Eric George: The Debut Album // Published in Thread Magazine // June 12, 2014
Oddly, the first thing that sticks out about Eric George is his calm, steady voice. He is a quiet presence on an otherwise bustling Saturday morning at Muddy Waters, forced to compete with the whir of the espresso machine and café chatter. Normally, one would expect someone’s pitch to rise higher in order to be better heard, but George maintains an even tone and an unruffled manner.
Who is Eric George? You might have caught him busking on Church Street, strumming at Radio Bean, or occasionally rocking out onstage at Manhattan’s Pizza with blues and country ensemble Rev. Ben Donovan and the Congregation. But soon enough, you can listen to his tunes at your leisure when his eponymous debut album drops this summer. The album, much-anticipated in the Burlington folk scene, promises to vault George’s quiet fame from the intimate coffee shop/bar circuit onto a bigger platform.
Long before the recording process, George spent time playing at area nursing homes — a seemingly odd choice of venue for an aspiring musician, but one that is rooted in the reason he pursues music in the first place.
“The experience of playing music for people who really need it is my favorite thing about music,” George explains. “Sometimes our culture feels really saturated with music and a lot of the times people don’t really engage with it as deeply as they could because it’s always around. But at elderly homes you’re really affecting people in a positive way and it’s a magical thing to be able to do.”
George doesn’t view his musical journey as one of rivalry with other singer-songwriters in the Burlington area. Instead, he looks at his performance arc as a personal one.
“The way it’s framed, music culture in general is competitive, unfortunately,” he laments. “Competition in music is stressful and unproductive.”
He has an easygoing manner about his debut, as well as in the changes that his voice and style have undergone. George never says that recording the album was a necessity to further his career. He never even mentions the word “career.” Grounding his songs into hard copy seems to come from his maturation as a person, not simply as a performer.
“It’s my first professionally-recorded album. I think my voice, in particular, has changed pretty drastically over the past five years. If you go back and listen to some of the recordings I did early in college I sound like a pipsqueak,” he admits. “It’s really funny to listen to. So I haven’t recorded anything since my music has taken on the character that it has now.”
He was in no rush to record the album, allowing himself roughly a year to complete it.
“It’s been a very slow process because for anybody’s first piece of art that they’re going to share with the world they want it to be good,” he explains. “But I just had to let go of that. As far as my own experience recording music, on a personal level, it really wasn’t hard. I thought it was going to be more difficult to put these songs down, but I’m at the point where I can play my songs with confidence.”
Still, George’s songwriting process is mostly private.
“I’ve never been able to write music with other people,” he says. “I mean, with my high school band we would write music together, but it was different — it was a jam band, it was rock. With this kind of music where I’m crafting them, I just haven’t been able to work with other people. I have to be in a space where nobody can hear me.”
The eleven-track debut was recorded at Jenke Arts, an artists’ collective on Church Street that houses a small recording studio in addition to yoga, dance and martial arts classes. George credited label co-founder Tommy Alexander for pushing him to record a full-length LP.
“I met Tommy when I got to Burlington,” George says. “He’s just incredibly supportive of every musician who comes through, and so he offered to record me. Originally I was just going to do a few songs, but we were there in the studio and there was no reason to stop, so I just kept recording and going back.”
The long recording process hit a few bumps.
“We recorded a lot of it in the winter, and so a side effect of a Vermont winter is everybody has a cold and is constantly a little bit sick,” he says. “And so, it was kind of tough not knowing if my voice is going to sound like I want it to when I’m at 100 percent.”
Determined to make every track sound as good as possible, George ended up re-recording a few songs in a studio behind his house to get his vocals the way he wanted.
George plays all the instruments on his album except bass and fiddle.
“But there’s not a whole lot more than that,” he says. “I’m playing banjo, drums, guitar, harmonica.” He pauses, and on second thought admits, “Well, that’s a few.”
As for the rest of the album’s personnel, David Kahn, a longtime friend and high school bandmate of George, wrote the bass lines, while Burlington musician Gabriel Shapiro performed them. Tuck Hanson contributed the fiddle. The album was recorded by Alexander and George, mixed by Evan Schlosser, and mastered by Ben Collette at Tank Recording Studio. George produced and did the arrangements himself.
George categorizes the end result as folk, “in the sense that I’m borrowing sounds and themes and ideas from other musicians before me.”
He lists early country artist Hank Williams and Delta bluesman Son House as inspirations, while also paying homage to Joe Fletcher of the Americana band The Wrong Reasons. Fletcher, a friend of George’s over the years, introduced him to the sounds and styles of “old-time” music that George now gravitates to.
“I’ve only recently started getting into music that people are writing now, I feel like I had to do my homework first,” he laughs.
For modern music, he cites Deer Tick as a source, particularly their 2007 debut effort War Elephant, a Partisan Records release.
“Their first record was one of the best albums in the past few years,” he says.
George’s album may be self-titled, but an early glimpse reveals that it is certainly not self-focused. To be sure, there are personal moments drawn from life. On “Digging Up My Garden,” George unleashes his frustration at someone who has, literally, dug up his garden and stolen his tomatoes, onions and carrots, leaving George with nothing for his stew. At first listen, it sounds odd, but George’s stompy annoyance incites laughter, and we have to hope the tale is true.
These lighthearted moments are tempered with tracks that deal with bigger questions, as folk songs are wont to do. The opener “Overgrown” is a searching reflection of our wants and the roads traveled to obtain them. On the chorus, George warns of excess:
Somebody said it before
Someone’s always keeping score
They tell it and sing it and show
Our desires are the seeds of the weeds
In our gardens overgrown.
The only time George veers close to campy is in the sixth track, “Shaking In Your Ground,” which opens with breezy whistling that feels a bit too juvenile. But, he elegantly recovers with “End of the Day,” a love letter that forms a touching highlight of the album. He confesses:
For all I try I break down but I can’t cry
I don’t know why
Suppose I’ll fly
And I wanted to give it all away
And I wanted for you to hear me say
Come find me at the end of the day
The faintest hint of slide guitar, a blues staple, appears in “Tomorrow I’m Gonna Die,” and George pulls it off with restraint, allowing his voice to crackle through as if from an old radio.
All in all, the album is an earnest and successful pursuit of George’s blended genre. Eric George may have a common name, but his is an uncommon voice, carrying the folk tradition with grace and depth.
George is promoting a Kickstarter campaign through June 20 to help raise funds to pay back those who helped on the album. With only a week left, George is more than halfway to reaching his goal, but what up-and-coming musician couldn’t use some extra love? Visit the campaign to donate, buy a CD, or spring for an LP and digital download of the album. ‡