It's a sunny Tuesday afternoon on the west side of Nashville as Eric Church sips a beer and relaxes on the deck of a brick house. But he's not chilling at home. He's taking a break from the basement studio of producer Jay Joyce, where they're recording "Chief," his third album.
"It's the most fun I've had in the studio since we've been doing this," he says of working with Joyce, primarily known for producing such non-country acts as Audio Adrenaline, Macy Gray, John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.
Arthur Buenahora, who signed Church to a publishing deal at Sony Tree, suggested he meet Joyce. They worked together on Church's 2006 Capitol Records Nashville debut, "Sinners Like Me," and 2009's "Carolina." "Jay had never even really heard country music, much less produced it," Church says. "We were both a little wary of each other. We made a couple of tracks together and I just fell in love with them. He's a genius in the studio."
Church and Joyce's collaborations have proved successful. Fans recently voted him the Academy of Country Music's top new solo vocalist. His last single, "Smoke a Little Smoke," peaked at No. 16 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart and "Homeboy," the lead single from the new album, is No. 22.
"We've had enough success now that I can push the envelope," Church says. "I held back a little bit sometimes because I was afraid people would think I'd lost my mind. Then 'Smoke a Little Smoke' was a hit... I saw it work when everybody told me it wouldn't. I decided that whatever little bit of rope they gave me on that song, I just tied it to the back of the truck and took off down the road."
Church began recording "Chief" last November and the afternoon he spoke to Billboard was the last day of tracking. "I have a couple more songs that are wild cards," he says. "We're really pushing the envelope today and seeing if I can find lightning in a bottle."
Heading down to the basement to join Joyce, Church seems relaxed as they begin working on "She Got a Rock So I'm Getting Stoned." Church delivers the song with the right combination of anger, angst and resignation. Drummer Craig Wright is in the next room, but bassist Lee Hendrix and guitarists J.T. Cornfloss and Brian Sutton are in the room with Joyce and Church.
"It's very vibe-y," Church says. "Everybody is on top of each other. It's not a big nice studio. There's no catering. We're not here to baby everybody. We're here to make music. I know how I want it to sound, how I
want it to feel... it allows me to be beside the guitar player and slap him on the arm if something is right."
Church uses his road band on some tracks (Hendrix and Wright are his players) and also enlists studio musicians. "There's a couple songs on this record that I'm playing all the guitars on and that's the first time that's happened," the North Carolina native says. "I'm playing acoustic on 'Home Boy'... and I'm singing a lot of the harmonies on it too. It just feels like I'm more involved in every aspect."
The album is slated for release on July 26. Church wrote or co-wrote all but one song (Casey Beathard penned "Like Jesus Does") and he knows he'll have to cull the 15 tracks he's recorded down to 10 or 11.
"It's the hardest part, other than capturing them," says Church, who also gets his wife, Joyce and Buenahora to weigh in on the best tracks to keep. "I have to get in my truck and ride around with all 15 and see which ones feel like they're from either a different record, or [if it] feels like we've not got there yet."
Church acknowledges he's considered a bit of a renegade. "I'm seen as the bad boy, a lone wolf. I do my own thing and that's OK," he says. "I'm not doing it to make friends. I just want to make great music and honestly kick everybody else's ass in the industry. That's my goal."