Artist - Kenny Chesney 3

The Sun Shines Brighter Against The Deep Ocean Blue: Kenny Chesney on The Making of ‘BORN’

March 21, 2024 10:55 pm GMT

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On the artwork for his new album, BORN - his first in four years - Kenny Chesney stares intently into the camera, standing against the backdrop of the deep indigo sea that collides with the hazy azure of the summer sky.

On the surface, it's an image that aligns perfectly with the beachside, island-inspired brand of country music that Kenny has become the flag-bearer for over the past two decades. However, there's a poignance in his expression, a seriousness that enriches the album cover with a sense of powerful gravity. It encapsulates the spirit of the record as a whole, pointing us towards an aspect of Kenny's artistry that has been largely overlooked throughout his career.

The emphasis is often placed on the escapism and liberating sense of ‘carpe diem’ that courses through Kenny Chesney's music. But what’s striking about BORN is how it reinforces Kenny’s ability to explore grief and loss - the most human, universally relatable and painful of experiences - in a way that feels profoundly resonant and quietly hopeful.

“The truth is: that's everything life is, right?”, Kenny shares with Holler, “We all have trials, tough stuff, lose friends. We all have wins, great moments, crazy adventures. I think the reality is to feel all of it, to appreciate everything and to meet every experience where it is”.

By including these powerful and visceral vignettes of grief and heartbreak - epitomised on ‘Wherever You Are Tonight’ - Kenny makes the levity that’s laced into the likes of ‘Just To Say We Did’ and ‘This Too Shall Pass’ feel hard-earned, and thus more meaningful. As the ocean blue reflects and intensifies the golden glow of the sun that ripples across the waves, these stirring portrayals of grief and healing add new depth to the live-in-the-moment anthems Kenny has become synonymous with.

Looking back through Kenny's catalogue, it's certainly not the first time he's explored such contrasting themes within albums. On Cosmic Hallelujah, the weight of 'Jesus and Elvis’ evolves ‘Trip Around The Sun’ from a carefree, shrug-of-the-shoulders song into a soulful cri de coeur. Similarly, on Here and Now, the bereavement that haunts ‘Guys Named Captain’ accentuates the lust for life that inspires ‘We Do’.

At its heart, Songs for the Saints was a record about grieving - grieving the loss caused by Hurricane Irma. On Kenny’s rendition of ‘Better Boat’, he finds peace with another kind of loss - the loss of control, with many listeners internalising the song as a pandemic battle-cry.

As Kenny outlines, the carefully curated collection of moods he blends on BORN could be mistakenly deemed incompatible. For example, the tequila-drenched fun of ‘Blame It On The Salt’ may seem at odds with the introspective sorrow of ‘The Way I See You Now’. However, each strand of this tapestry is essential in crafting an album that captures life in all its vibrant shades and textures. “Some people might think my records have a split personality, but really, it's about how life actually is", Kenny reflects. "The secret - and ‘Guys Named Captain’ is all about that - is to understand that no matter the low moments, look for the sunshine. Because that sunshine will pull you through”.

This mantra is embodied in the decision to bookend the album with the euphoric innocence of ‘Born’ and ‘Wherever You Are Tonight’s striking rumination on death.

“‘Born’ really sets up everything, doesn't it?” Kenny muses, “All the questions we ask ourselves. All the basic things that we should pay attention to. All the truths we can't outrun".

"When I heard it, I knew it had to open the record," he continues. "I think I've made a habit of closing my albums with something a little more philosophical, or even sad. What better way, though, to end an album called BORN, than with a song about loving and toasting someone who's died but feels like they're still right there? Because I think, if you live your life right, people won't think of you as gone to the next realm, just gone for the moment”.

“Between those two realities, there was a lot of life, truth and fun we could put together," he expands. "In some ways, this album doesn't have an obvious storyline. But I think, as I've said in some other places, this album represents every piece of me, my heart and my soul, as well as my music. It's all here, every kind of thing I do”.

BORN is fuelled by a drive to fully showcase life, a mission Kenny has become uniquely adept at completing across his expansive discography.

There is an unwavering optimism laced into every song on the album. Kenny doesn't brush off the hard times, but instead embraces and accepts his fears, anxieties and doubts, retaining his belief that life is inherently good nonetheless.

Yes, the forlorn cerulean hues accentuate the shimmering, joyful citrines across the ocean - but it works both ways, with the bright ambers magnifying the blue melancholy. As Kenny conveys so touchingly on ‘Wherever You Are Tonight’ and ‘The Way I Love You Now’, we don't feel grief unless we lose something worth having.

At this point in Kenny Chesney's illustrious career, his balance of moods and sentiments is not necessarily an intentional aesthetic choice. Instead, it's a natural outpouring from the soul of the man behind the music, “The way BORN came together, I think it was less worrying about checking boxes or worrying about ‘What do we have?’ and more about the spirit of going into the studio and being creative. This has been recorded over the last four years. It's been four years since we've released music, not four years since I'd been in a studio”.

Kenny describes how, rather than building BORN around one core concept or idea - as he did with Songs For The Saints and Be As You Are - he chose each track based purely on merit, “One thing I do think: because we had all the time during COVID, the process wasn't so focused on ‘We're making a record’. Instead, I could go in and cut songs just because I loved them - and not think about how they'd fit on the record. To record stuff for the sake of loving the song, or thinking the arrangement would be cool, is a pretty great freedom to have. It's rare, even when you're starting out; so I decided to really lean into that notion”.

Even so, there is still the signature No Shoes Nation motto sewn into the DNA of BORN, with Kenny encouraging fans to live their lives outside the pre-coloured lines. Previously, this message of charting your own course and flying your own ‘Pirate Flag’ has been concentrated into gems such as ‘Young’, which served as inspiration for BORN. ‘Young’ could be interpreted as Kenny probing a different kind of loss to the one he references on ‘Wherever You Are Tonight’ - the loss of naivety, of the childlike wonder of youth, of a simpler time.

Kenny Chesney considers this: “What an interesting way of looking at it. I always viewed ‘Young’ as a celebration of the fire, the innocence and that crazy sense kids have when they're in love with something. For my friends and I, it was sports; but music, for me, was really important, too. I always loved the truth in that song, too; the way you stretch the truth to your friends, but the reality of how it was".

BORN is an examination of a life well lived - of the bliss, the heartbreak, the silver linings, the healing”.

As well as championing the sun-soaked, coastal way of life on BORN, he also pays tribute to the disregarded experience of those living outside the big US cities. 

The ‘I Go Back’ hitmaker emphasises how his own Knoxvillian upbringing informed BORN, “Growing up the way I did in East Tennessee, I'm incredibly grateful for it: the sports, the friends, the family, the community. It was awesome, and I know there are all kinds of people in communities just like mine all over the country”.

“Where they are is exactly where they want to be, and someone in New York and LA might not get it, or think it's the greatest way to live," he summarises. "But I know...the people of No Shoes Nation doesn't have to be fancy, expensive or fast to feed your soul to be fun or make you feel fulfilled”.

In his pursuit of painting the most brilliant, prismatic snapshot of life, Kenny imbues BORN with a warm, unmistakable glow of gratitude. Instead of lamenting the relentless march of ageing on ‘One More Sunset’, he flips this into a reason to celebrate the fact that we're still living and breathing today.

It's his loyalty to his Tennessee origins that helps to feed this outlook of gratitude, “When you stop chasing cars that don't matter, and you recognise how awesome your roots are, what's not to be grateful about?" Kenny asks. "When you appreciate something, no matter how small, it becomes that much more important. I've tried to record songs that really hone in on that idea".

"To sing those kinds of things - whether sad, trying to figure something out or thrilled about what happened - is what being an artist is all about," he continues. "Authenticity, honesty, digging deeper into the good and bad times? When you're clear about all that, you can find gratitude for every single moment. When you want what you have, that's everything”.

Early in the project, Kenny philosophises, “When it’s all said and done / I’ll know I lived it well / if I ain’t got nothing but a few good stories to tell”. BORN is a testament to Kenny's talent for turning accessible, everyman stories into keys that unlock a refreshed perspective - and a newfound appreciation for this wild rollercoaster ride of life.

Most importantly, the album is an examination of a life well lived - of the bliss, the heartbreak, the silver linings, the healing.

Kenny Chesney is not simply seeking happiness - he's striving to experience every nuance that life's kaleidoscope has to offer, as lucidly and vividly as possible.

For more on Kenny Chesney, see below:

Written by Maxim Mower
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