10 Questions with ... Charles Kelley
November 8, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Charles Kelley may be best-known as a founding member of Country trio Lady Antebellum, but the Georgia-born songwriter with Rock and Soul roots is opening up and showing a different, exciting, and vulnerable side of himself with his latest venture in to the world of solo music. Kelley has released "The Driver," his solo single, via Capitol Nashville after teaming with UMG label mates Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay for the special project, which comes on the heels of an announcement that Lady A would be taking a quick break from the road to focus on their individual families. With a baby on the way, Kelley jumped right in to this project and will be on the road beginning the end of this month along with support act Maren Morris of Columbia Nashville. Kelley talked with All Access about what this project means to him, what it means for the band, and how Country - and every genre across the board - has influenced him and changed along the way.
1. Good morning, Charles! Thank you so much for taking time to speak with All Access. We should probably start by addressing - or should I say, re-addressing - the "elephant in the room," so to speak. We know you've decided to launch a solo project while Lady Antebellum takes a professional respite, but what does this mean - if anything - for Lady A's future as a trio?
This is honestly just a brief departure, and just kind of a fun shake-up as an artist, for me. We've been doing this for eight or nine years, and you can't help but after a little while feel like you're in a bit of a Groundhog Day. You tour, you get off the road, you write, you record, and then you go out and promote. Then you tour, you get off the road, you write, you record, you promote. There's never really that time to go, "Okay, I'm just going to try something completely different." And you have to throw yourself off your routine a little bit, so that's what this was for me. [Universal Music Group Nashville CEO] Mike Dungan came to my showcase here in Nashville, and he said he didn't even fully get it until he saw me live. Then he said, "I understand now what you're going for." So it's a little bit of trying to lose yourself on stage. That's what I'm going for, and it's a lot easier to do that when - I mean you naturally have that little bit of vulnerability up there all alone, and you don't have the hits. So I think it's going to be really interesting for the fans to see, and to see me in a different light. So I'm excited for that.
2. We know "The Driver" came about from a bit of tinkering in the studio. How did this evolve from something that was just fun to do in the studio, or something that you might write and turn over to another artist, into something you wanted to release for yourself?
It really came about - I had kind of cut some songs and really didn't know if it was going to be the beginning of the next Lady A record, or something I would just pitch out to other artists. And when Hillary brought up the idea about maybe taking a break after this tour, and just kind of spending time with family but also taking time to write in Nashville with all these amazing songwriters like we used to, I said, "Well, guys, this is something I've been thinking about in the back of my mind for a while, and with y'all's blessing, I'd love to go out and just put out a little solo music and do a tour, and with the idea and assurance that I'm never leaving this band." I think they knew that, and they believed that when I say it. This isn't like I'm just saying it to say it. I mean, we've worked way too hard and built way too big of a fan base with this catalog of songs to ever turn our backs on the band. I just kind of wanted to try something from an artistic standpoint. You have to realize, as artists, you're an artist for a reason. You've got your little weird hang-ups, and your weird eccentricities, and all kinds of ideas. So to kind of be boxed in to one thing for the rest of our lives, it's kind of a little bit - it's just tough. So it's nice to be able to spread my wings and try some new things. It's hard for me to express what I mean, but to me, this seems like an obvious thing that a lot of artists want to do, especially in a group, and just have a little more of an artistic departure. Whether it's going to act for a while - it's like why Tim McGraw wants to go act, because it gets him to express a different side of himself and flex that creative muscle. For me, I felt like I had gotten to where I was just writing the same song every time I got to the writing room. I felt like I just needed a change up, and to get re-inspired. And if nothing else, I was telling Dave and Hillary after I worked on this project, "I'm so - I've got my mojo back a little bit! Like I feel like when I get back to the studio and we're picking songs and going after it, that I'll be going after it with so much more of an artistic standpoint." I think a little bit of fear had started creeping in my mind about how you just don't want to lose this giant success that you've gained as a band. But the minute you start playing it safe, you just kind of lose a little bit of what brought you there.
3. This is not your first venture in to the world of a solo career. I believe it was 2006 the last time you released any solo material, and since then, you've experienced success in a trio. Is there any sense of nervousness, anxiety, or vulnerability that comes from being on stage and in the studio alone instead of with Dave and Hillary?
Yeah, it was really weird; especially performing. I've done a couple of little showcases here in Nashville without them, and that was really odd. But again, it was also this nice feeling - it's nice to be nervous again! I can't tell you the last time I've really been this nervous to get on stage, or nervous how a song is going to do, or whatever it may be. And there's a nice level of vulnerability and kind of optimistic anxiety, I guess. It's like I'm anxious about it, but I'm also so optimistic, because I feel confident that I've made some of the best music I've made in a long time. And I think I was able to make this music, because there was no agenda. I went in there and paid for it myself, no one even really knew I was making it, so there wasn't any expectation. So, with Lady A, there's always an incredible amount of expectation, and with this, there wasn't. I was able to just go in there and make it.
4. The new solo single is "The Driver," and it features vocals from Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley. How did the three of you end up collaborating on this project?
Eric and I wrote this song with a buddy of mine named Abe Stoklasa, and again, I think because I wrote it with two other guys - and when we wrote this song and did our little work tape of it, each of us had a verse - so that was always the way, I guess, after writing the song that I really envisioned the song being. So it never really, to me, would have worked for Lady A, because it's two guys and a girl. And for me, with this, I just always heard it being more of a three-part male harmony, almost like a Crosby, Stills, and Nash or something. We were trying to kind of chase down that whole Highwaymen vibe, you know? And so, I think that's one reason, too, why this wasn't a Lady Antebellum song. So, we had it finished and recorded, and Abe was actually singing the third verse, and I was just - I can't remember how it came about - but I think Dierks and I were just chatting and talking, and I played him the song, and he just flipped out. He said, "Charles, this is just really special. This is. Honestly, you should be really proud of this." And I said, "Well, honestly, I don't want to put you on the spot, but would you want to sing that last verse? I totally have envisioned a guy like you who really is truly The Singer that pours it out each night. That has been doing it." Dierks does like 300 shows a year, and he's the definition of a Road Dog, you know? When he said yes, it was just - I don't know. It just really started to feel like, wow, this project is coming together, and it could be something really special.
5. You're also planning to hit the road in support of this project. Will this be a small-, medium-, or large-capacity venue tour, and will Paslay and Bentley be joining you for any of the dates? What can fans expect from this solo tour?
It's going to be clubs. This is was another catalyst of wanting to do this record was also kind of getting down to the basics of what it means to be a touring musician. I mean, I love playing in big venues, don't get me wrong. I love it! But, I've always had a dream of going and doing the clubs. And Lady A just kind of started out opening up for Martina [McBride] and Tim McGraw and [Kenny] Chesney. So we kind of skipped the whole extended period of time of club touring. And I've always kind of wanted to do that, and that was one thing when I was talking to our manager about putting together some dates. He was like, "Do you want to go open up for somebody?" And I said, "Maybe at some point. But for now, I kind of just want to go out there and put on a really down and dirty Rock show, so to speak. And not have a set list." Lady A always has a set list, because you know, there's big lighting queues, and you've gotta have something your band can kind of rely on each night. And of course, we'll change it up to a point, but when you've got multiple singers and lighting and production, you're a little more restricted on what you can do. And for me, with this club tour, I just plan on going up there and feeling it each night. And of course, I'll play some Lady A songs. And a lot of covers. A lot of new material, too, and there's nothing more exciting than having to kind of fight for it. For the first time, I was really missing that. I always tell new artist that. When Sam Hunt was out with us, I said, "You're going to miss this rise. Because once you're there, there's always a little fear of losing it. But nothing is more exciting about the rise to get there." For me, it's almost like I'm able to start fresh again. Like I have to and get to feel this excitement of a possible rise of a possible solo success. And there's a lot of things that are exciting about that. That's what it's all about - starting and having one single, and then all of the sudden, you're rocketing and headlining and taking off. For me, it's a little bit of getting back to those infantile stages that you lose as you have some success and as your brand becomes bigger than you are.
6. Is the full project more of an EP or a full album, and when can we expect to get the full project?
I think we're looking at a full album. It kind of started out as a possible EP, and the label and everybody, as they are seeing the response, is starting to get excited about it and asked if I thought I could finish it out. And I said, "Of course!" And so I'm actually going back in to cut a few more songs to finish it out. We already had six in the can that I'm really proud of, so we'll just go back in and see how many more we have that we can add to it. But I don't want it to have too many. I kind of want it to be something that people look forward to the next time I get back to it. Because I'll do this, I'll go out and tour, and then I'm sure we'll be hopping right back in to working on the next Lady A record before too long. And I want this to be something that - in an ideal world - I can hop back in and out of for the rest of my life. Because, again, it fulfills two different sides of what I love about music. I love playing these big venues, and I love everybody knowing every song. But I also love going out there and people just listening, and they hear the song for the first time as they are watching the show up close and personal. And being able to really tell stories. We're looking to get this out early next year sometime, and I'm sure that all depends on "The Driver" and how well it does. But I think we have a basic idea of early next year. So this tour kicks off right after Thanksgiving in Cleveland, and then it'll go through the end of January, and then I have a little baby boy coming in February! So, I'll be taking most of February off, and then probably pick back up and promote the record and do some more shows after that. Then I'm sure Lady A will start kicking back in to gear.
7. During the Lady A touring hiatus, not only do you have this solo project, but you also have another important collaboration coming in February - Cassie is having a boy! Will fatherhood bring about any changes to your work schedule in regards to this project in particular?
I'm not sure how this will work; I think we're going to wait and see how it works and kind of take it a day at a time to see how it all works. My wife will be coming out on the road with me during those dates in December, and maybe even in to January. I'm sure she won't want to be on the road too late! But for us, this is always going to be part of our lives. So, we have to - early on - really learn the balance and figure it out and deal with the fact that I'm going to be gone a lot. But that's the nice thing about where we are in our career - we can afford to take her and the baby with me. Just like Hillary does with Eisele, and like Dave does with Cash. They adjust really well is what I've learned with their kids.
8. You, Dave, and Hillary gave a wonderful talk at CRS this year about how you all work together as a team and making three different personalities and perspectives work together for the good of the group. Do you think the three of you will continue to talk through individual projects, bounce ideas off of each other, and discuss your separate ventures during your hiatus? And have Hillary and Dave heard your solo project yet?
Oh, we definitely do. I wouldn't have even done this project if I hadn't had the blessing of Hillary and Dave, honestly. They totally understood. I think, of course, it was kind of like, "Well, why do you feel like you need to do this now?" But once I kind of explained it to them - and they even said that seeing some of the times we've been together since I put this project out, they have said, "Man, we can just see how happy you are, and you feel like you've gotten a lot of that confidence back." And that's just one of those things, I feel like sometimes you just need to mix it up. And it means a lot to me that the band is in such a healthy place that I feel like I can take this little detour for a while. And Hillary and Dave have their own little ideas in the back of their heads for things that they want to work on, too. So I think this is just the beginning of allowing ourselves as a band - for the first time in our lives - to actually look outside the band and do some things that we might have always wanted to do but have been afraid of doing.
9. You've written a lot of music for other artists, even crossing in to other genres, throughout the years. As someone who teeters on the edge of being grouped with the Millennials, how do you think the multi-genre and cross-over music has influenced this generation of Country artists, including yourself?
Yeah, I mean the project for me, honestly, is maybe a response to what is happening and wanting to actually get back to the basics a little bit more with what I kind of grew up loving - which is probably a little bit more like a 70s kind of Southern Rock, or California Country kind of feel. I think it's obvious that today's Country music is so influenced by all different genres. And again, it's like you're hitting on, we are all exposed to so much music. And it's different now than it was back when kids grew up in the middle of nowhere somewhere in Tennessee and all you had was a Country station you could pick up or whatever it may be. Now, everything is at your fingertips, so of course they're going to be influenced. I think, of course, as you see the success of everyone - like Sam Hunt - as they are branching out and mixing in all these different genres, you're going to see more artists chase their sound, and it's going to keep getting pushed, and pushed, and pushed. And maybe that's - at least a little bit in the back of my head - kind of my response to that. It's me wanting to put this project out like, "Hey, that's great! And I love it!" And even Lady A pushes it a lot. But if I'm going to go out and do something solo, it can't sound like what everybody else is doing. So I'm almost wanting to go back and kind of try to differentiate myself by actually being maybe a little bit more throwback and a little more vintage with my solo sound. I think there always needs to be room for all of it. We can't all sound and be chasing the same sound - otherwise, we are really going to bore the hell out of our listeners!
10. Radio has been a key component throughout your history with Lady A. You guys have always made yourself available for phoners or in-studio performances, station events and concerts, and have even experienced crossover success based on radio airplay on Top 40 and AC stations. Is radio an important component of the strategy for this solo project, or are you just focused more on getting the project out for non-commercial reasons?
Radio, to me, is always going to be a big part. I'm excited to get out and hang out with a lot of the radio community backstage and let them see the show - and see me in a different light that they haven't seen ever, probably or at least in a long time. I'd be lying if I said I don't want "The Driver" to have radio success! Because that's how - that's still the core way our fans discover music, and that's the bottom line. But we're definitely going to try to get creative and have other outlets. I'm not naïve enough to not recognize that there will be a lot of people who are confused as to why I'm even doing this, and they're going to go, "Why in the world would you be taking a break from a successful band and chasing down this thing?" Or maybe they'll say, "Man, I really only like his voice in the context of Lady Antebellum." And that's fine, too. For me, this is just - I have to do this. And I feel like I've made great music. And I think, already seeing some early response from fans that there's a good chance radio may embrace this. I made music that I just thought I loved. And I don't know - it's so hard to try to predict. Because, you try to predict what you think radio is going to like, and anytime I've ever tried to do that with Lady Antebellum and pick songs, we're always wrong! We just kind of have to pick what we love. I mean, I thought "Freestyle" was going to be a giant hit. I was like, "Okay, radio is going to eat this up!" Sure enough...no! But, when we put out something more genuine to us, radio knows, and the fans know. So, to me, there's nothing more genuine and honest from Charles Kelley as an artist than this song. It's like, this to me, if the fans and radio don't like this song, then they don't like my voice and my sound. Because to me, this is me. And that's all you can do is just go out there on a limb and say, "Hey, this is the best I've got. This is what I'm proud of, and this is what I want to say." And hopefully, everybody will embrace it. But of course, there's always a chance that people won't - and that's okay, too. If nothing else, this project has gotten me shaken up in a good way, and I'm going to bring a lot of this confidence to the next Lady A record.
This is not your first, or even second, rodeo when it comes to three-person collaborations. Besides the obvious success you've experienced with Lady A, as a teenager you, formed a band with your two brothers. If you could put together another trio featuring yourself and any two other artists, which two artists would you select, and why?
Man, that's really tough! You know what, just because I love them so much, and we've been talking about doing this and being a part of this project in the future, I'd love to do something with Darius Rucker. I think that would be a lot of fun. And Luke! I mean, honestly, we've been kicking around this idea for a long time about - we've got such close friends in this genre. There's me and Dierks, Luke and Darius, we're all such close friends, that it would make so much sense to just get in a room for a month and write songs and make a really cool, artistic record together. So, outside of Dierks and Eric Paslay, it'd be really cool to do something with Luke and Darius. That would be a lot of fun!