Mid-July, steamy New York summer day smack in the middle of rush-hour mayhem in the densest stretch of humanity on the planet earth; where the Pandora offices reside. The enormous marble front entrance, guarded by an officious middle-aged uniformed man, sends me to the 19th floor. Stepping off the elevator is like entering a new-world sanctuary; a 21st century office of hip media conglomeration; digital music dissemination system meets the youth-market heartbeat. All the employees are bright-eyed 20-somethings, mingling with VIPs roaming through the modern offices; playing beer pong and sampling an on-site chef’s Vegan specialties. Soon all, including me, will get a PowerPoint presentation on Pandora’s expansion from data-centric online music radio to tour sponsoring and global tour algorithms for musical acts of every genre. In a quiet back room just below a glass staircase, Eric Hutchinson paces.
The 33-year-old pop songsmith, who I have gotten to know personally throughout my 10 years of covering a career filled with twists, turns, successes and fallbacks, and further successes is taking a break from his current U.S. tour supporting Kelly Clarkson, with some headlining thrown in, to play a 20-minute solo set as an encore to this weird egalitarian/capitalist tryst. Wandering out into the office for a moment, he looks up to notice me; we hug and exchange pleasantries. His body language—taught and readied, his game face ratcheted on—is a far cry from his normal late-afternoon laid-back, half-smile, go-with-the-flow demeanor. I find out later that Hutchinson’s manager, the preternaturally gregarious Dave Morris, has informed him that the infectious opening track on his 2014 album, Pure Fiction, “Tell The World,” was chosen from a list of dozens to be the soundtrack for the Microsoft 10 international ad campaign.
Hutchinson ducks back into the room to emerge dressed in a plum suit, gray-striped tee shirt and tan loafers, as if leaping from an album cover. He wields a tambourine to accompany his newest single, “Good Rhythm,” an impishly-styled, soulful, bluesy chain-gang stomp, which he sings a cappella. He gets the passersby to sit. He gets the previously bored ones already sitting to clap. He is off and running, alone, like his early years, as he half-jokingly wrote to me earlier in the day, “As God intended.” He bounds from keyboard to acoustic guitar, makes jokes, demands calls-and-responses, cuts one song short to swing into another effortlessly. The room is his, and he gives it one more shot of “Tell The World” to end it. The song, soon to be adorned with the generational weight of the Microsoft 10 ad to come, draws the biggest applause. He later says after viewing the finished commercial that it “never sounded so sweet.”
“It’s a challenge to do a gig like the one at Pandora, but at the same time it feels like my earliest days when I was playing acoustic guitar and nobody knew who I was and I had to get people’s attention,” Hutchinson tells me weeks later on the phone from Albuquerque, after his band joined him for some 40 shows in six weeks. “Someone told me once, ‘Use it all.’ It’s fun to go out and not take for granted whether people pay attention or not and to make sure they do. I’ve got tricks I’ve learned over the years to sort of take people by surprise.”
Just a couple of days later, same island, different venue, the legendary Radio City Music Hall, Hutchinson opens a New York City show for Clarkson with friends and family in tow. My wife and I attend, rapt by the surroundings, so many memories for me; my childhood seeing films and Christmas spectaculars through the years being present for some pretty amazing shows there. The band comes out smoking; Ian Allison rumbling on bass, drummer Bryan Taylor flailing his arms about in a constant state of beat, and guitarist/musical director and longtime collaborator, Elliott Blaufuss, cruising about the large stage supporting Hutchinson, who takes the historic room by storm. Like in the relatively quiet confines of the lofty Pandora offices, the songs come swiftly and segue seamlessly into each other, some partial versions of early favorites like “Rock And Roll,” others rousing sing-alongs, “Okay, It’s Alright With Me” make up what the performer calls “a 30-minute power set”—no let-up, no prisoners. This is Eric Hutchinson in his element again, just a bigger place with a dedicated ensemble; trying to grab the audience by the collective collar and yank.
“I call these the away games,” says Hutchinson, despite playing this gig in his backyard. “Headlining shows is the home game. You play the game the same way, but they’re not our fans so we gotta go out and get ’em and work even harder. That’s the fun part to me, the challenge of going out there to strangers and trying to get people to care. And people have been really receptive and excited so far.”
This is Hutchinson’s second extended tour in the past year, supporting Pure Fiction last autumn into the winter. That was the record that featured his most refined and maturing vocals yet, clearly evident in the single that preceded “Good Rhythm,” “Forever,” an almost perfect pop song; dynamic, catchy, emotional. The video (go check it out on YouTube, it’s very funny) is a fair glimpse into the delicate balance of self-deprecating humor and relentless joy in performance that has endeared Hutchinson to so many.
In the meantime, he managed to find time to record five new songs, all of them grittier and funkier and, yeah, a little smarmier than most of the previous album’s more pop-oriented slice of life. Fans will have to wait until at least January of next year to hear them, as he may add a few more numbers yet to be completed. The aforementioned “Good Rhythm” is a fine example. It is a song sung in the voice of a lily white, mostly bored, trust-fund kid who the composer describes as someone who “doesn’t have to work for anything and doesn’t understand why they’re not happy.” And although he insists it is more characterization than autobiographical, there is a hint of self-examination in there that always makes Hutchinson’s songs smack you on several levels.
“I don’t know where the lyrics came from for ‘Good Rhythm’, other than you live in New York for a while and every now and then I get this devil on my shoulder that says, ‘What business do you have getting to live this life?’And it’s sort of that guilt that runs through, and I’m working on making that gratitude instead of guilt… I think it’s a twisted depiction of me on that song. What you can be if you don’t have any self-awareness.”
I point out to him that his hard road work playing solo across the country and back for years in small joints and bars, cobbling together enough bread to make his first studio album, Sounds Like This, in 2008, after an even smaller release with the live, Before I Sold Out, two years earlier, to a short stint with Warner Bros. and back on his own again is proof enough he has earned this life. It has been a decade of perpetual motion. Sometimes it goes up and then down and always sideways, moving, playing and writing. “Just trying to keep my head above water, James,” he says when I mention he sounds exhausted. “We’ve been doing some headlining stuff in between the gigs with Kelly, so we haven’t really had any days off. We were in Tucson last night, there’s Memphis, and a couple of Florida gigs of our own. I’ve really just been concentrating on the show every night. The days fly by… but it’s been good.”
Hutchinson is not only a master song craftsman—I have taken to dubbing him “the songsmith,” which he has duly embraced with some humor, if not outright ownership—he has currently infused his tried-and-true stage witticisms, anecdotes and direct interaction with the audience with a high-energy rock/pop/soul review that has Twitter and Instagram abuzz. “People will echo back these comments, and they’re almost verbatim sort of what I want people walking away with. I just never want to forget what it’s like to be in the audience. There’s parking and you’re tired and you need to get dinner… all of that stuff can melt away if you put on a good show, and I’m trying to lead by example… I guess.”
Meanwhile, the Microsoft ad, running everywhere seemingly all the time, has not only given “Tell The World” new life, but lifted Hutchinson’s profile at shows. Unlike in years past when artists would wrestle with the idea of using their music for advertisements, today they are a way to expand an audience, something not lost on Hutchinson when I bring it up. “I think the idea of selling out is outdated at this point,” he says. “We’ve seen Bob Dylan do Victoria’s Secret commercials, we’ve seen Keith Richards do Louis Vuitton commercials. I think music is music, and as long as the music is still there, it means whatever it means to me and whatever it means to anyone else. They asked Stephen King if he gets mad when they make bad movies out of his books, and he says, ‘No, because the books are still good.’”
For Eric Hutchinson, out on the road caught somewhere between guilt and gratitude, the music is still good and getting better all the time.
Eric Hutchinson will be supporting Kelly Clarkson at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ on Sept. 20. For more information, go to erichutchinson.com.