“What I thought this album was going to be—well, it wasn’t that at all,” says Eric Church. “But once we found the template and got on the right path, we were really knocking them down. It took a while, but then we got most of the album done in a few days.”
Church’s sixth studio album, Desperate Man, marks the end of the longest break in his career between putting out new music. In the three years since the sudden, surprise release of Mr. Misunderstood, though, he has experienced some of the highest peaks and some of the biggest challenges in his work and in his life.
First came the triumphant declaration of independence represented by Mr Misunderstood (a surprise release, initially mailed out on vinyl to members of the Church Choir fan club, which went on to become the 2016 CMA Album of the Year) and the “Holdin’ My Own” tour (with no opening act, he played two marathon sets each night, as documented on the 61 Days in Church collection). “That was the most effortless record I’ve ever made,” he says, “and it showed that all the things you thought you needed to do, you really didn’t. And then the tour was such a spiritual thing for me—just us for three hours, with the crowd and the energy we had.
“After that, you find yourself struggling with ‘Where the hell do I go now?’
Instinctively, you go back to the things that got you there—but that’s thinking logically, and that never works.”
When Church returned to the studio with his band and his long-time producer Jay Joyce, they settled on a handful of songs that felt like the right place to start. “They were big stadium songs,” he says. “And I knew they were hits—I could have had four Number Ones in there—but they didn’t make me stand up and throw my fists in the air. It was what everybody was expecting, but it just wasn’t the right record.”
Since his last recordings, Church had also been through a serious health scare and had performed at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, where dozens of country music fans lost their lives. “I still felt shook up pretty good,” he says. “I wasn’t ready yet, wasn’t settled from all that happened—I was still reeling from Vegas, I felt displaced and not really connected to anything. I had to get back to enjoying what we were making and finding refuge in the music as a bit of an anchor.”
He called his manager and said that he might need to take a break and hold off on the recording sessions (“that’s never happened to me before,” he notes). But then came a breakthrough, in the form of two songs that represented an entirely new direction.
“The Snake” is a menacing, spoken-word parable with a political undertone. “The rattlesnake and the copperhead—that’s left/right, blue/red, however you say it,” says Church. “They sit there and fight all day to rile people up and then go get a drink. They’re working together while the whole world is burning down.”
Then, immediately after, he wrote a simple song called “Hippie Radio,” an acoustic meditation on the ways that music is there to mark different phases in your life. And suddenly, Church started to get a notion of where this project might be headed.
“It was making my Spidey Sense go up,” says Church. “It was different, soulful, a total left turn from what we had been doing. The coolness started to come in. Plus it was saying something, and that’s what artists are supposed to do—give us guidance for where we are and where we’re headed.”
The sessions became more loose and experimental. The bulk of the material was written in the studio; he came up with “Hangin’ Around” in an hour and cut it that same day. For “Drowning Man,” Joyce secretly set up a microphone under Church’s foot, and the tapping forms the main kick on the final drum track. “My creative juices were really flowing,” says Church. “I was trying different sounds, and calling more audibles than ever before. I really enjoyed the journey of where it was starting to take me.”
They experimented with 25 songs for Desperate Man, the most Church had ever recorded for an album. But a sound started to emerge, a common thread he describes as “an electric, raw, old soul sound.” For the chugging title track (co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard), Church wanted “something that sounded like 1973 or ‘74”; he chose it as the first single because it “spoke to a lot of the elements on the album—the vocals, piano, broken-down chorus, it felt like it encompassed all the other tracks.”
The closing track, “Drowning Man,” addresses the state of our times and the ways artists have (or haven’t) responded. “With what’s going on in the world, I felt forgotten, left behind,” says Church. “And if you go to any bar or concert in America, there are whole groups of forgotten people who are very much alike, who have way more in common than not. There’s a lot of madness in the world that makes no sense, and it’s not all high tides and yachts—I don’t want to hear that shit.”
“Solid,” co-written with New Orleans mainstay Anders Osborne, stands as a kind of mission statement for the album, a testament to the basic principles and priorities that hold up over time. “It’s just saying, this is where I’m at and who I am,” he says. “I love the simplicity—‘I’m good, I’m OK, just keep heading down that path.’ And it helped my confidence in the studio, because when you don’t know where you’re headed, you can get pretty insecure.”
When it seemed the album was done, though, one song from that first, scrapped batch of material was still calling out to Church. “Some Of It” is a reflection on lessons learned and wisdom gained, and (with the encouragement of his wife, Katherine) he decided to give it a shot at the last minute.
“I was spooked by it, because it was one of those original songs that wasn’t working,” he says. “But I called Jay and said, ‘This one is still bothering me, so I need to go back in and cut it.’ And when we got that, it felt like we were really where we needed to be.”
Eric Church has no regrets about his initial struggles with Desperate Man, nor with the experiences that led to his uncertainty. “That’s what allowed me to make this record,” he says. “If those things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had the same turmoil and angst inside me, and I would have just gone ahead and made that radio-friendly record.
“The main thing I love,” he continues, “is that we’ve always shown progress, we’re always moving the creative needle forward in some way. And that’s what I’m proudest of—with this album and with my whole career.”