Since coming together in 2000, the Eli Young Band has had a powerful impact in country music circles, showcasing their Texas roots with their own songs and playing their own instruments. The foursome—Mike Eli, James Young, Jon Jones, and Chris Thompson—has produced four chart-toppers: the multi-platinum hits “Crazy Girl,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart, “Love Ain’t” and “Drunk Last Night.” Their career song, “Crazy Girl” (in 2011), was named Billboard’s #1 Country Song of the Year and ACM Song of the Year.
The band has also picked up multiple award nominations from the Grammy, CMA, CMT, ACM and Teen Choice Awards. EYB has sold out venues coast-to-coast and has shared the stage with Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, Chris Young and many other artists.
For a band of musical brothers that had been hitting the road for close to two decades, it was a frightening time when the tour-canceling pandemic put their careers on hold. But lead singer Mike Eli says he used that uncertain time to focus on creating new music for the band. Eli co-wrote seven of the nine tracks on the band’s just released album, Love Talking.
“I love these songs so much,” Eli said from his tour bus in Fayetteville, Arkansas after performing the night before in the in Dallas/Fort Worth area. “I’m always excited when new music is coming out, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about new music since we’ve started this band. I think that coming out of 2020 and all that, it was a scary time for us, but I feel like I came out of it writing some of the best songs of my life.”
The new album includes their 2018 #1 single, “Love Ain’t (written by Ross Copperman, Ashley Gorley, Shane McAnally), two versions of the current title track single, “Love Talking,” and sonic departures for the band like “Chances Are” and “Tell Me It Is,” that Eli describes as his most personal song on the record.
Here’s the lyric video of Eli Young Band’s single, “Love Talking.”
We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Mike Eli. He tells the story behind the latest single, trudging on creatively during the Covid-19 scare, and how shows on the road can take their music in a new direction.
BC: Can you talk about the making of your band’s new album, Love Talking?
Mike Eli: The record was made and written over the course of 2020. It was obviously a very scary time for everyone, especially our industry as far as trying to figure out what the heck we were going to do. We’re one of those bands that our livelihood is on the road being able to play shows, so it was a scary time. You had no choice but to find an outlet, a way to be creative and take advantage of the time. We were going to write an album. I ended up writing over the course of that time off around 100 songs. I was writing a lot, every day. I had my time carved out during the day where I would go write and be creative, and take advantage of the time that I had.
The reality of that time was a bit of a blessing in disguise being able to write that much music all at once. When making this record, we tried to stay positive and find the positivity in the songs as far as picking which songs ended up on this album. I think we all need some positivity in our lives. I think when we were writing over the course of 2020, I think there was a whole lot of unknown and a whole of writing what we know at the time. A lot of folks don’t want to necessarily go back and relive all that. The great thing is a bunch of those songs that have that angst and that confusion built into the songs, they will be able to stand the test of time. We really only put one of those songs on this record, a song called “Tell Me It Is.” It kind of came at that moment where me personally, I told my wife, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I can tell you everything’s going to be alright because I just don’t know.” “Tell Me It Is” is a little bit of that…we tried not to do too much of that on this record.
BC: Was it hard whittling down that long list of songs for the record? How did you decide what went on?
Here’s the video of Eli Young Band’s hit, “Love Ain’t.”
Eli: With the four of us, when it comes down to picking songs, it seems normally pretty easy. Every once in a while there will be one or two where maybe a couple of us are like, “Okay I think this is something.” If anybody ever is like, “No, I hate it,” then we just leave it behind. Over the years, we have been really good at that. Over the last 20 years of picking songs and writing songs, we’ve done a good job of being on the same page.
BC: “Love Talking” is the current single. Why did you decide to cut two versions (one fully produced and one acoustic) for the album?
Eli: When we were writing the song, it had two different feels. When we talked about having an acoustic version, we knew that this melody is so cool and very different. We took a certain approach rhythmically on the full version, and then on the acoustic version, we wanted to kind of focus where it was really, that lyric and that dry vocal. It feels like old school Eli Young Band but it’s something we’ve never done before. I think there’s something cool about that chorus. It doesn’t lift in your traditional way. There’s nothing traditional about the way we went about the song, and I think that’s what’s so intriguing about it. We tend to be drawn to things that are not traditional. It’s almost like it should be traditional, but it’s not. I think we tend to be drawn towards those kind of “hey, we-fooled-you kind of things.” I’m really glad there’s an acoustic version of the song on the album, but I feel like “Love Talking” has such an energy, and it’s something we haven’t been able to pin down for our live show until now. It’s only taken us 20 years. I think it’s exciting, and it’s been fun to play live. You can tell the fans are digging it.
BC: How did you go about writing that song with Jeffrey East and Eric Arjes?
Eli: We wrote a lot of songs together over 2020 and 2021, and we wrote another one the other day. They are two of my favorite songwriters. We wrote so many good ones. Both of them are so talented. In fact, we had written so much together, I asked Eric Arjes to co-produce the record. He’s super-talented as a songwriter as well as a producer. I think he just got us. He understood what we wanted to go for. When we were writing this song, Jeffrey was playing around with that groove. He’s one of those songwriters that can surround himself around an idea and you’re like, “How did you think of that?!” A lot of times I’ll come in with this half-cocked idea about writing a certain song, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got it. Do this.” Jeffrey is just one of those souls—even the most negative of ideas he can find the positivity in it, and that’s what’s really fun about writing with him.
Here’s the lyric video of Eli Young Band’s song, “Lucky For Me.”
BC: How does the songwriting process work for you?
Eli: It’s so different every time. I used to feel like I had to start with the idea and the hook. Even though I try to go back to that, it always evolves, and I think you have to be open-minded as a songwriter to be able to approach it from a different direction. If there’s ever an example of being forced to approach something in a different direction, 2020 was the year of being forced to do that. Writing over Zoom was at first very difficult to write with songwriters that you’re used to having this intimate moment in this room and you’re writing songs together, and you feel that connection. It’s hard to create that when you’re on Zoom. When I went into my studio, I tried to create the space and make sure that everything is wired so that it can feel like you’re in the same room.
When I’m zooming in my studio, I’ve got multiple screens up and cameras. I really wanted to make sure if I was going to do that, I was going to do it right. That was the beginning of starting a new way to go about songwriting. I always felt like I had to start with that hook, finding that hook and that lyrical thing to wrap the song around. I realized that may not always end up being what the hook is. I feel like I’ve got to start with that lyrical idea while knowing that it might change. I never go in with a melodic thing until later. I think that that’s something I feel like we feel like we’ve got to find the groove we want before we even touch the melody.
BC: When you take that music you’ve been working on and finally perform it on the road, what’s that like?
Eli: It’s funny because sometimes you think a song is going to feel a certain way live, and you have the hope that it’s going to be what you wanted to add to the show, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you get up there and you think it’s going to have this energy, and then you start playing it onstage to the crowd, you’re like…Oh it doesn’t quite have the energy that I thought it did. Or it’s the complete opposite. It’s always black or white when it comes to how big it is, how much energy it has, or how much of a downer it is for the show. Well, that’s not going to work. We’re going to have to do something to it to make it right for the live show. There are songs that we play in different tempos. Some songs have everything beefed up bigger; some songs are completely broken down. They’re big on the record, but they’re completely broken down for the live show. It really depends. Every song is different in how it’s going to be played live. It depends on how that energy is going to work between us and the crowd. Going from theaters to clubs to arenas, every show is different and every room is different.
Here’s the lyric video of Eli Young Band’s song, “Break Up In A Bar.”
Sometimes we have to change things on the fly depending on what the room is like, but it’s really exciting to play new stuff. That’s the fun part when you have new songs to interject into the show because it injects a new life into us as performers. Not that we needed that after taking so much time off during 2020. We were all happy about getting up on stage again after being not on stage for so long.
BC: Is one of the songs you adapted on the road, “Love Talking?”
Eli: I feel like it works both ways, and you get two different songs. To me you can feel like in that chorus, between the acoustic version, you’re really just breaking down that groove and taking stuff out, taking out effects. There’s not much of a change, but it’s a drastic change because that groove is so heavy on that chorus and makes it feel faster and have this energy behind it. The song works both ways, and it almost can turn into this moody mid-tempo love song acoustic. When I’m just playing it, just me and a guitar, (He sings part of the song.) it feels a little old school mid-tempo, but then there’s this energy that kind of gets injected when the whole band comes in behind it. It’s cool because it works both ways in a cool way. It will be interesting if this song becomes a big hit to have these two things you can do with it.
BC: I’d like to ask about one of your blasts from the past, “Crazy Girl.” What’s the story behind that song (written by Liz Rose and Lee Brice)?
Eli: I’m a sucker for that time signature. It’s not full-on waltz. It’s like that 6/8 thing that really works. James and I put that CD in and that song was number one. Lee Brice, we had already been writing with quite a bit and had yet to write with Liz Rose at that time. It was a first listen song. As a songwriter, I’ve always been so in awe of anyone that creates something that can move you, and when you can create something that feels so mainstream but feels a little different. I know that the song feels this way now. It feels so much “Well duh, it’s a big hit.” But at the time it was different. That was not what was working. “Crazy Girl” and “Breaks Your Heart”—we had to say, “No, these are hits.” People will say oh we knew from that get go. No, they didn’t. We had to be like “No, this is going to work. We promise.” From the moment they heard that backwards guitar on the front end of that song they were like, “What is that? That’s not going to work? People are going to be very confused.” Now, it’s a staple. You can only hope and pray that you have a song like “Crazy Girl” to be a part of your career. That’s a career song for us so we’ll always be thankful for it.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].