BEFORE & AFTER LIFE: THE SOUNDTRACK OF COMING AND GOING
It is a steamy August late-morning in 2018. Singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson is in the studio with five jazz musicians he has essentially just met. He brought them together in what he describes as an Ocean’s Eleven détente to make new music about the rather pedestrian subjects of life and death. All of this seems kind of important, but when considering his wife Jill is expecting their first child at any moment, there is an added air of excited tension infused into the session. Today the makeshift band is working on two songs, the first one I encounter is called “Life After Life,” featuring darkly humorous lyrics (a Hutchinson specialty) about waking up in a pine box and wishing he had warmer socks. However, the subject matter is secondary to the five musicians that fill up the small studio space to play this delightfully upbeat salsa-rock number. Its rhythmically spatial quality allows them to musically dance and parry throughout – tossing in accents and soloing without restraint. Hutchinson, who is also producing the proceedings, is sequestered inside a vocal booth, cheerfully strumming his acoustic guitar and singing his tale of sentient death – “everything… is what you make it… everything… is what you make it… i’m waiting” – a de facto primer on non-existence. Everyone smiles. It is coming together.
Life After Life is Eric Hutchinson’s seventh studio album. It was slated to be his sixth, released just after the birth of his daughter, Zelda, who inspired the record’s first half about the coming of life, not long after the death of his beloved mother-in-law, the impetus for the songwriter to ponder the mysteries of the abyss in its second half. But Hutchinson thought better (or worse?) of it, shelving its release and almost immediately starting a new project that he would conceive and record about his high school days called Class of ’98. He explained his reasoning when we spoke recently, “I was hyper-focused on capturing those songs from Life After Life before I became a father, so it was really important to me to record it when I did. But when the album was done and my daughter was born, I felt the pressure come off a bit. For whatever reason, it didn’t feel like the right time to release it commercially. I shared it with my fan club on Patreon and that was a satisfying way to have the music out there, at least a little bit.”
Hutchinson recorded Class of ‘98 just under the wire. Soon after, in the early months of 2020, pending its release, the world would be engulfed in a pandemic. It was delayed several times because of the ensuing quarantine, until everyone realized this thing was going to be awhile. It came out last summer to some fanfare, but obviously no tour. Strangely, its nostalgic nod to the late 90s rock sound may have hit the right note for many of us stuck in a less than ideal real-time world. “There wasn’t a conscious choice for me to make escapist music, but when I look back, it makes total sense to me why it was fun to get in the time machine and go back to the 1990s,” says Hutchinson. “The past always feels quainter in hindsight, even though every era has problems that feel just as serious in real-time.”
Returning from the nostalgia of Class of ’98 to the stark realities of the 2020 pandemic sparked Hutchinson to reconsider releasing Life After Life. “Pandemic life has felt very centered on who is sick, who is well, who is dying, who is alive,” he told me during a pleasant, but oddly socially distanced, mask-wearing lunch we shared outside the classic Greenwich Village literary haunt, the White Horse Tavern, in September. Our usual spot at Pete’s Tavern further uptown had still not reopened, and the city appeared vacant and more than a little traumatized. Suddenly, these very human songs began to take on a whole new meaning for him. “Ironically, it was the extended quarantine into 2021 that led to the release of Life After Life,” he said. “And even though these songs have a very real and true place to me, logistically, touring and promoting that album felt more complicated. It’s a larger band than I’m used to traveling with and the musicians that played on the record are all very busy in their own right. It was a bit freeing to think ‘I can just release this music and not have to worry about how I’m going to perform it right away.’”
I have come to call Eric a friend over the past fifteen years of covering his career, including hosting trivia contests for his annual E-Hutch Club get-togethers whether in-person or virtual, and appearing with him in a series of podcasts on each of his last three releases. He was also kind enough to lend his voice to a book project I worked on during the quarantine. But more than our professional exploits, I have enjoyed some of the most intimate conversations with him on fatherhood, mental illness, death – specifically losing our fathers within months of each other in 2019 – the meaning of art and our professional travails. Much of these discussions have helped me understand his music on a deeper level. So, when he called to inform me Life After Life would finally be released, I decided to revisit the copious notes I took when I joined him in the studio that summer day in 2018. What I found were observations of an intensely focused and wide-eyed father-to-be working outside his comfort zone both sonically and thematically, which added to the exhilaration of listening to his music being transformed into something beyond jazz. Life After Life sounds like classic Hutchinson soul/pop sifted through a prism of what five classically trained professional musicians can do when given only two rehearsals before the recording light illuminates and those performances are realized live-to-tape.
Like his previous album, 2017’s Modern Happiness in which he planned on and executed unedited takes of his songs, Hutchinson held fast to this rule for Life After Life. This time, though, instead of his usual touring band of longtime contributors to the tried-and-true pop/rock/soul Hutch style, the Believers, he had a new ensemble, adding to the challenge. When I showed him my notes, he recounted his emotions at the time: “It was an intimidating situation I put myself in. I specifically sought out classically trained jazz musicians, but I am not classically trained at all. So, I went into the sessions feeling less-than and really wanting to be prepared and able to express myself technically as much as possible. It was important for me to find musicians who, while technically masterful, were also kind and patient, so that I could feel comfortable experimenting with everyone in the studio.”
The group was deeply engrained in the recording process when I arrived. Hila Kulik sat at a grand piano in the far-right corner of the small main studio floor. I marveled as the then 33-year-old pianist from Fula, Israel delicately glided her nimble hands over her instrument, adding the right glimmer to the songs. She spent the afternoon smiling sweetly over at Barry Stephenson, 31, who, with eyes closed and tightened jaw, slapped and gripped his standup bass with unerring precision. His incredibly melodic duet with Hutchinson on “Why I Love Your Mom” is a fine example of his assured attention to detail. Fresh from Newport Jazz Festival, Stephenson later told me he’d become a new papa himself and was getting very little sleep, but that the scotch he sipped during playbacks evened his performance and sharpened his tongue. Later, Hutchinson will tell me he relied on his brutal honesty to decide on what take was best. Stephenson’s partner in the rhythm section, drummer, Charles Goold, 29, exhibited the most laidback demeanor of the group, a welcomed personality trait among this gathering of self-flagellators. Although, I did catch him bemoaning his not laying into the groove hard enough, he did so with a polite chuckle. Laughter was no stranger to the 31-year-old trumpeter, Wayne Tucker, featuring a quick wit that Hutchinson appreciated. Tucker was also full of theories on how and why a take was working or not and did not hesitate to cheerfully express them. By his side for most of the session, was the baby of the group, 25-year-old saxophonist Patrick Bartley, a seven year veteran of studios and stages. His camaraderie with Tucker was both infectious and advantageous for Hutchinson to gauge the temperature of the room.
Some of these musicians had played together off-and-on before the sessions, Tucker recalling “an Amazon Prime thing I did with Eric,” but for the most part this entire enterprise was an experiment in the midst of a showcase inside a recording session. Its newness, unexpected turns in mood and musical curves and crooks, lent a fierce immediacy to the performances I could hear in each pass of “Life After Life;” placed, as I was, quite conspicuously in the middle of the room on a piano stool. This was especially evident in the meticulously arranged horn section that each player broke from to rip beatific solos.
The jazz/immediacy quotient remains the record’s charming core. “I was introduced to jazz music at an early age,” Hutchinson recalls. “My grandma gave me a copy of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and I loved that right away. In high school, I spent time listening to Nat King Cole, The Oscar Peterson Trio, and Harry Connick Jr, right alongside Green Day, Weezer, and Notorious B.I.G. These days, I love listening to Gregory Porter, Jamie Cullum, and Frank Sinatra. Modern jazz was very much built on showing off and alienating listeners, which I think is a shame, because I think there are a lot of music lovers who feel they’re not ‘qualified’ to listen to jazz. Jazz, like all music, has something for everybody.”
A shift in musical expression is also reflected in Hutchinson’s lyrical approach for the album. Unlike Modern Happiness or even Class of ’98, Eric finds his literal lyrical voice in Life After Life. Although there remains the clever symbolism and searing humor that separates the songwriter from many of his contemporaries, this time the themes are too important to express flippantly. For Hutchinson, these became memoir songs, crucial snapshots of seminal life (and death?) moments. “I just wrote from the heart on this album,” he told me. “I was incredibly moved and inspired by the idea of becoming a father and having a little girl. I had a lot of ideas about the circle of life swirling around in my head at that time and I tried to just capture as much as I could.”
When he sings in the opening track – also the album’s first single – “The Best Part” with the soulful vulnerability of his best work, “and i believe in the start / and i believe in the spark / said i believe in beating hearts / said i believe that we’re only getting started on the best part,” you believe him. And you should; this was all happening in real time, as I recall pianist Hila Kulik shouting from across the room between takes, “We can get the call from Jill any minute!”
Still, incorporating jazz into his pop sensibilities and capturing his muse in a more direct approach has not curtailed the melodic genius of Hutchinson’s song smithery. It is glaringly evident in the melodious “The Best Part” and the sing-song beauty of “I Hope She’s Just Like You,” one of two endearing songs about his wife, Jill sung to his soon-to-be born (“Any minute!”), Zelda. The other being the aforementioned “That’s Why I Love Your Mom,” a sweetly phrased ballad containing a laundry list of quirks, traits, and strengths you wish you wrote for your woman like “she is calm / until she’s not at all and then she’s crazier than anyone / and falls apart like brisket from the bone / she speaks her mind and she is kind to animals / and people who deserve her love.” It is delightfully expressive songwriting with a tinge of that Hutchinson jesting that keeps his love songs from the clutch of maudlin.
The first half, the “Life” section of the album, wraps with “Right Where I’m Supposed to Be,” a song of achievement and forgiveness at a crossroads that appears less foreboding than full of opportunity. Replete with a gospel framework and performed by the band as a Motown/Stax workout, it acts in a way as the answer to the questions Hutchinson raised in Modern Happiness and what comes when one is confronted with the responsibility to think about someone else in this life besides himself. It is sung so beautifully it denotes a weight lifted and a new breath having filled his lungs. After running down a list of his achievements, failures, and experiences, Eric sounds younger here than on the rest of the record, more innocent, even rescued. “I’ve been wrong / now I’m right / Right where I’m supposed to be.” He later recalled; “I was trying to sum up my life before I became a parent. I’m not perfect, but everything good I’ve done, and every mistake has led me to this exact moment. I was feeling very connected to my family lineage and my family’s future.”
This brings us to the “Death” part of Life After Life, which begins with arguably the jazziest of the tracks, “Born in the Dark,” a true departure in songwriting for Hutchinson, who admitted as much to me in our series of podcasts on the album. “It was certainly one of the first songs I wrote for the project,” he said. “I was experimenting with alternate guitar tunings to try to find new guitar chords.” By far the most mood-oriented track, it toys with emotions through experimental time changes and wistful vocal phrasing; the hook is a dramatic repeat of, “how’d you ever get so close?” over and over, which eventually finds its musical and thematic home in “…close to me.” In this ode to his late mother-in-law, Betsy Opre, Hutchinson roams an existential playground for what grief and loss sound like. Quite an aural achievement by an unapologetic pop songwriter who still manages to tickle the melodic bone by letting the band spread its wings and find places to sonically express their own grieving.
The rest of the album is less solemn, if not downright satirical – taking the piss out of the fear of death in songs conveniently spoken from beyond the grave. “I think I naturally make jokes when something gets a bit too serious, and what’s more serious than talking about death?” says Hutchinson. “I enjoyed getting to poke fun at death and at all our best guesses of what might happen to our souls once we are gone.”
The playfully bouncy “Life and Life” is juxtaposed with darkly satiric passes on afterlife awareness that is filled with boredom and regret. This waiting room stasis is interrupted by a quaint “ooh la la” choral that makes it all palatable. Then there is “Hell or Something Like It,” a little more than a nod to the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell” with its fiery Cuban, salsa style that challenges the band to fully embrace the milieu. Kulik’s killer piano solo careens into the island flavors with verve, which smoothly sets up Tucker’s quintessential son Cubano trumpet squeals, helping the band to drive the song past merely being a fun commentary and absolutely owning it. You could envision it performed by a dance troupe in a Broadway production number with orange-hued flames, smoke, and ash. In the middle is this poor sucker, stunned he’s ended up in Hades; “this i don’t deserve / though i was no saint / check the paperwork / there must be some kind of mistake.”
Perhaps the album’s most endearing melody and ensemble performance closes it out, “Postcards From the Other Side,” in which the songwriter muses on whether it is a relief that nothing happens when you die. It’s just… (place satisfied sigh here). “I explored several angles of what might happen when we die,” notes Hutchinson after some thought on this theory. “‘Life After Life’ is if you just stay in your body and you’re buried underground, ‘Hell or Something Like It’ is a clerical error that does not go your way, but ‘Postcards from the Other Side’ wonders how it might feel to have all responsibility and hurt drift away. I found this idea incredibly freeing and comforting. The great nothingness sounds like a pretty nice way to spend eternity.”
Upon the release of Life After Life in late April, Hutchinson celebrated the occasion by playing a livestream concert at Sony Hall in New York City with the members of the original recording band – sans Hila Kulik, who had returned to Israel during the pandemic, her place filled ably by Brooklyn-based jazz pianist David Linard. The gathering brought the experience full circle for Hutchinson. His daughter, Zelda, now two-and-a-half, has rounded out the family unit that he initially envisioned in the songs. “It was such a nice reunion,” Hutchinson recalls. “Everyone got to reflect on the whirlwind week and how fast we had recorded those tracks before going our separate ways. Patrick Bartley, the sax player, came in and said ‘Man, I don’t know if I can still play the way I was playing back then!’”
Bartley, nor any of the original recording ensemble, appearing as the Life After Life Quintet, needn’t have worried about capturing the joy and passion discovered in the summer of 2018. The band was smoking from the start, taking extended solos, and deftly capturing the grooves of each song, expanding the set to include Hutchinson’s classic “Rock and Roll” and a blistering version of his soul-tribute “The Basement” replete with breakdowns and solos. On that stage was a three year culmination of inspiration, composition, and musical birthing that also felt like closure, making this observer wonder what a tour might look and sound like.
Indeed, Life After Life remains Eric Hutchinson’s snapshot in time. Its themes are immediate and organic, culled from real-time events, some that were about to become reality, and still others the reflections and imagination of an artist experiencing it all through the prism of creativity. And that creativity is shared by a group of talented musicians brought together to lay it down for posterity. “I’m proud of this album,” Eric emailed to me recently. “It represents an important phase of my life and I hope listeners will relate.”
ERIC HUTCHINSON’S SEVENTH ALBUM, BEFORE & AFTER LIFE, IS OUT NOW WHEREVER YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC!