By Maxim Mower
As he gears up to release his long-awaited debut album, Love Ain't Pretty, Charles Esten delved into the project's creative process with Holler.
Although this marks the Pennsylvania native's first full-length project, Charles Esten is probably someone you're already familiar with.
Perhaps he worked his way into your heart while portraying the recovering alcoholic, Deacon Claybourne, in the hit TV series Nashville, or maybe you love to hate him as the conniving Ward Cameron in Netflix's Outer Banks. Alternatively, you might've caught him on stage at the Grand Ole Opry during one of his many performances.
As Esten explains, the fact that he comes into Love Ain't Pretty with an existing fanbase is both a blessing and a curse. Although it offers him a platform many debutants can only dream of, it also means many will bring pre-conceptions to the listening experience.
Thankfully, this is something he's made peace with.
“All I can do is handle my business, write songs that are as good as they can be, get them produced and perform them with as much heart and authenticity as I can," he shares. "I think the more people know me, the more they understand it's not a side project for me. It's really the heart of everything”.
He underlines that, while his on-screen projects are collaborative efforts, each song is pure, unfiltered ‘Charles’, saying: “There's so much more of me in a moment of these songs than in a moment of a television production or a movie... [Music] is a love affair of mine, so what other people think about it isn't really at the top of my list of things to care about."
Esten adds: "I focus on the people that it moves, and that's enough for me”.
Some might find it strange that Esten, who has played many globally recognised characters in hugely popular shows and movies, considers himself a musician first and foremost.
However, when listening to Love Ain't Pretty, Esten's musical “love affair” radiates through every song.
It's clear this isn't a commercial release but rather a compilation of vignettes and emotions that have touched the singer-songwriter over the years - from the reassuring spousal comfort of ‘Candlelight’ to the raucous, headstrong rebellion of ‘I Ain't’.
Although Esten quells any doubts or cynicism about his reasons for recording this project, one lingering question might still emerge in listeners’ minds: Why now?
“I've always thought that people, life, everything is like a coin”, he explains with a twinkle in his eye. “For me, the tails part is, ‘Why did it take so long? I wish I had been doing this forever’. The heads part is that there is a real freedom. There's a maturity that comes after all these years that lets me make this album.
"I'm not serving anything but the album," Esten concludes. "I'm not serving radio or any particular audience. This is just me wanting to say these things through these songs”.
Within both his characters on Nashville and Outer Banks, there has been compelling depth that Esten deftly reveals throughout each season.
In his latest role as the creator and protagonist of Love Ain't Pretty, Esten is peeling back more layers than ever before to present his most important persona yet: himself.
In addition, Charles Esten touched on how Deacon Claybourne's influence can be heard on Love Ain't Pretty, why he made ‘Somewhere in the Sunshine’ the final track and more.
“[I wrote 'Candlelight'] with a couple of guys that also have really incredible wives, Kenny Alphin - Big Kenny from Big & Rich - and Eric Paslay. They both have wonderful women that are not simply sweet or simply beautiful. They are those things, but they are all these other things as well. Somehow we happened upon the phrase ‘Candlelight’, which offers warmth and a sanctuary and a protection. There's also the line, which I love, ‘She could burn this town down if she wanted to’. There's a danger, there's a power in any amount of fire because it can grow and spread. You're gonna write about love if you're writing any kind of music long enough. For me, that's my love experience - my wife. We've been together since I was 21”.
“That's for [my wife] again. I want to make her happy. I want to make her smile, but it was only afterwards that I felt it on a different level. I've been trying to make folks happy for a long, long time - all the way back to Whose Line Is It Anyway? over there in England. That's what you are literally trying to do. You're given suggestions, and you're trying to bring a silliness that leads to a smile”.
“I like to think ‘Down the Road’ is in some ways the end of the album. It's the ‘earthly’ end of the album! The album is focused on all the things that help you get through this tough life and [reach] a place of joy. By the time I get to ‘Down the Road’, I'm saying, ‘I know there are some of you that don't think your future has much in it - well, there are some wonderful things waiting’. It felt like there needed to be an epilogue, saying, ‘Oh, one more thing, as good as you think this life can get - there's a better one still’. My belief system says there's beauty to come, a deep beauty without all the pain, so it seemed like a good way to close the album”.
“There are a ton of songs on this album that could have been on Nashville, such as ‘A Little Right Now’. That's a song about someone who's reached a place where they've just run out of faith and they're asking for a little more. That sounds very Deacon-esque to me. ‘Maybe I'm Alright' is one of those as well. There are also a bunch of Outer Banks fans of mine that don't even know the character Deacon. They might get to know me as a singer-songwriter, and then they might go back and watch Nashville second and say, ‘Wow, there's a whole lot of Charles in Deacon’, because that's true as well. I would say Deacon's a dear friend of mine, and I'm able to empathise with his troubles and with the things he went through”.
“Ree Guyer has been a friend of mine forever and owns a publishing company [called Wrensong]. [One day] she said, ‘Why don't you come on board, I want to be your publisher’. There was something in that moment that unlocked the rest of it. This was after eight or nine years of me just writing and being in this town without a publisher. Through Ree I met Marshall Altman, who's my producer, so by the time I got to make this album, I got to make it with a community of folks I knew and loved, which, in retrospect, is a really good reason to have waited. I've likened it to the difference between food you get out of a microwave and food that's been in the crockpot all day... like a British stew, where it's just perfect”.
“It's so important to me, that it doesn't feel like effort. Mostly, it's a joy. There's a bit of it that feels like coming home again. I lived there for almost two years, and I've been back so many times. [On my 2024 UK tour] I'll be performing solo with a keyboard player, which I'm grateful for. It's a different vibe, for sure. But it's one that I've come to really love. Somewhere ‘Down the Road’ - no pun intended - I'll do it with a full band”.
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