Interview: Eric Church on Songwriting, Guitars and His New Album, 'Chief'

In a world where music is often dominated by the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, it’s not that common to see a country music album reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

But that’s precisely what happened when Eric Church’s latest release, Chief (EMI), grabbed the top spot. While Church’s previous releases, Sinners Like Me (2006) and Carolina (2009) charted (reaching 29 and 17, respectively), it’s safe to say that no one -- least of all Church -- expected Chief to land at the top of the charts, let alone debut there.

In addition to enjoying the success of his new album, Church is on a tour, running through October, that includes fellow country music star Toby Keith.

Guitar World caught up with Church to discuss his latest album, the writing process, his plans for the future and what it’s like having the No. 1 album in the country.

GUITAR WORLD: When you were working on Chief, did you have a set group of writers you had worked with in the past, did you write songs on your own, or does it just come down to whoever you are working with at the moment?

There were two new guys I had met since the Carolina record was completed that we brought into the process. The main thing was how we wrote the record. We really wrote Carolina on the road, touring all the time. With this record I wanted to creatively be different. I wanted to kind of find a spark and give the fans something they maybe hadn’t heard from us before. In order to do this, I took a month off, really six weeks off and got a cabin in the mountains in North Carolina. I brought all the writers to me.

We really shut everything down. No TV, no cell phones, kind of sequestered ourselves. We really just removed all the harnesses, removed any restriction on the creative process and went anywhere the music would take us.

Were there any specific artists or bands you were listening to while writing songs for the new album who might've had an influence on the songs?

I grew up listening to The Band, I love Lowell George, I love Little Feat and I was listening to some Springsteen, some of the deep album cuts. I just like the looseness of that kind of music. It all feels like they did it in one take. They let whatever happened happen. If it felt good, they kept it. As long as it felt good, they didn’t worry about playing stuff precisely. It’s what we tried to accomplish with this record.

How do you feel your writing or playing style has changed since your first record?

There’s been a lot of growth. As far as playing, I mean, my playing is a lot better. Anything you do, because I’ve been playing 150, 200 shows a year, I’ve been with that guitar a lot. I’ve been at that microphone a lot. As far as writing, it’s grown because I’ve really grown comfortable with who I am. There were some times on the first two records that I think we let fear dictate what we put out to radio and what we did.

There were times we were scared, like, "Is it going to be a hit?" or we were going to be scared the label wouldn’t like it. So when we went to make this record, it was 100 percent made from a fearless place. We went as far out there as we wanted to go. I think because of that, the record was able to strike a creative flame from top to bottom.

I read that you recorded some of the songs for the new album live in the studio. Was this different from your previous albums, and whose idea was it to cut the songs live?

We built our career on the backs of the fans; I knew I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for our live shows, if it hadn’t been for those fans who came and left, then told five people about what we did, or bought five records and gave four copies away. That’s how we got here.

I wanted this album to sound like what they experience at the shows. The only way to do that is, you can’t choke it to death. If you make a mistake, you have to leave it because in a live show, you have to keep it. We tried to keep that as a part of the philosophy of this record.

I think there are three or four songs that are first-take songs; we just kept what went down. If the guitar player played something I liked, I could tap him on the arm, I could sing it back to him, I could interact with him. I think all that interaction is what you hear on a lot of the outros; that to me makes it pretty cool.

What kind of gear did you use on this record?

I used two different guitars. I can’t remember if it was a '56 or a '57 Gretsch. It was a Chet Atkins Country Gentlemen, and it had the Bigsby. The other thing I played, I just got a brand new dreadnought Collings made of Brazilian rosewood.

Lastly, other than the tour, what are your plans for the rest of the year and into next year?

This year we’re in a support spot with Toby Keith. It’s been a great tour, and it’s been good for us. I enjoy being out with Toby. I respect what he does and how he does it. Next year I think we can go to the next level. We can take the next step. In doing that, it’s going to be fun for me to be able to go out there and play for a couple of hours. Creatively, I’m looking forward to it just so we can change it up every night.

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