meta-scriptCharles Esten On How Procrastination, Serendipity And "Nashville" Resulted In 'Love Ain't Pretty' | GRAMMY.com
Charles Esten On How Procrastination, Serendipity And "Nashville" Resulted In 'Love Ain't Pretty'
Charles Esten

Photo: Kirsten Balani

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Charles Esten On How Procrastination, Serendipity And "Nashville" Resulted In 'Love Ain't Pretty'

For the first time in his career, Charles Esten is fully focused on music. But as the actor/singer details, his debut album, 'Love Ain't Pretty' is much more than another venture — it's a lifelong goal achieved.

GRAMMYs/Jan 3, 2024 - 10:40 pm

Like many of his peers, Charles Esten has known music is his calling since he was a kid. But at 58, he's just now getting the opportunity to do what his contemporaries are long past: release a debut album.

As fans of the beloved ABC/CMT series "Nashville" or the hit Netflix drama "Outer Banks" know, Esten first established himself in the acting world. But as his "Nashville" role revealed, the actor also had some strong singing chops, too — and it wasn't a coincidence.

Due Jan. 26, Love Ain't Pretty is a testament to both Esten's patience and his passion. Combining his soulful country sound and emotive songwriting, Love Ain't Pretty poignantly captures his years of loving and learning. And with a co-writing credit on all 14 tracks, the album is the purest representation of his artistry possible.

"Being the age I am, and the difference of what this album is to what maybe my first album would've been if I was 28, is the intentionality," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I can chase what's thoroughly me, and the facets of that. And in the end, that, I think, makes better music anyway."

As the title suggests, Love Ain't Pretty mostly focuses on finding the beauty in life. Along with several odes to his wife, Patty ("One Good Move," "Candlelight"), Esten delivers tales of self-reflection ("A Little Right Now") and simply enjoying the moment ("Willing To Try"), all with a grit that's equal parts inspiring and charming.

Perhaps the most fitting sentiment on the album is "Make You Happy" — not because of its lovestruck narrative, but because it captures Esten's goal with Love Ain't Pretty and beyond: "Wanna make you happy/ Wanna make you smile."

"I know that musical superstardom is not an option," he acknowledges. "I don't even seek it. So, what do I seek instead of perfection? Connection."

Below, Esten recounts his fateful journey to Love Ain't Pretty — from his first taste of stardom to finally fulfilling his lifelong dream.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

All the way back in third grade, our elementary school had a contest to write the school song. They said, "Find a Disney song and use the melody and then put new words to it." I did it to "It's a Small World." I probably wrote little doodles on my own [before that], but that was the first one with any bit of fame. 

I went back, like 10 years later, and they were singing that. They actually made it as part of all the assemblies and everything. That feeling, to hear people singing words that you thought of, I'm sure that was the beginning of this path.

Eventually, when I went to college, I was in a band. But, even before I was in a band, my grandmother passed in my sophomore year of college. And, I didn't get back in time to see her. She had helped raise me when I was little, after my parents' divorce, so it hit me hard. I somehow was able to put what she meant to me in a song, and that made a big impact in a lot of ways. Whereas that third grade little ditty made everybody laugh and smile and everything, this made my mother and my aunts and uncles [cry] in a warm, loving way. I could see it affecting them. 

I could [also] feel it help me process what I was going through. That was another bit of an aha moment, like, "Oh wow, writing a song can do that also."

Right after that, I started a band. That experience of hearing a band bring your song alive — it was so much more full, this experience, and hearing somebody else add a thing you hadn't thought of, that was another true revelation, the power of that. So I got hooked rather quickly. 

Honestly, I probably would've stayed in that world if my band had stayed in that world. They all made the decision to graduate and go be doctors and lawyers and stuff, as the song says. When that finished up, I didn't know what I was going to do next. But, having experienced that made it clear to me that I was not cut out for a desk job — even though I had an economics degree. 

I had some friends that had gone to L.A. and started becoming actors. I thought, "Maybe I'll give that a try." But the long and the short of it is, if you had asked me, "Will you continue in music?" I'd be like, "Absolutely. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to meet another bass player and a drummer and another band will come."

It didn't happen. I went to London and played Buddy Holly for two and a half years in the musical "Buddy." When I went back to L.A. after that, then the family started to come, and so the band just never happened. But I had a piano, had guitars — I never stopped writing or playing.

At one point, I had the thought, "Well, I might have missed the boat in terms of ever getting to be a performer myself, but I can write songs." And by this point, I was really listening to a whole lot of country, '90s country, 2000s and all.

So, I decided I was going to start writing in a more formalized way, in a more intentional way, instead of just whenever a song came to me. And, as soon as I sort of said that, things started happening.

I met my friend Jane Bach, who is a great Nashville songwriter. She was going back and forth between LA and Nashville at the time. She invited me to sing at the Bluebird [Cafe in Nashville], which I knew very well, and I said yes. And twice, I had to cancel because I got other work. And at a certain point, I literally said to my wife, "When am I going to get to go to Nashville? That'll never happen."

[That] maybe was two or three years before "Nashville." And then I get this script that says, "Nashville." Next thing I know, I'm here and I'm literally doing my first scene in the Bluebird.

I understand, very cleanly, that ["Nashville"] opened all these side doors that most people don't have access to. But, I also know that there's a chance they could have all been opened and I could not have been ready. 

When it finally [happened], for a lot of people, just looking at an actor who's playing a singer/songwriter, I get the feeling that it was a pleasant surprise — I like to think that there was a little more there than they expected. It was actually more authentically who I was than the actor.

I never really quite verbalized this, but the feeling [of landing "Nashville"] was one of — it'll make me emotional — completion. I felt like the show was an answer to so many unsolved things in my life. And that's, I think, why we haven't left. And it's also why the album meant so much to me.

It meant so much to me that I didn't just get here and do an album. I got here at 46. To be that old and not really know who you are as an artist — I never had to define myself. So, I didn't chase that immediately. I just wanted to make music in Music City and make as much as I could. 

I always felt behind, because all my contemporaries that had been here, very many of them were already incredibly famous and already had done so much. But you can't [focus on] the road not taken. 

I have to admit, there's some part of me that would be like, "What if you were putting out your first album at 28?" That's nothing I sort of worry about. I know that it wouldn't have been this. I wouldn't change anything. I have this wife and this family and this career that brought me here. It feels like this was the way it was meant to happen, as strange as it all is.

I felt more prepared than people might expect. And I had something that most people didn't have, which was, Deacon walked in places before I did. Deacon sang at the Bluebird before Charles did. Deacon was at the Grand Ole Opry before I was.

That began what I would call my 10,000 hours in this town. Between the number of hours I've been able to be on stage at these incredible venues, and play music with these incredible people, and all the singles I was able to put out over the last 10 years, I now feel like that, in some ways, I have as much of a catalog as people that have been here for those 30 years. But, it's still my first album, which I've held onto for something special, and I'm so grateful for the way it turned out. I couldn't be happier.

I knew that I wasn't emptying the whole toolbox to play Deacon. But, having said that, I'm so moved by how much playing that guy influenced my music and my songwriting. A song like "A Little Right Now," it roars at the top and rages a little bit, but in general, that is a Deacon song through and through. "I'm a farmer praying for rain/ I'm a gambler that needs an ace of spades/ I'm a sailor hoping for a gust of wind/ I'm a singer looking for that song/ I'm a prisoner that ain't got long/ I'm a dreamer waiting for my ship to come in/ But lately all my roads have been running out/ There ain't no silver linings in these clouds/ Help me, Lord, and show me how to find the kind of faith that I once found/ 'Cause I could sure use a little right now." When you watch the show, you'll go, "That's the Deacon-est thing I've ever heard."

There's other songs on this album as well. "Maybe I'm Alright" — Deacon's journey was from utterly broken to "maybe I'm alright." As I look at it, he informs this album.

I'm a procrastinator. That's why I released so many singles in 2016, that world record. [Editor's note: Esten released 54 original songs once a week for 54 straight weeks, earning a Guinness World Records title in 2018 for the "Most consecutive weeks to release an original digital single by a music act."] 

That was a mind hack — a life hack — to arbitrarily create deadlines. And, my God, did that work, because I just started putting it out. [After that,] I started thinking about an album, and I even made an early attempt at it, and then COVID hit. 

They felt like songs from a thousand years ago [after the lockdown]. I pretty much scrapped it and didn't use any of them, and said, "I've just got to do this again in a different way. It's a different me. It's a different world."

My wife is not a procrastinator. And I'll show her, sometimes there's an upside of procrastinating. It's like using a crockpot when there's a microwave right there — it stews in all the ingredients. 

Deacon's a major ingredient, but if you just put that major ingredient on it and cook it real quick, it's too pronounced. Stew it in there with all the other ones until it's a new flavor, a new thing in its entirety. And that's what happened.

It's also interesting that, being the age I am, and the difference of what this album was to what, maybe, my first album would've been if I was 28, is the intentionality in terms of radio success or chart success — or chasing something that might not be thoroughly you, but might be a little more popular than thoroughly you. There's no reason for it at my age, so I can chase what's thoroughly me, and the facets of that. And in the end, that, I think, makes better music anyway.

There's a video I put out for "Somewhere in the Sunshine." Already, the impact of that song is sort of blowing my mind. The video is full of quotes from people that commented on YouTube about who they lost, and how it's giving them a little moment of peace, and how it's blessing them. That's my radio play. That's my GRAMMY.

I try to always realize how blessed I am to be able to do this. It's so much more precious later in life. I think people sometimes meet me and I have an enthusiasm for it that is younger than my years. And, maybe [that's] just because I've been waiting at a distance so long and it finally came true. I might get jaded someday, but it hasn't happened yet.

There's still an outsider mentality. I also feel like an anomaly. All the great artist friends I have, I'm not like them. They've been on the radio, they've had cuts, they've had hits. And then, all the new ones starting off doing their first album, I'm not in their group either — they have a whole career and future ahead.

On the other hand, I feel warm and welcomed in all of those arenas, and in everyone in this town. It always has been unusual for me here. All the reasons I'm here, all the why's, all the how's — but I guess, in the end, that's how I fit, and that's how I belong.

I was blessed that I was able to take my time. I think, once you let go of the outcome, freedom is available. It's just really hard to let go of that outcome. But, as I said, I'm a different beast. What I am means I better let go of that outcome, because the odds of me getting a No. 1 smash off this, they're not great. But the odds of me moving somebody with this music? I think they're pretty good.

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Remembering Toby Keith: 5 Essential Songs From The Patriotic Cowboy And Country Music Icon
Toby Keith performs at the 2021 iHeartCountry Festival in Austin, Texas.

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

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Remembering Toby Keith: 5 Essential Songs From The Patriotic Cowboy And Country Music Icon

After a two-year battle with stomach cancer, country star Toby Keith passed away on Feb. 5 at the age of 62. Revisit his influence with five of his seminal tracks, including his debut hit "Should've Been a Cowboy."

GRAMMYs/Feb 7, 2024 - 04:39 pm

We may have known about Toby Keith's stomach cancer diagnosis for nearly two years, but that didn't keep the news of his Feb. 5 death from hitting hard. The oftentimes outspoken country music star enjoyed a three-decade career as one of the genre's beloved hitmakers, courtesy of unabashed hits like "Who's Your Daddy?," "Made In America" and "I Wanna Talk About Me."

Occasionally his in-your-face persona clashed with folks, particularly when it came to his political views in recent years. But for the most part, it was Keith's blue-collar upbringing and work ethic that shined through and resonated with his legion of listeners. 

It wasn't until his thirties that the future Songwriters Hall of Famer landed his first record deal in 1993, following years grinding away as a rodeo hand, in oil fields and as a semi-professional football player to make ends meet. The Oklahoma-born crooner would go on to record 20 No.1 hits, sell over 40 million records across 26 albums, and gross nearly $400 million touring — cementing himself as one of country music's most successful artists in the process.

As we look back on Keith's life and legacy, here are five essential cuts from the seven-time GRAMMY nominee, whose memory will live on in the hearts of country music artists and fans alike.

"Should've Been A Cowboy" (1993)

Few artists strike gold with their maiden release, but Keith did just that when his song "Should've Been A Cowboy" launched in February 1993. The upbeat track received widespread acclaim, eventually reaching No. 1 on the Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart a few months later.

"Should've Been A Cowboy" takes on a distinctly traditional tone as Keith romanticizes cowboy culture by referencing classic westerns like Gunsmoke with nods to Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty in addition to six-shooters, cattle drives and Texas Rangers abound. The tune also reinforces the notion that cowboys just have more fun, whether its "stealin' the young girls' hearts, just like Gene [Autry] and Roy [Rogers]" or "runnin' wild through the hills chasin' Jesse James." 

By the looks of Keith's career, he certainly had his fair share of fun, and it may not have come if it weren't for "Should've Been A Cowboy."

"How Do You Like Me Now?!" (1999)

After a successful '90s run (which included two more No. 1s in "Who's That Man" and "Me Too"), Keith kicked off the 2000s with his fourth No. 1 hit, "How Do You Like Me Now?!" In signature Toby Keith fashion, he confronts his haters by asking the titular, rhetorical question, posed to his high school's valedictorian — who was also his crush. "I couldn't make you love me but I always dreamed about livin' in your radio," he sings on the brazen chorus.

The song is a stern reminder to never let anyone keep you from chasing your dreams; it's also a lesson of standing strong on your convictions. Its message also proved fitting for Keith's career: After Mercury Records Nashville rejected the song (and its namesake album) in the late '90s, Keith got out of his deal with them in favor of signing with DreamWorks Records, with whom he released the project a year later. Not only did the single go on to spend five weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, but it became the singer's first major crossover hit.

"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" (2002)

Keith was never afraid to share his opinion in public or in song, especially when it came to displaying his patriotism and appreciation for those who protect the United States. While the Okie approached this from a softer side on 2003's "American Soldier," his most renowned musings on the subject without a doubt came a year earlier with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."

On the angsty ballad — which was written in the wake of his father's March 2001 death and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — Keith channels a universal feeling of American hurt and pride. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" inspired an equal outpouring of support and outrage that, for better or worse depending on where you stand, helped cement the song into the annals of country music lore.

"I Love This Bar" (2003)

We've all got our favorite watering hole full of its own quirks and characters, from winners to losers, chain-smokers and boozers. Keith taps into that feel-good, hometown hang feeling with "I Love This Bar," a lighthearted tale from 2003's Shock'n Y'all that makes dingy dive bars feel like the prime party destination.

The midtempo track — Keith's 12th No. 1 — further plays into country music drinking tropes as Keith proclaims, "I like my girlfriend, I like to take her out to dinner, I like a movie now and then" before making a hard pivot, adding "but I love this bar." 

All joking aside, the song, and all of the unique individuals described within it, have a harmony to them inside those hallowed walls. It's a kinship that seems more and more difficult to find in today's world, and a sentiment best captured at the song's conclusion: "come as you are."

"As Good As I Once Was" (2005)

Your best days may be behind you, but that doesn't mean you can't still live your best life and thrive in the present — even if you don't get over hangovers as quickly as you used to.

That youthful wisdom is distilled into every lyric of "As Good As I Once Was," a reminiscent story in which a then-44-year-old Keith recounts his prime as a lover, drinker and fighter humbly. That being said, his pride is still quick to take charge with convictions like "I still throw a few back, talk a little smack, when I'm feelin' bullet proof."

Lasting six weeks at No. 1, "As Good As I Once Was" was the biggest of the 15 chart-toppers Keith tallied in the 2000s. And though he scored one more in the following decade (along with several other hits, including the playful drinking song "Red Solo Cup"), "As Good As I Once Was" will live on as one of Keith's quintessential messages of fun-loving confidence: "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once, as I ever was."

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5 Takeaways From Lewis Capaldi's Netflix Documentary 'How I'm Feeling Now'
Lewis Capaldi

Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

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5 Takeaways From Lewis Capaldi's Netflix Documentary 'How I'm Feeling Now'

The singer’s new Netflix doc 'Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling Now' traces the pop star's path to fame, offering intimate reflections on family, mental health, and his musical process — and how that all led to his upcoming album.

GRAMMYs/Apr 5, 2023 - 05:26 pm

From playing sets in pubs to selling out arenas, Lewis Capaldi’s career has grown on a massive scale in recent years — and the journey was all caught on camera.

Capaldi’s life forever changed thanks to his pained ballad "Someone You Loved," which was nominated Song Of The Year at the 2020 GRAMMYs and hit No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart in 2019. Four years after his breakout stardom, the singer is now poised to release his second album ​​Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent on May 19.

Before the album arrives, Capaldi gave an inside look into the process with a new Netflix documentary, Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling. The intimate film takes viewers everywhere from the Scottish star’s childhood home to his late nights in the studio, with an emphasis on mental health struggles as his fame skyrocketed.

Balancing Capaldi's vulnerability with his wryness, the documentary has a lot to say about the acclaimed musician. As it hits Netflix on April 5, take a look at five takeaways from Lewis Capaldi: How I'm Feeling.

Lewis Is Proud Of His Scottish Heritage — And Outlook On Life

Early on in the documentary, Capaldi acknowledges his family and Scottish heritage during a drive through Whitburn, his hometown. He's come to love where he's from, though touring makes it impossible for him to stay at home for long.

"I do love the fact that I am a Scottish person, and I like the patter that people have," he said. "I do like the mindset of realists everyone just stays on that level of like, 'Let's give this a go and we'll probably f— it up, but we'll have a good time.'"

This lighthearted mentality is clear throughout the documentary, which highlights Capaldi's natural comedic talent. Even when Capaldi is struggling with imposter syndrome or anxiety, he manages to find hope in his art and loved ones. Director Jon Pearlman excellently captures Capaldi's personality and self-deprecating demeanor — and of course, all with his thick Scottish accent.

His Parents Give Him Tough Love

"It's s—," Capaldi's father, Mark, said, agreeing with the singer’s mother, Carol, after Capaldi asked for song feedback. "You asked me my opinion, so I'll give it to you."

The documentary often frames Capaldi's parents to be big on tough love, unflinchingly sharing their sarcasm or cutting honesty. But their care and pride for their son are heartwarming above all else. Mark drove Capaldi to gigs around town when Capaldi first picked up his guitar, and Carol frequently expresses worry about her son's rising fame: "I don’t want him to change. I don’t want us to change. It wouldn’t be worth it."

How I'm Feeling shows Capaldi returning home due to the pandemic, capturing his family dynamic on screen (along with clips of the star completing his everyday chores from feeding the dog to folding laundry). The documentary flips through Capaldi's family photo albums, portraying his early interests in music as well as sharing exclusive commentary on how the singer's parents helped him follow his passion.

His Single 'Bruises' Was A Career Turning Point Before 'Someone You Loved' Existed

"If only I could hold you, you'd keep my head from going under," Capaldi belts across a montage of old concert videos. Shown early on in the documentary, the tender lyric appears to foreshadow his future emotional struggles — but the song is also the impetus for his stardom.

His crushing 2017 single "Bruises," which Capaldi released independently, was boosted through Spotify's addition of the song to its popular New Music Friday playlist — which quickly helped him get signed to a branch of Universal Music Group in the same year.

"You see the smile on his face when the crowd sang back," his father said in the documentary. "We knew that's what he was going to do for the rest of his life."

The documentary portrays Capaldi's quick escalation to fame, but it also provides a look into more intimate songwriting sessions the musician has with fellow collaborators such as Dan Nigro, Amy Allen, Nick Atkinson, and Edd Holloway. From voice memos to iPad demos, it's evident Capaldi belongs in the studio and on stage.

He's Open About His Mental Health And Tourette's

How I’m Feeling zeroes in on the impact fame has had on Capaldi’s mental health, and details his anxiety pricking up after the global success of "Someone You Loved" — especially as he felt the pressure to craft another No. 1 hit.

Amid echoey vocals, shadowy crowds, and whining microphone feedback, the documentary captures the dizzying anxiety Capaldi felt — and sometimes still feels — when confronting his career. The singer opens up about his Tourette syndrome diagnosis, debilitating panic attacks, and fear of death.

"Is it worth it? Making you feel like this?" asks his concerned mother at one point in the documentary.

Yet, as How I’m Feeling shows, Capaldi has found ways to prioritize his well-being and still continue his musical career. He regularly attends therapy, takes his vitamins, and knows when to take time off; the documentary portrays how this re-energized approach to life allowed him to pour his full passion into Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent.

He Still Doesn't Understand How He’s Famous

"People started getting their phones out. Why are they all so interested in what we're doing?" Capaldi queried in a vertical video, recalling a casual night out on the town. "And then I remember: it's 'cause I'm f—ing famous."

Although he said the line with his signature wit, How I'm Feeling demonstrates how genuinely easy it is for Capaldi to forget about his celebrity status. On a more personal level, he still struggles to understand why people like him — even with billions of streams and millions of followers.

"I just don't get it, I don't get why people would turn up and see [me perform], but I'm eternally grateful," he said, laughing, "I love you, but I will never understand you."

In one part of the documentary, Capaldi recalls grabbing beers with Ed Sheeran and chatting about impostor syndrome. A little while later, the singer received an email from Sheeran’s close friend Elton John, who wrote a kind note of encouragement to remind Capaldi: “You write beautiful songs that resonate with millions.”

Even so, Capaldi modestly disregards the power of his "silly little songs," and How I’m Feeling hints that he may always be in that mindset, even if Broken by Desire to be Heavenly Sent proves to be another massive success. Whether he understands the fame or not, Capaldi’s story is a reminder that achieving your dreams may not always be easy — but if you stay true to yourself, you’ll find a way to keep your head above water.

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Carly Pearce on '29: Written In Stone,' Relating to Kacey Musgraves & Becoming The Country Artist She's Always Wanted To Be

Carly Pearce

Photo: Allister Ann

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Carly Pearce on '29: Written In Stone,' Relating to Kacey Musgraves & Becoming The Country Artist She's Always Wanted To Be

Country star Carly Pearce opens up about how a divorce and the death of her producer led to her most meaningful album yet, '29: Written In Stone'

GRAMMYs/Sep 14, 2021 - 01:55 am

"So much has happened to me in the last year," Carly Pearce wrote in an Instagram post announcing her forthcoming third album, 29: Written in Stone. It's a bit of an understatement: Nine months after losing her longtime producer busbee to brain cancer in 2019, the country star filed for divorce from fellow country singer Michael Ray.

But, as Pearce wrote, in the wake of the heartbreak, "Some unbelievable things started happening." Just days before her divorce went public, Pearce landed her second No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart with the apologetic Lee Brice collaboration "I Hope You're Happy Now," which went on to win Pearce her first Country Music Award and Academy of Country Music Award (she took home two ACMs, including Single of the Year).

Last fall, the Kentucky native released the lead single from her next project, the uptempo cautionary tale "Next Girl." The song's twangy production is arguably the most reminiscent of the '90s country that inspired Pearce to pursue her own music career when she began performing at just 11 years old. The singer herself could feel it, too.

"When we wrote 'Next Girl,'" she recalls to GRAMMY.com, "I was like, 'Wait a minute, this is what I always wanted to do.'"

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Pearce harnessed that same energy as she continued to process her hardships and write songs. Five months later, she unveiled an EP titled 29, a raw and emotional account of what she'd been through. But as Pearce says, songs "just kept happening," and she quickly realized there was more to her story.

29: Written in Stone—arriving Sept. 17 via Big Machine—is an exceptional combination of Pearce's crafty songwriting (see: "Liability") and '90s country influence, resulting in the singer's most confident display yet. And that was clearly apparent from the first portion: The morning of Pearce's chat with GRAMMY.com saw the singer earn CMA nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year, her first in each category. While she admits the nods are "hard to process," she also acknowledges the kind of impact her vulnerability has had on fans and industry players alike. "People have really responded to this so amazingly."

Ahead of the album's release, Pearce will have an in-depth conversation at the GRAMMY Museum on Sept. 13, also performing as part of Big Machine's Spotlight Saturdays on Sept. 18. Her interview will be viewable on the Museum's official streaming platform, COLLECTION:live.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Pearce before release week (and her GRAMMY events) to hear how 29 evolved into a full-length album, the women of country who inspired her and why she's finally the artist that pre-teen Carly envisioned.

Take me through the progression of 29 the EP into 29: Written in Stone. How did your feelings change in the time between the two?

In the beginning, I wasn't quite sure what 29 was. I just knew I needed to get some things off my chest. "Messy" felt like a really good stopping point. I'm very much a situational writer, so when I wrote that song, I was like, "Okay, this feels like I'm done for a while."

I remember turning it in, and continuing to feel inspired to write. The songs just kept happening. These ideas would come to me, and it was forming almost faster than I could keep up.

Losing my producer, busbee, was a really interesting experience for me of looking at music completely different. I was very overwhelmed with the idea of even continuing on in music without him. I felt like I had unleashed this part of me that I was always supposed to find musically and sonically with this really country sound.

I think what I didn't realize is, I was kind of going through all of this in real time. Now when I go back and I listen to this project, it really is grief and realization of something that was so difficult—but then getting on the other side, which is a really powerful part of it. That's why I wanted the second half to be in color instead of black and white like the first.

Was there anything outside of your divorce and losing busbee that inspired songs on this album?

I think it was those two things. It was a blow to my professional life, losing my counterpart. [Busbee] is who helped form my sound, so to think he wasn't there was so difficult. Then, to have such an equal blow to my personal life—it still makes me quite emotional to think about how lost I felt in the beginning. Just, "How is this all happening to me at once?"

Was there anything you learned from busbee that had an impact on the making of this project?

The biggest thing—and I have just started to even be able to talk about this without being so emotional—but I went to see him two weeks before he died. The very last thing that he said to me was that he just wanted me to fly. I remember not really understanding what that meant in the beginning.

He knew that I had taken so much time in Nashville trying to make this whole career happen, and he knew the struggles. He knew the insecurities—how I was just a little unsure of myself in a writer's room or in front of a mic. Now, looking at it, I knew I needed to show him I could fly in all of those ways. Even when I woke up today and saw the album of the year [nomination], I was like, "God, I did it. I I tapped into what he told me to do and just gave it everything I had."

That's a heavy thing, but it's also so incredible.

I don't even know how to explain it. Also, the fact that "I Hope You're Happy Now" was the last song he ever worked on in his career, and look at what that song did for me as well. It almost feels like he's been here at every single step, like he really never did leave me.

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You've said that this album is the biggest representation of the kind of music you've always wanted to make as a country artist. Was there a certain song that felt like a turning point for you in getting to that feeling?

"Next Girl" was one of the very first songs we wrote for this project. As soon as that one came out the way that it did, just with that '90s country feel to it, I was like, "Wait a minute, this is what I always wanted to do."

One of the musicians on the album, Josh Matheny, he's been with me for all of my albums. While I was singing the scratch vocal for "Next Girl" in the studio, he texted me and said, "I've never heard you sing more like yourself than right now." 

Did you feel that too?

Yes. I knew it. That's the music that I grew up on.

What made it feel different?

In interviews, people would ask me, "What do you want to be?" and I was always like, "I want [to be a member of] the Grand Ole Opry and I want to be a country music purist." I never quite felt like my music translated that completely, because it was still heavily pop-produced on a lot of things.

What I found was [29: Written in Stone co-producers] Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne loved '90s country like I did. It opened this understanding of the same way that we listened to music growing up that I had never experienced with busbee, [since] he was a pop producer.

Do you think that you would have worked with Shane and Josh if you hadn't lost busbee?

That's such an interesting thing that I've thought about quite a bit. It's almost like you don't know what you're missing until you find it. I knew that there was a little bit of a disconnect that I was still trying to find, but I don't necessarily think that I thought, "I need to change my producer."

It's interesting, because I feel like this is how it was supposed to be. I believe wholeheartedly that busbee was supposed to help me find my way, and I was supposed to make those two albums with him and start this beautiful journey in country music. But I do think I was meant to move on.

I wrote with both of [Josh and Shane] previously—I wrote one of my favorite songs ever with Shane and busbee, "If My Name Was Whiskey" from my first record. But [Josh and Shane] were blown away at my ability as a writer [now]. I've written so many songs in this town, but I hadn't really written like that.

 

Was there a '90s country song that helped you get through the pain you were experiencing as you wrote this album?

"You Don't Even Know Who I Am" by Patty Loveless is one of my absolute favorite songs. That shows you exactly the kind of artist that I wanted to be, in the lyric and the honesty.

Patty Loveless is the big influence for me. Loving her music, loving how she wrote songs, loving the kind of songs she cut. A strong woman with true substance to her lyrics, but songs that just felt so good.

Even before she became a part of the full-length album [on "Dear Miss Loretta," a doting tribute to Loretta Lynn], I had this thought of "What would Patty Loveless do?" and it stemmed from when we wrote "Next Girl." [Her song] "Blame It On Your Heart" is where "Next Girl" came from.

I was pushed to own what happened to me and own my truth in a way that I never had quite thought about—because nobody thinks, "Oh, my marriage is gonna fail in front of the world." Thinking about her and the way she would write songs is why I just owned it.

You co-wrote with a lot of female singer-songwriters on this album, including your peers Kelsea Ballerini on "Diamondback" and Ashley McBryde, who features on "Never Wanted to Be That Girl." What do you feel like your female collaborators brought to the storytelling for an album of this context?

I think just having a female perspective—a lot of these women were my friends, and it was important for me to feel safe by women, and almost affirming my feelings through women. These women were the first to message me as soon as my divorce came out, and really care about me as a person. I was able to be brutally honest in those rooms because I felt safe with them.

29: Written in Stone is coming out a week after Kacey Musgraves released her own post-divorce album with star-crossed. In a way, did having someone going through a similar situation at the same time—and in the public eye—make you feel less alone? Or at least give you some reassurance that being this honest in your music is what you should be doing?

It's very interesting, because so much of Golden Hour was about her husband, and so much of my sophomore album was about mine. I remember her divorce announcement came out very soon—I mean weeks—after mine. I've known her for a long time, and just hurting for her, and knowing what that felt like, and very much feeling like, "Oh my God, somebody else my age knows what it feels like."

I have to say that as a fan of music, I'm very much looking forward to her album. I feel like in a lot of ways, I will be able to listen to something and maybe not feel alone myself in the way that some people are probably listening to our music.

I do think it's a very powerful thing that two women didn't get it right the first time. We're young, we're only two years apart, and we're owning our truth in our own artistic ways. It reminds me of the kind of music that I grew up on with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette singing these unapologetic songs, like "The Pill" or "D-I-V-O-R-C-E.," and just owning it. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of Kacey for doing that.

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Do you feel like being this honest has resulted in a bigger impact on your fans? I love what you've said about seeing your pain become purpose.

In the very beginning of putting this album out, I remember the hundreds of messages that I got from fans in a way that I've never gotten. Sure, I've had fans say, "I relate to your music" and "You helped me through a hard time," but this felt different. 

Now that we're back out on the road, I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and shared their stories. I helped them let go of a relationship, I helped them file for divorce, I helped them regain their worth, I got them out of an abusive relationship. All of these things that, to me, matter so much more than just being an artist singing on a stage.

Everybody experiences pain, and to hear that people have clung on to my music as hope, that's more empowering than anything I could ever imagine. I'm proud to have gone through what I went through for that.

Which is probably something that you weren't thinking you'd be able to say when you were initially going through all of it. 

Absolutely not. And that's the beautiful part of it. I had a fan recently come up to me and she was like, "I just went through a divorce and I just don't know what to do." I said, "You're gonna be okay." She's looking at me, on the other side, and she's like, "Are you sure?" and I said, "Yes, I know it." That's such a cool relationship that I now have with fans.

Is there a song on 29: Written in Stone that feels like the pinnacle Carly Pearce song to you, at least thus far?

Gosh, that's so hard. "29" is the song that I never wished I'd write, but am now so blown away that I wrote. I never wanted to write a song that talked about something like going through a divorce. But the fact that I went that deep, just went for it, and was brutally honest, that just really, really makes me proud.

[Written in Stone comes from] a lyric in the very last song on the album, "Mean It This Time"—"When I say forever/ I'm gonna write it in stone." So I kind of got to thinking about what "write it in stone" means to me. 

I came up with, "Life is indelible, and your words, your actions, and your truth should be written in stone." That's exactly what I've done on this project. I can put it out there, let it out, and shut the door. This is the kind of album I never wanted to make, but in hindsight, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.

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Dan + Shay On Bringing 'Good Things' With New Album, Tour Plans & Why Lizzo Is Their Dream Collaborator

Dan + Shay at 2020 GRAMMYs

Photo: Rachel Luna/FilmMagic/Getty Images

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Dan + Shay On Bringing 'Good Things' With New Album, Tour Plans & Why Lizzo Is Their Dream Collaborator

Superstar country duo Dan + Shay discuss how their worldwide success and pop collaborators impacted their fourth album 'Good Things'

GRAMMYs/Aug 26, 2021 - 11:39 pm

This time last year, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney—better known as Dan + Shay—were holed up in Smyer's unfinished home studio, where mattresses leaned up against the walls and Mooney held up pillows to track vocals for what would become their fourth studio album, Good Things. A year later, the LP became the first country album to ever be certified gold by the RIAA the week it was released, following its Aug. 13 arrival.

That juxtaposition is an anecdotal portrayal of the country stars' story: A hard-working duo composed of a brilliant vocalist (Mooney) and mastermind producer (Smyers), whose DIY approach has made them one of the genre's biggest acts of the moment. Though they've been signed to Warner Music Nashville since the beginning of their career in 2012, Dan + Shay have built a loyal fan base by managing their own social accounts, connecting with fans by actively responding to comments and sharing satirical takes on their songs.

Combining those efforts with infectious melodies and heartfelt lyrics, the pair became a household name in 2018 with their nostalgic ballad "Tequila," which was followed by wedding song "Speechless"—both of which won Dan + Shay a GRAMMY for Best Country Duo Group Performance (in 2019 and 2020, respectively). And in 2019, they struck gold—ahem, quadruple platinum—again with the romantic, Justin Bieber-assisted smash "10,000 Hours," yet another GRAMMY winner for the duo.

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Riding high on those hits, Dan + Shay kicked off their headlining arena tour just before COVID-19 struck stateside in March 2020. With the world hitting pause, there was a silver lining for the country stars: plenty of time to record a new album. The 12-track Good Things is a mix of Dan + Shay's uplifting pop-leaning tunes and trademark emotive ballads. Mooney insists that whether happy or sad, every song encompasses the album's title.

"I think a lot of the best things in our lives come from the darkest places, whether that be a breakup, or whatever it is," Mooney says. "We hope that through this crazy year that we've had, we'll come out on the other side of this with a lot of good things, even though we've all been through a lot. That's how we grow as people, we learn things, and we move on."

GRAMMY.com caught up with Smyers and Mooney on the heels of the album's release to discuss their worldwide impact, tour re-igniting, and the chart-topping superstars they hope to collaborate with next.

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You declared in a tweet that Good Things is your best album yet. What makes this feel like your best?

Smyers: We felt like our self-titled album was kind of the moment where things really connected on a different level. We had "Tequila" and "Speechless," and we've been trying to build on where they took our career. We feel like we owe it to everybody who have gotten us where we are—our fans, our team, everyone around us—to keep pushing ourselves, raising the bar.

I guess it made us put some unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Every time we were in the writing room, it's like, "Alright, I got this idea," "Well, is it as good as 'Tequila'?"

The blessing in disguise is we had a year and a half off of the road. We tried to make the most of an unfortunate situation. We camped out in [my home studio] and dug in. We pulled songs that we wrote three years ago, and songs that we wrote six months ago. We tried to pick the best material that we possibly could, and I feel like we really tapped in.

We tried everything. "What if we did it two BPMs faster?" "What if we did it in this key?" "What if we stripped it back?" By the time we wrapped up the project, it was like, "This is the best foot we can possibly put forward."

We put ourselves out there with that tweet, so there was a lot of pressure when the album came out, because our fans went into it thinking that. But we feel confident about it. We're so proud of every song front to back. 

The first single from Good Things, "10,000 Hours," seemed to follow up the success of "Tequila" and "Speechless" in a huge way.

Smyers: Yeah, that song exposed our music to a whole new fan base. It was crazy to have that song be such a big hit and not really even get to play it live. We've finally got back on the road and are able to feel the energy, impact, and weight of that song.

Mooney: We haven't gotten to meet BTS, but we did have one of the guys [Jungkook] cover "10,000 Hours" which was so cool. Seeing those things proves how music is so universal, and shows the power of music that a country song written in Nashville could be then sung all over the world. It's a very unifying feeling, especially in the times that we're going through right now.

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Do you feel like the response to that kind of set the tone for the rest of the album?

Smyers: Sonically, that kind of was the step in the direction that the rest of the album went. The overall aesthetics of the song—it was all about the vocals, and that was kind of the feature of the production. I feel like we really leaned into that for the rest of the album. There are so many vocals on this album, it's insane. I mean, hundreds, thousands of layers. And it feels cohesive. That song was written and recorded a long time ago, and we listened to it in sequence with the album, and it makes sense with everything else on there.

Along with Justin Bieber, you also co-wrote with Julia Michaels, Shawn Mendes and Tayla Parx on this project. You've always had a pop sensibility, but did working with pop artists have an impact on your process?

Mooney: Every experience that you have as an artist definitely impacts your craft, in a good way. We always try to be sponges in the way that we create. We've had a lot of people in the pop world be fans of what we've been doing since our first record—not just "10,000 Hours," "Tequila" or "Speechless." We got to meet Ed Sheeran very early on. It was such a cool thing to be able to watch how they work and be able to implement some of those styles into what we do. It definitely opened the door for a lot of different possible collaborations in the future.

I think it's good for the genre. It expands those walls a little bit, and sets the bar higher for everybody. The people who have come before us, like the Taylor Swifts, who have really pushed the boundaries, it's been good for everybody and made a way for people like us and the Sam Hunts of the world. It's just a really fun thing to be a part of.

Are there any other pop acts you're hoping you can collaborate with next?

Smyers: An Ariana Grande thing would be really cool. I nerd out on her social media when she posts videos in the studio, stacking harmonies. Her vocal technique and control is just unreal.

I feel like us and Lizzo could do something really cool. I remember hearing "Truth Hurts" for the first time. I was on a treadmill in Vegas at the ACMs, and it stopped me in my tracks. When that piano came in and she came in at the top, I had to get off the treadmill and text everyone I know. I'm just so blown away by her talent, her conviction, her authenticity. It would be a really fun one.

Mooney: We played a music festival with her after that song became massive, and Dan and I snuck out to front of house and we were raging. Absolutely raging to that song. And then she can just play the flute, and you're like, "Where did that even come from?" She's unbelievably talented. That's a very solid one. I would like to see a Dan + Shay/Lizzo [track].

Smyers: We're manifesting that. Putting it out there.

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One thing that surprised me about Good Things is that half of the record is songs about breakups or relationships that aren't good for you, like "Irresponsible." As two happily married men, what inspires those kinds of songs, and how do you channel those emotions when writing them?

Mooney: It's funny, my wife and I, and I know that [Dan's wife] Abby does too, we love sad songs. When I think back on some of the toughest times in my life, the songs that really got me through were always really sad songs. There's something about that grieving process that is really beautiful.

The songs and the content don't necessarily represent where we are in our current lives, but that's the beauty of being an artist — being able to step into that role, and kind of be that storyteller for other people. It was interesting, though, putting together this project being in a happy place singing super depressing songs. [Laughs.]

Is there a song or two from this album that feel the most Dan + Shay to you?

Smyers: I would say a quintessential Dan + Shay song on this album would be "Give Into You"—the dark, brooding, emotional, nostalgic piano ballad kind of thing. That's something we've done since our first album, and what we always gravitate towards. If you left it up to us, we would have every song be a dark piano ballad. [Laughs.]

On the other side of the spectrum, I would say "One Direction." It's reminiscent of why people fell in love with Dan + Shay—a story, narrative lyric that's super heartfelt and emotional, but walls of harmonies in the chorus.

Mooney: Another would be the song "You." I feel like if you could sum up Dan + Shay, we've had so many wedding songs. We've already been seeing a lot of people using "You" as their wedding song. We got to play it live the other day, and it has a special groove to it that kind of gets you in the vibe. It's definitely gonna be a big wedding song for us.

Dan + Shay: The Wedding Song Guys.

Mooney: It's hilarious, people have used "Tequila" for their wedding. Don't ask me where that fits in. There was a girl who said she was using "Tequila" as her first dance. This is not a lie, this happened recently. I was like, "Have you heard the song?"

Like you mentioned, you've had a chance to start playing shows again. You were one of the acts who started their tour before the pandemic. Are there any major changes you've made as a result of the downtime you've had to think about the show?

Smyers: We feel really good about the tour that we put together last year. It was the most work we've ever put into anything. We did get to do three shows, which was amazing. I feel like, had we done months and months of preparation and rehearsals and then not gotten to do it, we would have been wondering, "Yo, is this any good?" We got three in, and everything really worked, so we were like, "Cool, we know we can do this."

Now comes the question of [if] all the songs that we played in the set a year and a half ago were in there for a reason. They were either fan favorites, they were good live, we had cool content, or they made sense transitionally. But now we've got a whole new album of material.

Selfishly, we want to play the whole new album and add that much time to the set—which we honestly might. We don't want to cut anything, really. The new songs, for some reason, just sound and feel better live than anything we've done before. So I think we will play a good majority of the new music and we'll find ways to integrate them into the flow of the set.

Shay, are you ever nervous about hitting your power notes on stage?

Mooney: It is a nerve-wracking thing, especially these first couple shows back. But I've been doing a lot of singing — singing to my kids, and we've been in the studio — so I wasn't nervous about that. What I was nervous about is the in-between moments. I haven't been on a stage in so long, so I think I'm probably more nervous about what I'm doing with my hands and how I'm moving. I've got the singing part down. Those high notes, I know that they're gonna be there. And if they're not, then I'll just fake like my mic broke.

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You can just bust out the moves from your "Lying" and "Steal My Love" videos.

Mooney: No lie, I think that helps so much with these upcoming shows. I was like, "Dude, we're dancers." I mean, we're horrible dancers, but it still kind of helps with your swagger on stage, because that was something that I felt like I completely lost. Maybe I still look very dumb, but at least I'm doing it with confidence.

Can you guys believe it hasn't even been 10 years since you've known each other, let alone accomplished everything you have already?

Mooney: It's honestly crazy. I think about it all the time. In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday, and in a lot of ways, it feels like it's been 30 years doing this. It's incredible to have those moments and milestones together. We always say, doing this together has been so special because the lows are not near as low, and the highs are even higher.

This last year has especially made us even more appreciative of all the things we've gotten to do. And we've had the time to actually look back, reflect, and be thankful for those things that we never quite got the chance to take the moment to be like, "This is incredible." We are very blessed and thankful guys right now.

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