Getting Gracefully from Formal: Eric Himan Tells the Story of his New Album

Eric Himan

Eric Himan

In 2012 Eric Himan decided he wanted to record an album with a different sound than anything he’d done before. Though the 34-year-old, Tulsa-based, singer-songwriter had already released 10 albums on his own label, he knew that this project would cost a lot of money, so he took to Pledgemusic to raise money for an album to be called Formal. T-shirts were printed with bow ties on them and everything. He recorded six songs,

but wasn’t happy with the results. So what did this guy who’s previously only been accountable to himself on his own label do? He pulled back, retrenched, and started over. The result was no longer called Formal, but Gracefully, named in honor of his grandmother who had raised him, and had died while he was working on the project.

Gracefully is a 12-track collection of original songs, the 8th such album he’s released since his self-titled debut in 2000, and it is different, both sonically and in the way it came into existence, but Eric doesn’t see it as radically so. He rightfully points out that there’s a natural progression between it and the albums leading up to it. He’s been increasingly experimenting with the styles of music on this album, as well as playing with other musicians and, of course, with the piano. On July 7 I had the chance to talk with him in some detail about the album, the frustrations and joys of making it, and the people he worked with. Along the way we also talked about the challenges of supporting oneself as a musician in the industry today, songwriting, and a few other topics.

The cover, with an image of his grandmother

The cover, with an image of his grandmother

By any standards, Eric Himan is a prolific artist. He takes advantage of inspiration when it hits him, and records the ideas, to later meld them into songs.

Songs come to me all the time: phrases, melodies, ideas about what I want to say but I don’t know yet exactly how I’m going to say it. I just take voice notes. I’m in the shower or the car, usually by myself, and I hear something and I think that would be good to work on. Then when I have a lot of those pieces and I want to put something together, that’s when I start sculpting, and focusing on one song.

I mentioned this is 8th album of mostly original material, since 2000, but there have also been two live albums and a collection on which he re-interpreted previously released tracks, making 11 total. He is usually able to turn albums on his own schedule, but that wasn’t so in this case.

Usually I put out CDs pretty frequently, but this time I was almost forced to wait because there were a lot of things that were out of my hands. I was trying to find a producer to work with and I was working with somebody that didn’t work out very well. Then I changed my entire band up. All these different things happened. Life happened, basically! I ended up being in a situation where I had to do something I don’t normally do, which is let go, let it be what it is, and start from scratch.

He also decided to record the album back home in Tulsa, something he hadn’t done with any of his previous studio records. Recording the six songs had been expensive, and the results “felt like demos.”

Maybe that’s why the CD sounds so different than anything I’ve done before. I didn’t make any intentional big moves other than have the backup singers and the horns. I didn’t do anything intentional with the songwriting. I just finally had the time and space to go over it, doing CD in Tulsa. I’ve never recorded in the place where I actually lived. Let alone the guys who recorded it Rockwell Ripperger and Brandon Holder were fantastic. The musicians who came in were fantastic, and it got mastered by the guy who did Katy Perry’s CD and Ani DiFranco’s music. So there’s a lot of heavy hitters on it, and I felt like I had to bring my A-game. So I think those are the reasons why there are differences between this one and the other ones.

I wish there were a way to convey Eric’s enthusiasm when he talks about the people he worked with on the album.  There are some heavy hitters here, but as he lists them and the people they’ve worked with, he sounds less like he’s name dropping than someone who simply wants to make sure he conveys how great they are, and how honored and excited he was to work with them.  He also sounds like like an award winner giving a speech and wanting to make sure he thanks everyone who helped him get there.

press_photo_2

Eric flanked by Tyisha Oliver and Tina Phillips

The backup singers on the album, Tyisha Oliver and Tina Phillips have become good friends.  He says they “really back me up” and that the phrase back up singer doesn’t fully capture what they add to the performance. The saxophone player, Ryan Tedder, “did all the arrangements for the horns.” Also working with him were Matt Hayes, the bassist for Wayne Newton and Brian Lee on the organ, whose “playing gave it that gospel kind of sound.”  He say the drummer, Bandon Holder, “affected my music in a way I haven’t had anybody do before,” yet would tell Eric, “I was just reading what you were putting out there.” Holder regularly plays with Leon Russell and it is via his introductions that Eric will be opening for Russell when he plays at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, ME this coming Sunday, July 14.

The album is also different because much of it was written on the piano. He only learned to play about three years ago, and this is also the first original album on which he plays piano on most of the tracks. It also changed the way he writes, because the sounds were fresh and different to his ear after working on the guitar for so long. “Switching to a different medium invents different kinds of songs.”

It was a lot of prove to myself and to other people. I wanted to make an album that was different from anything I’ve ever done. Fortunately, everybody seems to be very happy with it.

Indeed, the album has consistently received the highest ratings possible on iTunes, and all the reviews I’ve found anywhere have been consistently positive, calling it his best album yet, an assessment I agree with.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I have been a fan for some time, and that I made a modest contribution to the PledgeMusic campaign.  PledgeMusic is not like MyMajorCompany, a crowdsourcing music site that European visitors to this page may be familiar with. Contributors to PledgeMusic campaigns are essentially donors with no long term stake in the sales of the project or the career of the artist.  Nonetheless, I have been following the story, and it’s interesting.  When I ask him about the original plan, his frustration is palpable.

“Oh,” he sighs. He then goes on to speak about how he had been bothered by crowdsourcing campaigns that raised lots of money and then the artist would disappear without updates. He didn’t want to do that, so he devised a plan by which he would record six songs during the first weeks of the campaign to cultivate interest in it. Then six songs would be recorded later. “Get half the album now, and half when it’s done,” he explains.  He was working with a producer from the indie rock scene that “meant well” but whose musical personality just didn’t gel with Eric’s. The recordings produced “felt like demos than the real thing.”

It’s hard for me not to suck. I’m a big patch it up and make it work kind of guy, but in this scenario, with all these people contributing, and all the exclusives and stuff, I just decided to stop production on it, and figure out a different plan.

 

Initially it was called Formal because I had this idea of it being like a Motown, Amy Winehouse kind of thing. Though we were getting that in the demos, it felt like I was playing a character. It wasn’t relaxed. So I ended up stopping.

 

Then when I came back to town I just felt I needed to start over. People on the PledgeMusic campaign where asking about the CD, and I didn’t want to show any panic, so I didn’t know what to say. It found its way, but it was a stressful situation.

Running-The Single

Running-The Single

In between the demos and the album, Eric recorded the single “Running” with Nate Jenkins at Jim Hensen’s Studios in LA, where he ran into everyone from Chaka Khan to Justin Beiber. The opportunity had been set up for him,

just to see if we clicked. The good news is we really clicked. But when it came right down to the budget of what that would cost to do a whole album out there… In this day and age when the price of music is so variable. You have some people that are willing to pay more than the album is priced at, and then you have people who only want it on Spotify or other free places where you don’t get much money for it. So the idea of recouping the cost of recording at such an expensive place, on an independent budget with what I raise… It just seemed stupid, and it seemed like I would never get out of debt.

It had been hard to say no to continuing, but it wasn’t feasible.  So he was left with a great song, well recorded, in one of the most famous studios in the world, that just didn’t fit with the rest of what he was working on. He decided to release it as a digital single last March.  You can find it on BandCampiTunes, and probably most places you buy your music downloads.

As an artist who career began in the digital age, he releases most of what he records in one manner or another, has streamed performances online direct to fans, has had his own interactive cooking show, and is active in social media.  He’s been something of a pioneer in digital distribution of his own work.  Nonetheless, he doesn’t feel like he’s figured out the process.  There’s no surprise there.  No one has.

For example, the Pledgemusic campaign showed that he has fans who will pay for an album before it’s even recorded, and who are willing to pay much more than the price of a typical CD to support the process of making the music. But he also knows that there are others who mostly listen to his music on free services.  So he makes his music available on Pandora and Spotify, even though he earns almost nothing from them.  “I don’t blame people for listening for free. I made the effort to put (the songs) on there.” He wants people to hear his music and he welcomes the exposure these services bring about, but he remains unsure about their role in a changing music industry. For example some say a rationale for distributing music through channels where the the public can listen for free is that it brings them out to see live shows, but he wonders “how many people really come out anymore,” especially with so many entertainment options to keep them home.

People like to watch YouTube video’s of performances. They’re not necessarily willing to buy a ticket…It can be hard to get people to come out for my style of music.

In an age in which even major artists on downsizing tours and looking for new ways to make money from their music, models for up-and-coming artists are not readily available.

I don’t know what it is these days that actually (brings people out). I’ve noticed artists are touring less and less the way they used to because people just don’t come out and it makes it hard to survive. I’ve noticed a big difference. I’ve watched other big artists downsize the venues they play in because of that same thing. The music business is changing in such a way that it’s hard to figure out where to take your steps.

Not that there aren’t plenty of people to offer advice.  Because of shows like American Idol, The Voice, and all sorts of movies and television shows about the music industry, people think they know the way the music business works, and they’ll criticize or advise based on this.  He’s channeled his frustration into a song.  “Hard to Please” from the new album stems from an incident in which someone came up to him after a show he described as one of those shows you schedule in a bar when you’re coming through town on a weeknight.

There may not be a lot of people, but they’re grateful to hear the songs live, and they’re nice people.  But someone will come up to me and say, “What are you doing in this place?  You should be playing over there.” They don’t know how hard it was to get that gig, or any gig, especially when it’s all on your own. That’s why I wrote that line, “Before you throw your two cents in my tip jar, take a panoramic view. I wouldn’t go to your job for just one day and tell you what to do.”

People everywhere offer advice about opportunities and ways he can “realize his potential,” and it can be overwhelming.  Sometimes he has to deliberately and consciously block it all out.

You add all the pressure of money and getting somewhere, that’s when I feel like I lose control of where I’m going…What if I decided I didn’t want to be famous, I just wanted to put my music out there. Everybody assumes you want to be as high profile as Beyoncé, but that was never my intention.

Of course he also recognizes that if he wanted to be a Beyonce level star, he wouldn’t know how to do it, and he’s not alone. It used to be that the tools and media for recording and promoting music were entirely controlled by the music industry,

but now anybody can do it. it doesn’t matter who played on your album or who produced it. It’s just a matter of the work itself, which is great! But I can’t seem to figure out where the music industry is headed. So I do the best with what I have, and I take the bumps along with it. As long as I can make a living putting it out and playing gigs the way I do, I feel like I’m doing the best that I can do on my own.

He’s been doing it more or less on his own since he started out, too: writing his own songs, releasing his own records, arranging his own shows, etc. It’s meant he’s been able to work on his own terms, making the music he’s wanted to make. His songs are not laced with profanity and not explicitly sexual.  In many ways his lyrics are a throwback to a more traditional, more romantic style of songwriting.  This is, after all, the guy whose song “One Night Stands,” written as advice to a friend, totally fails to conform to the gay male stereotype.

Well, I’ve never given one night stands a good start,
I don’t go nowhere I can’t take my heart,
and I know that makes me some kind of prude,
but I don’t start things I can’t see my way through.

Most of what gets played on contemporary Top 40 radio today is much more explicit, not to mention violent and misogynistic than any song in his catalog.

His lyrics are, however, outspokenly gay. The people who buy his music, the makeup of the audience at his shows, and the popularity of his songs on the Coffeehouse channel on Sirius XM reveal an audience extends beyond the LGBT community.  Yet he music industry still hasn’t fully realized that for most of the music-buying public, if they like what they’re hearing, sexual preference doesn’t matter.  Has Eric ever been tempted to sell his soul in pursuit of a big label contract?

I feel like you’re always tempted by that. I don’t know if that ever goes away. It’s this weird hope, this weird dream, of things being like they once were but they aren’t anymore. This idea of somebody spotting you from the crowd or hearing you once by chance and thinking, “Oh, here we go! Then all of a sudden they’re signing you, and you’re on tv immediately. The idea of that is passe now. They still make movies about that happening, but I don’t think it happens nearly as much. Because the major labels don’t make as much money, so they can’t have all these artists on them. They need to see that you already make money, as opposed to finding somebody in a bar and saying, “I’m gonna make you a star! I don’t think that exists anymore.

It’s reached a point that “I question if I would even do that if someone did come around.”

 

He has people come around with offers, but they’ve been fleeting, or have fallen apart before they came to anything.

And then I talk to artists that are on labels and all they can do is complain about it. I used to feel like I was in a worse boat than anybody, but now I realize maybe I have more going for me than if somebody just scooped me up, told me a bunch of things, and gave me a contract, but who knows what would happen from it.

As a singer-songwriter, releasing his own stuff, and not worried about becoming a huge star, Eric doesn’t have the pressure that an artist on a major label has to remain commercial.  It seems like that could lead to some very eccentric projects and esoteric lyrics.  Yet his music remains accessible.  I wondered how much he thinks about his listeners during the songwriting process.  It starts as a very personal process, but he feels he has a good sense of what connects.

I don’t feel like I have this giant message that I feel like I’m directing to everyone or that I am writing to everyone. It’s funny to say, but normally I’m very selfish, it’s about me and my experiences. Then I look at it and I hope other people can relate to it or have felt like that.

He suggests that this is the secret to successful songwriting, “writing honestly about something that affects you”, and then “opening it up to the world,” where it reaches others who share the feelings. For example, the title track on the album, “Gracefully” is so personal that the lyrics mention the names of relatives, and he got choked up when he sang it, something that “doesn’t make for good vocals.” Yet it is precisely because it is so personal that it is moving, and we can relate.  Eric lost his grandmother while recording the tracks for the album that became Gracefully, and he wrote the song that became the title track, “about and speaking directly to her.”

She raised me with my grandfather and my dad. She was just the most amazing, comforting woman in my life. She was just fantastic and always knew the right thing to say. Everybody loved her. Her name was Grace, and she really was graceful… I feel like when I wrote that I could definitely understand that I wasn’t the only one who’d ever lost someone, especially their grandparents.

Waiting for Thunder” is a song about a person he’s never even met, Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl shot in the head and neck by the Taliban for insisting on the right to education for girls. It was the first song he ever wrote about someone he didn’t know, leading a completely different life from his, and it worried him. He studied, read everything he could, and tried to get everything right.

Trying to tell someone else’s story brings with it a responsibility that is very strong, and I don’t want to screw it up. I felt like if I wrote about who she is to me, then there would be no misinformation in it. I’ve been amazed to find out how many people don’t know who she is. I find myself constantly telling her story before I sing the song. People have really responded to it. It’s about somebody real and inspiring. It’s about a girl who fought for girls education in a country where the Taliban didn’t want them to learn. She ended up getting shot in the face and surviving at 14-years-old. God! At 14 I was probably plucking at a guitar and I didn’t have any of those concerns. She’s an influence of mine, someone I admire. I hope to resonate with people. But it always starts with me.

Though he has often written about social and political issues that affect the gay community, he doesn’t consider himself a political songwriter like Ani DiFranco or the Indigo Girls who engage political issues much more deeply.

I touch upon (politics) here and there, but a lot of it comes from my emotions and life and dealing with the situations I find myself in.

Symmetry from the new album is illustrative of this.

It’s about me making excuses for people and trying to see the other side of the coin when they were less than enthused about me being gay… The people who would say, “Yeah, yeah, I know you’re gay, but these are my issues with gay people in general.”  I always felt like I wanted to see all sides and I thought it was part of a good character to not push my beliefs. But I was having these interactions and hoping maybe by seeing me they’ll come around. Finally I had this moment when I asked “What if they never come around.” This is not just a lifestyle thing.  This is not just something like, Oh Eric plays golf and I hate golf.  This is my life, this is who I am. It may not be all of who I am, but it is who I am. I just drew that line and said, “you know what, we’re not the same, and between you and me there’s no symmetry.”

 

That’s kind of where that came from. That’s the most personal song off the whole thing, other than the song about my grandma. Telling someone I’m glad we had this friendship, but you can’t say these things to me anymore. You can’t cut me and expect me to turn around and smile.

Eric began writing when he was 13. He was a shy kid who was inspired by women singer-songwriters like Ani Di Franco, Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant, Patty Griffin, Tracy Chapman, and other amazing songwriters who “crafted songs” rather than just churning out pop hits. Coupled in the praise he offers his influences is good advice for aspiring songwriters.

They found ways to express themselves creatively in ways that made it unique. It made me want to be like that. Your songwriting is all about your influences. If all your influences are poppy people who aren’t saying very much, you’re going to be a poppy person that doesn’t say very much. But if you listen to a wide variety of music, it makes you a better writer and a better player. Listening to Nina Simone added so much to my songwriting bank. Just hearing an artist that was so different. Hearing Beth Hart also really changed the way that I sang. Bill Withers is another artist who changed the sound of this CD. How raw and open his songs were. A song like “Red Hot Tears” is my tribute to that.”

You can hear the song for yourself in the featured songs section of Eric’s website. There you can also find links to purchase tickets to hear him play live, either this weekend opening for Leon Russell at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, Maine, or at one of the few local acts appearing on a main stage at the Center of the Universe Festival in Tulsa, OK in a lineup that includes One Republic, Ok Go, and lots of other great bands.

Though not from the new album, I thought I’d share a video of Eric playing live.  This is from the DVD Under the Ink.  You can see more on his YouTube channel.

Update 8-2-2013:
Yesterday Eric premiered the video for “Red Hot Tears,” and it’s just been posted to YouTube to an already rapidly climbing view count. Add your view by watching now.

2 thoughts on “Getting Gracefully from Formal: Eric Himan Tells the Story of his New Album

  1. Pingback: Getting to “Gracefully” DrunkWithPens.Com article | Eric Himan

  2. Pingback: Leon Russell and Eric Himan on Tour | DWP

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