5 Questions With Charles Esten About His Debut Album, ‘Love Ain’t Pretty’

Charles Esten has been in the process of molding his musical identity for years now. Esten’s time playing Deacon Claybourne on Nashville is enough to key anyone into the fact that he has guitar and vocal chops, but his artistry is much deeper than that.

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In Esten’s newly released debut album, Love Ain’t Pretty, the listener gets to hear another side of Esten. The actor/musician is no stranger to releasing songs. In fact, he released a record-breaking amount of singles a few years ago. But a unified, cohesive album is a whole other beast–a fact Esten knew well when he set out to make Love Ain’t Pretty.

“I hold albums as an art form in such high regard that I didn’t want to take it frivolously at all,” Esten tells American Songwriter. His commitment to creating his debut record is readily apparent while listening to Love Ain’t Pretty. Esten dares to get deep, revels in life’s high points, and even ponders the afterlife across this album. Each song has a unique flair but they are grounded in the cohesive quality that is Esten’s distinctive voice and performance style.

American Songwriter caught up with Esten to chat about this record. Check out our conversation, below.

American Songwriter: Was there an overarching goal that you wanted to accomplish with this record?

Charles Esten: I started this project pre-COVID. I attempted to make this record. I went into the studio with some great musicians and a great producer, but it just wasn’t happening. Then, of course, lockdowns came so I put everything on the back burner. But, it also realigned some things. There were some songs that I wrote before that all happened that I wasn’t feeling in the same way after having been through that with the whole world. It made what I was doing feel out of date instantly.

Slowly, I started to see the guitar in the corner and I thought, “Yeah, go pick it up.” Some other songs started coming. Some of these songs I wrote on Zoom. Some I wrote in Barbados while filming Outer Banks. It started to come back up again.

So, the short answer to that question is, “To finally complete it.” It just took so long. There was a whole lot of paralysis of analysis. [I thought about] “What’s it going to be” and, more fundamentally, “Who am I?” I don’t want to live in one place all the time. So any room I walked into, I was up for whatever song anybody wanted to write.

AS: How did you go about picking collaborators on this album?

Esten: An important part of making an album to me was figuring out the through-line. What is the cohesive thing that makes it an album? My publisher said, “I think you need to meet Marshall Altman.” As soon as I met Marshall, it started to flow. From the beginning, he said, “I want to be a conduit towards you making the album that you want to make.” It felt like fresh air rushing into a room.

Marshall collected this incredible group of players. Another small, beautiful thing was where [we recorded]. Marshall had no idea that I had done most of my Nashville recording at Sound Emporium. So when I heard that [was where we were going to record], I thought, “I get to do this new thing in a place where I’m very comfortable.”

AS: One of the songs I really love from the record is “Somewhere in the Sunshine,” which you wrote with Jon Nite. Can you talk about writing that one?

Esten: Being a great songwriter, Jon Nite had a title [ready], “Somewhere in the Sunshine,” but what I’ve learned about songwriting is you’ve got to bring who you are in that moment and where you are in that moment.

How I was feeling in that moment about the title was not what he was thinking: tequila, sand, you and me somewhere in the sunshine. That would have been a great song, perhaps an even more popular radio-friendly song. But I was carrying something with me. I had a friend who had been battling cancer for so long and the conversations that he and I had been having were about what comes next.

It’s such a big concept, but I wanted it to be conversational. Whatever emotion creeps into the performance, I’d rather fight it off because this person is talking to someone who is broken from grief, but they’re not.

[RELATED: Charles Esten Talks the Meaning Behind His Emotional Track “Somewhere in the Sunshine”]

AS: Do you have a favorite moment from a particular writing session?

Esten: There are a few things I’m learning about putting an album out. One of them is that it is almost like a photo album. You remember where you were at–all the different pictures.

“In A Bar Somewhere” was written in a hotel room in Barbados. I was there to shoot Outer Banks and my wife and I were still in quarantine in our hotel room. We found out that we really do love each other. I did a Zoom write with Jason Gantt and Neil Medley. Songwriting itself is like a magic trick to me, but it’s even more so when [you’re] a thousand miles away from the people you’re working with.

I remember playing that song the next day down by the pool and everybody was just vibing on it.

AS: What does songwriting do for you as a person? Why do you keep coming back to that outlet?

Esten: It’s more of an inside-to-outside thing than an outside-to-inside. I don’t have this thought in my head that I want to be a songwriter, so therefore, I write songs. I’ve never had that. What I’ve always had are these sounds in my head. I’ve got these lyrics and phrases. I learned when I was younger that if I wanted to stop thinking of a line that was driving me crazy, I’d have to finish the song.

Secondly, when I was in college, I remember having written a song called “Walk the Bridge.” It was about this bridge on campus that was voted one of the top romantic spots on college campuses. The coolest thing was when I took it to my band. That’s another level. That’s when the square of songwriting becomes a cube–this other dimension.

Photo: Kirsten Balani / Sweet Talk Publicity

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