Hutchinson hit the airwaves in 2007 with his first single, "Rock And Roll," a clever tune about a couple of club-goers who find each other at the end of the night. "OK, It's Alright With Me" followed, sharing space on playlists with the likes of Jason Mraz and Michael Franti.
His melodies hop along nicely, with anything from piano to pump organ in the mix. The lyrics are a different matter, taking on topics like groupies ("Outside Villanova"), wanderlust ("Bored To Death") and impermanence ("Forever").
Myotonic muscular dystrophy is known as "DM." We set out to learn how living with the specter of the disease affected his songwriting, and to get the stories behind some of his biggest songs.
Eric Hutchinson: It wasn't something I was openly discussing with people. My wife knew about it and maybe a handful of friends. But in general, I wanted to go through the testing process myself and be able to process it on my own before I started sharing it with other people.
Songfacts: How did that play into your songwriting?
Hutchinson: I grew up with some uncertainty in my life and some paranoia. I spent a lot of time thinking about the future and I think that stuff has shown up in my songs a lot.
Songfacts: I'm thinking about some of your songs that I've listened to over and over, and now knowing what you were living with at the time, I hear them in a different way. For instance, "Rock And Roll." Can you talk about that song and how this played into it?
Songfacts: Wow. So you had not actually been into a club when you wrote that song?
Hutchinson: I think maybe once or twice. But yeah, I was writing it as a person who was on the outside looking in.
Songfacts: That was very early in your career. I didn't realize you wrote it before you were even of legal age. So that song, from the time you wrote it to when it became a hit, what was the progression?
Hutchinson: It was always a song that people were interested in and wanted me to play. It got me signed to two record deals, the first time around to Maverick Records, but then the label folded, so the album never came out. And then, I think it was the strength of that song that also got me signed to Warner Bros. Records, and it has obviously been my biggest hit.
Hutchinson: I'm always surprised to hear people tell me that my music is their upbeat music and it's so happy, because a lot of the music comes out of frustration or depression or not knowing what to do. And the songs are a lot of times, I guess, attempts at me trying to make sense of it or trying to cheer myself up, so I'm always sort of surprised when people say, "Oh, this is a feel-good song."
But "Dear Me" came out of another situation. I wrote a bunch of angry songs and I took a step back and I said, You know what, I don't think this is really what I'm trying to take away from this experience. And how do I spin this into something positive in my life and how do I learn from this?
I started thinking about my younger self, and I quickly started taking the idea of if I only had a few minutes to tell my younger self something, what would I say? I took the exercise pretty seriously and the song came together pretty quickly, I'd say.
Songfacts: I'm trying to get a sense for how much of your writing is about you and how much of it is based on observations or characters you create. For instance, in a song like "Anyone Who Knows Me," where you describe a couple of people. Can you talk about writing that song and how much of you is in it?
Hutchinson: Yeah. I'm in an interesting place right now in my life where I'm in a healthy, stable marriage and I don't have to worry about when I can get my next meal and things like that. And that's traditionally bad for songwriting and for artistry. I don't necessarily believe you have to be miserable to make good music, but I spent a lot of time thinking about other people and thinking about other people's lives. And I think there's some of me in every song, probably, because I've got to have some kind of reference to be able to write it.
But a song like "Anyone Who Knows Me" is really thinking outside of my own life, my own experience. I always tell younger songwriters that you have to go out and live and experience things and have feelings. So when I'm writing a song, it may not be about me, but I'm still accessing what those emotions feel like: to have your heart broken, to want someone to trust you, or to be screwing up or something. You have to have some life experience to be able to write about them.
Songfacts: Absolutely. And that is hard to come by when you've been in a stable marriage for such a long time. A song that comes to mind is "Watching You Watch Him," where you've got this unrequited love. How did you go about doing that when you had been married for years at that point?
Hutchinson: Well, it's funny you bring that up, because that song actually is about my wife. It was a song that I wrote as a joke, because my wife is obsessed with the tennis player Roger Federer. And so I wrote the song as a joke for her about being in a love triangle with me and him and her. Sort of a one-sided love affair.
I realized later that I had been in relationships like that before and I had ways to talk about that sort of thing, and I knew what that feeling felt like - to be invisible to somebody. But my wife loves that song and thinks it's really funny.
Hutchinson: We were both up very early. It was 3:30 our time in New York. It was a good day in the Hutchinson household.
Songfacts: Man, I was just so happy that it panned out the way it did. We had to put a lot of effort into watching that, but it paid off as well as any sporting event I've ever seen. It was tremendous.
Hutchinson: Yeah, it was a great match.
Songfacts: You came up during the age of social media. It was a very interesting time. Did you embrace social media right away?
You know, when I was growing up, it was, I heard that song on the radio, I like it, I've got to make a note next time I go to the record store, or I have to go to the record store right now and go get it. But now one of my absolute favorite things to do is hear a song in a store, Shazam it, find out about the artist, listen to the album, and get their bio. You can just download so much information so quickly.
So to me, the best part of social media and streaming and the Internet is you can try anything. Some people would say it's lazy, but I think it's more exciting. As a music lover, I can try anything out, reference something else and skip back and forth. So I've tried to embrace that stuff as much as possible into my own music.
Songfacts: You touch on it in your songs. "Bored to Death" I thought was interesting. The line that really got my attention was when you sing, "It's not my fault the world can't hold my interest."
Hutchinson: Right. A lot of my songs these days are about my phone. Because it's just a constant in my life and I think it's a constant in everyone's life. And I'm constantly battling to find a mix of staying current, but also staying present. I find the phone really fascinating, because one one hand it's a mirror for everybody, because you look at it and it's got all of your information exactly where you want it - it's you reflected back at you. But it's also a window, because it looks out into the world. And that's how I learn about the world and stay up with my friends in the news.
So I find, in general, it's just a really fascinating component of modern life.
Songfacts: In your song "Same Old Thing," you sing about meeting your heroes. Have you ever met your heroes?
Hutchinson: Yeah. That's a real moment. I've met some of them. I don't get along with everybody to begin with, so I've learned just because I like someone's music doesn't mean that I'm going to get along with this person in general, so I'm kind of done seeking out my heroes.
That line from "Same Old Thing," I met one of my absolute idols, and it didn't go great. It was pretty upsetting and it got me to think a lot. I like being on both sides of those kinds of interactions. People will wait in line to shake my hand and take a picture with me after my shows, and I think it's really important to remember what it feels like to wait in line, or to meet somebody that you don't know and who you're excited to meet, and the feeling of being blown off sticks with you. I think it was Peyton Manning who said it takes as long to be nice to someone as it does to be rude to someone.
So again, I tried to use some of these experiences. And I'm not perfect - I'm sure there are people out there that feel jilted by me. But remembering what it's like to be a fan is really important.
Songfacts: That's also one of these songs that expresses the boredom that can come even with a lifestyle like yours, which is very exciting relative to sitting in a cubicle or something. That's something that you feel in your life?
Hutchinson: Sometimes. I've been doing what I do for a long time, and I'm constantly figuring out new ways to be challenged by that and excited. Part of being an artist is to get to a place where I'm good at it and then reject it, and try and find something else and get better at it, so it's an uncomfortable place to live in a lot of the time.
But I'm not really interested in doing the same thing over and over again. I'm constantly challenging myself, and if I'm feeling bored, I start to see what else is out there.
Songfacts: How do you go about writing a song?
Hutchinson: The process has changed over the years. In the beginning, I just used to write and write and write. I wrote probably 100 songs for my first album, and we picked 10 of them. But now I'm a little more selective. I don't sit down until I really feel like I have something to say.
But for me, I need to be alone and have some time, and the older I get the more that's hard to do, because there's people I want to see and family. So making the effort to actually get myself in a room and give myself some time is important.
If something wasn't feeling good, I used to just pound my head against the piano all day until I could come up with something, but now I've learned that if I'm not feeling creative, to just leave it alone and come back to it the next day, or even in an hour or two.
Songfacts: What's in the room when you're writing?
Hutchinson: I have a writing studio. I have a nice view, looking out over the East River in New York. I have tried to create an environment that's relaxed and a place where I can close the door and put on some headphones and just get immersed into a song.
Songfacts: And there's a piano?
Hutchinson: I do have a piano. It's New York, so I have an electric piano that has volume control and a headphone jack and stuff like that. Yeah, and a couple of guitars and stuff. But in general, I'm not much of a gear guy. I don't have very many guitars or anything. It's mainly about the song to me.
Songfacts: I'm interested in how you come up with all these different rhythms and melodies. You find ways to come up with catchy stuff that sounds distinct. Can you talk about how you go about doing that?
Hutchinson: Well, thank you for that. I don't know, it's usually I pay attention to whatever's exciting me and what I can't sleep over, because I'm so excited to try to get it down.
And I find time is the great equalizer. Every song feels good the second you finish writing it, but does the song still sound good the next morning? And does it sound good a week from now? A month from now? I'm trying to create songs that last and are timeless, hopefully.
Songfacts: Who is Bernadette in "OK, It's Alright With Me"?
Hutchinson: Bernadette was a former girlfriend I had at the time. I had a couple of songs about her on Sounds Like This. From time to time I get people at the shows who yell at me and say, "Hey, my name's Bernadette!" So we've got to put the song out to them that night.
Songfacts: Tell me about writing that song and what was going through your mind at the time.
Hutchinson: I had just been dropped by Maverick Records. I was back living at home with my parents and trying to decide if I wanted to do music anymore. I was trying to find some presence and to allow the process to be the process. It was me trying to cheer myself up and say, "Look, whatever's gonna happen's gonna happen, and it'll work out."
Songfacts: If you didn't do music, what would you have done?
Hutchinson: That's part of why I did music. [Laughing]
I'm really interested in food. I love restaurants and cooking. And just more and more I find that stuff attached to what I'm doing and how I think about my day. But I'm interested in things that 65-year-old women are interested in: cooking and flower arranging and baking bread and Meryl Streep movies.
Songfacts: It's very domestic, which must be difficult when you find yourself on tour.
Hutchinson: Yeah, my band always jokes that I'm the least rock star person they've met. I never really related to a lot of musicians I knew. I didn't want to play for free beer and pizza. I was interested in taking it seriously and making a career and having my ideas shared.
But most of my friends are writers or comedians, and I think I have more in common with a stand-up comic in that way. I toured many years on the road by myself and I'm just not that interested in doing the sad song that bums everybody out.
Songfacts: One of the songs that comes to mind when you talk about that is "Outside Villanova." Tell me about that one.
Hutchinson: That's a song I get asked about a lot. A lot of my songs are upbeat and fun and you're singing along, and then one day you go, "Wait, what am I singing along to, exactly?"
That song was about a Lolita-type girl who was just a strange girl that I met after a show. She was really coming on strong, and I thought it was probably a better idea to just go home and write a song about her than find out what was going on there.
Songfacts: Wow. So you behaved yourself?
Hutchinson: For once, yeah.
Songfacts: Your song "Forever" is almost a conversation. What was the inspiration for that one?
Hutchinson: That was one of the only songs I've ever co-written where I really liked the process. I wrote it with a guy named Keith Slettedahl, who's lead singer of this band The 88, and I just really love his songwriting. We came up with the song and then I went and messed around with it. And I just found that lyric, "Tell me how you know, how you know, how you know, nothing lasts forever."
I think a lot about time and what's going to happen in the future, and trying to hold onto a moment when it's good. That song is the sun setting on a beautiful moment, and trying to decide if it's possible to keep it going or not.
Songfacts: What are your thoughts on music videos?
Hutchinson: I like music videos. I was a film major in school, and I was really excited to be a part of that process. Unfortunately, I don't think many of my music videos have come out the way I wanted them to. I just didn't have enough time, because I was on the road or visiting radio stations or doing whatever. So a lot of times videos went to another director and then I just showed up and made them.
But I think it's an amazing way to express a song. They can be fun, they can be silly, they can be hopeful.
Songfacts: Is there one of your videos you particularly like?
The song is probably as close as I've ever got to nailing something I heard in my head, and I think the video's a nice pairing with that.
Songfacts: Did you get a degree in film from Emerson?
Hutchinson: I did, yeah.
Songfacts: Wow. That's no joke. That's a fantastic school for that.
Hutchinson: Yeah, I had a great time there. I was doing music on the side and then I just decided to do music, honestly, because I thought it was going to be easier. Which didn't turn out to be the case, necessarily.
But I still love movies and film. A lot of my songwriting is character-driven that way.
Songfacts: What's the hardest part of writing a song for you?
Hutchinson: I don't know. That's a good question. I think the hardest part for me is starting it. Knowing what I want to say and figuring out how to go about that.
Songfacts: You must have a natural inclination for stuff like melodies and that type of thing.
Hutchinson: I've got some melodies floating around in my head, for sure.
Songfacts: That's got to be nice. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Hutchinson: There's a lot I love. I'm really grateful that I've gotten to travel so much and that my music's taken me all these amazing places I never would have gone. I've seen every corner of America.
And something I was thinking about on my last tour is I feel really lucky that I have a profession that makes people happy. To see people get excited when we're on stage or to see people Tweeting me that my song cheered tem up. I've been thinking a lot lately about what a gift it is to make somebody happy with something that I'm doing.
March 2, 2017. Easy Street is being issued on CD and vinyl for the first time on March 3, 2017. This deluxe edition also contains remixes not found on the original. Learn more at erichutchinson.com.
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