/ FACES Magazine March 2017
From the age of thirteen when Kenneth Eric Church first started writing songs and playing the guitar, he has had one goal–to become a country music star. Looking back today, as he makes a stop in Ottawa on his Holdin’ My Own Tour, it’s safe to say he has done just that.
In the mid-2000s, the North Carolina native was signed by Capitol Records Nashville and released his debut single, “How Bout You”, in early 2006. On July 18th of the same year, Eric released his first album titled, “Sinners Like Me” and by this time, his debut single had reached the country Top 20 list. From receiving several prestigious nominations and awards in the music industry, to having consecutive sold-out shows all over the world, Eric Church has certainly become one of the best country music stars to date.
Faces Magazine had the chance to speak with Eric Church about the creative burst that led to his new album, “Mr. Misunderstood”, the atmosphere of his shows, life on the road, and his thoughts on returning to the Nation’s Capital for his March 3rd show at the Canadian Tire Centre.
You were born in Granite Falls, North Carolina—can you tell us folks up here a little bit about Granite Falls? What are some of your favourite childhood memories growing up there?
Carolina is a small blue-collar town. It was still the backbone of the furniture industry when I was growing up, and there was a time just before my dad’s time that it manufactured furniture for the whole world. My grandfather was also Chief of Police in that town. So it was neat to grow up in a community like that. Having this small-town foundation where honesty is important, family is important, religion is important and treating your neighbours a certain way is important—I think you can hear that in the music. A lot of those values were instilled in me and now I try to instill them in my kids.
You bought a guitar and began writing songs at age thirteen. What was it about the guitar that attracted you?
It was the easiest way to write songs. When I was thirteen, I was really just writing bad poetry (laughs). But I’d always have melodies stuck in my head—even that young—when I was doing my chores and stuff like that. The guitar be- came an outlet for me to get those songs out of my head, so I got a guitar and I taught myself how to play. I bought a couple books so I could become familiar with the songs and I began working my way through them...and that’s how I learned. Then I started writing some of my own songs as time went on. When I got to college, I started playing gigs, and that’s where it all changed for me—that’s when it went from being a hobby to something I was doing every night— and when I wasn’t doing that, I was playing and practicing all day.
Those first few gigs in college—do you remember the feeling of standing up in front of an audience for the first time?
Oh yea...I was nervous the first time. I played my first gig at a place called Woodlands Barbeque that was in Blowing Rock, Carolina. I was in a band...it was just three of us and only two of us played instruments. I went down to the place to get the gig by myself, and I remember giving them our CD that had two songs on it, and playing them for the women who owned the bar. She said “Great! You start next Monday”. And that next Monday night, at six o’clock, we got there and we probably did twelve songs. What I had thought was that we would play twelve, take a break, and everybody would leave—and then I would be able to play those same twelve songs for a different group of people. But nobody left (laughs). So the real terror was getting back up there for the second set and only knowing those twelve songs. That was a pretty fearful moment. I made a deal with the audience to put any requests on a sheet of paper, and next week I would know every request on that paper. But ya, I was a little bit nervous that night.
What was it like hearing your music on the radio for the first time? Who did you call first?
I called my momma. I was in Michigan on a radio tour, and I had just left the radio station up there. As I was driving away, they played my first single. It was after a Toby Keith song and before a George Strait song, and I remember thinking about how I was someone who listened to both those guys… and now I’m on the radio too. And so I called my momma and told her I was on the radio in Michigan. She said that meant a lot to people. It meant a lot to me. There’s nothing like hearing your song on the radio for the first time, it’s one of those moments you remember forever.
When you look back after everything you’ve accomplished—you think of being that 13 year old boy looking at his first guitar—did you ever imagine you would be as successful as you are today? Or has this journey been something beyond your wildest dreams?
Quite beyond where I thought we’d ever go. The big moment for me is when I stand up on stage at night, and I see a full house. I love the people—just seeing all the faces and having them singing my songs and participating with me is beyond anything I could have imagined. It’s a bizarre experience and it’s something I’m very grateful for. The best thing to me is when people listen to an album—they don’t really care what is commercial or what is not commercial, or what they hear casually. They have enough passion to make that album and that soundtrack a part of their lives—so much so that when you show up in front of them, they know all the songs. That’s really what I’m most proud of. Every album we’ve made has been applied to these people’s lives. It’s the most special thing we do.
Before you go on stage, do you and your band have any pre-show rituals?
I do a shot of Jack Daniels, that’s what I do (laughs)! The band is with me and we all stick together on tour. I have a vinyl player in my dressing room, and depending on what city we’re in I’ll go to a vinyl shop and see what I can find. It’s fun to spin that for an hour or thirty minutes before a show just to get a vibe. But it varies… it depends what kind of mood I’m in and what I could find in the record store that day (laughs). But we’ve been doing this so long that we just walk out there and do our thing. When we get out there we give in to this relationship with the crowd and that’s what it’s all about. During intermission we kind of just change shirts cause were sweating, then get back in there.
What is your favourite song to perform live?
It always changes with different albums and different tours. I think this tour for the album “Mr. Misunderstood” it’s “Holdin My Own”. We named the tour after it and it’s usually one of the last songs we do in the night. It’s just a moment in the show that is so personal to me… I wrote the song by myself and I feel there’s a maturity to that song that comes from where we’ve came from, how long we’ve been doing this and what matters to us as a band.
Your latest album “Mr. Misunderstood” has been another huge success for you. It was nominated Album of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the title track was nominated for Video of the Year. What is it like to release a new album? Is it a stressful thing for you to see your fans and critics respond to it?
I think for me the stress is internally. Nobody’s bar is going to be higher than mine… no critic or fan is going to be higher than the bar I set. That’s just the way I’ve always made music and I’m kind of obsessive about that part. I’m such a fan of music and a fan of past people who are idols of mine, so there’s always a really high bar that these people have set of what those records meant to me. I refuse to make a record that I’m not proud to at least put up somewhere in that vicinity and say “here’s my attempt”. It’s always a hard thing for me internally, so once I’m okay with it, I don’t really worry about the rest. And that’s always worked for me—if I get comfortable with it, then it will be good. So far, I can look back on all five albums we did and say I’m very proud.
On that note, you are the first major country artist to drop a surprise album. What inspired you to make a surprise album without any promotional campaigning?
I didn’t expect to write an album, so it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anybody else. I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want it and I didn’t need it. It just happened, creatively. I sat down to write songs… the first song was “Three Year Old”, next song was “Mr. Misunderstood”, and the next one after that was “Record Year”, and I finished it in three days! And I thought “wow this is something kind of weird”—I’ve never written like that before. I have no idea why but it just happened. I believe when something creative like that happens, it should be heard in that moment. And the only way to do that was to do it ourselves and keep it a secret. I wanted the fans to tell the industry, radio, critics what the record is instead of the other way around. I’m proud we released it in the moment versus doing what everybody would have done, which is wait until you’ve got a tour coming and a way to promote it. When something arrives like that, I do believe it’s a crime to go against that creativity.
Tell us about the song “Three Year Old”. It’s been said that this song was written about the lessons you’ve learned from your son. How has being a father of two changed you, and what is your favourite thing about being a dad?
I’m so much more centered and patient. I think a lot of it is patience and tolerance. You become more mature. If you look at the song professionally, you can hear it in the songwriting, you can hear it in the show—this tour especially because we’re just more patient and relaxed. A lot of my band members are also fathers and have been doing this a long time and so it’s just a ‘we’ve been there before’ mentality—where music is still very important in my life, but there’s other things that are important, too. So I think it just puts music in a different place; a different perspective, not in a negative way, but in a way that makes it more enjoyable to the fans.
I think becoming parents has made us better musicians and made us a tighter unit. I take my sons on the road with me. So it’s fun to have that going on behind the scenes.
You and your wife started the Chief Cares Fund in 2013. Can you tell us a little about this organization and what made you decide to start it?
It’s a Christian-based organization. The important thing for me was being able to have an effect on something. We wanted to take ownership of the organization and really seek out a lot of these causes—as opposed to what most organizations are, where you just donate money or services or items. We’ve been able to use Chief Cares to impact lives not only in the United States but also around the globe. Donations have been used to aid underprivileged families and children, orphanages, clothing, schooling, etc. The thing I enjoy is being able to actually see the change.
You are coming to Ottawa on March 3rd as part of your “Holdin My Own” Tour. Tell us what touring is like for you? What do you enjoy most about life on the road?
I enjoy the show. You know it’s what we do, the hard part is the travel and waiting on show time, and this time just the recovery part when we’re playing 3 ½ hours. It’s been physically harder than it has been in the past, it’s a lot of songs, long nights, but the crowds have really got us through. A lot of the time we just tap into the crowd to get that energy and find that moment. I think this tour was meant to be.
If you could talk to 13 year old Eric Church today, when you first picked up that guitar, what advice would you give him now that you wish you had known back then to prepare him for the incredible ride that was coming?
Enjoy the journey. I look back now and I find you’re always trying to get to that next milestone and career, and moving forward. And I think sometimes (at least I did) you forget being in the moment. The nights you’re going to remember the most are the ones when there’s just 20 people in a place that holds 500 people and it’s just you and the band and you’re playing for the music and you’re all in it together, and it’s all musical, and it’s all right and you’re not making any money and you’re starving to death!
I think looking back, I was just always trying to get to a better place, and find success. So I would tell him to enjoy the ride more because that’s what you look back on most.
When it comes to music genres… do you only listen to country or are there any others of interest to you? What are some artists we might find on your play list?
I listened to the 70’s era and classic rock, old blues, now I love bluegrass, America based. I listen to everything. The only thing I never really got into is hip-hop, I don’t really get it. There have been some things I enjoy; I like Eminem and his lyrics. There’s just a soul component missing in hip-hop for me.