J.D. Eicher is a musician, yes — he's been playing guitar since he was a kid, and majored in music and business in college. But more than that, Eicher is a storyteller. That's clear even before you listen to his well-crafted, lyric-heavy songs. It's clear when, for example, you notice that the names of his band's three albums — The Shape of Things, Shifting and the new one, Into Place — form one phrase when you put them together in order.
It's no coincidence — there's a lot of thought going into this stuff.
"I kind of wanted to do a three-part project that grew together," Eicher says. "Three albums, with some parts tying them all together."
A Youngstown native, Eicher formed his band, J.D. Eicher and the Goodnights, when he was at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. Some of his bandmates hail from Pittsburgh, so he generally refers to the band as being "from Youngstown and Pittsburgh," even though he himself still lives in Youngstown.
The album trilogy was thought out ahead of time, but not written in advance, Eicher says. That would be taking it a little too far. "I primarily just outlined them ahead of time," he explains. "I had the themes I wanted to write about. But I think it's important to write the record around the time you're going to release it, so that it feels relevant to who you are at the time."
Eicher's identity does insert itself into the new album here and there, but he can't be mistaken for a confessional songwriter. While songs like the album-opener "Ode to the Underdog" clearly come from Eicher's personal experiences, he also tends to write songs like a fiction writer would.
"Inevitably, I'm always in the song," he admits. "There's always some part of me there. But I've always loved story-songs; I love to create those stories. A couple of songs on the new album have random characters I created — I like to create a person to meet the needs of the song sometimes."
"I wrote [‘Ode to the Underdog'] for us as a band, and for anybody in a situation like that," he explains. "We spent a lot of time playing all over the place and not making any money. That song is about toughing it out, and just sticking with it."
Eicher cites as influence everyone from Jackson Browne and The Beatles to Death Cab for Cutie; the common denominator tends to be that his favorites are lyrical storytellers, writers who don't fill in the words as an afterthought.
Into Place includes some love songs, but on the whole it's about all different aspects of life. "You've Got a Lot of Growing Up to Do" sounds like a slightly preachy indictment of the annoying people we all encounter every day — until Eicher indicts himself, too. ("To me and anyone I've missed / You've got a lot of growing up to do.")
Eicher and the band recorded Into Place mostly in Nashville, working for a portion of the process at Sound Emporium, the legendary studio where artists including Al Green, Kenny Rogers and Patty Griffin have recorded. Eicher and his crew worked with Dustin Burnett, who earned a Grammy nomination last year for his mixing work.
On one track, "Lately Lady," Eicher shares billing with some guests — O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo and local vocalist Joy Ike, with whom Eicher has toured before, and who is sharing the bill on the band's CD-release show this weekend. "I knew I wanted a duet with a female vocalist," Eicher recalls, "and immediately I knew I should call up Joy."
Touring is something Eicher has been doing a lot of — both with and without his band. Some of the Goodnights have day gigs, but Eicher himself is a full-time musician, by his estimation, touring 15 to 20 days a month over the summer, and a little less during the colder months.
"I guess when I went full time [as a musician], I thought I'd be playing much more music," Eicher says. "But I'm still doing a lot of the business side of stuff," even though a deal with Rock Ridge Music label has helped. "And driving. There's a lot of driving."
"But," he continues, "I'm able to set my own schedule. I definitely prefer it" over balancing a day job and music gigs. "Even if it's financially precarious sometimes."
With the help of Rock Ridge, Eicher says, "We've started to grow and understand the whole world of radio and labels and management and all that. We feel optimistic about where we're headed."
Wherever they're headed, Eicher is going to take his commitment to telling stories with him, even as the pop-music world seems to reward wordiness less and less.
"I've always loved literature, and loved to read," he says. "Songwriting was kind of a passion for me from the beginning. I love language, and I love the way it works together with the music."