Charles Esten Interview: We chat about breaking down the fourth wall, making crowds feel something and much more before he kicks of his UK tour
Charles ‘Chip’ Esten has fast become one of the most beloved people in country music, especially in Britain, where he’s one of the most beloved artists who tour the UK regularly. Esten has had a connection to the UK ever since he played Buddy Holly on London’s West End, before appearing in Who’s Line Is It Anyway. Once he won the role of Deacon Claybourne in the smash-hit TV series Nashville, it was written in the stars that he’d begin to live out his musical dreams. Now, after several huge Nashville Live tours and the finale of the show, Esten is embarking on his first full-band UK tour. We sat down with him for a chat before the first night in Manchester.
Welcome back to the UK, Chip!
Thank you so much! We were just talking to our tour manager and saying we can’t believe it was January and now we’re all back together.
Full band this time as well…
Yeah, I like doing it this way. Coming out on my own and putting my toe in the water with the guitar and piano, but I always intend to come back with the band. For anybody that was there in January, it’s going to be a very different show.
You’ve kind of done the whole variety of shows, obviously with the Nashville tours, from those small intimate gigs to the likes of the O2 Arena. What do you find to be the differences in all these shows?
It’s interesting because the crowds have been wonderful, I remember those big Nashville crowds and I think it’s easier to increase your connection if it’s just you and your guitar, at least you better have a connection because there’s nowhere to hide!
When it’s a big spectacle, they can be moved by all of that, when it’s just you there’s a connection that can sometimes be made on a deeper level. It’s easier with a band, almost certainly, because you get to ride in it sometimes. This is a very fine car I’m gonna be driving and occasionally I’ll just be part of the band and playing the music, when you’re on your own it’s like you’re Fred Flintstone driving the car – if your feet aren’t moving then the car isn’t going!
I knew that this show would miss that intimacy, by the way clearly I wanna create intimacy and you can with the band, but in each show there’ll be a portion with just me on stage. I like the shows I go to to have a dynamic range. Sort of build it up, then clear it away for a bit.
You don’t ever seem to have had an issue with intimacy. I remember seeing you at Leeds Arena last year, sat somewhere near the back, and you appeared running around. That must feel great, the people in those seats are loving it and thinking “wow, I didn’t expect this!”
That’s a great thing to hear from an audience member, not expecting something to happen. My overarching goal is to get people to feel something, and I’m driven by that and ruthless with it. I’ll try anything! The last thing I want you to do is think “well, I know what’s happening next”, uncomfortable – well, I want you to be comfortable! – I don’t want a warm bath of an evening! I want moments that you’ll remember, the sort of tent pole moments that you’ll remember.
The fourth wall in theatre, there’s the ones behind and left and right, but this is between you and the audience and I don’t like that wall. I want to tear that wall down. There’s different ways of doing it. When I was in Buddy all those years ago, in some ways we introduced a lot of people to theatre, we’d get young people who might not be that interested in seeing something else at that time. That’s good, but it reached out and knocked down that fourth wall, it was very emotionally involving, as all good theatre obviously is, but for me, going out into the crowd has always been part of it.
When we did the Nashville tours, I was always out there, Claire (Bowen) and I would go out when we toured together. That’s something I was thinking when I was on my own, “I guess I can’t do that because there’ll be nobody left onstage driving the car”… turns out I was wrong!
When you were doing those Nashville tours, did you ever imagine you’d be coming back solo?
Well that was always the big hope, that it wasn’t always of that moment. The show has legs in people’s hearts, “legs in people’s hearts” that’s a weird phrase! What I mean to say is you hope that it was just going to be done. Having said that, I did think that was it for the Royal Albert Hall!
Your question makes a lot of sense, I’m incredibly grateful that I get to reestablish this connection that I had right back from Buddy. I remember British audiences so well, the British reserve cliché that I expected was wrong, it was literally dancing in the aisles back then. I figured why not join them!
Coming from a theatrical background, playing the Royal Albert Hall must hold an extra special feeling?
I don’t even know if I could be fully aware, I’m deeply aware, of what that place is and what it means. Then again, every time I dig a little deeper it becomes more clear! I’m thinking “I had no idea that he played there!” I had a similar thing back in the States with the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium. Different places but in some sense they’re our hallowed institutions and venues. I even got to play Carnegie Hall. I look back and think “what a career this has been to play those places!”
I’m really intrigued to know what your goal was from the start? You’ve done stage, comedy, acting, music, but what was the initial driver for you?
What I realise as I’ve gotten older is that the common thread was wanting people to feel something. There’s a portion that’s being an inveterate show-off! In some ways, I always envied people that were singularly focused. I’m a big fan of Springsteen and everything he achieved was through monomania and focus. I was more diffused in my approach, which was, “let’s make a living at this”.
Early on I wanted to make people laugh. My dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said a clown. I just wanted to make people laugh when they were upset or sad or tense. I noticed going to see movies, like going to see Rocky, there’s places where he made everybody laugh like with the two turtles Cuff and Link and there’s other parts where he’d break your heart and your in tears or you wanted to do push ups and run and jump.
The common thread is playing the instrument of peoples hearts, that’s where I noticed I’m the most engaged, when I’m moving them. The heartstrings, it’s not a new analogy, but it’s true. With the show, if they laughed very hard at some point during the show and then if someone cried a little, I don’t wanna make you cry but maybe it’s cathartic, or at some point you were on your feet and felt like you were up there rocking with me, I want that. That’s the experience I want to bring.
I guess being a musician is the place you can do that and see that reaction in front of you?
You’re right, you can engage directly with them. I guess in theatre you do but you’re generally looking at your acting partner and not the crowd.
It’s funny because I didn’t go to many concerts as a kid. We weren’t poor but we didn’t have extra money. My parents divorced and my mom supported us so it felt like a bit of a luxury. That’s why it’s very very meaningful to me, I know this is a luxury for people, this is a luxury and they spent it on this one.
Does that give you an extra drive and fuel?
Fuel? It’s exactly that! All of this is physics by the way! Tent poles and fuel! Honestly, pressure and fuel is how you make a jet go, it’s both of those things. If it explodes during take off that’s not what you want (laughs) but used correctly towards a purpose, with a lot of work, it becomes something very positive. ‘Pressure and Fuel’, that’s a good album title!
Speaking of titles, A Road and A Radio, is smashing the UK iTunes country chart at the moment. That must feel cool?
It’s the coolest! It really is! To think this song we wrote in Nashville is being streamed and download, has become a part of their life, we’re in a world where there are so many choices, to think that my song and these shows even momentarily pop into someones attention is huge to me. Especially here.
I remember as a kid, this obvious thing occurring to me, I remember leaving my dad’s house and flying out of Pittsburgh, looking down at the city and thinking “ah, I see, Pittsburgh will continue to go on even when I’m not here”. The fact that I’m in Nashville and my song is being played over here, I’m not jaded at all, that’s extremely cool!
You also broke the world record for consecutive songs released. Did you find Nashville just made you hit this creative streak and it poured out?
It was. When I first got to Nashville it felt like, I think John Denver said it in Rocky Mountain High, “I’m coming home to a place I’ve never been before”. I felt utterly at home, I love country songwriters, they have to be emotionally intelligent, funny, all those things. I started writing a lot and realised that, when you’re making an album, a lot of it is paring down and saying “not that one, not that one” but I realised I was artificially imposing that straightjacket, whichever ten or twelve I chose wouldn’t be any more representative than the ones I wasn’t choosing.
Part of who I am is the eclectic nature of what I like and what I write. It’s 2019, the album isn’t as necessary, I don’t have a label, so it started with that. I figured I’d do twenty or so, I never imagined I’d get to 54! That’s a testament to my love of doing things, it become a real deadline machine. I tend to over analyse things, paralysis of analysis, stopping and focusing on polishing things, so this was a cool way of keeping me moving forward. It really opened up a lot of creativity.
I’ll still be putting out singles but not as often. I got more out of it than I could of imagined, including the record! I was never aiming at that, as a kid if you told me I’d be in the Guinness Book, that’s amazing for that show off I was talking about! I was always thinking “how many pieces of gum do I have to fit in my mouth?” or “how many times do I have to hop of a pogo stick?” In the end I just had to do what I loved!
How difficult, or easy, has it been putting Deacon behind you and not stepping out on the stage or in front of cameras as part of Nashville?
It’s funny, until you said that, I hadn’t even thought of putting that character behind me…
Well, I was going to follow that up by asking how much of Deacon Claybourne is on the stage tonight, and how much of Chip Esten is on stage?
I think a lot of Deacon is out there. Deacon was some of my facets. He has one’s I don’t have, you didn’t see them because I couldn’t portray them but I’m sure they exist! I have one’s he doesn’t have. I don’t limit myself how he did. I don’t picture Deacon running into the audience! In some sense, it’s a great alter-ego. I’ve written as Deacon a lot, I find that he’s there when I’m writing from a place of pain. When I’m performing those songs, that’s me performing them but he’s there too. I don’t imagine I’ve ever really said goodbye to him, you don’t have to. Many of the fans are coming out tonight to see Deacon!
That’s the beauty of TV and film, those characters will live forever…
It is! More specifically for us, music. When you’re done watching Lost, you have to watch it again to be in that world. You don’t have to do that with Nashville. You could go to your phone right now and pull up A Life That’s Good, Sanctuary, No One Will Ever Love You… you’re in that world again.
I’m interested to know how much you see of the effect Nashville had on the rise of country music in the UK. I remember the first year of Country2Country, they were playing Nashville songs between acts and it all just seemed to happen at the same time. Do you guys feel the difference you made?
You have to remember that I don’t identify myself, Nashville is still this other thing, I identify it as an identity outside of me… almost as much as it is to you! It’s this phenomenon that I got to be a part of, just as anyone who came to see the tour was part of it. For me, it’s not like something me and my friends did, I got to be along for the ride to. The same thing happened in Nashville, not that we brought Nashville country music!The city had been on its knees after 2010’s terrible flooding and, sometimes in the wake of a disaster, people come together with an intent to rise up and rebuild. That happened in ’10, we got there in ’12, and it all just lifted.
It’s the same in that it wasn’t us then C2C, I believe it all landed at the same time, it was even more coincidental. I totally agree that it’s had an influence! My real hope and dream is that it’s not the end, that’s just the seed, I want it to be the acorn that turns into a forest of country in the UK. The artists love coming here. That is a fantastic legacy to have any part of, I love the genre and I love this country.
I wanted to briefly ask you about some of the work you do for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society, because it just seems like such fantastic work and something really worth talking about and spreading. Can you tell us a little about that?
Thank you for asking! There was a time, my daughter Addie is turning 20 on October 25th, she was two and a half when she was diagnosed with leukaemia and for two years she had chemotheraphy and thanks to previous research and those wonderful doctors and prayer, she’s happy and healthy and strong. I don’t take that for granted because I know that when I was a kid it was literally a death sentence and I know that research didn’t come from nothing, it came from fundraising.
When you’re in the middle of it and first get out of there, your first instinct is to lower your head and walk away from this disaster as quickly as we can, but then you quickly look behind and realise there are others who aren’t out of it yet. You want to help as much as you can and there was already this wonderful vehicle called Light The Night, through my friend Pete Fisher at the Opry he asked me to be a part of it. To get to play that guy in Nashville helped bring a little attention and draw to this thing, Nashville taught me the healing power of music, not only can it change a hospital room but it can do amazing things for fundraising.
We started having these concerts after the Light the Night walks, called Light the Late Night, this year we changed it to after CMA Fest when there’s a tonne of country music fans here, so not drawing from the same pool of walkers and introducing others to the cause. That’s what we do in the summer. We’re doing a more intimate thing, a similar size to the Bluebird, called Writers and Lighters because it’s three of my friends that I write with and all the people that Light the Night. This’ll be the first year of that.
Finally, to change subject a little. I always enjoy asking American artists a few questions about the UK. You’ve spent a lot of time here, especially way back when you did Buddy, what’s your favourite thing to eat over here?
I’m a breakfast lover in general. I can’t skip it! If I sleep in, I still go and get it! A good English breakfast is frequently the first meal when you arrive here, if you’re on the red eye, they often give you that! Not that it’s the finest meal you get in England, it’s quintessentially British! Then again, a good shepherds pie at the right moment is always good!
How about a favourite venue or city?
I can’t answer city!
Yeah, that’s not fair… How about a specific gig or venue?
I mean… I’m playing the Royal Albert Hall here! Having said that, the cool thing about this tour is I’m getting to play Barrowlands, Ulster Hall, Bridgewater Hall! You have to understand that our bus pulls up, we walk in and there’s all these pictures hanging up, I’m this fan who got to sneak in the side door! I’m such a huge Elvis Costello fan, you saw that poster when you walked in! I really can’t wrap my head around some of these places I get to play… but once you’ve stuck me in the Royal Albert Hall it’s hard to choose anything else!
You’ve been here twice this year, do you see this as a regular thing? Getting over when you can?
I hope so! That would be my dream as long as everybody will have me. Part of me thinks I’d love to come and stay here for a stretch again, that would be unbelievable. There’s so much television production goes on here as well, so many of my favourites came from here, whether it was The Office or Peaky Blinders.
A lot of people when I started my career said “isn’t it hard not to know what you’re doing next year?” and I never really put it back but in my mind I was like “isn’t it hard knowing what you will be doing next year?” In my mind, my goal is to come back, you might see me next year and I might be living here! I’m open to anything but whatever it is, the UK will always be a part of it.
That’s great to hear. I think we’ve taken you in as one of our own…
Wow! That is as finer a compliment as you could give! Thank you!