day or something like that, with a link to iTunes and the MySpace page, and it just blew up overnight. It shot the album up into the Top 10 of iTunes.

MARTIN: Oh, the Top 10 of iTunes, overnight?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah. And then, I mean within the day, I had record labels calling and all that stuff. And just like a real unexpected kind of frenzy. And I ended up signing again with Warner Brothers, who had been one of the ones who had just dropped me six months before. And�

MARTIN: You're a forgiving soul.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right, something like that.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the song that's been getting a lot of attention, "Rock and Roll."

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Want to play it? You want to talk first, or you want to play it first?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I'll play it.

MARTIN: OK, let's play it.

(Soundbite of song "Rock and Roll" by Eric Hutchinson)

Mr. HUTCHINSON: (Singing) He's been waiting around for the weekend, figuring which club to sneak in. Fancy drinks and fifty-dollar cover charge. Lately it's been a big hassle, Heineken and New Castle. To make sure he's fitting in and living large. Disregard the lies that he will tell and what he's probably like. Cause it's not hard his charm is gonna get him through the night. If he want to rock he rocks. If he want to roll he rolls. He can roll with the punches. Long as he feels like he's in control. If he want to stay he stays. If he want to go he goes. He doesn't care how he gets there. Long as he gets somewhere he knows. Oh no. Ah na na na na na na na na na na na.

MARTIN: Alright. Rock and Roll.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: People like a lot of different things about the song. But tell us, is there a story behind that - the song or this - people we knew?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I wrote the song - I was living in New York for the summer, and I was underage, and I was - I just - I couldn't get into any of the bars, and the clubs, and I kind of wrote the song, convincing myself I didn't need to get in there to have a good time, sort of. It turns out I was kind of right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You do have this really sweet face, I've got to tell you.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: You look a lot younger than you are.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I feel old when I look in the mirror these days. After all the travel this year, I just - I look - I feel I don't look good.

MARTIN: Don't start with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I don't want to hear it. I've got two kids. You know what I'm saying? What did you grow up listening to?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: It's actually interesting. I never had really thought about it a lot until, you know, I kind of started, when going back and thinking about my influences, and how I ended up here. But there was just a really high premium placed on singer-songwriters in my family, you know. My parents bought an early CD player because they'd just released the entire Beatles catalogue on CD. So for a while all we had was a CD player and all the Beatles CDs. So, I just played those all the time, and you know, Michael Jackson, and Paul Simon, and Billy Joel, and Stevie Wonder was a huge influence. But then also, you know, my mother really loved musicals, so I was introduced, you know, to like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Cole Porter, and the Gershwins, and stuff like that. And so, I think there was always kind of this - just a respect for the people who have the ideas, you know, who write the songs. And that was something that was always important to me.

MARTIN: Now, the term blue-eyed soul hasn't reared its ugly head too often...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right.

MARTIN: In relation to you.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But it has been said. What do you think of that term?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I actually just had a conversation with some of my friends about this really. They were chastising me for allowing that term to come through. Because they said it was just, you know, it was a way of watering down the term or something, you know. He was, my friends were like, you play soul music, so just say soul music. You don't have to like, you know. All blue-eyed soul music means that you're white, and you're singing.

MARTIN: What about that? What ends up like that?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: It's interesting, you know because, I mean...

MARTIN: Your eyes are brown, for the record, right? Yeah.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: They are, they are. And now it's also brown-eyed soul, I guess because there's just soul music here. I don't know, you know, it's tough because I am white and I play the guitar so, you know, when I show up places people want to make, you know, kind of pigeon hole me in certain places, and stuff like that.

MARTIN: You got the guitar, you got the plaid shirt.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: So, you must be, like, folk.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Exactly. It must be folk, or I must - like Nirvana or something or, you know. But I mean, I like all kinds of music, and it's sort of frustrating to, kind of, be pushed into one genre. But I mean, I think these days, it's just you need to be able to explain to somebody quickly. And that's why people want to know, you know. Oh, his music, what's its sound like and you got to give them a little, you know, oh it's Stevie Wonder meets blah, blah, blah or something.

MARTIN: Is it soul?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think so. I mean, that's to me the basis of everything that I'm doing and the music that I really love. And if I trace back all the people that I love, it was Stevie Wonder's Motown. It was Michael Jackson, it was Prince. But then also, on the other side, people like Billy Joel, and the Beatles, and Paul Simon. If you go back to what they grew up listening to, it was doo-rock, it was, you know, it was also Motown, it was blues and stuff like that. To me it's always got to have that sort of feeling behind it.

MARTIN: Is the point of the blue-eyed soul thing to signal to white people, he's one of us, he's one of us?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I guess so. I think - usually blue-eyed soul is a sort of insulting term. It's, kind of, like it's a white version of soul music, you know, it's not quite there but it's...

MARTIN: You'll like it, it's OK.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: Do you feel you have something to prove, being white...?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: That you're - being white or just being new to the scene?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Both, both. But I find that I really want the approval of the African-American fan base. But these days, I feel like that youth is listening to a lot of Vocoder recorded Lil Wayne kind of stuff. You know, I find most of the people that I meet that are interested in, sort of, classic soul music are, you know, like college age, white guys who think they ought to hear something because they have a good Otis Redding collection.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with, and having an in-studio performance by, Eric Hutchinson. He's playing songs from his new album "Sounds Like This."

It is interesting that we even still use terms like blue-eyed soul, or that some people, you know, do for whatever reason that they do. And it's interesting because, on the one hand, music is international because everybody understands it.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: You don't even have to understand the language and you can appreciate the music.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: On the other hand, we like to categorize people.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I mean, you got to be able to know, if you're on iTunes, you got to be able to know which section to go into, to click, to download. It's like, you know, with everything these days, it's kind of pop rock. Everything ends up being in the pop rock category.

MARTIN: Do you think though, you know, we've used this term - we're using this term in politics, and in culture, that we're post-racial. Do you think in a way that music is getting to be post-racial?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Singing with soul, I think, is not a racial thing. I think it's just certain people have it and certain people don't. You know, some people think Josh Groban has a lot of soul or something, you know. I find him to be like, you know, like a machine. Don't tell him I said that.

MARTIN: I'll try to keep it to myself.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: But, you know, I think it's like a personal thing for different people. But I don't know who decides who has soul and who doesn't.

MARTIN: Speaking of soul...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: One of your more soulful songs on the album, "OK, It's Alright With Me." You probably can say it in a cooler way than I can.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I guess that's pretty much how I say it.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: OK, it's alright with me.

MARTIN: OK. First track. Jumps right into it. Do you want to play it? Want to play it?

(Soundbite of "OK, It's Alright With Me" by Eric Hutchinson)

Mr. HUTCHINSON: (Singing) OK, it's alright with me Some things are just meant to be It never comes easily And when it does I'm already gone And I'm practically never still More likely to move until I end up alone at will My life continues inching along When Bernadette comes I get lost on her time She's much too sweet and she's always gonna be And when I return to her arms and her eyes It might not be the same but it's alright with me OK, it's alright with me Some things are just meant to be It never comes easily And when it does I'm already gone

MARTIN: Well, OK, it's all right with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What's your method? What comes to you first? The lyrics, the hook?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Almost always melody. I think the melody has to, to drive the song for me. So - but I'm always on the lookout for good things to talk about and topics to get into, and stuff like that.

MARTIN: Your sound, at least on this album, it's kind of, like, hey, you know, it's all right...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Everything's fine. But it's not just surface stuff. I mean, you know, you feel like there's something behind it, and maybe there's a little -sometimes there's a little hint of sadness behind it, a little...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right. It's actually been a big surprise. I mean, a pleasant surprise. But, you know, I made the album in a frustrating time. I wrote the songs most of the time, you know, from frustration. And I think I sort of tend to make them happier to cheer myself up, or something like that. So, when I thought of the songs, you know, I saw - I always thought of it as being a little bit hurtful I guess. But then the main thing that people across the board tell me is how happy the album makes them. And you know, how they start their day listening to it. And that kind of stuff was really great to hear - to start hearing, so.

MARTIN: I was curious about that because I heard the album before I heard all of what had gone on.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right.

MARTIN: To get to that point. And I was thinking, are you really that easy-breezy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that just your personality, or - but then when I - I think there is some hurt behind it. I feel that there is a sense of, what's the word I'm looking for? A little of the blues. I mean...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Some of the fact - the fact is that life is not that easy, even if it seems easy.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: You know, I end up being cynical, and the songs, you know - but also, you know, I...

MARTIN: But your generation wouldn't live if it weren't cynical.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right.

MARTIN: Sorry, I'm not trying to be old. But I mean, it's like, if you weren't cynical, I don't know how you all would, like, get through the day.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I guess theatrical maybe is a better word for me. You know, like, I actually think of myself as an optimist, but I'm kind of guarded and things have to, sort of, present themselves to be a legit situation or something. But I kind of thought the songs were sort of - have talked always to myself, or something like that, you know? But I mean, Stevie Wonder, I always loved him and then I really got into his catalogue, deeper, like, you know? And the thing I really loved about his music was his message, you know? Even the angriest songs, something like "Living in the City" or something like that - it was very, you know, angry. The last verse is all, you know, very uplifting, and his music just really has that positive message that comes through, and you know, and I took a lot out of that as a listener. So, that was a very conscious effort, you know, when I was making the songs, to push some positivity through. I didn't want to just be complaining.

MARTIN: What's next?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: More touring, I mean I've been on tour all year this year. Taking a little break here, and then going to do more touring. Going to Europe hopefully, and then Japan, which is going to be exciting. And you know, I've just been writing, and it's interesting, you know, as things continue to go better, I always - I always thought there would be sort of like a platform that I would hit or it'd be like, ah, finally I can kick the heels, you know, up and take a little break. Not - as things continue to go well, I'm realizing that it will never really be, I think, that spot where I finally feel like I can relax, that everything is great. You know, it's regular life. It gets to be this kind of thing where it feels like I'm constantly having to work and create I guess.

MARTIN: I interviewed a guy, a spiritual leader, and he said, there's a saying in his practice: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUTCHINSON: It's kind of true. I kind of, like, have to agree with that.

MARTIN: Well, how will you know when you're there?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I don't know. That's kind of what I'm waiting for. That's, you know, what I end up writing a lot of songs about, is this idea of - did it ever feel easy, you know? Does it ever feel like you sort of supposed to, like I - it's a lot of things for me and I feel like while we're growing up were sort of sold this idea of, you know, the perfect marriage and kids and you know, whatever. And then, you know, as you - it just ends up being life, you know, it's not even - in a good way, you know? I mean, I feel very lucky for this, you know, I don't want to come off like I'm complaining or something. But you know, things are constantly changing. It's never like an end of a chapter really, or a clean end.

MARTIN: Speaking of what it means to kind of go through life, I was hoping you could take us out on one of the songs in your album that - probably the shortest song title on record, "Oh."

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Right. It's easier to get the emphasis on that one correctly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Where did this one come from?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: It's kind of actually what we were talking about. I was traveling around a lot and kind of feeling, you know, confused or frustrated, and I'd see random people. Some of these conversations that I have in the song are fictionalized, or at least exaggerated. But it's this idea that everybody has something to teach you. So, sometimes, in the song all I do is say, oh, you know, and everybody else tells me what's going on with their life, and it somehow makes it mean something to me, you know? So, it's "Oh."

MARTIN: Eric Hutchinson's debut album is titled, "Sounds Like This." We're going to leave you with his performance of the song "Oh." To hear this performance, as well as the album version of the songs, please check out npr.org. Eric Hutchinson, thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Thank you.

MARTIN: To you in everything you do.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: And happy holidays.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thanks. Same to you.

(Soundbite of "Oh")

Mr. HUTCHINSON: (Singing) Oh oh oh wo oh I got arrested in the dark of the night The cop got restless as he read me my rights He told me, I'm always...

MARTIN: You've been listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of "Oh")

Come to help me post bail And I said, oh oh woo oh And I said, oh oh woo oh I said now, oh, oh oh, oh I said now, oh wo oh wo I said now, oh wo wo wo wo I said now, oh oh, oh wo

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Sounds Like This

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Album
Sounds Like This
Artist
Eric Hutchinson
Label
Warner Bros
Released
2008

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