At a time when few contemporary rock stars roam the Earth, Dan Auerbach stands out as an anomaly—both a purveyor of gut-punching guitar leads with the Black Keys, and also an audio artisan with a relentless commitment to his craft. Both qualities have elevated him to a Madison Square Garden headliner and one of the most in-demand record producers in the industry. Sometimes accused of standing on the shoulders of classic rock giants who have come before, Auerbach went straight to the source on his second solo disc, Waiting on a Song.
After taking a break from years of relentless touring, he was able to explore his adopted hometown of Nashville—where he settled after leaving his native Akron, Ohio in 2010—and ingratiate himself into the thriving local music scene. He became friends with legendary players, including John Prine, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas and Pat McLaughlin, as well as Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman of the Memphis Boys. All became frequent visitors to Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studios, contributing to the more than 200 songs recorded for the Waiting on a Song sessions.
All but 10 tracks were whittled away, leaving a record as timeless as those that first inspired Auerbach. Its buoyant melodies, breezy harmonies and airy orchestral strings are tethered by lively guitar picking and the heft of the history in the musicians’ hands. Waiting on a Song is the ultimate summer record, custom made to be played at high volume in a big-finned vintage convertible cruising down a country lane. And in case anyone wanted to live out the fantasy, Auerbach has helpfully released the album on 8-track!
PEOPLE spoke with the writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist about his new music, new city, and why the studio has become his new home.
You’ve described this album as your love letter to Nashville. How has the city changed your approach to making music?
I’m just surrounded by all these incredible musicians and songwriters. Having those people around me all the time just makes me want to work that much more. I really just immerse myself in the whole thing and the relationships I’ve made with these songwriters. We had such a good time making this record. I have the same crew, always there. We’re always working on records every week.
It sounds like you had a really organized, structured recording schedule. Did taking a break from touring open the creative floodgates?
I had to make the conscious decision to not tour. I had to clear my schedule. So I did that for the first time ever, really. And as soon as I did that I started to do these songwriting sessions, which are a typical Nashville thing but I’d never done them before. Even though I’d lived in Nashville eight years, I was on the road all the time. So I started doing these sessions with particular people. I had a friend, he recommended some of these people because he thought I’d get along with them and most of the time he was right. I just really fell in love with the process and became very, very fruitful. Songs were piling up and I knew I had to get into the studio to try to record some.
You wrote a phenomenal number of songs. 200?
We recorded 200 songs. So I wrote more than that. I was writing every day, three or four days a week, and recording three days a week. It wasn’t that hard to do, really. I don’t think so.
That’s a normal speed for you?
Well if you let me have my time to do it, yeah. [laughs]
You worked with some amazing musicians on this album. Does the fan ever come out when you’re working with people like John Prine?
I constantly had to pinch myself hanging around people like Duane Eddy and Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman. These are some of the greats who have made some of my favorite records of all time. It was a blessing, and it still is a blessing. I pinch myself because it’s so crazy.
How did you link up with Eddy?
My friend Fergie [famed engineer David Ferguson]. He introduced me to him four or five years ago. We went out and had lunch—we got buffalo burgers together. But I invited him over to the studio, and when he got there his eyes lit up. I could tell he had the same addiction I did. The studio addiction. So he was just at the studio all the time recording with us. He was part of the crew.
How do you produce a legend like Duane Eddy? Was it hard to give feedback?
It wasn’t hard because 99.9 percent of the time Duane plays the right thing. He’s great at coming up with parts. Fantastic at it. He knows when I need it to be just raw and rock ‘n’ roll and simple, and then he knows when he needs to write a beautiful flowing melody. He’s just like all these other guys: a great musician, and he really knows how to work in the studio.
Waiting on a Song has so many nods to some of my favorite classic songs. What were you listening to when you were recording? Did you have anything in particular that you were going for?
The thing is, keep in mind, every one of these musicians on this record probably played on some of your favorite records. So it doesn’t sound like those records, it sounds like those guys who invented those sounds. It’s a really important distinction to make, and I have to remind myself of that all the time that I’m hanging around with the masters. These are the guys we modeled things after.
But at the same time, I can’t really care too much about what they did in the past because they have to give me something now that blows my mind. It’s all about what happens today. That’s what these guys are so in love with: being in the studio and being creative. And I feel like what I’ve done as a producer is continue the tradition that those guys have started, of mixing all the genres together. Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman played on “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, or “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield, or “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis. Every single one of those songs were pop hits, but then they were also impossible to define in any one style. They were just a big mixture. That’s what I always try to do, whether I’m making a Lana Del Rey record or a Dr. John record. I’m picking from everywhere and solely serving the song, and that’s what these guys were all about. That’s why we clicked immediately and why we were able to be so fruitful. It’s because we think about music in a similar way.
Do you have any plans to release the rest of the 200 songs you recorded at some point? Maybe an extended version?
I assume I’ll release them at some point, but I don’t know. That’s the thing, you have to record it to really know if it’s got that magic. Some of the songs didn’t cut it at the end of the day. Some of them were great but they just didn’t fit the record. You never know until you cut it. That’s why I cut so many songs.
What are you looking for, exactly?
I’m looking for an indescribable feeling—that magic. I’m looking for a song to speak a certain kind of language that I don’t know. It has to be a song that even someone who doesn’t speak English can understand. I’m looking for magic like that, I guess.
How is recording a solo album different for you than approaching a Black Keys album, or an Arcs album, or a Lana Del Rey album? Is there a distinction to you?
Well, it’s just Pat [Carney] and I when we do a Black Keys album—there’s no one else involved. And with the Arcs, or the Black Keys, we use the studio as a writing tool. It’s part of the writing process. But with this [new album] it was a lot less. The studio was just for recording the song. We wrote them ahead of time. That was the big difference.
With everything written and arranged beforehand, was it a challenge to keep the spontaneity alive in the studio?
It felt so right to be in the studio with all these creative people. You’re basically given this canvas to paint on. That’s what you’re doing. The song is a blank canvas and they can work their magic on it. We can work out an arrangement together. It’s just all about creativity. It’s so much fun, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. But the more songs you had, the more opportunities I had to get the creative momentum going.
I loved [Dire Strait’s guitarist] Mark Knopfler’s part on “Shine on Me.” How did he come into the picture?
He was the odd ball out because he was the only person on the record that we recorded remotely. I recorded that song “Shine on Me.” I sat at the control room and was listening back and I could swear I could hear his guitar part. So I sent him the song and asked him—nicely—if he’d consider putting some guitar on the song. And he did it and it was great, it was perfect.
I read that some of your early Black Keys albums were literally made with just the two of you in a basement. The collaborative spirit of this album must have been a full shift from that.
Keep in mind, we didn’t know anybody else. We were from Akron, Ohio—there was no music scene. [laughs] There were no studios to speak of, no session guys, no songwriters. So times were different.
What brought you to Nashville specifically?
I think I was really torn between Nashville and New Orleans. I love bluegrass music, and they’re playing right there on the street. Some of my favorite records of all time were made there, and there’s still a thriving music scene with fine musicians. So I really liked that. That was all appealing to me.
It seems like much of your work—both solo and with the Black Keys—has been slapped with this “retro” tag. The cover for Waiting on a Song definitely has that early ’70s look, and you’re issuing a special edition on 8-track. [laughs] Are you consciously embracing that old school AM radio feel with this record?
[laughs] Only in form. Only aesthetically like that. I didn’t really consider thinking about genres or styles in the studio. We were really just there to serve the song. We were working on the song every day. That was the only thing that mattered. We were very much in the here and now.
What’s next for you? You’re touring the album in September—what else do you have on your plate?
I started a label so I’m going to slowly start to release some records I’ve been working on. I’m just going to be back in Nashville working on songs, trying to make music, trying to make good records.