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Eric Church’s Producer Shares His Eccentric, Chain-Smoking Creative Process

How rock & roll recluse Jay Joyce became one of Nashville’s most in-demand producers

Jay Joyce

Producer Jay Joyce, photographed in his East Nashville studio, has overseen hit albums by Eric Church, Little Big Town and Cage the Elephant.

Reid Long

For more than five years now, Jay Joyce has lived here on the basement level of a church on a residential street in East Nashville that — in the interim between it being a functioning Southern Baptist church and the acclaimed record producer transforming it into his dream studio — served as a crack den. Lately, the neighborhood has gotten not only safer but also super trendy.

“So yah, it kinda sucks,” Joyce says one October morning, standing in the center of the expansive studio, his two Great Danes, Monroe and Dupree, casually strolling by and paying no mind to their owner sounding equal-parts amused and baffled that the neighborhood has become a haven for hipsters as well as some of country music’s most successful songwriters. Joyce takes a drag of an ever-present cigarette and leans on a leather chair in front of his massive recording console. “It’s a shame.”

The 55-year-old producer has shepherded some of country’s biggest names to commercial success — most notably Eric Church, for whom he’s produced all six of the singer-songwriter’s albums, including his latest, Desperate Man, as well as Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood — and yet he’ll be damned if you tell him he’s part of that genre. If you ask him, Joyce is a rock musician. The sort who has a rug outside his downstairs b-room studio adorned with skulls. Modern country-radio fare? “It’s sub-par pop music,” he says. To him, it’s all manufactured and unoriginal. “These country songwriters, they all hang out and there’s little words that I’ll hear in their songs ’cause I do a lot of those records,” Joyce continues. “All of a sudden I’ll hear the word ‘Detroit’ in four different demos that people are bringing me. Or ‘Friday Night Lights.’ It’s like, ‘If I hear that fucking phrase again I’m gonna kill myself.’”

He’s been one of the most in-demand and versatile producers in Nashville for more than a decade now, having worked with both rock and country big-timers, from Keith Urban and Cage the Elephant to the Wallflowers and Brandy Clark, and yet Joyce doesn’t do many interviews. So perhaps he’s taking the opportunity now to air some grievances — in just the first 10 minutes of talking with him, he’s already gone full-bore on what pisses him off about Music Row and the Nashville creative process at large.

“He’s just a funny motherfucker,” TJ Osborne, one-half of country-rock duo Brothers Osborne, says of his longtime collaborator Joyce. “Sometimes he just says shit and you’re like, ‘god damn.’ You never know what the hell is gonna come out of his mouth.”

Joyce hasn’t always been the popular choice of producer in town, and he’s fine with that. The albums he makes have long been quite progressive — he’ll add big rock drums to a country song or put banjo on a rock song. “I just do what I do,” he says later that day over a sushi lunch. “Half my battle has always been, ‘How can we avoid monotony and still keep people excited?'” His sessions are typically just as unorthodox. “It’s gotta be fucking chaotic and rock & roll,” he says. “No matter what it is, it’s gotta have that personality. Otherwise it’s just boring.”

“There’s an unpredictability to Jay. And that’s why artists like working with him,” says his longtime engineer Jason Hall. “You’re never quite sure where it’s going to go.”

Osborne says back when he first got to Nashville in the early Aughts, artists, songwriters and record label executives all knew about Joyce but typically viewed him as too much of a liability to hire. “He was left-of-center, so a lot of artists wanted to work with him but record labels were too scared,” Osborne says. “It wasn’t safe enough for them.” That is, until Joyce became too successful to ignore: following Church’s 2011 breakout album, Chief, labels started calling and the A-list caliber of artists itching to work with Joyce began piling up. “Jay wanted to stay true to himself and pick things that he actually really liked or he thought he could bring a new dimension to,” says Hall. “But that gets really hard when the pressures of the industry start creeping in.”

“Eric swept me into the whole thing,” Joyce says with a laugh. Following Chief, “all of a sudden I was swept into this thing I’d been living around for years. I didn’t know a fucking thing about country music. It was crazy.”

Jay Joyce

Jay Joyce has produced albums for Eric Church, Little Big Town and the Wallflowers. (Photo: Reid Long)

Growing up in Cleveland as one of 12 kids in an Irish-Catholic family, country music might as well have been a foreign language to Joyce. “There was Creedence Clearwater and those bands were the rock bands and they were country as hell. But the real country music people were a small market,” he says. “It was truckers and trailer parks and the crazy old guy down the street.”

Before he teamed up with Church for 2006’s Sinners Like Me, the producer had lived in Nashville for nearly two decades and logged time in a handful of failed rock bands with names like In Pursuit and Iodine and Bedlam. He was also a trusted session guitarist. Jakob Dylan recalls Joyce practically becoming an unofficial member of the Wallflowers when he was brought in to work with the platinum-selling rock band on their gargantuan 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse.

“I knew he was an extreme talent when I played with him just as a guitar player,” Dylan says. “But when you’re playing guitar with people you’re also talking about all kinds of different things in the studio, so I wasn’t surprised that people started gravitating towards him.” More than a decade later, the singer hired Joyce to produce the Wallflowers’ 2012 album Glad All Over.

Prior to his success, though, Joyce never entertained the idea of getting a “real job.” Instead, he played in cover bands and did “whatever I could do to make a living and not have to work,” he says. “Growing up in the Rust Belt it’s all about work: ‘Get out of the house when you’re 18.'” He eventually found his way to Nashville in his late-twenties when he visited his session-musician brother, Mike, who brought him along to the studio. “Suddenly the veil was lifted,” Joyce recalls. “I was blown away. It didn’t matter about the music or whether I was connected to that. The process was like, ‘Oh my god!'”

He never left. And while it might seem like the chips swiftly fell into place for Joyce, it actually took some time — if not much hustle. “It’s funny,” he says, “because now you’ve got a lot of artists coming out of school that learn what to do and how to make connections. And the one thing that everyone’s forgetting is you kinda gotta be lazy and rock and roll about shit. It appears I worked hard, but a lot of it was just a party.”

Things changed for Joyce following his work on singer-songwriter Patty Griffin’s second album, 1998’s Flaming Red, a complete sonic left turn from Griffin’s spare 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts. Slowly word began making its way around town that Joyce was a producer who would try anything. The weirdness and eccentricity in his musical choices were obvious to those who’d worked with him or even held a conversation with the man.

Osborne remembers first becoming aware of Joyce in the mid-Aughts when the producer was working with the artist Ashley Ray who, at the time, was signed to Capitol Records. “He was doing this really cool shit with her. It was all these songs that were just wild,” Osborne says. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard coming out of Nashville. These really cool-sounding tracks. He’d take these songs and turn them into these pieces of art.”

Even now, having notched massive radio hits with Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown” or any of the slew of Church’s smash records, you still get the sense that Joyce is impervious to it all. “Honestly, I’m just always trying to please myself,” the producer says. To that end, he might spend a day in the studio with an artist and throw in the towel if it doesn’t feel right. “It’s like, ‘Yah know, man. Even though we had all these plans, I can tell this is not going to be worth everybody’s time.'”

“Because he doesn’t need any more money,” Osborne says with a laugh. “He’s doing very well for himself. Now he just wants to do exactly what he did when he was a teenager first learning to play guitar. He wants to fucking play music and have fun and create.”

Joyce spends nearly all of his time tucked away in his studio. He’s a bit of a recluse. For years, he and Hall recorded in a dank basement studio in his house on Nashville’s west side. “I never really left the cave,” he says, flashing a wry smile. When Joyce was in the process of buying the church, Hall tried persuading him to buy a separate house away from his studio. Joyce wasn’t having it. “I guess he’s just so used to living at the studio,” Hall says with a sense of resignation. “He just wants to be where he works. That’s the way he likes it.”

Indeed, Joyce all but shuns the outside world. He’s happiest sitting in front of the console in his church-studio, chain-smoking cigarettes, and blasting music out of the massive PA system he has aimed squarely at a crucifix hanging above a wooden stage where sermons were once delivered, as if he’s trying to awaken the man upstairs. It also explains why Joyce virtually never attends live shows. “I just don’t go to them,” Joyce says matter-of-factly. “I sit in front of this amazing sound system all day and no show sounds like that. It all sounds like shit to me. Plus,” he adds “too many people there, man. I get freaked out.”

Jay Joyce

Jay Joyce often produces with a hoodie pulled tight over his head and a cigarette in hand. (Photo: Reid Long)

A few years back, as if to appease those who insist he get out more, Joyce bought a house in Port Saint Joe on the Florida panhandle. Of course, Joyce being the way he is, he installed a studio setup shortly after buying it. And in early 2017, after joking with Brothers Osborne that they ought to record their new album at his beach house, the siblings received an email to secure dates at Joyce’s Gulf-side studio. They titled the LP Port Saint Joe.

Still, Joyce isn’t the sentimental type. So even after Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida beach town earlier this month, he didn’t rush down to inspect the damage to his home in person.

Back in his studio after his sushi lunch, Joyce appears content. He’s seated in a beige leather chair roughly 20 feet behind his recording console, face down, eyes closed, cigarette in hand, nodding his head and smiling. In recent times he’s been putting the finishing touches on what he intends to be his debut solo album. It all feels a bit gratuitous and self-indulgent, he admits. “It’s nothing like any of the bands I work with,” he says. “But it was good for my head.

“I finally said, ‘I’m never going to do it if I don’t just do it now,'” he continues, before cueing up the album, a proggy, whirring, face-melting mélange of synth, funk, rock, blues and general instrumental insanity tentatively titled Jobby. “Because you get bogged down. You do the band thing, record after record, and you can get a little…” He trails off.

Joyce eventually came to a realization. “One day I stopped and went, ‘Wait a minute. I can do whatever I want here.’ I don’t have any grand design of taking over the world with it,” he adds with a chuckle. “I just thought, ‘This is what used to get me off.'” He loved every minute of the process and might record another one sooner than later.

After a few songs, Joyce rises from his seat, walks over to the console and pauses the music. “Pretty crazy stuff, huh?” he remarks.

Joyce surveys his studio. It’s large and impressive and still completely inconceivable to him that it’s the product of his own time, dedication and unwillingness to compromise

“I look at this room here and am like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ One day they’re all gonna figure out it’s all bullshit and I’m out,” he says. “I’m always one step ahead of getting caught.”

Joyce lets out the laugh of a frisky teenager who skipped detention. He drags from his cigarette and says, “Oh yah. You just wait. They’ll be coming to get me soon.”

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