To listen to an Eric Himan song is to get a glimpse inside the artist; the songs come from a personal place and no topic seems to be off limits. Everywhere All At Once covers everything from romantic and familial relationships to homophobia to breast cancer to hurricane survival. And it's these emotional constants the listener can identify and relate to.
A couple weeks ago singer-songwriter Eric Himan granted me a phone interview and we talked about the evolution of his music, love, humor, and the pitfalls and advantages of managing his own independent label.
The new Album, Everywhere All At Once has been out a few weeks now. How is everything going?
It's been amazing. It's weird because it's my most creative to date. I just happen to start touring on it and people are slowly starting to come back to me and telling me, "Oh, I like this song." Or "I like this song."
It's not like an overnight success. It's slowly building and I think that's really neat. When I first sent it out I was getting nothing back and I was getting nervous. 'Cause it was like, "Uh-oh. Why am I not hearing anything?" But now I'm starting to get a lot of feedback. It's been doing really well.
Do you approach marketing differently now than when you first started?
Oh definitely! You learn what does and doesn't work. At first I marketed a lot to the LGBT community and I've done a lot within it, but now I'm trying to do stuff outside of it as well. So, that's been a challenge, but definitely a step in the right direction.
Since you're marketing differently, do you approach songwriting differently?
I think with this CD more than ever. I try to write more in the moment now, instead of just a reflection. With my other CDs, even if it was in first person and present tense I still wrote it with a bit of hindsight. With some of these songs I just wrote in the moment, how I was feeling and where I was going. I think that was something that opened me up a little bit creatively.
Is exposing some of those personal and more intimate sides of your personality, like you do in some of your songs, difficult?
Well… sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Some subject matter I get a little nervous about playing out because I don't know how it's going to get taken and I really like to give a back-story before I bust into something.
In one of them my partner's mother was going through breast cancer for the second time. She is such a happy chipper woman that you wouldn't know she is going through this horrible ordeal. She touched me in some way that I really wanted to give something to her, say something. But not something cheap like, "Oh things are going to get better," or "I'm just so sorry for you," lots of tears. So I said, "You know, all I know to do is make you a song. This is what I can give. It may not be this and it may not be that but I just want you to know you mean a lot to me because you touch me in some way." I thought that was enough. That's why the song isn't really that long. It's called "What I Can Give."
Sometimes they are hard to play. It's like that's the best thing is having it still be emotional. You still feel it.
So it's still sometimes difficult to perform those types of songs?
Yeah, it keeps you alive. It keeps the song alive, instead of sounding like a broken record. Like, I'm sure every time Jimmy Buffett plays "Margaretville" after years and years and years and years, I wonder if it still has the same effect on him or he just walks his way through it.
"Oh this one again?"
Yeah, exactly. I hear you.
As I've said before, "Clyde" is one of my favorites. In the press kit you mentioned it was more of a writing experiment. Is there no personal element to that song at all or is it just a fictionalized account?
"Clyde" in particular? I kind of exaggerated whatever underlying personal experience I had. I've never been with anyone who robbed a bank. (laughs) I don't know. I was just playing this melody and I was in New York City and I pictured somebody just standing in a really busy area just waiting and I built it around that.
Many time you're waiting for something to happen and for someone to get you. Or you're waiting for something to come back and it never does. There's a process and there's a consequence to it. I decided to take that energy and put it into more of a storytelling Bonnie and Clyde thing. I made it a little more literal than metaphoric. Somebody is just waiting to get… you know.
Somebody's been told one thing and they are waiting for that and for them to return and they never do. Then you get the egg all over your face. Or you take the heat for it. That was definitely a creative writing experience, but all the emotions behind it are real.
Since we are talking about songs right now, do you want to talk about some of the ones on the new album?
"Something to Dance To" is wonderful and I can't help dancing in my seat when I'm working at my desk and it comes on. Is that as much fun to perform?
Oh it's a blast to perform! You know what, because it follows a structure. I like a little bit of dance music, but when I get into my friend's cars sometimes and all they're listening to is techno I'm like, "How does your brain not shut-off?" That constant beat. I think there's more to dance music than just that element. I tried to figure out the structure of a dance song and that's how I came up with that song.
I wanted something upbeat, something fun, you know. And then in my own way, I wanted to do something very acoustic and very bare-bone. It was just such a fun idea to bring an acoustic guitar into a dance scenario.
It is just a very fun song.
And then I got to do extra vocals. I played it up a little bit. I usually don't do that, so it was fun.
When I saw you perform, about a year ago now, it was just you and your guitar. Are you performing more with a band behind you now?
Most of my live shows are just me and my bass player or once in awhile I'll bring in my drummer. Now, it's been that kind of core element. But if I do shows with my backup singer Andy Moore and we'll do stuff just as a duo in a more Indigo Girl kind of way. I like to take each situation and just see what it needs. Sometimes a full band doesn't work and sometimes me playing by myself doesn't work. So a lot of it just fits certain situations.
"Love Don't Hide" has a similar energy to "Something to Dance To." Is the song a political statement, or just an emotional one?
It's an emotional statement but I guess it can be seen as a political one. You know, one thing I always want to make sure I do is to tell people I am a musician who happens to be gay. I'm not like a gay musician, because I feel like that doesn't do any justice for the community or for me. It's misleading to tell people that, then they think, "Oh all he sings about are things affiliated with the gay community." I don't.
You're right. Your music goes beyond that.
I have emotions and situations that anyone can relate to whether you're gay or straight. But, that song in particular… it wasn't until I was part of a couple. You're walking down the street and things I would normally think are okay, because I watch other people do them, somehow feel awkward to me when I see other people's reaction. Like just wanting to walk down the street holding your partner's hand or putting your arm around them. It means nothing to me or him but you can see it in certain areas. It becomes, "We can't do that here."
It's not even that big of a deal. It's not like a lot of public affection, it's just once in awhile, and especially with guys, you can definitely see someone's reaction to it. I wanted to have a song where I felt like, "It doesn't matter, and this is just the way it is." If you're happy enough to be in love — which love is just the best thing in the world, it's the one thing people kill themselves over, or pine away, or spend all their time thinking about — If you were lucky enough to find some body, why would you want to spend your time pretending you weren't in love with them when walking down the street?
It's a little exaggerated, but at the same time I just wanted to say all-in-all, if anyone understands love, how can you watch people be happy and want to take something away from that?
Between "Bartender" and "White Horse" those were the two songs that really sold me when I first heard you music (when I saw you live). Bartender is so fun, and you're poking fun at yourself. Is it easer to do that, then to express the emotional vulnerability you do in some of your more serious songs.
Humor is harder because you never know how it's going to be taken. When you're being serious, you know exactly how it's going to be taken. When you try to reflect a little humor, and you're not like a comedy writer, then you're left thinking, "I hope they get this."
Everyone has a different sense of humor, but everyone has that same serious factor.
"Where I'm Going" is like the shortest biography ever at three minutes and twenty-two seconds. Was it hard to compress?
(laughs) Very very hard! My producer and I were, "We don't want it to be ten minutes long." And it does follow the same guitar pattern over and over, so I didn't want it to get redundant.
I don't know, I just wanted to say, after being in a military family growing up and now I'm traveling all the time, you don't know where you're from. I have friends who are like, "This is where I grew up, and this is where I live now. When I was fourteen we use to go over there." For me it's so strange to be in one place for so long. I'm also jealous because that is so comforting.
You've said often you're most comfortable on the road, but are there any difficulties involved in not being home more often?
The difficulty now is I'm my own manager and my own booking agent. I'm doing all this stuff now and I'm trying to take it all to the next level. You can only do so much on your own, and then you really need to pull from your friends and other resources and try and take your experiences and take them to a new place.
I think now that I've been on the road so much and playing the same places over and over and over again, I'm about to spend some time researching, and I already have a little bit, in getting people who can maybe take me to that next level. People who can extend me to a wider audience and maybe do some things I haven't done. I know what I've already done, and it's been fun, but I think it's time to do some new things.
So being on the road or being in front of computer (laughs) If I don't have my guitar in my hand, I have my computer in my hands, and I want to get to a place where all I really have to have is my guitar in my hands.
Well that takes us back to the songs. "Thanks," you've said, it's in response to a record producer trying to change you. Would you like to expand on that a bit?
Actually before Dark Horse, I produced my stuff myself. I would go in the studio, organize, and play as many instruments as I can. Again it was like I feel now. I need someone who does this professionally. I need someone else to do it who has worked with artists and who can help me pull things out or myself that I haven't yet done.
And I successfully did that with my friend Mike Ofca who I met in Pittsburg, but before that I went to this studio in Miami because it was a friend of a friend who said this guy produced Aretha Franklin way back in the day, and Crosby Stills and Nash and all these famous people. So I thought they definitely know what they're doing.
So I went in to record a demo to try and make my own independent CD and the next day there was some label guy roaming around listening to the track. And it just seemed, I was, "What the hell is going on here?" So I went in to record my song, and I played them a bunch of songs and everytime I played a different one, they were "We just want to work on two songs right now."
And that turned into, "Which one of your songs is a hit?" And that turned into, "This guy's showing up and they might be interested in working with you." Then I went into the studio and they were, "This guy is going to play guitar, and this guy is going to play the drum track, and this guy is going to do this." So I went in the studio and just sang my song and it just seemed like I was a very small player in my own song.
I felt like I had enough or an out to just turn and walk the other way. I didn't get myself so involved that I couldn't walk away. I was lucky in that respect. Now that I'm interested in expanding the audience and doing different things, that song is kind of my anthem. Ani DeFranco is a big influence for me in showing you can do it on your own. People will listen to you. People will give you a chance.
Even a lot of major artists are coming back to artist run and independent labels now. It seems like the industry is moving that way.
I think the industry is making it look like things are moving that way more than they actually are. Because for a second I think it was very popular, everybody started their own labels, but a lot of them had been on major labels previously. So they have some kind of fan-base and a draw. So now, I have a friend who is on a major label and they're like, "We're going to give you an option to do your own label so it looks like a smaller label."
When it's really just a sub-label?
Yeah, so it really hasn't changed. Maybe for a second it did, but now large labels are just imitating it.
Because that's what's hot at the moment?
Because it's hot, but also there are a lot of independent labels are funded by big major companies, and they are all run through either Columbia or other major labels. Dave Mathews has a label that is doing well. Then there is Saddle Creek that has Desaparecidos and Bright Eyes and all those folks, but they all run through major distribution.
Would you ever consider moving to a major label?
I would consider moving to a major label that I believe in like Dave Mathews' label and the Saddle Creek label. I'm at a point in my career where I would gain something from being part of a group. But I wouldn't sign myself over to a company that is big and I didn't believe in their artists or couldn't see where there artists are going.
Dave Mathews' label is someplace where I would really like to be. Because they have David Grey and they have just a few artists on their label which is a good sign and they do well. It's like Patty Griffin and David Grey, and I love those people. I love where they come from and I like how they've grown. That is definitely someplace I would think about being if I was ever approached.
What are some of the challenges you face running your own label?
Oh! Nobody takes you seriously. You have to do everything on your own, and it can be overwhelming sometimes. It gets to you. You do get a lot of control over what's going on, and that's a plus. At the same time this business is networking, and if you're not part of the network, I don't know. You have to keep meeting people and keep doing all that stuff to keep going. And in music, where the landscape shifts every ten seconds with what works and what doesn't.
You know what – Myspace is a great thing. I think it's brilliant. For companies I think it's great. When people have friend sites I don't know how it works that way. I don't know if I would even have something like that. But for a business and for music and a music business it's been nothing but great. It keeps people connected.
It's like I said before, you have to network and that is keeping a lot of independent musicians going. There's always someone who can discover you through somebody else, who was through somebody else, through somebody else.
Right, it just has a way of growing and building.
And it get's a life of its own. I totally believe in that. When people trash Myspace I get mad.
I'm with you on that. You tend to hear the negative sides of it a lot but I think like any aspect of the Internet, if it's used the way it was meant to it runs really well.
I don't know if it will always be the way that it is. If someone steps in and tries to make more money off it… uhm yeah! But right now it's a great tool.
What are the advantages to being on your own label?
Creative control. No one else can tell you who you can be or what you should do. You do get to put the work into it and you get to experience how things go, so even if you do move to a label you have a very underlying sense of how the business is run.
I'm sure a lot of artists get signed and they don't care, or they don't understand it and then they get taken. They get into bad deals. That's why I think everyone should try and go through the independent experience, just to get a feel of it.
You get to meet people face to face, that's another thing, and doing things on your terms. You're only as good as your motivation.
The writing you do for your bi-monthly column for Outlook Weekly, is that just another creative outlet?
Yeah, it is. It's something I love to do, to write articles like that. I love to give my opinion about things, especially to express my theories, especially the LGBT area. Sometimes I feel like a gigantic oddity, because I'm not like the lesbian singer-songwriter, Melissa Etheridge type, and I'm not like the dance-divas other end of the spectrum.
It's interesting to see where you end up sitting. In that, I get a taste of everything, and I think give an objective opinion.
Do you approach writing that differently then you approach writing your music?
Yes, I do, because I don't have to work within that framework of lyrics and poetry. Sometimes it is much better and easier.
Look for Eric Himan to share with Blogcritics' readers his thoughts and opinions on the independent artist and label coming later this month. Also coming before the end of the month I'll take a closer look at Himan's newest release Everywhere All at Once.