As Eric Hutchinson journeyed toward the making of Moving Up Living Down, the delightfully witty and supremely wise follow-up to his hit debut Sounds Like This, he developed a very simple rule regarding new songs.
“I traveled so long and got to see so many people and places,” he says. “And sharing music with the fans every night got me thinking: The best concerts are when people sing along with me. So for the next one, what kind of songs do I want people singing with me? What kind of songs do I want people dancing to?”
Get ready to sing and dance.
Road-tested in every setting from a converted garage in Salt Lake City to the 30,000-seat Calgary Saddledome, from San Diego to Dubai, the artist and songs alike bear a playful confidence that was boosted along the way. As the Washington, DC-raised singer, pianist and guitarist traveled the world over the course of several years, word of mouth about his irresistible songs and engaging presence brought out consistently growing concert crowds. That helped turn the song “Rock & Roll” into an international hit (certified Gold in the U.S., Platinum in New Zealand, Norway and Australia) and the album hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, ultimately selling more than 250,000 copies. The songs “OK, It’s Alright With Me” (top 5 on AAA radio) and “Oh!” also caught fire, helping push total single sales past the million mark.
After a brief respite to nail down the writing at home in New York, he took to the road again to make this album in Los Angeles with producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Regina Spektor) and London with Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, James Morrison).
On Moving Up Living Down, all of Eric’s ever-widening musical embraces are brought into play, from the exuberant folk-pop bounce of “Watching You Watch Him” (the first single, which debuted on the season premiere of ABC-TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”) through the reggae lilt of opener “Talk is Cheap” through the soul grounding of “The Basement.” The music is tuneful and rhythmic. The lyrics are engaging and reflective. Comparisons, as always, are tough, but you wouldn’t go wrong thinking of a spectrum that includes Paul Simon, the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, all integrated into a truly Hutchinsonian whole.
“The biggest inspirations of the album were the cities I visited, the inspiration and rhythms of the people,” he says. It’s all about missing people (the so-close-yet-so-far-away family and friends of “The People I Know”), reconnecting with the spirit that got him started (“In the First Place”) and finding communities in unexpected places. Take “The Basement,” for example.
“I love soul music, so it’s sort of an homage to that. One night after a show in Northampton, Massachusetts, the promoter brought us to a club called The Basement -- and it was a full-on rock ‘n’ roll party, DJ playing songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s… It was like, ‘I found my people!’ I named some of my favorite artists at the end -- Isley Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye - I just love that stuff!”
And “Best Days” came straight out of the last few years’ roaming.
“I was reflecting on all the travel I’d done, thinking about the life I have,” he says. “It’s cliche maybe, but these are the best days of our lives. That’s a surprise to me,” he says. “I sort of think of myself as a cynical optimist. I’m a little suspicious, but in the end I think things work out for the best.”
That was the case with finding producers Elizondo and Terefe, who provided environments that allowed Hutchinson’s growing creativity to flourish.
“I’m a big hip-hop fan, which sometimes people laugh at,” he says. “I wanted the record to be rhythmic, feel big but have the intimacy of the lyrics. I’m also a big pop music fan, Beatles and Paul Simon. Mike Elizondo comes from hip-hop, but is a big Beatles fan. I walked into his studio and saw he had all these Beatles pictures up and I knew I was in the right place!”
The combination clicked, taking Hutchinson in some unexpected directions.
“I’m always on the search for new sounds and on ‘Watching You Watch Him’ I was trying to figure out what kind of solo to have, Mike suggested a requinto jarocho, a stringed instrument from Veracruz – and he just nailed it.”
The London sessions with Terefe were just as inspiring.
“I was staying nearby and walked to the studio, got to learn London by night,” he says. “He has a cool set-up like a living room. You sit, playing on a couch. I learned a lot on that couch, about how to make music. It created a lot of freedom in the recording process that showed up in the songs.”
The road remains Hutchinson’s favorite place to make music, of course. “You’re hosting a party, inviting people in and making sure they’re taken care of the whole time.”
Reciprocally, it’s a fertile world for his art. “Breakdown More” is one song that in particular benefited from that two-way communication. It goes all the way back to his college days, appearing on an early and very limited-release live EP. But somehow fans became familiar with it, he says, and began requesting -- or demanding -- it at concerts.
“That one just never went away,” he says. “It always felt good live. Something about it stuck with me. When we got to the studio we really dug in, it really caught its own fire.
He relishes that sometimes circuitous process, which has given him an album as emotionally complex -- and compelling -- as Hutchinson is showing himself to be.
“The album’s called Moving Up Living Down because it’s about that chutes and ladders lifestyle,” he says. “There’s no end game. It’s about growing pains and I think I’ve grown a lot, experienced a lot since the first album and this is the next step. Sometimes it can be frustrating, learning on the fly. But it’s all worked out really well. Especially as I’ve made this album I’ve had time to reflect over what’s happened in the last few years. Really inspiring, proud and I feel lucky, which is a word I never got to use before. I feel really lucky.”
But the journey’s hardly over. As the title of one song states, he’s “Not There Yet.”