JD Eicher on Finding New Directions with The Compass EP

JD Eicher has spent the ten years since his debut writing reliably catchy and cleverly-worded pop/rock songs, but it doesn’t hurt to stop and get your bearings every four albums or so. On March 7, the Youngstown, Ohio singer/songwriter released The Compass EP, a reorientation of his sound and a reexamination of his artistic identity.

With veteran producer Bill Lefler on board, Eicher set out to turn the needle all the way toward pop while maintaining the honesty of his past work. You can hear it on the singles; “Ain’t My Scene” is Eicher’s most electronic, remix-ready piece to date, while “Money Back” is his most overtly political, tackling a fraught social climate with characteristic wit. He caps off the EP with “Kid,” an earnest piano and vocal demo that sees him settling in a surprisingly vulnerable place.

Lefler’s synths and sampled beats give the whole EP a darker, denser atmosphere than Eicher usually finds himself in, but he goes any way the compass points with effortless charm, not to mention punny hooks and harmonious “oohs.” In anticipation of the EP release, Eicher spoke to The All Scene Eye about stepping outside of his artistic comfort zone and finding a new direction forward.

If my calendar’s right, it’s been about a year since you recorded the songs for The Compass EP.

Yeah, that’s a good note. I think April of last year is when we started tracking. I worked with Bill Lefler, who’s over in L.A., and I’m in Ohio, so I would lay down the basic demo of the song, then I’d send it to him and he’d add a beat, or some synthesizers, or a bass line, and then he’d send it back and I’d add to it. We went back and forth like that from maybe December until April, and then in April, I went out with him and tracked the vocals, and we finished everything together, which was nice.

Was it just the two of you?

It was just the two of us, and my bass player Jim Merhaut played on “Money Back.” We wanted a true bass player on that one.

Is that a different approach than you’ve taken in the past?

A little bit. That’s the first time I’ve ever worked with a producer remotely like that, almost like mailing it out and getting it back. The first couple records I made were just me and an acoustic guitar, and then when I had a band, we tracked parts of the band live together. We got more and more modern with our approach; you could almost watch it per-record. It started with the band playing live and a few overdubs, and on the next one, we went a little bit more studio magic and overdubbing, and by the time we got to the last band record, we were doing loops and using extra sounds. My last full-length, The Middle Distance, was tracked at home in my little basement studio. I have my drummer Dylan Kollat on some things, and Jim playing bass on some things, but a lot of them are just me moving from one instrument to the next and overdubbing as I go. It’s a progression that way.

How did working with a producer influence your vision for the songs?

I enjoyed the process of going to where that last record was–recording at home, doing it myself–but I’m only one guy with one set of ideas, and I was starting to just sound like myself. Almost too much. If I started to record a song, I knew before I started what it was going to sound like, because I knew what I could do. I really felt like I needed to find a producer who could get me out of that zone and shake things up.

I had worked with Bill on some film and TV stuff, so I knew he was a good guy and he was super talented. I hit him up and basically said, “hey man, I love pop music, and I don’t really traditionally play a lot of those instruments or use those sounds, so I’d like to experiment, and I want somebody to help me get out of my comfort zone and make me do stuff I would never let myself do.” He would send me a recording, and it would have a kind of out-there synth sound, and I’d be like “eh, I don’t know if that’s me,” and he’d be like, “well, it’s you now, because you’ve got to stretch a little bit.” It was a healthy exercise, I think, in allowing new ideas to enter the picture.

Over the past several months, you’ve been releasing singles and videos from this EP. Now that it’s coming out as a complete unit, what does The Compass EP mean to you?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. In a way, building on the producer stuff, this is my identity crisis record. When I put out The Middle Distance, I really felt like, “this is what I sound like. This is true to me by myself.” Then a couple years go by; I’ve listened to a ton more music, I’ve learned more stuff, and more things have happened in my life. I want to sound like myself again, but I don’t sound just like that anymore. That’s why it’s called The Compass EP. There were these four songs, they go in four different directions, more or less, and my thought was that their lack of cohesiveness is kind of the story of the album. It’s like, “here I am, trying to basically find the next direction.”

Incidentally, because there was so much time between recording and releasing the EP, I wrote that song “Kid,” which is just a demo on there. I never planned on adding a song, but then I wrote that, and it really felt like that was going to inform what I do next, in the sense that, you know, I did all this pop stuff and messed with overdubbing and layering, and then I sat down at a piano and just wrote “Kid.” I played it like that and I was like, “maybe it could just stay like this. Maybe the direction I really need to go at the end of the day is back to where I started: just a guy with an instrument.”

I left “Kid” as a demo on the EP because it’s not really the finished product, but I feel like maybe that’s where the compass points now. I’ve already set up a session to go into the studio with my guys and a couple other players and track that song live with a set of musicians in the room. We’ve got a couple other songs we’re going to do the same way. The next EP we’re going to do the old school way and go back to basics, so in a way, it’s a full circle since I recorded these songs. I’ve done a lot of soul searching and decided that a lot of my identity crisis came from just–I was trying to do a little bit of everything, and what I want to do now is focus on the raw music.

After you spent all that time building these songs into that pop sound, what is it like thinking about them in the live arrangement again?

You know, when we recorded “Ain’t My Scene,” the first thing Bill said to me after he sent me the finished product, he was like, “man, how the hell are you going to play this live?” [laughs] Right now, the full band is a trio. I’ve got drums and bass, and I just flip-flop between guitar and keyboard. One direction would be to have a click track going and play a bunch of samples around the band playing live. For some bands, that’s awesome, and it works, but I really like having the songs played just with what’s on stage.

The two poppiest songs, “Ain’t My Scene” and “Maybe You Should Know,” we really did wrestle with. I’ve been on keyboard and guitar back and forth, and the drum beat’s changed many times. We finally have arrangements that we’re comfortable with and that have the right dynamics, but they don’t sound like modern pop songs. [laughs] They sound like a rock trio playing them. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s been like that for us for a long time because I play so many solo shows or acoustic duo tours where we play the songs, but there’s just no way they’re going to sound like a fully fleshed-out recording. I kind of treat them as two different worlds. I want the song itself to have the full treatment–whatever that means for that song–and live, we just do our best.

At the end of the video for “Ain’t My Scene,” you say, “and you’re sure they’re going to take me seriously as an artist?” Which is great, because it’s a goofy video, but it also strikes me as something a lot of people wrestle with when they try a different musical style.

Definitely. I mean, I’m definitely kidding in that situation, and in general, I think nobody should take themselves too seriously. With the stuff we’re talking about, you have to map it out and think in terms of your art, but at the end of the day, I’m just playing a guitar and singing into a microphone, so I try not to get too serious, or at least I try to check myself along the way. I’m not famous, but I’ve put out a ton of stuff just over the years just because I’ve stayed grinding away at it, so I can’t just keep doing the same thing. I can’t release the same song or use the exact same sounds. It’ll get old really quick, so the best thing I can do is just be honest with where my head’s at in that moment.

Scott Terry, the lead singer of Red Wanting Blue, said to me at a gig years and years ago–I don’t think he’d even remember, but he said something like, “man, when you put out a record, that’s that moment in time.” He’s like, “you can’t attach your identity to one moment in time, but do the best you can, and when the next moment comes along, that’s your next record.” I kind of like that. For me, I’m just embracing the fact that I’m going a little bit out of my normal sounds, and in the process of making this art, I felt like it might inform where to go.

In a way, it worked, but as far as people taking it seriously, who knows? It’s funny, “Ain’t My Scene” is definitely the poppiest thing I’ve put out so far, and some people have gone out of their way to tell me they really dig the new sound, and some people have been like, “what happened to the old folk singer JD?” It’s a trade-off, but my hope is I can find people willing to stay along for the ride. I’m hoping no one’s, like, sticking with me song by song. I hope people are willing to like and hate some things along the way, and hopefully, that’s a relationship that lasts a little longer.

You mention records capturing a moment in time, and on this EP, there are a couple of songs speaking to the moment in a way I haven’t heard quite so pointedly on your records before. Can you tell me about writing “Money Back,” for example?

Well, I think it only takes about half a listen to know what I’m getting at in that song. It spreads throughout some of the themes in the other songs too, but “Money Back” is definitely the political center of the record, and one of the very few times I get political at all. It kind of goes back to honesty. I feel like I’ve been really struggling, like many people, with the present political situation and the environment in general from a social standpoint–how it’s ripping people and communities in parts, and also just having to reconcile my own belief system with what’s happening.

When I started writing songs, it was really to make sense of everything around me and to make sense of myself in that story, so if something’s bothering me, it’s eventually going to become a song, and if something is awesome in my life, it’s probably going to become a song. That’s just how it works for me, so I wrote this political song, even though I’m not, like, a political artist. I definitely don’t get up on stage and rant. I don’t think I’m qualified to have too strong of a platform there, but I felt like it would be dishonest to not put that song out.

I think it’s part of your responsibility if you’re going to be a singer/songwriter and you’re going to put your name on the project. You’re kind of saying, “hey, I’m going to share my story and what I believe.” I knew some people were going to hate that song [laughs] and maybe be upset with me at the same time, and some people were, but I felt like it was something I needed to do. Everybody has their own platform, and mine is music. I felt like this was a way to at least try to put some vibes out there in the direction of change.

There’s a super stark visual contrast because the video for “Ain’t My Scene” has a very colorful atmosphere, and the video you did for “Money Back” is just you with the electric guitar in a junkyard.

It’s funny you mention that, and those two are definitely the polar opposites of the compass, so to speak. We even shot those back to back. We worked with the same guy, and on day one, we shot “Ain’t My Scene,” and the next morning, we went and did “Money Back” at that junkyard.

Really every song in its own way has a theme about the present climate. Just yesterday, I was at a radio station doing a little interview, and the disk jockey was saying that he felt like “Ain’t My Scene” was good for this time because it’s about keeping an open mind, and the lyric might inspire people to stay open-minded in these weird political debates and stuff. You can look at it as two different sides of that coin, but “Ain’t My Scene” goes along with the whole theme of getting out of my comfort zone. For me, it was like, “I need to allow myself to walk down some roads I haven’t been down and to keep my eyes open to things I maybe wouldn’t be open to.”

For the video, Doltyn Snedden, who runs DS Creative, basically was like, “hey, what if we just put you in a bunch of awkward scenarios?” And I was like, “dude, I would love that,” [laughs] so that’s where that came from. So the swimming pool, a skate park, and then we’re just sitting out at this very strange barbecue. He took me to a lot of places that felt uncomfortable or weird, and he was like, “that’s what the song is about: embracing the weirdness.”

The next day was a lot more fine-tuned. He had this idea of the American flag and a junkyard and the fact that right now, we’re kind of picking up the pieces amidst some really difficult political times. I guess it’s all that stuff that inspired the last song, “Kid,” which is just about trying to do the right thing. Trying to do good for the sake of good, even though it seems like we no longer reward that. Like, I’m watching all these people fall to financial and/or sexual misconduct charges, and all this stuff. All these people that we used to hold so high have gone, and it seems like true integrity is no longer what’s at the top of the ranks. At the end of the day, I’m trying to get my head around the idea that we just have to be good for the sake of being good. There’s no reward, and that’s kind of a big ask for humanity, but I think we can do it.

“Money Back” is very inward-focused, in a way. “I don’t want my money back.” “I won’t be numb.” Then “Kid” faces outward. You take that internal struggle and give advice to someone on the outside.

That’s true. Of course, for me, every time I write, it has some sort of personal connection, but “Kid” was definitely me saying that I think there are more good people than bad people in the world, but it’s the bad people that get all the attention. They get all the press. That song, it’s intentionally a slow ballad, and it’s not a battle cry, because I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to go for the good guys. I think the good guys just have to do the right thing and never see anything for it. It’s intentionally an understated song, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be a nudge to those people who are on the fence. Like, “hey, do the right thing. You’re not going to get anything from it, but we all know what the right thing is.”

Did you have anyone in mind when you were writing that?

I didn’t have a specific person; just that idea of the person struggling to make the right choice when they know it may be the harder choice. Maybe somebody who’s a whistle-blower; they’re going to be shamed for it, but they also know it’s the right thing to do. It’s those folks who are the heroes, but they don’t get any reward for it.

It also feels connected to “Find Me Here,” which is the song you wrote about your daughter. How has being a father impacted your perspective as a songwriter?

I think the one thing that changes with having the kids, at least for me, is that it really ups your vulnerability. I feel like the stakes become a lot higher in a couple ways. You’re no longer just responsible for you, and the idea that your kid is somewhere, and without you, they’re not safe, or that you have to keep this child alive. [laughs] It weighs on you in a way that I didn’t really expect.

It’s funny, but in some way, that vulnerability has opened me up. I’m not as private. I mean, on stage, I’ll just kind of spew. That’s been a healthy thing, but I feel like in being a dad, I have a different slant on humanity in general now that is warmer, but also more fragile all at once. “Find Me Here” is kind of me trying to hedge against that. First of all, I tour and I’m on the road all the time, so “Find Me Here” is my grounding. It goes for her to know that I’ll always be there, but also for me as a pledge that no matter where I am, I’ll be there for her. It’s kind of me putting my foot down and saying, “you might be more vulnerable, but you’re not going to mess this up.”

In songwriting in general–well, one thing is I have to avoid writing lullabies and I have to avoid writing more daughter songs, because that’ll drive people nuts, but yeah, I just feel like something in my mindset has opened. I’ll say things that are a little bit more vulnerable.

As an acoustic solo act, it can be difficult to hold an audience’s attention the way that you do and to be as open and in-the-moment. How do you develop that on-stage energy, and do you have advice for others who want to be able to do that?

The most basic way it has developed is just from playing over and over again; you get comfortable in that way. First of all, that’s kind of you to see it that way. Some people are just like, “you talk too much.” [laughs] Man, I tell you what. There have been a couple shows along the way where I barely got there, and I was totally exhausted, and I had that nothing-to-lose attitude. I don’t even know if I sounded good, but I just had this “I barely made it here; whatever happens, it happens” attitude, and in some way, that was freeing. I would run my mouth a little more, or I’d make a few jokes that were riskier than what I normally would have done, and I started to notice those were the shows where people really seemed to have a great time.

After that happened a few times, I made a rule on New Year’s Eve one year. I said to myself, “this year, nothing’s going to be canned. I’m going to say whatever I want, and I’m just going to be free on stage. I’m going to look people in the eyes, and I’m going to tell stories and not worry about it. It was such a great decision. I look forward to being on stage because I get to goof around, and I mean, the songs are all the same, so I tell the same stories, but I don’t tell them the same way every time. Things evolve and change. People know what canned is right away, and everybody knows the artist who gets up there and is just like, “wow, it’s so amazing to be here. Thanks so much for coming out, Orlando,” and then they play, and then they say something else, but they’re not even looking out. That’s always such a bummer. I just get up there and try to be whoever I am that night.  

My advice would be, know what you want to say, but don’t practice how you say it. Look people in the eyes, see how they’re doing, and respond to that. I think that’s one of the best and most fun parts of performing: kind of figuring out the crowd. Some nights I’m on a roll and some nights I bomb, but at least it’s an adventure.

I see that you have a bunch of European tour dates coming up. Have you played in Europe before?

I have one other time; about this time last year I was over in Europe.

What is it like taking these songs abroad?

It’s a little bit different. For sure, the banter thing we just discussed is more or less out the window. I’m in Germany and Austria–I was last year and the same this year. Not all the same venues, but similar markets, and a lot of Germans and Austrians speak English. You can get around with relative ease, thankfully, because they all did their homework. [laughs] I always feel kind of embarrassed, like, “I don’t know anything about your language. Thank god you all are respectful of the global culture and everything.” They can understand a lot of the banter, but my sarcasm doesn’t fly as well, just because it’s a different culture and different senses of humor. Some jokes–like, last year we were driving around in a little Ford Fiesta, and everybody over there has, like, Mercedes and BMW’s, so the one joke that always landed is I would mention that I was driving around in a Ford Fiesta. I wasn’t telling it as a joke, but everyone would just burst out laughing. That was always funny to me.

The thing that changes is it really comes down to the song. I try to keep things simple banter-wise so they can get the gist of what I’m saying and–yeah, the energy is different. In Germany, we played a couple places that looked like your typical bar, but as soon as we started to play, everyone would turn their seats, and it became like a listening room immediately. It had nothing to do with us; It’s just the culture over there. They’re very respectful of music and musicians, and it’s refreshing. Every venue puts you up and feeds you, so you have a place to stay and a hot meal every night, and there’s kind of a built-in circuit of support for German and Austrian artists, but also for foreign artists touring through. It’s cool in that way, but audiences are dead silent, and then they applaud very politely, so you don’t see too many raucous, rowdy nights.

I’ve only played maybe 15 shows in Europe, but from the shows I’ve played, it seems like it’s a lot more music-centered for those kinds of venues. I definitely wanted to go back and I’m curious to see how the second round goes–if some of those same folks come back out, or if it’s a built-in audience that shows up no matter who’s playing, and if the vibe is the same.

What is overall your goal for The Compass EP?

My hopes are that the folks following along like the new songs and enjoy this next chapter, and I also hope these songs help us find a broader audience, and that we can continue to tour and grow as a band. I have this dream of supporting my family on music and not having to worry about the mortgage every month. We scrape by on it, but it would be really nice to get to a place where making music is comfortable and not terrifying. [laughs]


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