Songwriter Interviews

Modern Happiness With Eric Hutchinson

by Carl Wiser

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Eric Hutchinson describes himself as a "naturally depressed person," but it comes with an empathy that makes him a great observer of the human condition. Combined with his gift for writing catchy-as-hell melodies, it makes for evergreen favorites like "Rock And Roll" and "OK, It's Alright With Me."

In 2016, he thought about giving up on music, but opted instead for a lifestyle change. He started taking Prozac, which helped lift the clouds and lead him to Modern Happiness, his 2018 album. Hutchinson's voice is part of a rising tide bringing depression into the open and talking about coping strategies. Track 4, "Happy Like A Chicken With His Head Cut Off," describes in unflinching detail his anti-depressant experience:

Now I'm just stable day to day
those pesky peaks and valleys went away


Seems anathema to songwriting, which is all about emotional extremes, but as Hutchinson explains, it puts him in a creative mindset.

It's not just brain chemistry that gets covered here. "New Religion" is from the voice of God, scolding us for how we've treated His creation. "I'll Always Be The One Who Makes You Cry" is a look at incompatible relationships - some people are just meant to be apart. "A Million Bucks On A Queen Motel Bed" deals with another one of his coping strategies: marijuana. Now legal in Alaska, as he found out.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Eric, a couple of years ago you were thinking of giving up music, and you said that popular music was making you frustrated and jealous. What kind of songs were you talking about?

Eric Hutchinson: Bruno Mars, I love his music and I got to a point where I was really frustrated with "Uptown Funk" because I was just like, "This is a great song, why can't I do this? I'm worthless." I saw Hamilton and everything was crappy for the next three weeks after that because Hamilton was just so good.

Looking back, I was really burned out and I wasn't letting myself enjoy the music that I enjoy. I felt like I had to make music that other people wanted or that might be on the radio. This album started with just making a playlist of all the songs that I actually like to listen to when I'm cooking or doing the dishes or hanging out.

Songfacts: So you don't stick your head in the sand and only listen to music from your generation. You'll listen to the modern stuff as well.

Hutchinson: Music is as good today as it's ever been. I love everything, but I tend to go towards older music. Growing up, when Nirvana was popular, I was listening to Elvis Costello and Nat King Cole. I still enjoy everything, but I really enjoy listening to music with some historical perspective built into it.

Songfacts: Are there any tracks on your new album that you can pinpoint a modern artist that influenced it?

Hutchinson: I was listening to a lot of Michael Kiwanuka and Brandi Carlile. It felt like to make a modern album you had to have Justin Bieber and you had to make it with simulated drums and stuff like that, but then I started looking around and realized that people are making music the way I'd like to make a record, which is more organic and maybe a little more song-driven and songwriter driven. I felt like there's a way to make a modern album that doesn't have to be a Beyoncé record.

Songfacts: You are very open about going on Prozac and your depression. Can you talk about what it's like writing a song on Prozac?

Hutchinson: Yeah. Songwriting is processing for me, and sometimes when I write a song about something I'm dealing with, it's a little bit of shedding my skin. A lot of the things I dealt with on this record I feel stronger for having talked about them, but that was a big concern: I spent years and years being mildly depressed and feeling like I just had to work through it. If I was blue that day, I just had to get through it, and it took a long time for me to admit that there's a pattern here - I've been sad for almost as long as I can remember.

A big thing I was afraid of was that it would steal my edge, steal my creativity if I take a mood enhancer, but I found the opposite. Because when I'm really depressed or sad, I don't write, I don't do anything, I just sit around and feel bad. But once I started taking Prozac, I noticed that when I wake up in the morning I feel like I've got a fighting chance, and that makes me want to be creative. I'm not sponsored by Prozac or anything. I don't actually think it's the right thing for everybody, but I did a lot of talk therapy and started taking Prozac, and it had that effect on me.

I have a song on the new album called "Happy Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off," which is sort of tongue-in-cheek, but it's about the pros and cons of messing around with the mind: The lows aren't as low and the highs aren't quite as high as they used to be. It's trying to make sense of all that.

Songfacts: Yeah, and you have a line in there about how the peaks and the valleys both go away, but songs are all about peaks and valleys.

Hutchinson: Yeah, I would agree. But Taylor Swift once said, "I have a lot of feelings," and I related to that. I have a lot of feelings, I am a sensitive person, I experience the world in a very visceral way and I'm not running out of things to feel. So it's given me a little bit of distance from my feelings in a way that I can actually evaluate them a little more and even write about them more effectively.

Songfacts: The guy from the Chainsmokers recently said that he got more depressed than ever when he was most successful. What was it like for you?

Hutchinson: That definitely sounds familiar to me. Because when I was first coming up, everything was driven by, "If I could just play this club, if I could just tour with this band, if I could just get signed with this label, then everything will be better and I won't be unhappy like I am right now, or alone like I am right now." And my first album, Sounds Like This, went way beyond anything I could have dreamed. I was working non-stop and I got to go all over the world and it was amazing. But at the end of that album cycle, I looked around and I was like, "Wait, why am I dissatisfied still? Why am I unhappy with who I am and my life?"

I started making an album dealing with that, but I was signed to Warner Bros., and at the time, that wasn't what Warner Bros. felt my fans wanted to hear. So that was the beginning of me feeling like I had to edit myself, and I think this album Modern Happiness is the first time I've really felt like I've made an unadulterated album the way I did with Sounds Like This.

In 2007, when he was one of the most influential of influential bloggers, Perez Hilton heard Hutchinson's first album on MySpace and posted glowingly of it, calling Eric "The Next Big Thing."
Songfacts: On one of the tracks, "Can't Stop What's Coming," you sing about how there is a certain luck factor involved. When do you feel that luck came into play for you?

Hutchinson: I think now we use the word "privilege." I didn't know what that meant back then when I was growing up, but I think from the very beginning I've been a lucky person.

When I was younger I never wanted to say I was lucky because I wanted to believe that it was all based on my hard work, and I have certainly worked hard. But it's luck and a privilege to have grown up in a household that had a piano in it, and to have a family that cared about art and culture and thought that was something to be interested in, and it's lucky to have had my friend from high school cold-email Perez Hilton my new album that I just paid for myself and have Perez Hilton really like it and put it on his website, and people flip out about it. I've had a lot of things not come my way, but the older I get and the more I think about my life, I feel really fortunate.

Songfacts: You have a line in "A Million Bucks On A Queen Motel Bed": "The wolfman told me to be careful, love can bite." Can you explain that?

Hutchinson: No. But that song is kind of an ode to finally understanding how to enjoy marijuana. I'm sort of a late adopter to enjoying it. I never really got it when I was younger - I was a little too uptight I think.

It's funny because someone pointed out to me that the album's called Modern Happiness but the only song where I'm actually happy is that song, and I just happen to be high in it. I tried not to edit myself too much there, or to get in the way of my subconscious, so that's a line that came out when I was writing, and I liked the poetic-ness of it and kept it in there. Also, I'm a huge fan of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London," so it was a little bit of a tip of the hat.

Songfacts: How does marijuana affect your songwriting?

Hutchinson: The way I use it, I get a lot of empathy and consideration from marijuana. It's the closest I ever get to not being myself, or to seeing things from a different point-of-view, and as somebody who has a lot of feelings, I'm able to treat myself with more kindness and I just feel like I can relax in a way that maybe I can't do all the time.

Songfacts: And compared to what many other musicians do to medicate, it's an incredibly healthy way to do it.

Hutchinson: I think so. And I think we're seeing it change in our lifetime. I went to Alaska with my father-in-law and we landed and found out that weed was legal there. We went into a dispensary and he just couldn't believe it: after years and years of sneaking around and hiding, this is now something that can be seen as good and helpful. That's an idea I'm still getting used to.

Songfacts: You have some really clever lines in "She Could Be The One," and a nice little twist ending there. I'd love to get your thoughts on that song and also on where you come up with those lines.

Hutchinson: Well, since this is Songfacts, I'll give you the longer version. That's a song I had kicking around for a long time and it never felt right. I never had the right perspective on it, and for whatever reason, it popped into my head when I was getting ready to make this album. And it fell under the umbrella of Modern Happiness: It's about monogamy and responsibility.

In terms of the lines, I just keep refining my lyrics up until the second I'm singing it out on the album, and in that way, making an album can be exhausting and I'm a little checked out from the world because I'm always turning those words over in my head. But in some ways, I find it's kind of a sequel to my song "Rock And Roll" because they're both about trying to be your best self while drunk at a bar somewhere. But they have both been mistaken as party songs.

Hutchinson created a conversation starter called Songversations, which is a set of questions that explore one's tastes and musical past. It's a great way to goose a gathering and keep the discussion away from politics. These are questions like "What would be your walk-up music if you were a major league baseball player?" and "What song makes you want to get up and dance?" You'll find yourself inventing your own once you get going.
Songfacts: This is a Songversations-style question. You often pop up on Pandora stations or Spotify playlists. What's the most surprising playlist that you've showed up on?

Hutchinson: I don't know if I have an answer for that. I actually have very limited experience hearing my own music - I don't listen to it at home really.

I don't know if it was a playlist but I was in Crate & Barrel and my song was just blasting. Nobody was around to care, and I just got to listen to it loud and echoing off all the furniture. And similarly, "She Could Be The One" just got added to the Whole Foods radio network, and that was as exciting to me as when VH1 added my song because it feels like part of my world and part of my life. I've learned about so much music I love from just walking around Shazaming things. Just to be out there in the ether is exciting for me.

Songfacts: There are many different ways to describe your music. What's the descriptor that has tweaked you the most?

Hutchinson: Like, annoyed me the most?

Songfacts: Yes.

Hutchinson: I think "jazzy" is never said as a compliment. People say, "You've got a jazzy feel," and I'm like, "I don't get the sense that you like jazz when you say that."

Songfacts: Do you use an editor for your lyrics?

Hutchinson: No. Editing is probably my best quality. I'm a good editor.

Songfacts: The way you were describing how you write sounds like what a novelist would do, but before a book gets published, it goes through all these people and iterations, but you do that all yourself.

Eric with his band, The Believers
Hutchinson: It's interesting because music doesn't really have that same thing. Movies have test screenings and things. In music, we really just have A&R or something where a few people listen to it and give their opinions. I've made some music that's sort of by committee and it came out a little bit flat to me. But I usually know what I'm trying to say, and I won't let a song leave into the world until I feel like it's saying what I'm trying to get it to say.

Songfacts: Another Songversation: Song that's in a never-ending loop in your personal hell?

Hutchinson: Probably "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey. It wasn't a song that I ever really thought about or cared either way about, but I've just been in too many bars and too many weddings where people are screaming it in my ear, and I've just really built up a dislike for it.

Songfacts: Yeah, there's nothing inherently wrong with the song, it's what became of it.

Hutchinson: And that's one of my favorite categories: music that's actually good that we've just become desensitized to. I think "Brown Eyed Girl" falls into that category. It was a good song at one point, but every bar band in the world plays it and now, so it's sort of ubiquitous.

Songfacts: Well, one of the things that's nice about your songs when they come on is that they haven't been overplayed like that. It's always good to hear an Eric Hutchinson song pop on the radio.

Hutchinson: Well, I appreciate that. The older I get and the more I make music, the more I realize I'm actually not very qualified to talk about my own music. I can talk about the process, but I find other people are better at describing it and explaining where it fits in.

I've always thought of being a songwriter as being an inventor: Can you create something that people have a need for? In the old days it was just, get them to buy the record. Doesn't matter if they like it or listen to it, just get them to buy it. But now, with streaming, it's all about making something you have a need for in your life and serves a purpose.

Songfacts: Is there a way that manifests itself in the way you write?

Hutchinson: I think it's the way I've always written, which is trying to make music that lasts and is timeless. For me, that's what streaming is really exciting for. You can get lost at any time and just go down the rabbit hole of a discography. I'm excited to keep adding music to my discography because I enjoy learning about a person's life and then seeing what the music sounded like that they were making.

Songfacts: Another Songversation-style question for you, Eric.

Hutchinson: Please, I can do Songversations all day.

Songfacts: What was your wedding song?

Hutchinson: My wedding song, I played a trick on my wife. We were going to dance to one song but instead I had them play this song by a Mexican artist named El Chapo [not the drug lord] that we kept hearing when we were first falling in love. So I had this song "Para Que Regreses" by El Chapo, and it was sort of a joke to her, but I also have a long-running list of music in my head that would make a great first dance. I have a real sweet spot for crooners - Sinatra and Bobby Darin and all that stuff is very romantic to me. So our song was a Mexican sort of polka.

Songfacts: What was the song she expected?

Hutchinson: I told her Bobby Darin. Luckily, she lets me steer the music, so it keeps us happy.

Songfacts: Going off-script at your own wedding can be very precarious.

Hutchinson: Yeah, while I'm saying that, I'm realizing how relaxed my wife is.

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song specifically for another person, be it your wife or anybody else?

Hutchinson: Yeah. Lots of songs. From the very beginning I was writing songs to communicate to people. I didn't know how to talk to them, so I would write a song for them.

I just had a baby so I'm writing a lot of songs about my wife and the baby. I like writing a song directly to somebody because having a specific audience is really important to me. It informs the decision I'm trying to make.

Songfacts: I didn't know you had a baby. That's fantastic.

Hutchinson: Thank You.

Songfacts: What's the song that most impacted you growing up?

Hutchinson: I don't know the song, but the artist is The Beatles. They were taught with almost a religious reverence in my house. My parents quizzed me on who was singing which song and my mom knew endless facts about each song and how they'd recorded it. They were really the introduction to popular music to me. I liked that they wrote their own songs and they played their own instruments - they were self-sufficient. I didn't realize it until much later, but songwriting got a lot of respect in my household, which is maybe why I went into it.

October 4, 2018
More at erichutchinson.com
Here's our 2017 interview with Eric

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