He’s from the same hometown as Alabama Shakes and his album was produced by the same guy who produced the latest albums by Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton.
But Anderson East is set to make a name for himself with his excellent new release Delilah. It’s a bold step out of the shadows of those industry giants by which he’s been surrounded.
East has a gruff country, soul, R&B voice which is captured perfectly by Dave Cobb and surrounded with a great band and horn section. Cobb is the man with the magic touch in Nashville these days, and it helps that he’s working with some of the most talented and creative artists in the city.
“Having somebody like that believe in you gives you an incredible amount of encouragement and confidence to be your best,” says East. “He cuts really quickly and close to the bone on what matters in a song.”
Rising To the Top in Nashville
East, now 28, moved to Nashville when he was 17 to study and work in a studio. It’s a testament to the difficulties of standing out in Nashville that it took a decade of playing around the city for East to catch his big break.
Despite existing somewhere between the country scene of Nashville and the hipster music that tends to dominate the other half, East’s break came in the most “Nashville” way possible.
“I met Dave Cobb at the Bluebird one night,” recalls East. “It’s so funny because neither one of us are ‘Nashville’ guys at all. That was the first time I’d played there and it was the first time he’d been there. Neither one of us have been back since. I suppose it was aligned in the cosmos.”
The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville is a famous music club in Nashville where singer/songwriters perform. It’s become so famous as to seem cliché, often appearing in ABC’s Nashville.
Thousands of people move to Nashville to “make it” but few ever do. Whether they are trying to be the next Garth Brooks or the next Jason Isbell, it’s a tough town full of ridiculously talented people who just can’t seem to catch the right break. It can break you down quickly.
“I was there so young that I didn’t mind being terrible and being willing to learn. There’s a lot of people fighting for the same seat on the bench,” says East. “There’s so much music that comes through there on such a high caliber. Just being okay doesn’t really cut it. It helps everybody grow to be better musicians, performers, and writers.”
But East’s music is far from Nashville country. It’s even far from the alt-country of Simpson, Isbell, or Stapleton. He’s certainly his own artist. He has trouble putting his finger on his exact genre, but describes it as somewhere between Southern Roots music, R&B, and Country. The best way to describe it would be to discuss East’s church roots. His grandfather was a preacher and he grew up singing in church.
There’s a profound church influence on his music that seems to come naturally. East said it wasn’t always this way, though.
“It’s naturally what comes out. For a long time I tried to rebel against it. That’s the way teenagers and young men are, they want to go their own way,” says East. “Ultimately, you are what you are. Having that language of Gospel music, whether it’s the Louvin Brothers or Aretha Franklin. The spirit behind it is truth and honesty and trying to get closer to something that’s bigger than you.”
Those roots are apparent even in the title of Delilah. East says that the theme of longing and wanting someone who can bring you to your knees reminded him of the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah.
“It’s a collection of love stories. It’s not a consistent or linear love story. It’s snapshots,” says East.
Athens, AL is town of less than 22,000, so how was it able to produce one of the biggest rock bands in the world in Alabama Shakes and the extremely talented East? East can’t speak for Brittany Howard and co., who he says went to a different high school and he didn’t know growing up, but for him, developing his musical skills came despite the lack of opportunity in town.
“There was no outlet to make music at all, there was nowhere to play and nobody to talk to about it. Well, besides a guy at the guitar store who would teach you AC/DC riffs,” says East. “For me, not knowing anything about what you want to do makes you that much more hungry to figure it out.”
Earlier this year East released The Muscle Shoals Sessions: Live From Fame, which is a collection of five songs that later appeared on Delilah. The legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL is only a few miles down the road from Athens, but, like Howard, East didn’t know much about it growing up. After moving to Nashville he learned more about all of the legendary records that were made there and grew in respect for the over 50 year-old studio.
“I have such a reverence for the place now and it was such a treat and an honor to be able to do that. To play the type of music and how we play it in that space was special,” says East.
It’s been a decade since East moved to Nashville and he’s just now getting noticed, but that’s part of what makes it so special. His voice, his writing, and Cobb’s production all come together to make this a unique album. He alternates between a heartbroken, forlorn man with a voice resembling Justin Townes Earle (“What A Woman Wants To Hear”) and a snarling heartbreaker with the same urgency of The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs (“Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em, And Forget ‘Em”).
There’s a maturity that East shows throughout the record. It’s a knowledge of when to be tender and when to snarl and lose control. Cutting his teeth in the toughest music city on earth, and a chance meeting with Cobb, has made East into a force to be reckoned with.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’m happy and I’m making music that I believe in,” says East.