Eric Allen: Americana in China, an interview (China version)

Hi Eric, can you introduce yourself?

Hi. I’m Eric Allen, an American blues and folk/outlaw country musician based in Beijing, China. I came to China in 2012 from New York City, where I lived and performed for many years. I’m originally from Indiana in the midwestern US. I recently released my debut album, entitled Eric Allen, which we’re going to discuss today.

1. I have listened to this album many times to prepare the interview, and what strikes me overall is this feeling of nostalgia, melancholy and hope mixed together. I know it took you a long time to record this first album as we have talked about this many times in Beijing.

Can you introduce your new album « Eric Allen »?

Well, the new album is a slice of Americana blues, folk, and outlaw country. The tracks were all recorded as entirely acoustic during the summer and fall of 2020, which I feel adds to the genuine Americana feel. I wrote all 13 songs in 2018 and 2019, and they really deal with memories, loss, and hope. Although I grew up in Indiana in the midwestern US, my family was from the southern US. So, this album is highly influenced by the sounds of Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and Appalachia.

To listen to the album click on the picture below.

2. What do you want to express through your music?

Hopefully, this album, as a whole, can remind people about the struggle in life between gradually mounting loss and the possibilities for hope. I think loss is a part of life, but it can slowly grind away at your future hope over time. Many songs on this album deal with one, or both, of these – loss and hope.

How does it feel to finally have this excellent album out?

It took a while to produce, with a lot of long, late nights in the studio. We had a great time with it – me, Brad the engineer, and the various musicians who appear on the album. It feels great to have it produced and out into the world. But, in my opinion, we are still just getting started with this album in terms of bringing it to the world.

Check this other recent interview of Eric with Chinese blogger Lei Yu.

3. What is your favorite song on the album?

Although my favorite could vary depending on my mood, I would say that, overall, I have two favorites: “40 Years” and “In Me.”

Can you explain the words of these two tracks for us and what they mean to you?

Sure. “40 Years” is about my father’s life as a factory worker and musician after leaving his home state of Kentucky to seek work in Indiana. It is also a reminder of the loneliness and disappointment the elderly can face once they retire and their family has gone away, which is all too common in many Western countries especially.

The 1st verse of “40 Years” derives from stories my father told me about working the night shift, which he did for decades. Because the work crew could finish their work early, guys would play cards, read the paper, etc in the break room for the first couple hours of a shift, until roughly 1:30am.

Up in the break room
Playin’ cards
Passin’ time
with the boys
‘til 1:30 rolls around
See in the paper
What’s on
What’s goin’ on
down home
‘til 1:30 rolls around

Stood this line for 40 years
40 years I clocked my time
Waitin’ for my day to come
40 years and I’m alone

Blue grass dry
Headed north
when the mills
came to town
Cross that Mason-Dixon Line
Out with the band
Start at 10
1:30 shut it down
Always thought I’d get back home

Sang these songs for 40 years
Every night I gave my soul
Waitin’ for my day to come
40 years and I’m alone

Now the kids
they’ve gone away
Now the factories
all left town
Now my hands too
stiff to play
But I can tell that joke again
If you’ve got the time

Now she’s gone
Always thought
I’m the one
To go
I’m supposed to live alone
When u back son?
In the door
out of sight
Another lonely night

She’s my world for 40 years
Every night I come back home
Are there anymore good days to come?
40 years and I’m alone

If there’s anymore good days to come
Well I can tell that joke again
If you’ve got the time.

The second verse refers to the lack of work in Kentucky, known as the Blue Grass state, in the years after World War 2 and the Korean War. This prompted a south to north migration for many, including my father, across the Mason-Dixon Line, which is the Ohio River. The verse goes on to allude to my father’s time playing bass and singing in his weekend bands and his belief that he would, one day, move back to Kentucky, which never happened.

The song then moves later in time in a kind of bridge verse where my father’s kids have all grown up and moved away for work and his hands suffer from arthritis to the point where he can’t play guitar anymore.

The final verse picks up at the point where my father’s wife passes away. He always expected to die first and was now alone. Whenever I visited him, when it was time for me to leave, he always asked when I would come back the next time and watched from the front door as the car drove out of sight.

The song ends with a reference to my father’s tendency to joke around, telling the same jokes over and over to seemingly anyone who would listen. Even when he was alone, he always seemed to maintain a charming personality and hold out hope for more good days to come, which I found very inspirational.

“In Me” is about sounds I remember from my time living in New York City. These sounds have stayed in my mind since moving away in 2012. I lived in Hells Kitchen, which is the west 40s and 50s area of midtown Manhattan: The area is near the Hudson River and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Yeah I’d hear those boats
out on the river
Hear em’ from my room
Horns would blow
Just to let me know
that it’s Sunday afternoon

And I’d hear those trash trucks roll out
about 4am
Half past 5
overpass be alive
Those Jersey buses
rollin’ west again

And they still
walk with me
No matter where I go

I’d hear him preachin’
down on the corner, yellin’ “You’re all just a bunch of worms!”
Pass on by
Just a glance and smile
Lord not a
Not a single word

Then I heard he died
one cold night
up by the 79 Slip
Then I heard he was preachin’ again on 110
I guess Saint John must a
Must a took him in

And he still
walk with me
It’s still
Lord you’re still
in me

And you’re still in my memory
Still in my memory
And those
horns still blow
Those big wheels still roll
The music still plays
And those corners
can save
your soul
Your soul
And those corners
can save
your soul
Save your soul
And those corners
They can save
Your soul
Hey those corners
they can save
your soul

The first verse refers to the boats that would always blow their horns on the Hudson around 1 or 2pm on Sundays. Many times, they woke me up, like an alarm clock, after a late night out on Saturday. I have always been a serious night owl and remember hearing the garbage trucks leaving their depot just a few blocks from my apartment on their first run of the day – always at 4am like clockwork. Then, about 5:30am, the New Jersey Transit buses would roar out of the Port Authority to the Lincoln Tunnel toward Jersey on their first run of the day.

The second verse refers to an old man who seemed to be homeless, mentally unstable, and harmlessly angry. He would preach on street corners in Hells Kitchen. I remember one time, in particular, when I could hear him repeatedly shouting at the passersby that they were all just worms. One day, he suddenly disappeared and some of the shop owners said he had frozen to death at the West 79th Street boat slip by the Hudson river. Drifter-like stories often take unexpected twists and I later heard that he was street preaching again around West 110th Street, which is where Saint John the Divine Cathedral is located.

I believe that it is often these types of gritty, uglier things in life that can give us more compassion if we are willing to pay attention. It’s that compassion that, in my opinion, can nourish, or save, your soul. So, to me, that old man can generate compassion or contempt. It’s up to you.

4. Your video « Hello My Soul » was shot in Beijing. What can you tell us about this particular video?

Well, my lead guitar player, Mike Maslennikov, of the Woodshed, also does photography and videography. He sent me a message one day saying bring your guitar and let’s shoot Hello My Soul beside a canal in Beijing’s Dawanglu area, with the Beijing skyline in the background. So, that’s what I did. We shot it in probably an hour. This was prior to me adding an introduction to Hello My Soul. But, the video came out nice, so we haven’t tried to fix something that isn’t broken.

5. Why did you choose it as the main single for the album?

Hello My Soul is not the main single for this album. I don’t think there is a main single. In fact, it was the last song I decided to include. The album version of Hello My Soul includes a 40-second introduction that is not included in the video. The introduction really depicts my state of mind before I, quote unquote, found my musical soul. The Southside Johnnys of Chicago looking sharp but feeling blue and the supposed 14th Street uptown/downtown musical divide of New York represent my own dichotomies for a long period of my life before. The last line of the intro “That boy go below 14th. He ain’t never come back” represents my musical soul now, which is more akin to the grittier, dirtier, and raspier scene below 14th Street. I think the intro gives more context to this song and when I added it, I felt more comfortable including Hello My Soul on the album. By the way, you’ll hear those same lyrics from the intro on a song called “Workin’ on the Blues”, planned for my second album.

6. While listening to the album, I heard a lot of different styles of music, ranging from country to blues, folk, and rock. How did you learn guitar?

I learned to play guitar on my own when I was a teenager. My father taught me some chords, but he was more responsible for teaching me to play bass. Mainly, I improved and branched-out in playing styles from playing until my fingers bled, from falling asleep while playing, basically from following the Mississippi John Hurt philosophy of learning on guitar, i.e., going to bed with your guitar by your pillow and picking it up as soon as you wake up. It can cost you some girlfriends, but you’ll play better! It was that Tommy Emmanuel school of practicing that he calls Woodshedding – go off to yourself and play for days – don’t worry about food and such things. Also, not good for girlfriends, but very good as a band name!

7. What were your main influences as a musician and artist growing up?

Growing up, I was surrounded by older country and western music, as well as blues. I started playing harmonica and singing in my father’s country band at age 4 and then played bass for awhile from about ages 11-14 before picking up a guitar. As a teenager, I started getting into rock more – alot of British rock & roll bands whose roots were blues, such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Later, old blues, like Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, really took hold of me and I picked-up a lot of fingerpicking influences from Texas cowboy based folksy-blues artists like Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. These influences have all kind of mixed into what I do today. I would love to add a pinch of bluegrass into that mix in the future. We’ll have to see what happens down the line.

8. Some of the songs, like the song « 40 years » for example, which is about your father who was a factory worker and a musician, seem to be also about the working class and the relation of midwestern America to music. What is your take on today’s America and how much of America is in your music?

I feel like today’s America, musically, is much too driven by corporate money interests. Not a new sentiment, I know. The majority of music that reaches the masses is, in my opinion, written and produced to cater to listeners who are digesting less attainable ideals instead of real life stories. Thus, to me, the working class and midwestern bread basket, the fiber of America, are becoming less important musically. Not many Bruce Springsteens or John Mellencamps being pushed by Big Music these days. Part of what I want to do is help reinvigorate an appreciation for storytelling, for the roots, for the Americana that I believe has been largely lost. I think this album really drives that home with songs like Stillhouse Blues, Holy Rollin’, 40 Years, and All on Death Row.

9. How does it feel to be a country and blues singer in China?

It doesn’t really seem much different on the surface. I’m going to follow my style regardless of where I may be or how weak or strong that particular genre is in a place. My music is meant to be something that has reached me emotionally in a way that I can communicate to an audience. Of course, verbal communication would be easier for me in the US, but I feel that my music may benefit from being in China. Language and cultural barriers force me to communicate through feeling moreso than lyrics. I like to tell stories through my lyrics: That will always be there. But, I feel the language and cultural barriers innate to living and performing in a foreign country make me a more complete musician.

What would be your advice to people who want to come to Asia and develop a music career here?

Play as much as possible in the beginning to get your name out there and your set solid. Attend open mics and jams to integrate into the musician network. Think about, and begin to pursue, your brand as early as possible. Be careful of people who offer you engagements not because of your music, but because you are foreign, can sing nihao a couple times, and they can laugh. Also, be careful of bars that want you to come in and cater to the Country Roads crowd (It’s a good song, but the musician’s know what I mean…). Stick to your musical style and what you love, no matter the country. If they are there for music and you feel it, they’ll feel it.

10. The song « Stillhouse Blues » felt to me like a cross between Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Bob Dylan, are those artists part of your influences?

Among those three legends, the music of Muddy Waters has been far more influential on me. But, If I were going to think of Stillhouse Blues in terms of “a cross between”, it would be John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson. The vocals on Stillhouse are a more ‘talky’ or spoken story style, much like how John Lee Hooker approached many of his songs – think “House Rent Boogie”. Though, of course, I cannot play guitar like Robert Johnson, many of the guitar patterns in Stillhouse, including the intro, are straight out of the Johnson book (just maybe before he sold his soul to the devil) – think “3220 Blues”.

11. In a few songs on the album, there is violin accompanying the guitar. Who is playing?

The violinist is a Chinese guy in Beijing named Xinxin. He plays on “All On Death Row”, “Bartender’s Guitar”, and “She Waits”. Xinxin is a very talented and conscientious musician who really cares about his craft and the songs he plays on. He is also one of the very few violinists in China who can play that Appalachian, or what I call Stomp Blues, style you hear in “All On Death Row”. We were quite fortunate to have him on this record.

12. How do you generally meet musicians in Beijing?

In the beginning in Beijing, I mostly met musicians through open mics and jams. Now, I tend to meet musicians through word of mouth recommendations, supplemented by my own observation.

How do you decide to collaborate with them?

I decide who to collaborate with based as much on personal characteristics as I do on musical characteristics. Musical ability has to be there, but there are many other factors for which I’m looking: They must be reliable; conscientious; fairly easy to get along with; and flexible-minded in terms of being willing to think outside the box (i.e. creative). I believe good musicians are not afraid to take risks onstage or to go off script (or not even have one).

General musicianship is very important to me as well. I’m talking about people who simply have music in them, naturally, not teachable. For example, including me, the Woodshed band, has 4 guys who can go onstage anytime and do a full solo set playing guitar and singing, with 3 of those guys doing all quality original songs.

13. How was it to collaborate with Greg Luthrell, who is also a very good American guitar player living in Beijing?

Greg and I have been friends for I think 3+ years now. During that time, we have drank a lot of music late nights as I like to say. Greg and I have also played many times together, either splitting a bill or doing duo sets. So, we are very familiar with each other’s musical styles. That made collaboration on this album very natural and easy. Greg plays harmonica on “Stillhouse Blues” and “Bartender’s Guitar”, plays slide guitar on “All On Death Row”, and does the backing vocals toward the end of “In Me”. Greg is an outstanding musician and we were also fortunate to have him on this album.

14. The song « Rattlesnake Mama » actually made me think of the band Primus, is that a band you ever listen to? Who is your favorite artist?

I have not heard very much Primus. I know of them, but haven’t heard much. Who is my favorite artist is a very tough question. At different times, the answer has been different. But, overall, I’d have to say Townes Van Zandt. I believe he is the best songwriter I have ever heard. There is a lot of Townes imagery in “Road Travels On” and the style I play in “40 Years” I learned from Townes songs like “Nothing” and “Waitin’ Around to Die”, which he said was the first song he ever wrote, at age 13. Have a listen to those.

14. The song « All on Death Row » is about cancer, is that an experience you went through yourself?

“All On Death Row” is about the lifestyle of bounty hunters. I had a friend who was a bounty hunter and that inspired this song. There is a part later in the song that says “Gotta cancer, gotta cancer, keepin’ me alive…” The word cancer here is a metaphor for a lifestyle on the road hunting down criminals that the bounty hunter knows is killing him. Yet, this cancerous lifestyle is actually keeping him alive, for now, because it’s the only life he knows. The bounty hunter is doing a good service for the world, but everyone will die – the good, the bad.

15. There is a backup singer in some of the tracks, a woman, who does a good job at unifying your voice with hers, what can you tell us about her?

She is Prairie Boulmier, a guitarist and singer here in Beijing. Prairie was a great fit for the two songs she sings backing vocals on – “Night Falls Again” and “Road Travels On”. I wanted a female on both tracks who could sing in a softer, country style. Prairie is from Wyoming in the western US, with a good deal of Colorado and New Mexico influence as well. This really fit with the lonesome cowboy like song “Night Falls Again” and with all the imagery of Townes Van Zandt riding his horse through Colorado that is in “Road Travels On”. Not many could have melded into these two songs as she did, so we were fortunate to have her on this album as well.

16. Your album starts with the song « Night Falls Again » and ends with « In Me ». How did you choose the order of the tracks on the album?

I still believe that song order is important to bringing out certain emotions in listeners along the journey of a full-length album.

I selected “Night Falls Again” as the first track because I think it is a very good roadmap to the overall theme of the album. “Night Falls Again” is about nostalgia, loss, and renewed hope. Verses 1 and 2 reflect on positive things from my past, verse 3 talks about the loss of those things, and the last line of verse 3 through the end of the song focuses on small things that can renew your hope in life. That is what this album is all about. In addition, “Night Falls Again” is a crisp, short song (shortest on the album), not too slow and not too fast. It quickly brings the listener in to start putting meat on the bone with “She Waits” and “Rattlesnake Mama”.

The songs on this album are a mix of softer and harder, slower and faster, less dramatic and very dramatic. So, I felt that I should order the songs in a way that could push and pull a listener in kind of an up and down wave-like way.

I was divided between “Hello My Soul” and “In Me” as the final track. But, once I added the intro to “Hello My Soul”, I felt its start no longer fit as well for the final track as the thumpy, white noised beginning of “In Me”. I also preferred “In Me” as the final track because of its focus on soul in a southern gospel choir type of style at the very end. I just felt it was a great way to end the journey of this album – to go out with soulful harmonies and lyrics about saving the soul.

17. In songs like « Ugly Dog » and « Bartender’s Guitar », the meaning seems to be purposedly vague and graphic. I can see images in my mind while I listen to those songs, but I’m not sure about their meaning. Are you inspired by poetry. To what extent does poetry influence you?

Poetry has not had much influence on me, which I find interesting since poetry and songs are similar in that they each attempt to tell you something in a short space. Some of the greatest songwriters seem like poets to me. But, I can’t say that poetry itself has influenced me. I do believe, however, that songs, like poems, can be left to personal interpretation through vague wording and meaning – it is a part of art itself. “Ugly Dog” and “Bartender’s Guitar” are examples of this vague approach. In particular, “Ugly Dog” is likely the most vague and graphic song on the album. Understanding “Ugly Dog” is further complicated by the fact that the lyrics of the first and last verses are from my perspective whereas the lyrics of the intense middle verse are from an ex-lover’s perspective. But, I don’t think complete understanding is necessary. Connecting with the feeling is most important, as we discuss in the questions about playing for Chinese audiences.

18. You gig a lot around Beijing and sometimes around China. How does it feel to play in front of a Chinese audience? How do they feel about your music?

As I mentioned in the “How does it feel to be a country and blues singer in China?” question, playing in front of a Chinese audience doesn’t really seem much different on the surface. I follow my style regardless of the audience. My music is meant to be something that has reached me emotionally in a way that I can communicate to an audience on a visceral level, regardless of language or nationality. I find that my songs, particularly the slower fingerpicking songs, connect pretty well with Chinese audiences. Sometimes, Chinese people will tell me after a show that, although they could not understand all the words, they could understand the feeling I was to trying to convey and were touched by it. This, to me, is one the best compliments you can receive as an artist.

19. We can’t wait for your next album to come out. When will you start recording and what will be your inspiration for it?

I have about two-thirds of the material written for the next album. The Woodshed band has been performing several of the songs for quite awhile now. I’ll likely start recording in early 2022. Since many of the songs for a second album have already been written, I think the inspiration comes from a similar place as this first album. But, there is still materials to be added, so those could shift the inspiration. I’m looking forward to finding out!

Please follow and like us: