Anderson East did not come out of nowhere. It’s easy to see why fans might think that: Since the release of Delilah last summer, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter has taken his electrifying performances from opening gigs in dive bars to headlining tours and radio spots. He’s garnered nods of approval from genre heavyweights like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, and reached mainstream country audiences with radio appearances — a noble feat for a new artist with as well-rounded a release as Delilah.
“It’s just Southern music, really,” says East of the album. “It has tinges of everything in it. I think that people can find it relatable no matter what place it’s being presented to them.”
Delilah runs the full gamut of what “Southern music” means. Delivered with East’s raspy drawl, album track “Quit You” was co-written with country songwriting royalty Chris Stapleton, while “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em, Forget ‘Em” was unearthed on a dip into the FAME Studios archives in Muscle Shoals.
“Rodney Hall was showing us around and playing us stuff,” says East of the fruitful visit to the legendary studio. “He kind of half-jokingly played us this song that his dad, Rick Hall, and George Jackson wrote. It was just the most infectious groove and the songwriting was just beautiful. It was so twisted up. You kind of want to hate the narrator at first until you end up having such a love and compassion for him. I thought it was so brilliant.”
The raw sound and impressive versatility on the record also bear the fingerprints of producer and Americana kingmaker Dave Cobb (who will head to the 2016 Grammys as a nominee for his work on Stapleton’s Traveller). The full-length was Cobb’s first release via his new imprint with Elektra Records, and Cobb has been vocal about the immediacy with which East’s stage presence and talents resonated with him as a listener. East and Cobb connected as two like-minded “studio nerds,” and East says that working with the producer was the first time he’d really been able to relinquish technical controls and focus on the music.
“It was kind of a difficult thing but also incredibly liberating,” says East of giving up producer duties. “Up until that point, I was always focused on where the microphone was placed instead of what the performance was.” Before Delilah, after all, East had primarily been known around town as a recording engineer.
“I grew up kind of fascinated with recording music and technology and production and that school of making music,” says East. He nabbed engineering credits on several records after moving to Nashville from his home in Alabama, but you might not recognize the name in the liner notes. Anderson East was born Michael Cameron Anderson, and he operated under his given name for a number of years before making the switch to the moniker under which he’s recently risen to notoriety.
“I was kind of sick of everything I was doing: tired of myself, just wanting something new,” he says. “That’s where the East came from; that’s where everything starts. The sun rises there. In mythology, everything begins in the east. It seems like a good place to start. It’s where everything else did.”
East cut his teeth on instrumentally simplistic tunes and self-released records, including rare release Flowers of the Broken Hearted, which he recorded under his new moniker in 2012.
“Well, that record, I look at it as a collector’s item now,” he says with a laugh. “I engineered a lot of it and produced a lot of it, and I didn’t really ever expect anybody to hear it.”
You probably won’t be hearing Flowers of the Broken Hearted any time soon — that record, along with the full-length he released as Mike Anderson in 2009, are damn near impossible to find — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Delilah ushered in a deliberate rebirth for East, and from “Devil in Me” to “What A Woman Wants to Hear” and “Quit You,” he’s shown a range on this essential debut that befits a fully-formed new voice in Southern storytelling.
“I know it sounds backward,” he says of the name change. “But it gave me some distance between the guy that wants to say something profound, as opposed to the guy that pays the water bill every month.”
Anderson East plays the Bowery Ballroom on February 12. The show is sold out, so check secondary markets for tickets.