Brett Eldredge smiles when complimented on the soulful, unique voice that makes him such an instantly recognizable artist on country radio. But he doesn’t exactly take the compliment. “I’m still working on that,” he responds, explaining that both his singing and songwriting identities are constantly evolving. But what he will boast about are the sonic and lyrical leaps that highlight Illinois, his second studio album due out September 11th.
Eldredge doesn’t want to fix what’s not broken; his debut album, Bring You Back, yielded three Number One singles and helped him earn the coveted CMA New Artist of the Year award. But it was that success that gave him the confidence boost to enhance his signature sound by channeling a few more of his heroes outside the country lines, namely from the soul and R&B worlds. And the current queen of pop is partly to thank for a more open, heart-on-his-sleeve approach to his songwriting for the LP.
Eldredge sat down with Rolling Stone Country to listen to a few songs from Illinois and talk about why the making of the upcoming album has been, he says, “the best I’ve ever felt in the studio.” Here are nine things we learned during our chat.
Eldredge, who has been known to use office supplies as instruments, is thankful his Illinois co-producers don’t think he’s lost his mind.
Brett Eldredge the singer may sound polished on radio, but Brett Eldredge the producer is all about capturing raw (and even flawed) moments. “My producing style is fresh. I like when you capture something during the moment of inspiration,” says the musician, who co-produced Illinois with Ross Copperman and Brad Crisler. “So we’ll use some of the vocals from the day we wrote the song. And a lot of the guitar parts are what I just sing to Ross, and Ross knows exactly what I want. I’ll even beat-box to him or I’ll pick up a stapler from his desk and jokingly make percussion and he’ll record the stapler. Luckily Ross doesn’t think I’m crazy. He’s so brilliant in the studio, it freaks me out a little.”
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He co-wrote every track on the album.
Eldredge listens to outside songs “all the time,” he says, looking for his own personal connections to gems he didn’t pen, such as his first album’s “Bring You Back.” But for Illinois, he got on a songwriting roll — a long and fruitful one. “I just got in a groove where it was really working,” he says. “When lyrics come from you and your stories and your soul, they’re even more believable sometimes.”
Taylor Swift influenced his songwriting style.
Just after wrapping work on his debut album, Eldredge opened shows on the country-pop phenom’s 2013 Red Tour, soaking in her lyrical diary entries night after night. “I remember when she’d be talking about some guy that did her wrong, and she’d call him out in a song and be honest with it — just say it, not scared. And if she’d fallen in love, she’d straight out say it, too,” he recalls. “People love and accept her for that. Honesty in her music is her most important thing. That’s what I’ve learned, to make my records sound like my own thing. . . You can find yourself [asking], ‘Am I writing this song because this is what I’m supposed to say, or am I writing this song because this is what I want to say?’ Just write what is truthful to you.”
There’s not another “Raymond” on the album.
Eldredge isn’t sure anything he’ll ever write again will turn on as many waterworks as his debut single, which was inspired by his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. But the one song that may come close is “Lose It All,” another collaboration with “Raymond” co-writer Brad Crisler, along with the legendary Bill Anderson. “I love to write heartbreak songs, because who hasn’t been through that?” Eldredge asks. “I love when my favorite singers sing about heartbreak, because it makes you feel like you’re not the only one. ‘Raymond’ was such a personal thing for me. . . but I don’t wanna make you cry too much.”
Unleashing his inner Ray Charles was the goal behind releasing “Lose My Mind” as the LP’s first single.
Eldredge wanted to show his more soulful side on the entire album and decided the carefree, R&B-tinged tune was its best introduction. “I wanted to branch out and do something totally different than what I’ve been doing,” says the longtime fan of Charles. “It has a different vibe and a soulful kind of groove.”
An interview question sparked one of his favorite tracks.
Just before taking the stage at the Kansas Motor Speedway last year, Eldredge started thinking about an open-ended question recently posed to him by a reporter: “What do you want to do with your music?” He came up with a great answer that may have been too late for the interview, but was right on time for the making of Illinois. With his ear monitors already in, he looked at co-writer Scooter Carusoe as he was walking on stage and said, “I wanna write a song called ‘I Wanna Be That Song.'” Fast forward three months later and Carusoe reminded him of that goal, sitting down with him to make it happen. “I want to be that song that helps you through something, or that made you fall in love or made you want to dance,” Eldredge explains of the tune’s message. “It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve been a part of.”
The new music is tough on his tour wardrobe.
Eldredge has been opening shows on the Darius Rucker Southern Style Tour with “Fire,” testing out the lively love song on audiences before they can buy it. “I feed off high energy,” he says of starting his set with such an electric bang, “and by the end of the song I’m already sweating.”
“Illinois” was written in Illinois.
Eldredge waxes poetic on his upbringing with the piano-driven title track, which is laden with soaring vocals and vivid imagery. “It’s about more than just being from Illinois; you can be from Texas, Utah, Tennessee. . . Wherever you come from, it’s always in your heart, and that’s what I wanted to capture with this song,” says the country star, who wrote the track with Tom Douglas and Brad Crisler after a day driving around the rural Illinois farm community where he grew up.
Illinois comes at a time when Eldredge is taking a pay-it-forward cue from Blake Shelton.
The singer-songwriter has teamed with Snagajob for its “Hourly Gig” singing contest, with the winner to open a show for Eldredge later this month. “I remember what it’s like to have a job to make ends meet on top of chasing a career,” he says. “When I was just starting out, I was dying to have someone let me open a show for them. Blake Shelton was the first person who brought me on for an opener. I didn’t have a single out or anything, and here was this great opportunity to get in front of a lot of fans. And now Blake is a good friend of mine and I want to be in his position where I can help somebody, too. “
You can vote on the Top Five Hourly Gig finalists here through July 15th.