“Let’s forget this is New York, have fun and just play,” counsels a rather collected Eric Hutchinson to his band The Believers moments before they hit the stage at Sony Hall in early October. Not sure the energy in the room could begin to “forget” that these four young men would soon be performing the entirety of an album they recorded together in a five-day fury in Minnesota two springs ago in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district. This would be the big city coming-out party for Modern Happiness. Their baby…live…as intended.
Modern Happiness, Eric Hutchinson’s fifth studio album, is quite simply his finest effort yet. The album’s 10 tracks, and an eleventh bonus track, display a dramatic departure from a master songwriter’s usual musical forms and lyrical themes, while also expanding on his refined working palette through the many disparate genres that has made his music some of the most engaging of his generation. And while Hutchinson’s soul, pop and rock composing has matured exponentially with each previous release, there is a penetratingly earthy and unflinchingly raw confessional aspect to each song’s subject matter, which translates with striking clarity to his vocals. Additionally, the arrangements on Modern Happiness, as well as Hutchinson’s careful detail as producer — another talent he has honed over the last few years — reveal a refined level of communicative instrumental interaction through the inspiring contributions of the aforementioned Believers; his longtime instrumental collaborator, Elliott Blaufuss (guitars, keys and vocals), the rhythm section of Ian Allison (bass and vocals) and Bryan Taylor (drums, percussion and vocals), and specifically for this album, the alluring harmonies of Jessie Payo. This combination of a deeper autobiographical expression, broader musical experimentation, and a collaborative creative effort gives Modern Happiness an expressive pathos and dynamic musical direction that leads Hutchinson down a new path of infinite creative possibilities.
Full disclosure: I have been writing about Eric Hutchinson since 2005 when I first saw him tear up the stage opening for Joe Jackson at Town Hall, mere blocks from where Sony Hall is today. I have seen his evolution as an artist blossom. Since, we have become friends, supporting each other’s work with monthly lunches that go on for hours. During one of these Eric began to discuss the inspiration and themes that would become Modern Happiness and eventually sent me the songs before anyone else, beyond the band and those who worked on it, had heard a note. I took this honor seriously and I was rewarded in kind.
At first listen, although Hutchinson could infuse personal experiences into his songs — “Outside Villanova,” “Watching You Watch Him,” “Shine on Me,” “Dear Me,” “Anyone Who Knows Me” and “Same Old Thing” — I had never heard Hutchinson express inner monologue as affectively as he has on Modern Happiness. The title of the album — let alone its eventual cover painting of a man sitting by a guitar with his head blotted out — speaks to his place in the age of “better living through chemistry”; a generation promised happiness above all else with no roadmap in which to find it in a modern world devoid of personal connection, where contentment is mostly sold as consumerism and the calculating nature of accruing popularity through the number of social media “likes,” “followers” and “hits” in the cold landscape of cyberspace.
But all of that fades into the distance when considering what Hutchinson has experienced on the most personal level; coming to grips with a lifetime of depression that he confessed to me over the months working through these songs and later publicly from his NYC apartment nearly a year ago when we set out to record a series of podcasts that would accompany the songs from Modern Romance being released once a month for ten consecutive months. (They are all on Spotify now — have a listen, for it puts you in the room with us for those previously noted “lunches”.)
“I’ve always had bouts of moodiness and depression and I’ve been seeing a therapist since my college days,” he confessed to me then. “But until lately when seeing this new therapist, who gets credit on this album, as well as my psychiatrist, I hadn’t truly understood the whole story.” He went on to explain what was eventually diagnosed as “low-grade” depression and how he had come to understand the need for it to finally be managed. “Taking responsibility for that is when I started taking Prozac,” he said. “I had hemmed-and-hawed about taking it for years and so many times had the prescription and didn’t fill it, until I gave in and agreed to take it. At the time, it somehow felt like a defeat to me.”
Hutchinson battled with a withering anxiousness that medicating himself would rob him of the angst and passion needed to create — something he confronts with great courage in Modern Happiness. But he realized that at crucial points in his inner turmoil the depression could get so intense he could not write anyway.
“One of the oldest, stupidest lies about being an artist is you have to be miserable to create,” he continued. “That if I took the Prozac I’d lose my edge, and that is the main reason I resisted for so long, but it has changed my life in mostly good ways, but also some not-so good ways, which is why I started writing about my depression and my recovery for this album. I made an attempt to boldly look at what happiness means in my life and the search for it and there are many ways to be happy and unhappy and this time I faced them head on.”
The true brilliance of Modern Happiness is that much of Hutchinson’s deeply confessional lyrics run antithetical to the music we hear on its tracks, as mentioned, a more band-orientated album reflecting a comradery and interplay that has rarely been as important to Hutchinson as serving the song. “I wanted this to be a band effort,” he says, smiling. “And I’m glad I did.”
According to Hutchinson, The Believers both inspired his one-month hard deadline to pull together the songs and then using the rawest demos of his career (he previously put together completely formed musical frameworks to direct studio musicians) allowed the band the freedom to realize their potential. In fact, it was the band that sparked the sessions for Modern Happiness in the first place. “When Eric came to us and said he was taking a long hiatus, maybe even quitting the road altogether a couple of years ago, I called him and reminded him of how much fun we had together,” recalls Believers bassist, Ian Allison. “I had no idea he had all this material done, and when I called him in February of 2017, he said, ‘Sure, let’s do this in April!’ We had no rehearsals or anything. We came to the studio in Minneapolis, where I live, and we worked for five straight days until we structured and recorded the songs and suddenly the album was done.”
“We love to listen and smile and interact with each other on stage and that translated to our studio chemistry,” says drummer, Bryan Taylor. “And as we fed off each other Eric would make these course-corrections that made what we were doing gel.”
“Instead of hindering us in experimenting with his songs, Eric would root us on,” adds Allison. “He’d say, ‘Come on, go farther with it, like you did when you were 17!’ He pushed me way past my comfort zone.”
“I’m a big believer in the spiritual aspect of a song hovering over a room and as a musician you’re its conduit, trying to get in touch with it, discover it,” adds multi-instrumentalist and long-time Hutchinson collaborator, Elliott Blaufuss. “I think that’s what the band did during these sessions, we found something in these songs for Eric.”
The expediency of planning and woodshedding with The Believers is why the resultant material is a lively (as it was indeed recorded live) and joyous (Hutchinson eschewed a control-freakish molding of songs to allow a place for freeform) celebration.
“He sent us all these reference playlists of old R&B and rock ‘n’ roll tunes and told us to aim for that vibe,” remembers Allison. “Whether it was Bill Withers, Alabama Shakes or Elvis Costello, it became obvious to us on how we would arrange the songs, which we approached with a rougher edge than his previous albums.”
“I liken the experience to a balloon that lies flat on the table and you slowly fill it with air until it takes on a form of its own,” says Blaufuss. “You just know when it’s ready to float off and make its journey.”
Hutchinson not only made certain the band had a sonic foundation for the recordings, he did more pre-production work on Modern Happiness than any previous album. “I worked with producer and arranger, Andy Thompson on the kind of mics we’d use and how we would best record the instruments,” he told me last autumn. “And I think the very idea of playing and singing the songs live in that setting made all the difference. There’s a point when I’m singing the first line of ‘new religion’ and I start to laugh because the band sounded so great and I was having the time of my life. I thought about re-tracking it, but I wanted it to stay so I’d always be reminded of what fun we had.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists in the studio and it is so rare that someone could come in, mic up, and just sing the take,” says Allison. “Eric is such a fantastic, pure vocalist, he just went for it with the band and having him right there with us inspired where the takes went — when he went up an octave we’d follow him and make a bigger sound.”
“The band inspired me to better vocals,” Hutchinson adds. “I did not want for me to be the one to blow a take.”
The most glaring example of this is album’s fourth track, “happy like a chicken with his head cut off” (Hutchinson deliberately wanted all the titles to be lower case), a serious examination of the effects of anti-depressant drugs set to a fun-loving Caribbean rhythm. He sings with the gusto; “I used to laugh/Now I’m just stable day to day/Those pesky peaks and valleys went away/Now I’m just…happy.” Meanwhile, The Believers rumble merrily along unimpeded by these distinct revelations as the singer is feeling “something close to good” and would smile “…if I could.”
Hutchinson once again runs the gamut in his musical foundation — styles as diverse as ragtime (the jauntily stern lecture from the Lord in “new religion”), doo-wop (a sonic homage to Phil Spector in “for the first time”), blues (blistering social commentary in the bonus track, “answer to a question no one asked”), reggae (an aphoristic whistle past the graveyard in “can’t stop what’s coming”) and of course the songsmith’s wheelhouse in white soul (fidelity meets fantasy, “she could be the one”) and tender ballads (the cousin of Sam Cook’s ghost, “i’ll always be the one who makes you cry”). The band is right with Hutchinson in creating a song-cycle that unfurls as a new canvas in which his stories are told — running counter to the darker themes of isolation, disease, abuse, hypocrisy and depression.
“This album was cathartic to make, but not until I was finished did any of these deeper themes occur to me,” recounts Hutchinson. “I was just writing what was going on with me.”
I knew from speaking with him, and reminded him, that during this fertile writing period in which he was confronting his depression he was revealing a need to share this experience with his fans. “I did take off the safety brakes during the writing of these songs,” he says, laughing. “I just wanted to have fun with it — not worrying for minute if the song would be on the radio or how they would be received.”
For the first time in his now 20-year career Hutchinson wrote and recorded songs that he wanted to hear and not what he thought everyone else might want to hear. “That’s why there are long titles on this album and I made an effort to write my longest song, ‘the answer to a question no one asked,’ which was originally over seven minutes, but we cut it back in the studio. It was liberating to push these songs and take chances with them. I never allowed myself that kind of freedom before. Ever.”
It is a playful subtext to the interiors of the record that Hutchinson sets up from the very beginning with “Miracle Worker”; on the surface a relatable mes en scene — taking us step-by-step through a magical night of spirits, flirtation and nocturnal beachcombing in the narrator’s search for “a miracle” — “Cuz it’s a miracle when everything feels good.” However, this surface plot is too simple. The bridge goes deeper, “Wonder why I get a little lost along the way/Wonder why I tend to be a little less than fine/But they don’t know the feeling that it feels like every day/ They don’t know the way it feels inside.”
“Miracle Worker” is the album’s opening statement, a thesis that preludes its central theme; the fragile spectrum between reality and fantasy. Hutchinson forlornly sings in its coda, “Reach in my pocket and I take my pill/It’s gonna keep me happy till I get my fill/And this is how it feels when you begin to come…alive.” The song stops in its tracks to allow him to sing the final word, “alive,” searching for the tri-balance between medicine, mendacity, and miracles, which also applies to Hutchinson’s creative template; “One thing I’ve learned over years of writing songs is they all have three levels; what I hope it will say, what it says, and how the listener will eventually interpret it.”
There is little to “interpret” with what would be the final song of “the first side” (there is a vinyl version of the album, thank goodness — Hutchinson gets why this is an important medium in which to tell his tales). “hands” is a touching tribute to his dad, who has battled muscular dystrophy for most of Eric’s life. It was his dad’s Martin guitar in which he plays the song, alone, and sings in the second verse, “Well I can’t really walk like I used to/And my words people don’t understand/But I ain’t lost my mind and won’t get left behind/And I’m still gonna use my hands.”
“My dad offered me that guitar when I was a teenager and I told him, being the classic rebellious youth, I wanted no part of it,” Hutchinson remembers. “Then as the years went by I went looking for it and when I found it the guitar was in such disrepair I had to find someone in New York to bring it back to life and I cherish it now. It meant the world to me to play it exclusively on this record and this song in particular.”
Adding to all the musical experimentation and lyrical confessions are the string arrangements by co-producer, Andy Thompson, which are both arresting and romantic. Used as atmosphere and counter-melodies the strings bring forth the intuitive places Hutchinson feels most comfortable, the classic soul and rock of the early to mid 1960s and the singer-songwriter heyday of the ‘70s, period that have come to define him. “I find that those are the artists in which I need to find my sound, where I’m most comfortable,” he says. “And I think we nailed it this time.”
The album’s final song, as theatrically stirring as the opening track, “Miracle Worker,” brings home the fantasy/reality and “better living through chemicals” themes beautifully. “a million bucks on a queen-sized motel bed” is as good a song about getting high as I have ever heard. And although it maintains the humor usually found in these songs (“I’m up so high it feels like nothing’s even happening/I’ll spark the sky and let the windows get to rapping/Maybe tomorrow I will finally finish laughing”), Hutchinson wraps up Modern Happiness with a full-on gospel chorale that puts it all in to perspective: “Say how you feel you’ve got something on your mind/It’s been hard to handle can’t keep it inside/I know it’s getting harder each and every day/You got a brand new prescription, maybe that’s the only way.”
Fast-forward nearly one year, Eric Hutchinson and The Believers headline New York’s Sony Hall. Backstage the band is relaxed and confident, expressing excitement for finally playing the songs they recorded together live. Eric, a new dad by mere weeks, smiles when I exude the excitement of a kid about watch these songs I’ve lived with for so long being presented in order, as if the album will literally come alive in front of me. They do not disappoint. The Believers, their trusted leader and composer out front, explode from the start, all grins and nods and interplay, bringing the audience into their joyful cocoon. They play Modern Happiness in its entirety with little discussion. It is only when Hutchinson takes a moment to tell the tale of his dad and the Martin guitar before playing a heart-wrenching solo version of “hands” that he breaks the fourth wall. But soon the band is back, and he takes it all home to a rousing NYC approbation. The album, in so many ways, is complete.
It is these parameters — inspiration, attrition, perspiration — in which an artist must create, but it is also a fine line walked by any of us. He must ask: What is real? What matters? And this is what Eric Hutchinson, with his trusted brothers in The Believers, ask us in every song of Modern Happiness. Social interaction, sexual attraction, faith, loneliness, sympathy, contrition, and, yeah, happiness — how can we define any of it or should we define it?