Anderson East felt like “a little kid playing with toys,” while working on his latest album Maybe We Never Die.” The Dave Cobb-produced project marks the artist’s fourth studio album and a pivot point in his sonic evolution. Previously characterized by his gentle, mesmerizing melodies and warm, twang-tinged vocal contributions, East sets the standard of continuously expanding artistry across his 12-track collection—released August 20 via Elektra/Low Country Sound.
“I didn’t see this going in this direction from the beginning, but it kept evolving as I kept learning,” the Alabama-born, Nashville-based artist explains in a recent phone interview with American Songwriter. East, Cobb, and their co-producer Philip Townes had nearly completed the project when the pandemic struck last March. But rather than sitting on the songs, the artists began to pull apart pieces of the project after living with their creation in the silence of those early weeks of lockdown.
“We weren’t adding as much as we were just stripping away,” he continues of the process. “After touring for so long, I just wanted to be alone with my music. And of course, Covid was like, ‘You wanted to be alone? Well, now you’re alone.’ So it was really a product of necessity, and I was really excited by everything. We got rid of the ones that felt like work, and the ones that stayed felt easy to me.”
Encapsulated by an existential title, the ethereal project conjures up questions about our existence in the purest form of East’s musical artistry. Stirring songs speak to the solace he found in the solitude of this creation process, and the self-defense he reverts to in romantic situations.
The concept emerged while floating in a sensory deprivation tank. Designed as an extreme platform for meditation, the tank welcomes patrons to submerge in a shallow tub, in a closed-off room—free from any light or noise pollution. Lying there, unable to see, hear, smell, taste, East pondered his desire to be the best version of himself.
“I started to think about my grandmother, and what is the meaning of self-betterment in the context of having Alzheimer’s, like her, or dementia,” East explains. “And then came this epiphany, trying to transcend the physical body to be able to aspire to be that image of God, of perfection. It was an intuitive thought that was more of a feeling. Thinking of my grandmother, I thought of watching someone you love start to fade away. “
The inception point of the project was a meeting with Cobb, where East was able to set his intentions for collection, creating a strong foundation to build upon. The pandemic allowed for time to assess the album. East explains, “It was good for me, because we started with this structured, sober approach to get a little more psychedelic and ‘out-there.’ And then we started to refine the chaos into something.”
Working with Cobb, East furthered his R&B agenda—a sonic approach that has been a slow climb throughout his career. To achieve this, the artist had to strip back layers of his country-soul sound, maintaining a simplistic scaffolding for a sultry groove. The extra space allotted throughout allows for East’s enviable vocals to shine.
“Going into it, we wanted to keep everything very minimal,” he explains. “Madelyn,” his introductory single, is one of those songs that Cobb wrung out through this process. Lyrically, it speaks to the power of steady companionship in an ever-changing landscape —an anthem for this global experience penned pre-pandemic. East estimates the song shifted shapes nearly 10 times before arriving at the final product. As the third track on the album, “Madelyn” made a full-circle journey, released in the form of the original demo tape.
“Like Nothing Ever Happened” is a champion of the motif of simplicity that threads throughout. “If You Really Love Me,” is on the further end of the production spectrum—adorned with piano interludes, lush string arrangments, backed by triumphant horns. Between the two pillars is a full-bodied chronicling of East’s personal checkpoint. May We Never Die explores uncharted sonic territory while intentionally honing his craft as a storyteller and songwriter.
“This is the hardest I’ve worked on anything,” East shares. “I tried to make the soundtrack that I identified with and saw the world through at that moment. I’m very proud of it. I’m grateful for the things that it taught me and excited for the life it will lead now that it’s out of my control.”
Photo Credit: Kat Irlin