With New Record, Erin McCarley on the Cutting Edge

It has been almost four years since Erin McCarley released her debut album,, an earnest work that put her in a class of Lilith Fair-haired women who can write thought-provoking lyrics with a refined pop sound.
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It has been almost four years since Erin McCarley released her debut album, Love, Save the Empty, an earnest work that put her in a class of Lilith Fair-haired women who can write thought-provoking lyrics with a refined pop sound.

A lot has changed since then, and McCarley even admits it hasn't always been for the better. While she's happy to announce her sophomore album, My Stadium Electric is finally out on iTunes today (August 28), dealing with a major record label that doesn't know how to promote her has been a painstakingly arduous process.

It's enough to make a girl want to pull out all her hair. Or, in McCarley's case, at least cut off her lovely, luxurious locks.

"Anytime I have down time or I'm nervous or I'm bored or I'm frustrated, I seriously have to keep myself from getting a scissors and cutting my hair because I literally just did that a month ago," the transplanted Texas beauty said over the phone from her home in Nashville on July 16.

It was barely a month before Universal Republic Records (whose varied roster of artists includes Florence + the Machine, the Avett Brothers and Nicki Minaj) planned the August 21 release of The Boys Club EP, a four-song sample of her full-length that was put on hold. The Boys Club, McCarley's reference to her label that is mentioned in the song "Just Another Day," was originally scheduled to come out June 26 as Elevator EP, named after her bouncy first single.

Shortly after this interview, a wise move was made to abort the EP. "The label called and proposed it, and it took me by surprise at first," McCarley wrote in a subsequent e-mail. "Generally, most artists take about three months to set up a record in the press, etc. We were three weeks away from the proposed EP release! So I was a bit shocked, but while thinking through it, I really didn't see why not."

For an artist who's been put through the emotional and creative wringer during this entire process, McCarley said, "I was surprised by how light I felt," the morning after the final decision. "I didn't realize that I had been lugging around so much weight wondering if my full-length record would ever be heard."

While trying to understand the original strategy, McCarley clearly didn't like the idea of an EP coming out just a couple of months ahead of the full album as a way of testing the market.

"The entire record is my baby," she said in July, of the 12 songs she wrote or co-wrote. "This EP is like, I don't even know what that is. I can't even think about it. The record is what I made. It's hard to think, if for some reason the EP didn't make any sort of buzz or people didn't really respond, for them to put my record out with any promotion around it, it's almost like giving birth to a stillborn baby. Of course, that's my biggest fear. But I've had really good conversations with Monte [Lipman], the president [and CEO of Universal Republic Records]. I really love those guys up there when I'm not mad at them."

McCarley was still able to laugh about that then, despite not knowing when -- or even if --the full-length would be released. The record that initially was scheduled to drop in September behind the June EP has been "locked and loaded since December," said McCarley, who at the time of this interview said she was keeping her fingers crossed for an October 23 release. "I think that's the date. If not, I'm gonna like go and jump on every desk and vandalize the building," she said, laughing again.

McCarley probably had to laugh to keep from crying. Years of work and compromise went into making this album, which got off the ground in the fall of 2010 in Nashville, where McCarley reunited with first-album producer Jamie Kenney, the man she credits for getting her career going when she was living in San Diego.

Among those writing and/or playing on that initial batch recorded at Lewis Park Studios included K.S. Rhoads, McCarley's boyfriend of two years who was a member with her in the talented Ten Out of Tenn collective, and Daniel Tashian (the more serious "There's No Holding You Down" might be the album's best cut).

"We recorded like nine songs and it was a blast," McCarley said of the decision to take a giant step away from the heavy introspection of Love, Save the Empty to bring out a more playful side that she can show off in her live act. So touches of Fergie and Katy Perry are more visible here rather than her biggest songwriting influences -- Fiona Apple, whom she had just seen perform at the Ryman, and Patty Griffin.

"It was so fun diving into what I felt like I needed to do at the time. The record label was kind of quiet when they got the music. And I think it's just... they don't know (Kenney). They know him just from my first record. But he's not like this really well-known producer, so I think they felt like they just wanted me to open up and work with other people just to see what it was like. And I agreed. And I was glad for that opportunity."

The label sent McCarley to London to work with producer Martin Terefe, and they recorded 12 songs, five of which made the cut. Additional co-writers included Greg Kurstin and Mike Elizondo in Los Angeles and Dan Wilson in Minneapolis, while Dan Carey, another producer in London whom McCarley really liked, also was enlisted. But none of their work was used.

"I probably would have been perfectly happy with sticking with Jamie and finishing it out," said McCarley, who played acoustic and electric guitars and Omnichord on the album. "Because it was so concise and we both got to dig in and experiment. ... So it was a scary thing going outside of that and starting over with somebody else that wasn't already there in the narrative with me, with my brain, just knowing where I wanted to go."

"You go into a room and co-write and produce a song that day, and it's like, there's no way. It's like asking someone to marry you after knowing them for two hours. So that was a little nerve-racking. But I think I opened up to it," she said.

Feeling like they were still missing the right version of one final song, McCarley brought "Pop Gun" to Ben Allen. The producer/engineer in Atlanta, who has worked with Gnarls Barkley and Animal Collective, added some bells and whistles just before mixing began.

"I do love this music and I think that it wound up really cohesive," said McCarley, whose collaborative nature led to a spot on the Hotel Cafe tour in 2008 and helped put her on stage with Sarah McLachlan and Emmylou Harris during the 2010 Lilith tour. (Erin McCarley, right, onstage with Emmylou Harris during the "Because the Night" encore at the Lilith tour stop in suburban Denver in 2010.)

"Having all of those producers and all those minds and opinions floating around, I really think that I pushed to get the right songs that made sense, and sounds and flavors."

Working with a record label is "a necessary evil," McCarley noted. "And there's good people and most of them got their jobs because they love music."

So this may all work out. McCarley has the lone writing credit on two songs, and one of them, the Kenney-produced "Amber Waves," is the single of the week on iTunes, which she calls one of her best supporters. "They are giving me a huge marketing opportunity. And I felt that releasing my full record while I had single of the week was one of the best scenarios that I could ask for."

Yet it's easy to see why this bundle of verve kept searching for the scissors after constantly struggling to deal with the business of making music.

"You know, it's the push and pull," said McCarley, who preferred to talk about the record but remained refreshingly open about the problems she encountered. "There were days when I just wanted to dig a huge hole in the ground and hide and not answer any phone calls from the label or have to hear anyone's opinion or tell me what to do. But then there's other times where it's a good push and pull. And it's positive. It was a hard process. I can't really lie about that. It was a really hard process. It challenged me to read my gut. ...

"I think that I -- and this is just being pretty honest and aware -- but I feel like it did help me learn to compromise a little more and be able to play with everyone. I think the biggest challenge for me is to keep everyone energized through the process. It's like being a coach. Just keeping everyone with a positive attitude."

Still, McCarley couldn't resist poking fun at her company on the track "Just Another Day." Writing with Terefe (and Nelly Furtado collaborator James Bryan) for the first time, McCarley recalled, "I think I was a little frustrated with the label that morning." Asked why, she left it with "just the cliche of them bowling over your vision."

"I just started writing these cheeky lyrics," she said, including one line about cutting her hair. Then there's this:

Need, need to please the boys club
Which one of you is the leader?
Numb numb, the Dummy has his thumb
Down down on everyone
Hey, where are all of the dreamers?

"And I thought it would be awesome to put it against a really dark background and juxtapose the whole situation. ... And the guys were choosing all these really happy chords and I was like, 'Oh God, no, we can't do that because the music needs to juxtapose. ... And it just kept going happy, happy, happy. And by the end of the day, it was just like the theme song for Friends if it was re-released. I guess it's not a bad thing. It just went super-happy and pretty carefree. Which is fine, but that wasn't my intention.

"When the label heard it, they freaked out and loved it and I kind of chuckled to myself because I'm like, 'Well, OK, it's about you, but ... so be it.' "

Who knows if McCarley's stressful hair-cutting days are over. She said it's a trait she inherited from her mother Barbara, a retired schoolteacher whose most impulsive idea (before deciding last month to move with husband Jerry to Nashville) was to take a train from Texas to Philadelphia in 1960 to appear on American Bandstand. A 16-year-old then known as Joan Dominguez, she was such a fan of one of the dancers on the show that she changed her name, becoming president of the other Barbara's fan club.

McCarley's life is filled with a different set of adventures, but now that My Stadium Electric is finally out, the clippers can remain in the drawer. Anxious to start touring behind this record, the younger of two sisters is now in her 30s, still maturing while "learning to trust myself" during this musical journey.

She seems ready to let herself -- and her hair -- keep growing, and is capable of doing so with minimal interference. Just in case, though ...

When asked in July how the new 'do was shaping up, McCarley said, "Oh God, I don't know what I did. ... I guess that's why they make extensions."

Lilith Fair concert photo by Michael Bialas. All other images courtesy of Universal Republic Records.