“I found the songs that I thought gave it a cohesive picture of where I’m from in Kansas,” singer and songwriter Erik Dylan tells us in a recent conversation about his upcoming album, Heart of a Flatland Boy. “[I] wanted to speak to the blue collar Americans,” he continues, “and people that I grew up with, went to high school with. I wanted them to hear the record and know that I was doing them justice.”
Being true to the world he grew up in is important to the Kansas native – it’s a guiding light when he enters a writing room, and remained a sonic lighthouse when he was picking songs for his new record, out October 21. He’ll joke about it onstage, but it’s a credo he keeps close to him at all times: he doesn’t want to let the world that shaped him down.
“I think we need to focus on writing songs that don’t alienate the people we’re writing about,” he told us when we first spoke early in 2015. “We do have fun, we drink beer, we drive dirt roads, all of that stuff is real and I remember doing it. But I also remember the struggle, and people being laid off, factories getting shut down, droughts, and babies, and getting married, and all these sections of your life that kind get forgotten.”
Heart of a Flatland Boy is rooted in those stories, and not only in title. “Astronaut” contrast sweaty realities with lofty aspirations and “Fishing Alone” tackles loss at its most raw, while songs like “It Ain’t Broke,” “Flatland Boy,” and “Map Dot Town” chart the roads of small town life more accurately than street signs.
One of the highlights on the album is the single “Pink Flamingos,” a both gritty and witty co-write with Adam James that describes a no-good man who abuses a child and meets his fate: “pushing up pink flamingos.” The song, featuring Emily Earle, perfectly balances humor with horror, small town all-knowing with grave unknowns. It’s a not-often-discussed topic in country music or otherwise, but the approach is both stark and subtle, for a result that leaves a lasting impression.
“It’s like a it’s a murder mystery disguised as a romantic comedy,” Dylan says. “It’s funny how it works out. But and I think that’s one thing Adam James and I wanted to do when we wrote it was like, very serious subject matter, how do we make this song not go too dark? And we’re like well, let’s go psychedelic 60’s twang country on it and have some fun with it and hope that the lyric breaks through to the listener too.”
Much as the writing tackles life’s at times less glossy side, Dylan embraced imperfections when it came to recording for the record. “All the vocal takes on the album are the vocals going live down with the band in the studio,” Dylan says. He produced the record himself, along with Randy Montana and Paul Cossette. “We didn’t try to fix anything, we just went for emotion and we went for realness on the vocals too. So the vocals aren’t perfect, the guitar playing isn’t perfect, but I think sometimes I’m looking for that because the music that we hear so much now is so perfect technically perfect that it loses some of the emotion.”
Emotion is strong throughout the record, an undercurrent of hometown pride, hard work, and strong families running deep in each song’s blood. The music is quintessentially Dylan – in the studio, renowned guitarist Tom Bukovac had Dylan play acoustic along with the band while he was singing, shaping the recording around Dylan’s sound. “He wanted the band to have the feel my natural feel and my strum patterns and the way that I play so that they could lock in around that rather than create something for me to sing to and then have me play to that later,” he says. “We actually didn’t play any full demos or anything to the band prior to going in and recording; Jake Mitchell and I sat down with the band and just sang the songs on acoustic guitar and then we talked about what we thought should happen in the song.”
The result is an output cohesive, strong, and raw, much like the stories themselves. Sonically, Dylan is a bit hard to box: he cites influences including Americana and Red Dirt, as well as The Ramones and Nirvana. On Heart of a Flatland Boy, Dylan croons country and roars rock, with a gritty groove that kicks up dust and then simmers as it settles. It’s a record that’ll demand your attention, immediately, and again.
Heart of a Flatland Boy is available for pre-order here.