Wyatt Easterling ’s From Where I Stand Reveals His Inner Artist
Wyatt Easterling recently released his first album since 2017, From Where I Stand, and is gearing up for teaching some autumn songwriting workshops which had previously been on hold due to Covid. Easterling’s album may surprise those who are familiar with his solo albums over the years because it has a fuller sound than much of his more folk-leaning earlier work, but that’s partly because of a major defining factor, the ability to use the downtime at home to continue working from a home studio rather than limiting the album to a simpler sonic palette. What we find in From Where I Stand is Easterling working in what for him is a more natural mode of sculpting and building out songs, given his many years as a Producer, A&R man, and songwriting workshop leader.
Though the album has an interesting unity and correlation between the songs, the title track and also another song, “Throw Caution to the Wind,” stemmed from songwriting with colleague Thomas Anderson Bookwalter during a period of increasing turmoil in the world, and helped form focal points for thematic and sonic directions that Easterling realized he wanted to pursue. I spoke with Wyatt Easterling about his very active musical career and how that relates to his thinking about songwriting, as well as about the unusual and eventful road he followed to bring us From Where I Stand.
Americana Highways: I noticed recently that there are some songwriting workshops that are happening this fall that you’re involved in, including Song Travelers in October in Maryland.
Wyatt Easterling: This is the first one I’ve done since Covid, and I’m very excited about it. I’ve been doing that one for eight years. Years ago I had a publishing company with Miles Copeland, who at the time had IRS Records and was managing the Police and Sting. I came up with the idea back then to get my songwriters in Nashville hooked up with Miles’ artists. That turned into what was eventually known as “The Castle” where Miles had a chateau in the South of France. We brought all these artists and it became a huge thing, but it all came from a simple idea that blew up. Later, I saw a lot of people began to use the same kind of program, so I thought, “Why not?” I was there from the very beginning.
AH: You were and I think that what you did with The Castle was ahead of its time. There are lots of writing retreats now, and also many artists have formed their own, by meeting with small groups of friends, and I think that the idea of songwriting with groups of people where you can learn or discover things is a big deal.
WE: Opening it up so that anybody who has the desire to learn how to write and doing things in a way where you sequester everyone, has huge benefits. I think sequestering people is important. I have friends who do one or two day workshops, and they are great, but when you’re at a place for four or five days and leave your iPhones in your room, it has a huge impact on the relationships you build. I see these relationships continue after these events for years to come. One I’m doing in October is with a writer who is someone I taught at a workshop years ago, and now he’s at a place where he can also teach.
AH: This perpetuates an important idea that there are things that can be conveyed in a teaching situation or through communication among human beings that can be multi-generational and keep going. The internet is really useful for learning things, like guitar playing, but in-person has its own level.
WE: I know exactly what you mean, since there are plenty of online courses, but one-on-one human interaction has its plusses. I take guitar courses online myself, even though I’ve been playing forever.
AH: When you said that you were wondering what to do with your Nashville songwriters back in the day, that suggests a mindset where you’re thinking of these creative people as resources and trying to find opportunities for them. Does that come from you, personally, being a songwriter and musician also?
WE: I think it had a lot to do with that. And I had also just left a position as an A&R chief of Atlantic Records. The way that job came about was that I had almost signed with CBS Records, then Sony purchased CBS, so everyone on the roster excluding Johnny Cash and maybe Tammy Wynette, were shuffled off the roster, as well as the staff. The person who was going to sign me had to step aside with a non-compete for a couple of years and he opened a publishing company.
When Atlantic came along, it was my favorite company and I was hoping to get a deal, but he called me one day and said, “I want you to be head of A&R.” It was so far out of left field that I had never even thought about that, but I was so glad I took it. It gave me this opportunity to work with these amazing artists. But once you sign them, you have this opportunity to do what I had already done, which is teach them how to record an album. When I got to this publishing deal, later, with Miles, I had a more limited budget, so I had to sign some beginning songwriters and it gave me an opportunity to really work with them. They had huge ambition and you just had to find the ones who had that spark.
About a week after we opened, Miles was pacing back and forth in front of my desk, and said, “Right, now we’ve signed these songwriters. What are we going to do with them?” I was almost just covering my ass, but I said, “Why don’t we set up a songwriting retreat?” He didn’t know what that was, but I explained that we had IRS Records, we had songwriters, we had artists, so we ought to set them up in a state park together. Then he suggested the chateau in France instead! To his credit, it happened within two months.
AH: What was your model for the teaching and workshopping side of things, since that must have been a new area even for you?
WE: The chateau became an environment that was like the publishing houses that I experienced back when I first moved to Nashville in the 1980s, when I was just a pup, about twenty years old. They were so much more family oriented. Sure, it was still business, but I was very idealistic, and it seemed like the best song just won out, the best writers got the opportunity to sit down with artists. But, like anything, things can get corrupted, and that’s what eventually happened, where we had publishers telling their writers, “This is a hit. Write something like it.” That’s just paint-by-numbers.
AH: How much of this overlaps with how you treat yourself as a songwriter? Do you try to create environments for yourself that are amenable to writing? That must be difficult with a rather full schedule.
WE: I had released an album in 2017 and it did well on folk radio. I was gathering songs, but I hadn’t really decided to hit the gas yet. A person I had worked with on an album called Divining Rod said, “You’re due to put an album out!” I sighed because it’s a monumental task to me and I have huge expectations. I had a bunch of songs put together in 2019 and in the Fall I went up to Asheville, North Carolina, and sat down with Chris Rosser, who’s a marvelous producer, engineer, and an extraordinary musician himself. If he wasn’t such an amazing human being, I’d be jealous!
We recorded eight tracks. They were all great, but it felt like there was an element missing in them. I took them home and kept working on them in my home studio, and I began to realize that I was still presenting these songs as if I was a songwriter, not as if I was an artist. There’s a big difference, though that may sound vague.
AH: I’ve wondered about that distinction between songwriter, singer/songwriter, and artist.
WE: Well, doing a demo in Nashville can be very limiting. There are some singles that are based on demos and are put out that way. When you do a demo, you pull back a little. You don’t over-sing it. If you sing it too well, you intimidate artists who might cut it. I’ve been on both sides of the mic and I understand that. You never want someone saying the demo was better than the cut! So that’s what I wanted to go beyond with this album, not just to present the song, but to be the messenger of the song, I guess.
AH: I noticed that this album is very “album-y” which made me think that these songs were very crafted in a number of ways. I can tell that this isn’t just a collection of songs, for instance. So that may also relate to your approach as messenger. You were thinking of this album in a bigger way.
WE: I was. This is where the unexpected comes into play. I take a long time to make decisions. There are certain areas of life where perfection can be a hindrance rather than a help because you can perfect the life out of it, but in this case, when I was working on the album at my house, I knew that I wasn’t sold on it yet. I had met and was working with a fellow called Thomas Anderson [Bookwalter] who is a phenomenal songwriter who lives near me now. He was a writer at DreamWorks at a different time than I was, but we got introduced by my drummer. We had hit it off and started working on some songs in 2019 also. That’s how the title track, “From Where I Stand,” evolved, and another song on the album too, “Throw Caution To The Wind.”
Those are the two songs that made me realize that it was time to do an album and that there was a specific direction that I wanted to take. But suddenly the pandemic hit, and I had all this time. I hate to say this, but it was a relief because I had permission to stop. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing shows enough and I could focus on the album. It was scary for me, like everyone, wondering if I could put food on the table. I had my own studio, thankfully, that I had put together for woodshedding my guitar parts and vocals. When you’re sitting in a studio with the clock ticking, you’re thinking, “Wow, I better get this done.” That isn’t your best work because there’s stress to it.
If you’re a perfectionist, which is something I still struggle with, especially with music, it’s nice to be able to work on things without draining the pocketbook. I had the ability now to listen, to go back, and sing it again. Or go in the studio later, as I did with Thomas, who ended up really being the Executive Producer on this album. The album wasn’t cut and pasted, but it was more about the ability to say, “That part could be a little bit better.” I’ve done hundreds of albums in the past as Producer, but this was me stepping up to the plate in a different manner. I was able to do things in a way that I’ve always wanted to do it, I guess, which is uninhibited, and just letting things flow.
AH: How did you manage to put limits on your perfectionism enough to say, “This is done.”?
WE: If you’re a real perfectionist, nothing happens because nothing’s ever good enough. I’ve learned that lesson many times since I was twenty. You have to strive for things, but perfectionism can also stress you out. It’s a funny animal that will bite you in the ass. You’re striving to create art that you feel other people will appreciate, and ultimately, I was able to say, “This is good enough. It’s better than what I was doing yesterday. What I’m doing tomorrow might be better, but I might also take away some of the charm and inspiration.”
One of the songs on the album, that’s one of my favorites, is “Throw Caution To The Wind.” Thomas and I just had such a hard time with that song. We were just trying to get the right tempo, the right vibe. I couldn’t tell you how many evolutions that song went through. It was nice and appealing but it didn’t have the impact that the finished product does. I think we ran at the song ten different ways before we found the version that it is now. It’s an honor since that song seems to resonate with bluegrass people.
AH: I’m happy to hear that those two songs were the tentpoles, in a way, that got you focused on where the album could go, because those are the ones that stood out to me when listening to the album as having something similar between them that brought even greater unity to the album. Of course, one is the opener, and the other is near the end, too.
WE: I love the description of those two songs as “tentpoles.” Even in the spacing, we decided to open with the title track on the album and “Throw Caution” is towards the end. I remember in my production days, sequencing was really important, and I still think it is. I like to listen to an album from top to bottom, and it actually only took us five minutes to sequence this album. I’ve spent many hours in the past sequencing albums. We had worked with these songs so much, though, that it felt like such a solid sequence right away. Those two songs kind of bookend the album, though I do have one more at the end of the album, “Traveling Light,” which I think works conceptually for the end.
Thank you, Wyatt Easterling, for talking with us!
Find more information, links to music and Wyatt Easterling tour dates here: https://www.wyatteasterling.com/about
Enjoy our previous Wyatt Easterling coverage here: REVIEW: Wyatt Easterling “From Where I Stand”