One of the early branding moments in Eric Church‘s career came during Thanksgiving weekend 15 years ago, when he launched a 10-date run as an opening act for Bob Seger.
It was a big opportunity for a young singer who had just released his debut album five months prior, and it helped define Church’s sonic place as an artist with one boot in country and the other in rock’n’roll.
Church’s latest single — “Heart on Fire,” released by EMI Nashville to country radio through PlayMPE on July 6 — might well have some fans reliving that window of time, since it bears a strong resemblance to Seger’s “Night Moves.” It uses the same chord progression, in the same order — though in a different key — at roughly the same tempo, similarly rewinding to a physical teenage relationship. Heck, both songs even use the word “heavy” for a key rhyme within the first six lines.
“It’s OK if I’m ripping off Bob,” says Church says with a deep laugh. “There’s worse people to rip off.”
Considered on its own, “Heart on Fire” is a topical trilogy: It’s about transportation, lust and music on the radio.
“That’s a teenager,” says Church.
But it’s also an important piece of his current album trilogy, the first song written and recorded for the Heart, & and Soul packages. The payoff line in the song’s chorus — “Soaking my soul in gas and setting my heart on fire” — employs all three of those trilogy-title words (“soul,” “and,” “heart”) in reverse order, though it was not the impetus for the album titles. Instead, it was intended as the starter fluid for Church’s radically creative decision to write and cut a song a day for a month in early 2020 at Artisanal, an upscale restaurant on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains.
Church penned most of “Heart on Fire” in advance of the trip, likely finishing a couple of details in his first few hours on location, providing an energetic start to the next few, intense weeks.
“The band was a little confused about what was going on,” recalls Church. “Everybody up there was kind of wondering how this was going to go. That song really helped me because I knew I loved the song, I knew it had the potential to be really good, and it was a good icebreaker to have people get in the groove.”
The “soaking my soul in gas” line was the starting point for Church when he created “Heart on Fire.” He wrote an anthemic chorus, beginning with “a turned-up radio” that delivers a shared experience for the singer and his girlfriend, whose face reveals her equally shared “wild desire.” When he reached the hook, Church instinctively tacked on a simple postchorus, repeating the “heart on fire” title three times, providing a natural singalong moment for listeners and for his longtime supporting vocal partner.
“I envisioned Joanna Cotten jumping in on that part,” he says. “I wrote it for her to be a big part of the song even before we recorded it.”
Church then backed up to the beginning, working his way toward that two-part chorus. For the opening image, he invented a familiar-sounding Roosevelt Road where his truck would “shimmy like Elvis singing ‘All Shook Up.’ ” Presley wasn’t quite the classic-rock sort of artist that “Heart on Fire” was patterned after — Seger, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen — but Church had recently seen some vintage footage of The King online, and Presley provided an educational benefit.
“Maybe kids would go look and see what I’m talking about,” says Church.
While the action in the opening verse took place in a truck, verse two switched to a boat. The change in scenery established the couple in the song as a serious relationship — not just a one-night stand — and it also paid quiet homage to his wife, Katherine Blasingame Church, who spent a significant amount of her youth on the water.
The rest of “Heart on Fire” was shaped by the recording process at Artisanal, a restaurant that has often served the Church family. Church frequently told his wife that he could get a great drum sound in the large dining room — so often, in fact, she could finish his sentence when he repeated it — but once they tried to set up Craig Wright‘s kit, the wooden walls made the drums overpower the rest of the band. Producer Jay Joyce (Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town) subsequently placed Wright in the wine cellar.
Church introduced “Heart on Fire” to the band by playing it on acoustic guitar, -allowing the musicians to find their place in it. They all established their ground fairly quickly — “It’s pretty straight-forward,” says Church — though the band’s makeup offered an intentional challenge. Church augmented his usual lineup with a few outside -players, including guitarist Charlie Worsham and Brothers Osborne keyboardist Billy -Justineau, changing the group dynamic.
“I wanted them a little on edge,” says Church. “By bringing in players that they hadn’t played with — all of a sudden my guitar players were looking at a couple of different guitar players and everybody’s kind of eyeballing each other — it created a little bit of an interesting environment.”
Worsham hammered out a burning solo, and Joyce suggested changing the sound of the third chorus, effectively developing a bridge without writing a new section. Joyce used acoustic guitar and some wavy electronic effects to create a sort of psychedelic harpsichord sound, and he accomplished some of that overnight, once the rest of the crew turned in.
“After we finished tracking for the day, Jay worked at night,” remembers Church. “He was in there every night, most of the night, all night. He would go to bed at like six or seven in the morning, eight in the morning, and then he would sleep until early afternoon. And I was off schedule from him because I was writing when he was sleeping. I’d start writing about 10 in the morning, so it was weird. Everybody kind of had their own rhythm this entire thing.”
“Heart on Fire” landed in the pole position on the Heart album, and it fit into the rhythm of his single releases. The first single from his trilogy, “Stick That in Your Country Song,” came from Heart, while follow-up “Hell of a View” came from Soul, and this new release — selected, in part, because it has galvanized his live crowds in its earliest concert performances — pings back to Heart.
“After Heart, we want to go back to the Soul album,” says Church. “We want to work this back-and-forth for as long as we can.”
“Heart on Fire” has made several strong chart moves since its release, currently up to No. 35 on the Country Airplay list dated Aug. 14. Presumably, listeners are connecting to its thematic glance into the past, in addition to its singalong chorus.
“The gist of the song is really just that nostalgia, that reminiscence, that thinking back on your youth,” says Church. “It’s all about freedom. I mean, that’s all that time in your life is, and I think a lot of people can relate.”
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