Erin McCarley Talks Halloween-Themed 'BLACKOUT' Video & Leaving the Label Machine Behind

Ezra Cohen
Erin McCarley

Back in 2008, Nashville singer-songwriter Erin McCarley burst onto the music scene with her pop-leaning debut Love, Save The Empty. Since then, she’s worked to change her narrative. The 38-year-old musician wasn’t ready to be pigeonholed into mainstream pop: she wanted to have the freedom to experiment. With label tensions surrounding her sophomore LP My Stadium Electric, it was only natural for McCarley to return to form, going independent once again for her third album. The result is YU YĪ, which gave McCarley the opportunity for the creative freedom she craved.

Just in time for Halloween, McCarley released a new single and video, “BLACKOUT,” ft. Bodytalkr, which is an electropop banger filled with anger, anxiety and empowerment. It’s not too far off from 2017. With the release of her latest single, McCarley filled us in on how her third record came together, the pivotal role her music played in Grey’s Anatomy and doing things her own way.

Why did you decide to go independent?

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I went back to where I belonged. On my first record, I was able to work with one producer in our own little bubble, and when we surfaced, the label was interested in signing me and loved the record as is. When the second record came around to make, they were there from the beginning of the creative process and there wasn’t a sense of trust from them to let me do my thing. If I’m honest, it was frustrating. So, after time, it made sense to go back to the way I did things in the beginning. For YU YĪ, I was able to stay in Nashville; experiment, write, and produce with my friends whom I admire and believe in 100 percent. This third record was really special for me to make and with a group of amazing humans.

Tell me about the song/video. What was the making of both like?

I’m not sure how or why, but the song “BLACKOUT” came to us in the form of song and video so easily. Bodytalkr (Jeremy Lutito of Leagues), Sam Tinnesz and I got together in Nashville at Bodytalkr’s studio and wrote and produced this song in a day. We followed his lead on a beat that we all fell in love with and just let the vibe continue. Bodytalkr has been a collaborator of mine for over 10 years (he played drums on all of my albums), and I am so honored to have worked with him on this track. I think he is one of the most talented producers in town and is going to be the next big go-to for interesting and respected projects. The video was a godsend. We approached Ezra and Jillian Cohen about helping us with a visual for the song for a Halloween release. I was only going to be in town one particular day before Halloween, and the whole team was able to make that day work. That was one of my favorite days to date. Sophia Lauer helped style us in her friend’s living room, her friend Matt let us use his car, and some of my best friends let us use their house while they tried to sleep. Ezra and Jillian’s team was one of the most well-oiled teams I’ve ever worked with. I can let perfectionism get the best of me sometimes, and because of the time constraints and budget constraints, I was able to not overthink and just go with the flow. Having Bodytalkr in the video (he’s the one dancing beside me) and as a literal partner in crime made it so fun for me. I’ve always done everything on my own, and it made such a good shift in my energy to have him alongside. And he can fucking dance!

Why did you land on the title for your record?

A friend turned me onto The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It's a collection of neologisms to describe emotions and happenings that we all encounter but don’t have a definitive word assigned for yet. When I discovered the term "YU YĪ", I knew it was going to be my album title. The definition of “YU YĪ” is “the desire to see with fresh eyes and feel things just as powerfully as you did before expectations, before memory, before words.” The process of going independent was slow, even painful at times, yet powerful. Getting to the finishing line of the making of the album, I felt like YU YĪ described the intention and motive behind all of my visions.

Do you feel like your breakout record Love, Save The Empty was a representation of who you are?

I think all of my records are very representative of where I have been in my life at the time of making each one. I can’t easily detach myself from much of anything, so what you hear in my records is fully where I am mentally and physically. Love, Save the Empty was written and made over 12 years ago when I had something to prove as a new writer and a musician. I wanted the respect of being a musician and performing with my guitar. I put my dance background on the back burner and focused on my love for musical purity. After touring that particular record, I realized how much I left out a huge part of myself in that process. The live experience left me with an appetite for more beat driven compositions and arrangements. I’m so proud of what Jamie Kenney, my producer and co-writer, and I made together with my debut album, and it will always have a special place in my life, but I've moved on and am, of course, in a different place in life now. My new record, YU YĪ, musically represents the pop/hip-hop elements that I’ve always been drawn to as a listener, with hints of quirkiness and edges that I always felt I had to smooth away before. I played a bigger role production-wise on this new album, as well.

How has the pop industry changed since you've been in it?

As an indie pop artist, I’m able to put up a few blinders to the industry. I try, and want, to just make music that I'm excited about and that I can be proud of at the end of the day. The moment that I let industry, trend, or comparisons creep in, fear jumps in the front seat. I may seem disconnected or distant at times according to social media, but in order to stay focused on my art, I keep my head down and work as hard as I can with the people that push me farther than I think I can go on my own. The industry has changed tremendously since the invention of social media. That element alone has changed what artists are expected to be and do.

What was your favorite TV/movie scene where you heard your music being played? Why?

Well, one memorable yet unfortunate time was when my song was playing when McDreamy died on Grey’s Anatomy. I had several people text me and tell me that I killed McDreamy. NOOOOOOO!

Tell me about the fear, isolation and anxiety in this song.

We definitely all deal with fear. It surrounds us at times and seems impossible to escape. Sometimes we have the strength to ignore it, and other times we’re highly sensitive to the energy and we allow it to filter in. This song in particular plays with letting the anxiety and the darkness physically move you.  

Why did you scrap your record originally?

As I was finishing this record in 2016, the political climate was permeating all of us in one way or another. Many songs came to me in the last hours of this record process, and I decided to switch out about five of the original songs for the new ones. They dive deep into the political aspect that was pricking me from the inside out. The underbelly was given a voice in the U.S. and I was very disheartened by all of it. So there is definitely more aggression and intensity in some of these tunes versus some of my past work, and I felt it necessary to include that in this particular body of work.

Why did you decide to venture into electropop?

It was a very natural progression for me and would have happened on my second record, if I had been independent at the time. On my last album, My Stadium Electric, I wanted to go deep into electronic-land and work with a very particular producer to integrate that sound, but my label was very defiant about making that transition. No one was doing it. They said the producer didn’t understand U.S. radio. Lorde wasn’t out yet. Florence + the Machine was just surfacing, but the label still had me in the category of “All American singer-songwriter girl next door” in their heads and they were not able to let go and trust me. So, I had to wait to be out on my own to release the imaging and songs that I really wanted to portray and share.