Charles Kelley on how Lady Antebellum dove deep on new album 'Ocean'
Since their 2008 debut, country trio Lady Antebellum has toggled between the wistful balladry of tunes like crossover smash “Need You Now” to the whimsical euphoria of songs like “You Look Good,” selling over 18 million records and scoring a truck-full of awards along the way.
The trio returns today with their latest Ocean, a back to basics collection of love songs both joyful and melancholy. They waste no time diving into most people’s worst nightmares after a heart-shattering break-up with their first single and album opener “What If I Never Get Over You” and explore various avenues of love with their trademark blend of harmony and heart. The trio performed the tune earlier this week on the CMA awards with Halsey in a moving mash-up with the pop singer’s “Graveyard.”
EW recently chatted with Charles Kelley about how he and his bandmates– Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood– about embracing their roots, getting vulnerable and their late friend, writer-producer Busbee.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are many facets of this album that call to mind your debut record. There’s a more rough-hewn quality to some of it and it rocks a little harder. Was that sense of callback intentional?
CHARLES KELLEY: Yeah, for sure that was a conscious effort. We’ve had a lot of different changes in direction and that was inevitable. You’re wanting to explore and grow your sound, and also have some songs that would really lend themselves to live shows, like “Bartender” and “You Look Good.” But I do think at the core of us, the sound of this record is really what I would say represents us the best. And, that was the conversation we had with, with [producer] Dann Huff before we went in the studio: “Let’s get back to some of those warm tones.”
It had been some time since you’d explored a bit of bluesiness and those Southern rock vibes that helped define that first record, was it refreshing to go back?
For sure. We had a few of what we like to call “hero” songs that had that feel and, we just said, “You know what, let’s really chase after that sound.” And the minute we put out the first single, “What if I Never Get Over You,” it was the exact reaction from the fans that we wanted. They said a lot of those same things: “Gosh, this reminds me of the first couple records.”
For that song in particular, just as you did on “Need You Now,” you are essentially preying on listeners’ biggest fears. Romantic desperation has clearly been a successful topic for you all.
It definitely feels like that. [Laughs] It’s like “Need You Now” 2.0 lyrically, like the continuation of that story. There’s still hope in “Need You Now,” then “What if I Never Get Over You” is like, “Well we’re done and am I ever going to find anyone that compares to you?”
Yes, the normal friend and family counsel is “Everything gets better with time” and here comes Lady A with a song to tell you, “Actually, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it will be terrible forever even after you’ve met someone new.” So, thanks for that.
We’re a very depressive band. [Laughs]
Which is funny because you’re all happily married, right?
I know! But you know what, we all listened to really sad songs. That’s always our favorite. I mean it’s so funny. Anytime we’re comparing what songs off the record that we love and it’s always the sad songs that we love the most.
One interesting thing about that song is the protagonist is sorting through pictures and, even though it’s 2019 and probably very few of us are actually printing out pictures anymore, it feels even more timely in the way that people now are curating their lives on Instagram and Facebook, to make it seem like everything is great all the time. We could only do that in a limited way years ago when we were forcing people to sit through slideshows of our vacations.
It’s true. That’s how that song started. We were having that conversation about Instagram and everybody’s highlight reel, and then, of course, we turned it into more of a relationship song. But it really was a little bit of a commentary on that.
“You Can Do You” feels like the tune that is most spiritually aligned with the first record with that guitar riff and you really leaning into that part of your voice that has the rasp to it, but still having some of that party energy of the Lady Antebellum of the last couple of years. Was that one of the “hero” songs?
It really was. That was one of the first songs we wrote for this record. We were talking about Nashville and [the honky-tonk strip on] Broadway, and we said, “Isn’t it wild that so many walks of life can walk into the same bar and get along, and have a great time, and love country music?” Because the world is so divided and you can’t like or have conversations with anyone on the other side of whatever your beliefs are. And it is such, just a silly, polarizing moment in our country right now. This song is a fun song, but still has a deeper message at the core of it.
The title track is a real wrecking ball emotionally. A lot of people with sometimes remote partners will probably relate to that idea of loving someone but feeling shut out at times, of being lonely inside a relationship. Where did that one come from and what was the inspiration for that stripped to the studs arrangement?
“Be Patient With My Love” was one of the first songs written for the album and our whole team was just like, “Wow, okay. This is as honest as you’ve ever been.” And we all looked at each other like, “What if we treated the whole record like that? And just really went after complete honesty and transparency.” That’s where songs like “Let it Be Love” and “Crazy Love” came from. And then we heard “Ocean” and it just was like, “Gosh, it wrecks me.” I’ve been married 10 years now, and I know my wife feels like that sometimes with me. There are seasons where I’m just an open book and there are seasons where I just kind of shut down and don’t give her what she needs. When Hillary put her vocal down on this, it just absolutely wrecked me. I’m so proud of it. We did a video and Hillary, none of that crying in the video was planned, that just came out of her. And to see the reaction from the fans to that is amazing. It was like, “Man, when we’re, honest and vulnerable it’s when we connect the most through our music.” And so it’s nice to see that it’s connecting with people.
Finally, in 2019, the summit that many country music fans have wanted to hear for years: Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum on one song, “The Thing That Wrecks You.” Were the negotiations very tense over the years? What took so long?
We have been such close friends for the longest time and, ironically Karen [Fairchild] and Jimi [Westbrook] has a place right down the street from us here in Florida and every time we’re at the pool I’m like, “When are we going to work together? When are we going to work together?” It’s hard to get everybody’s schedules together, and who’s project is it going to be on? And finally, I just wouldn’t let it go. And I sent them this song and, and they both were like, “Wow, this could be the song.”
To have them in there that studio day was just such a cool thing to see their process and how they divvy up their parts and to see all four of them– we had them lined up in individual little booths looking at each other– sing their parts at the same time was just such a cool moment. I’m so proud of that song. It’s definitely an art piece. It’s kind of a dark song. But I love just the whole sea of voices on it. It was really fun to put together.
It really points up the differences in your styles and sounds.
For sure. We have very different instincts when it comes to harmonies. I almost feel like ours is always a little bit more rustic. Their harmonies are so perfect, their voices are very pure and, I have a little bit more of a gravelly thing. And I think that’s what makes it so cool and unique, and does set us apart as two completely different groups.
On a sadder note, your friend, writer-producer Busbee passing away from cancer, in September must’ve really shaken everybody up.
It really has. We were just in L.A. too, doing the Ellen show. Right afterward we drove over to his house and got to see him for a really brief moment. And then the next week, he passed and I’m glad we got to have that moment with him. But it’s just tragic and scary how just out of nowhere, something like that can happen. And it’s someone who you love. That’s definitely the youngest person that I’ve ever known in my life, and is close, to pass away like that, so suddenly. So, it definitely hit, hard. Everybody in Nashville and L.A., and the music community.
But, one thing, I was really, really proud that we got to have a song on this record, and we actually are dedicating this record to him in the liner notes. We wrote the song “Alright” with him. And I love that it’s very hopeful. It’s one of the few happy songs off the record. And it’s an encouraging song. And that definitely was him. You’d walk into the writing room and you’d be in the middle of a song and he’d stop and go, “God, what a job. I feel so blessed to be able to do this job. Isn’t this so much fun?” He always had such joy for music and songwriting. I think that’s why it’s hit everybody so hard, because he just was such a fun spirit and was also having such a big moment in his career these past few years. And so we’re going to miss him.
Are you all planning a tour for Ocean soon?
We’re going to have an announcement soon. We can’t say who it is yet, but we’ve got a huge opener coming out with us, and it’s going to be fun. It’ll be a big old summer tour, and we’ll be adding a lot of these new songs in the set.