It’s been three long years since Brett Eldredge has recorded new music, but don’t think one of country’s most soulful crooners had to shake off any cobwebs when he finally returned to the studio.

“I stepped into that booth, and the first song, we nailed it — one pass,” the 34-year-old hitmaker tells PEOPLE exclusively. “It was the most excited I think I’ve felt in a long time.”

Fans can share Eldredge’s excitement on Friday when that song, “Gabrielle,” becomes the lead-off single for his much-anticipated album. Entitled Sunday Drive, it’s due out July 10.

What’s taken Eldredge so long?

Just listen to the song, and you’ll know he’s been on a journey — not only in his music, but also in his life.

“I wanted to take the time to connect with myself and really figure out who I am and what I want to say and what I want to do with my life, and that kind of ties into what I want to say in my music,” he says. “I made a promise to myself to push outside my comfort zones in life. If I wanted to make a really important record for myself, and hopefully for my fans, I wasn’t going to come back into the public eye until I thought I had something very important to say and it’s going to mean something. And that was much easier said than done.”

Eldredge has previously described many of the substantial life changes he’s made in his quest for self-discovery: taking up meditation and journaling, undergoing therapy, reconnecting to the outdoors, and perhaps most shockingly in this day and age, giving up social media and going to a flip phone.

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Now “Gabrielle” offers the first sign of how Eldredge has translated all this growth into his music. Gone is the polished-to-a-gloss production of previous records. Instead, listeners can tell from the very first notes coaxed from an upright piano — which Eldredge describes as “the heart” of the entire album — that this is a much more organic sound, created by the bare essentials of instrumentation.

Singer and musicians gathered in the same room to cut all the songs, an almost-extinct practice in modern recording. But the tactic worked its magic, giving Eldredge’s powerful, pliant voice a whole new playground.

“We’re all on top of each other in the room,” Eldredge recalls. “I’m singing live with the guys, and they’re playing, and my vocal could bleed right into the drums. But it didn’t matter because it was so real.”

It didn’t matter? You wouldn’t have caught Eldredge saying that a couple of years ago, but today, he describes himself as a “recovering perfectionist.” Now, he says, he’s “embracing those imperfections and embracing the rawness and the realness of what life is and what music is.”

View this post on Instagram Ok ok, I'll spill the goods, the World premiere of my new single GABRIELLE is this Friday! I hope it brings you some happiness

A post shared by Brett Eldredge (@bretteldredge) on Apr 13, 2020 at 5:58am PDT


The song itself, which Eldredge co-wrote, is just as real as its production sound. He confirms “Gabrielle” tells a real story, about lost opportunity, that involved a real woman in his recent past. As far as he knows, she has no idea she’s his muse, but he rightly figures “she might find out soon.” The only thing he leaves to mystery is whether the name is real (though doubtless it lends itself to rhyme).

“I would say, with this song, it’s very personal,” he says, “but it is more about the story than it is the name. Hopefully, the song does justice to the situation, whether you’re a Gabrielle or you knew a Gabrielle that was in your life.”

Speaking to PEOPLE earlier this week, Eldredge was already reflecting on why this single’s debut is different from so many others he’s had in his platinum-selling career.

“The excitement for me now,” he says, “is that this is the best I’ve ever felt as a person and as an artist. I can just go out there and make this story an important one to tell and to look back on it and know I didn’t leave anything on the table. I’ve still got things and issues like everybody else, but I’ve also got the power of knowing I can push beyond the things that hold me back sometimes. That’s where I’ve found life on the other side, and I’ve found life in this music.”

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Of course, Eldredge also is having to take a reality check: the COVID-19 pandemic is one thing he can’t push beyond at the moment. But even in his current isolation in his Nashville home, he says he’s feeling patient and optimistic.

“We’re gonna get out of this,” he says, “and we’re all gonna need music in our lives.”

Eldredge says he’s been filling his days with self-care: meditating, journaling, going on hikes with his beloved Weimaraner-Vizsla mix, Edgar, and most of all, connecting with friends and family. He allowed himself a brief quarantine break to celebrate his 34th birthday with his older brother and sister-in-law, just married in November. And he took the time to sit down and write his high school English teacher an email of appreciation for his influence.

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“When you’re able to feel that sense of gratitude,” Eldredge says, “it only makes you appreciate that — even when you’re in a tough moment — you have a lot.”

Eldredge says he’s been using his phone a lot, but for conversation, not playtime. He’s back to using a smart phone, but it now limits him on the apps he calls his “time-wasters,” forcing him to be more intentional.

Life, he says he’s learned, is all about connection. So is music, he’s discovered.

“When I learned that connection was everything — and I’m still working on that — that’s where the music started to really connect,” he says. “You gotta connect with yourself first, and then get that self-awareness. All we’re put here on this earth to do is connect with each other and help each other through. That’s where this music really started to shine through, and I can’t wait for people to feel that connection.”

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