Anderson East Unpacks His Unique Sound: 'I Definitely Don't Think I Am a Country Artist'

Eric Ryan Anderson
Anderson East photographed on Nov. 30, 2017 at Dino’s in Nashville.

As he sits in the Music Row office that he calls his “hideout,” Anderson East sips a can of La Croix and looks slightly embarrassed. Not because of the drink -- it’s because of a name plate on his desk, which reads “Talented Motherfucker.”

While he’s one of Nashville’s most promising new talents, the 30-year-old is not about to claim he has earned that mock designation. Instead, he humbly offers up the following: “There is a healthy amount of self-doubt and criticism with most people that make music. You find your areas that are your best. Onstage, I am good. But talking to someone in the grocery store? Forget about it.”

Be that as it may, those days of anonymity won’t last much longer. On Jan. 12, 2018, the Athens, Ala., native will release his fourth album, Encore, which was preceded by the breakthrough single “All on My Mind.” Ellen DeGeneres personally requested that East perform on her show in October after hearing “Mind” on the radio, and tickets are selling fast for his 2018 Encore World Tour, which includes two sold-out nights at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley. And oh, yeah, he’s also two years into his relationship with Miranda Lambert, trading sweet, supportive messages with the country superstar on social media.

Encore marks a turning point for East, whose career has long simmered below the mainstream. His 2015 release, Delilah, peaked at No. 28 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart and sold 2,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen Music. But after a choice placement of his song “What Would It Take” on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack in 2017 and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Late Night With Seth Meyers, “All on My Mind,” an R&B-esque anthem where his emboldened tenor swoops and soars, became his first No. 1 on the Triple A airplay chart in December.

Expectations are high for Encore, and the singer-songwriter is ready for the criticism. “People are going to love or hate it no matter what you do, so I wanted to do something that I could have fun with,” says East, who is surrounded here in his office by his favorite guitars, including the very first one he ever got -- a Fender given to him by his father when the younger East was 11. “That’s where the title of the record came from -- I wanted every song to [work as] an encore.”

East has always cultivated a diverse circle of creative friends and collaborators; for Encore, he enlisted Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid (“All on My Mind”); Chris Stapleton and his wife, Morgane (“King for a Day”); and Avicii (“Girlfriend”). Recorded primarily at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, Encore positions East as something of a Nashville outsider: His vocals have a subtle shade of country twang, but as a musician he operates outside of the genre’s conventions.

“I don’t think I am a soul singer and definitely don’t think that I am a country artist by any stretch,” he says. “I don’t think there is a clear-cut avenue for what I do, and I am OK with that. I am just a lover of music.”

Born Michael Cameron Anderson, he grew up in a deeply religious family; its musical leanings inform his torchy sound. “I love gospel music,” he says. “I hold religious tendencies, but I’m not devout by any means. I give credit to my parents. I was in church every time the doors opened. I took the good things that worked for me and applied them to my life.”

Growing up, he learned to play guitar, started writing songs and fell for the recording process when he got a 4-track recorder. He attended Middle Tennessee State University, just southeast of Nashville, and majored in engineering.

He recorded two indie albums -- his 2009 debut, Closing Credits for a Fire, and the follow-up, Flowers of the Broken Hearted, in 2012 -- and then met Dave Cobb at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe in late 2013. Cobb, who produces Jason Isbell and Stapleton, signed East as the first act to his Low Country Sound imprint two years later, and his label debut, Delilah, arrived in 2015.

It was more than East’s left-of-center style that attracted Cobb. “He’s such a charmer, and he has the talent to back it up,” says Cobb. “He’s a lasting kind of talent, and that’s what I wanted to work with when I started the imprint: People who defy a trend and have a lot of raw talent. He’s a good human being” -- he says East helped finish his floors and once baked bread to the delight of attendees at a party in 2014 -- “and he’s the type that would show up and change a tire for you at three in the morning.”

East is not as packaged and primped as some of the genre’s biggest stars, and he doesn't want to be. “The bare-knuckle truth of it is [my band and I] are all just a bunch of junkies,” he says. “We want that same high we got when we first started. All we are trying to do is just put on great shows that not only people want to be a part of, but that we want to be a part of.”

All-Star Support System

Dave Cobb

A chance meeting led to East signing to Cobb’s label, Low Country Sound, in 2015. “He was like, ‘Man, you can do this!’ He put a lot of confidence in my back pocket,” says East, who wears a ring with the letters LCS in honor of the imprint and had ones custom-made for members of the label -- a gesture he connects with Elvis Presley’s iconic TCB ring.

Natalie Hemby

In addition to collaborating with Brandi Carlile, Ed Sheeran and Avicii, East wrote two songs -- “This Too Shall Last” and “House Is a Building” -- with Aaron Raitiere and Hemby. “They are just ungodly talented in every respect. [And] they are such good friends,” he says. “[We] start talking about real life and are like, ‘That is the song!’”

Chris Stapleton

East was one of the opening acts on Stapleton's sold-out All-American Road Show Tour, which placed him in front of larger audiences. "The crowds on the Stapleton tour were awesome. We have been constantly working this year. And for us, we take each show and [ask], 'How does it feel? How does it work for us?' I want to continue making them special."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23 issue of Billboard.