If you have just become a Kenny Chesney fan because of his ever-so-contagious island record, Be As You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair), then you are missing out on a whole other part of Chesney’s songwriting career-which goes as far back as his days at the University of Tennessee, ironically in a “persuasion” class. Although this musical slant has fairly recently come to the limelight of Chesney’s career, he’s always been drawn to the sea and its treasures, the lifestyle and the ebb and flow of its emotions. Since his early years with Capricorn Records in the early ‘90s to his current status on BNA Records, Chesney has created some of his deepest lyrics and painted endless, vivid pictures for his audience with songs ranging from “The Tin Man” and “You Had Me From Hello,” to “I Go Back,” “Something Sexy About The Rain” and “This Old Blue Chair.”
As Chesney reveals a special part of himself with the new record, he also opens those sacred places in his listeners’ hearts that only talented songwriters are able to do.
He continues to have huge success with Be As You Are, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop chart. Not bad for an album without a planned single release. It follows 2004’s When the Sun Goes Down, which has sold more than three million copies, making it the number four selling record of 2004.
American Songwriter caught up with Chesney after a brief but much needed fishing vacation in the islands. He was closing up a day in the studio working on his next album and finishing a tune with Sammy Hagar, before hitting the road for his concert tour. We discussed everything from his rules and regulations of songwriting, his tenacious work ethic and how he has dug out his heart even deeper over the last couple of years-to the Virgin Islands, his most creative place nestled in the Caribbean, the birthplace of Be As You Are. After reading this you’ll feel like you have been sitting atop his Sea Ray, sipping on some boat drinks and hanging out with an old friend. Come aboard!
Tell us a little about how this career of yours began.
I got into the music business as a songwriter when I was young, and the guys I really looked up to and listened to were the singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Springsteen, Roger Miller, Mellencamp, Buffett and Petty. They taught me that it was possible to paint a picture with words and that turned me on to songwriting.
Do you remember one of the first songs you wrote?
One of the first songs I tried to write was a song for this girl…it’s usually about a girl…it was a horrible song. She was in a persuasion class with me. I wrote her a song and threw it away-I could not even tell you the name of it. But that was where it all began.
Did you know from the beginning that songwriting was something you wanted to pursue?
I never really thought I was going to do anything with my writing. I was just doing it for fun…for something to do. Then, I started to play my songs for my friends and began playing them out around Johnson City [Tennessee]. People started coming up to me and telling me they liked them. I got a lot more confident about my writing. In January 1991, I decided to move to Nashville. I landed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose in ‘92 and a record deal with Capricorn Records in ’93. I was Capricorn’s attempt at country music-they were more of a southern rock/college label. But it was also my attempt at recording my own songs, and it was a huge learning experience for me. I put out a song called “Whatever It Takes” on Capricorn. Then came “The Tin Man.”
How did “The Tin Man” come about?
I was sitting in my apartment one night in 1991, and I had just broken up with a girl who moved back to Florida…no…actually we didn’t break up…she just moved away. I was pretty upset about it and I happened to be watching Wizard of Oz and I saw the Tin Man go through the whole movie…wanting a heart. Finally, he gets one. It is when Dorothy leaves. He says in the movie, ‘Now I know I have a heart because it is breaking.’ He only thought that there was a good side to having a heart. First thing he finds out is that there’s is a downside to it too. That just hit me deep.
Have you always been a deep thinker?
I think a lot and read a lot. Some things just hit me completely differently than someone else. I try to dig deeper than I used to. That was one of the first songs that I was really proud of. It opened lots of doors for me. It helped get me my publishing deal and record deal.
Do you prefer writing by yourself or with a co-writer?
I’ve been writing a lot on my own lately, but it kind of depends on the situation. I used to use co-writing as a crutch. At times I was not as comfortable with my writing. But I have gotten much more confident with it over the past couple of years. I realize that nobody can tell the story like me because they didn’t see it through my eyes.
Being more confident with your writing…what has changed?
I think it comes with growing up. I am more comfortable with putting myself out there…putting my heart and my feelings and emotions out there…and letting people see what I am thinking. I was never really like that before. I really believe that when people are listening to music, and I am the same way, they are suckers for the truth. I have really tried to become a more truthful songwriter and to let people pretty much have an open book into what I am feeling and how I am living my life.
You wrote “You Had Me from Hello,” “Being Drunk’s A Lot Like Loving You” and “Something Sexy about the Rain” with Skip Ewing. You must really be good team.
Every time we’ve sat down we’ve written a great song. He and I write great together. Both of us love to paint those pictures and he is a great melody guy.
Are you more lyrical?
You know, I don’t know. I can write a pretty good melody too. But I don’t know if I am better at one or the other. I just kind of write what I am feeling and let the melody take me where it does. That is what I love about the island record, Be As You Are. I wrote those songs over about five and a half years. Nothing was rushed about it, and it all just happened like I said. It was really neat because it all really happened through my eyes. Every song on it was a real moment and every person a real person.
I am so glad you are eager to talk about the new record. How did it all come to be?
Basically, Be As You Are is my journal from the islands put to words. I didn’t think anyone was going to hear them except for me and the few people I wrote them for. They were just so personal. I had a guitar on my boat and forgot it was there until about three or four years ago. I put something in a closet one day and saw the guitar in there and pulled it out and started playing on it…and eventually wrote four of the songs that were used on the album. Then, one day I looked down and I had like twelve songs. I decided to go in and record them. I worked on the record for about two years. Really, it has been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, and usually the most satisfying things are the hardest. This record was for my fans and me. I wanted them to know this side of me.
What is it about the islands that gets you in the zone?
It is very ironic that the place I escaped to, to get as far away from my bus and the music industry, ended up being my most creative place. I’ve spent a lot of time in the islands over the last seven or eight years. It is just one of those places that draws me in like a magnet. I feel satisfied when I am there. When I look out into the ocean it reminds me of how infinite our possibilities are. The ocean really humbles me. My life is so fast- paced and hectic, one thing after the other…it’s just is a great change for me, because how I live my life down there is anything but the way I really live. It really is a place that opens me up.
Do you think certain circumstances led you to this point?
I don’t know if there was one thing but I know the island record taught me so much about songwriting and being able to show all the emotions I felt in that record.
Do you regret not having put a single out?
No, I don’t-because to me, not releasing a single made the album more special. And I had no idea what we were going to do with it when we released it. The fact that it went number one Pop with no single is amazing. I never knew it would do something like this. So, no, no…no regrets.
Will you be playing songs from this album at your concerts?
This album is very laid back. My concerts are not. It is very much in your face. I like to keep the pace of my shows moving very good. I like people leaving there knowing they have completely been to a show…this album just doesn’t really fit in. It fits in on a beach, on a boat, in a little funky beach bar and little hide-a-way places. This is kind of where I like to keep it.
I know that there are some who compare, sometimes criticize, the similarities of you to Jimmy Buffett. Are you ok with that?
That is going to be inevitable-especially when you release an album like this. As much as I love Jimmy, and he knows it (we’ve become good friends), Jimmy did not have anything to do with this record. The whole record is just how I grew up as a person and as a man during the periods I spent down in the islands. And I think this album reflects that. If people say, “Oh he just wanted to write a Buffett album,” that couldn’t be further from the truth. Once they listen to the record, they will realize that this is not just a weekend in Margarittaville.
So if someone said, “We don’t need another Buffett album,” what would you say?
I didn’t give them one!
Let’s talk about some of these memorable songs on Be As You Are. I love the melody on “Boston.” Did you write the melody on that?
That was me and Mark Tamburino. He really had the chords and I wrote the melody and the lyric around the riff. We wrote it on my boat…see that is one of the great things about this record-every one of these songs was at least started or finished on my boat. We’d just sit there, listen to music, drink and write songs about it.
Explain the sexy “rock” in “Magic.”
There is apart of an island I go to. They call it, “The Rock.” I do think in a lot of ways it has a lot of sex appeal. Lots of times, the things that are the least obvious are the things that make something magical.
Do you have time to write on the road?
It is hard to write on the road. And it is hard to bring writers on the road and just try and be creative. It just has to come to me. It comes when it comes…I can’t really push it that much. But, I wrote “I Go Back” on the bus one night. I stayed up all night and wrote it in bed. Mark Tamburino and I always go to this bar in the islands, and every time we walk in the bartender calls us the “Redneck Boys.” I’m not from Alabama, but when we walk in he plays “Sweet Home Alabama” for us. We were on the bus one night and we heard “Sweet Home Alabama” and Tambo said, “Man, every time I hear that song, I go back to that bar in the islands. I said Tambo, “You don’t know what you have just done for me.” I sat up and thought of all the songs that meant something to me.
How do you describe yourself?
I am a very laid back person, I have a tenacious work ethic, I love life, I love love, and I love writing about it.
What is it about love that we can find so many ways of writing about it?
It is crazy that we can still write about love after all the times it has been written about. Everybody feels a lot of the same emotions, but not necessarily in the same way. People are going to paint different pictures. No two artists are going to sit there and look at a woman and paint the same thing. It is the same way for a songwriter. I’m no different either…I feel this stuff too. Springsteen is going to write something completely different than somebody else. All those guys I love to listen to wrote about love and how it affected them. I think that is so great.
Right now you have the No. 1 Country song with “Anything But Mine,” written by someone else. You sure keep a lot of Nashville songwriters happy by continuing to cut outside songs. Will you write more for this next album?
I’m not one of these guys that sits there and says “I’ve got to write my own songs for my record.” I’ve never done that. I’m smart enough to know that there are some great songs out there and some great songwriters. I try to tap into as much as I can…I am in a very creative part of my life right now. I’ve been writing lots of songs. There are always going to be a couple that make it on the record. There is never going to be just a full album, other than Be As You Are, of Kenny Chesney songs. (Oh my gosh, I just spoke of myself in third person. Holy shit!) Right now the only song written for my next album is the song Sammy Hagar and myself started in Cabo at his birthday bash.
When will the next album come out? What are we to expect?
We’re working on it right now. It is a hard process and I put a lot of stress on myself. I hope it will be out sometime in the Fall. It is going to be completely different than the island record. The island record was more hushed; this next one will be really rockin’.
Will there be any taste of salty sea air?
Maybe a touch here or there, but maybe not. I think I have done that. I’ve given people that side of me. It may go back to what really turns me on live- a bunch of guitars and a good lyric.
Any words you want to leave with American Songwriter?
I am just glad God gave me the gift of songwriting. I love it-I will always be a songwriter.