The seven-time Grammy-winning Nashville trio fly into the UK with their latest album 747 ready to headline the O2 arena for the biggest country music bash this side of the Atlantic: Country 2 Country 2015.
‘We’re all for evolving. Our career came about quickly, but we’ve worked hard to get where we are now,’ admits Charles Kelley, one third of the vocal harmony-drenched country crooners Lady Antebellum, whose career took off at jet speed in 2008 scoring back-to-back multiplatinum albums.
In a haze of accolades and awards, Lady Antebellum’s fifth studio album, 747, arrived, owing as much to groove-led dance floor tunes as it does to authentic country music, securing crossover appeal along the way and sending them back toward the stratosphere after a turbulent period in their album sales. While signifying a move to mainstream appeal, 747 has its roots firmly planted in the interweaving harmonies we were introduced to on 2008 debut Lady Antebellum. At a moment when every other song on country radio is about throwing back a cold one and dancing with bikini-clad ladies, 747 is a refreshing antidote with an edgy rhythm and rich, layered textures. It’s an album that ranks with one of the trio’s best: 2010’s Need You Now.
Nathan Chapman, who’s best known for his work with Taylor Swift, was at the helm of 747. His fastidious attention to detail for sparkling country pop shines through on tracks like ‘Bartender’ and ‘Long Stretch Of Love’, while ballads like ‘Lie With Me’ and ‘Down South’ bring up the rear with a sense of longing, hankering back to their country roots with organic, stripped back instrumentation.
A new energy, with a cohesive celebratory theme, thrives on 747, and as the trio (Hillary Scott, vocals; Charles Kelley, vocals and guitar; and Dave Haywood, vocals and guitar) roll into the O2 arena to launch their new album in the UK – and to subsequently announce their headline slot at 2015’s Country 2 Country festival – they’re cruising at high altitude, clutching bags of take-out Starbucks and being ushered into one of the venue’s backstage VIP bars. Aside from being thrilled they can watch Downton Abbey ahead of those in the US, spirits are high after BBC Radio 2 playlisted 747’s lead single ‘Lie With Me’ (in the US ‘Bartender’ took the lead) – a sound choice, considering it’s one that sits closest to the track that made them superstars: the much lauded ‘Need You Now’.
‘This is our fourth trip to London. We love our UK fans, they invest in the entire record, not just the singles. They even go back to the first album of ours that wasn’t even out in the UK. The goal is to keep building the fan base, and with 747 we feel like it’s our best record since Need You Now – and we’re thrilled our label here decided to put out ‘Lie With Me’ as the lead single. It’s our favourite track from the record,’ Hillary starts. ‘I fell in love with ‘Lie With Me’ as soon as I heard it. It has this crazy melody to it that I loved. There’s something in that song that a lot of people can relate to. The demo was perfect and we knew listening to it that we were just going to go in there and replicate it.’
Each time Lady Antebellum return to the UK, the shows get bigger and bigger. In March 2015 you’ll be headlining the Country 2 Country Festival at the O2 arena.
Dave: It’s one of the most notorious venues in the world. We’ve always heard about it, we’ve watched DVDs of artists playing at the O2, and I think it’s the top of the tree for global touring. We’re thrilled the festival wants to have us. There will be so many great artists there too, but for us to keep growing each time we come to the UK is a real treat for us.
It’s no secret that country suffers a rougher rider in the UK than it does in the States, but people this side of the Atlantic are starting to really embrace it – the success of previous Country 2 Country festivals prove that.
Hillary: I think that’s true, but for us we love being on the road. We have a new found excitement about being on tour this year. We had such a drive to write a great record and to perform great shows. We had about six months off after I had my baby, and so we got to hit the refresh button and get excited again. We missed the whole process and missed being out playing shows, but sometimes it is good to miss it because you then come back full force.
Dave: Our road schedule involves a lot of writing. For us, being on the road is part of everyday life, but making writing a priority within that is important to us. I think that ethos influenced these songs and we really pushed ourselves to continue writing until we had enough great songs for the record. Country music is growing so much around the world. Everywhere we go, we find huge pockets of country fans. I know they’ve always loved the genre, but now more than ever, I feel like it’s really making an impact.
How do the dynamics work between the three of you when you’re writing?
Charles: We’ll generally pull out an acoustic guitar and sit around with it working on certain ideas. For 747, Dave started putting down a lot of demo tracks down at home. When you’re writing with an acoustic guitar, you tend to write a little more ballad-heavy. With this record we did want that, but we wanted it to be a bit more up-tempo and so he would go home and go through a bunch of ideas himself and then bring them out on the road for us to check out.
There’s a real sense of excitement on 747 – it’s fast-paced and signifies a clear move from your usual country sound.
Hillary: That’s why we titled it 747 because we wanted to give everyone that sense of urgency. We wanted the sound to feel bigger.
Charles: On songs like ‘One Great Mystery’, we do stick to our roots, musically, despite the album changing direction a little.
Dave: The mandolins, the acoustics, the bouzoukis are all still on this record. That core group of instruments that are so prominent in country music had to be there. Country music focuses a lot on acoustic guitar and that makes it very organic and authentic that way. A lot of our songs build around the acoustic and we love to keep those core instruments in there. Nathan Chapman, our producer on this record, was great about trying some other things too and building songs a little bigger than we’ve done before like on ‘Bartender’ and ‘Freestyle’. That was a good part of having someone like Nathan push us a little bit into stacking some extra bits here and there, but keeping the harmonies and acoustic instruments at the forefront of it.
Hillary: We listen to a lot of vocal harmony bands like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Doobie Brothers. We supported the Doobie Brothers early on in our career having grown up on their music. We just love harmonies. The first time we all realised we could sing together with stacked harmonies was when we wrote the track ‘All We’d Ever Need’ from our first record. When we put our voices together on that song and heard the three-part vocal blend, it felt really special. Some voices do not match, but for whatever reason, the three of ours worked out.
747, as well as being a more up-tempo record, has the feeling of a live album with high-energy songs like ‘Bartender’.
Charles: Yeah, that comes from writing the majority of the songs from 747 on the road, and we did try to get that live feeling across on some of the tracks. ‘Long Stretch Of Love’ and ‘747’ really open up the record and we use those songs to kick off our lives shows. They really set the tone.
Dave: Writing on the road does influence the way the record sounds. Not every song is crafted that way, but there are moments you have when you realise certain songs will live so well in a big arena – and we want to be a touring band for the next 20 years.
A lot of your greatest moments have been while performing acoustic sets – particularly the CMA Crossroads duet with Stevie Nicks – putting your stacked harmonies and intricate guitar parts to the forefront.
Hillary: Oh, we love taking our songs and performing them in that way. We’ve been talking about doing a completely acoustic tour in the future and take it around the world. There will be a time when we, as an artistic outlet, just go out there and back to the theatres for stripped-backed shows. Whenever it’s just our voices and minimal production, you can hear yourself as a singer and guitar player much clearer. It makes for such an enjoyable experience for us – we’d love to be able to tell the stories behind the songs in that way, too. Some of our favourite performances are those stripped-back, three voices and a guitar set-up.
Dave: A great song should work with just a voice and a guitar. That’s the true testament to a great song – it shouldn’t have all of these backing tracks and high-end production bits, just you should be able to sit down and play it as it was written.
Hillary: After we played the CMA Crossroads with Stevie, she asked us to provide the harmonies for one of her new songs called ‘Blue Water’.
Speaking of collaborations, there’s a great video on YouTube of Adele and Darius Rucker covering your hit ‘Need You Now’ at a US awards show. As the camera pans to you guys in the audience, your facial expressions pretty much sums that up for you…
Charles: We were huge fans of Adele around that time – it was right before 21 had been released. I don’t really know how it all came about like that, but in a couple of interviews with her, she mentions that ‘Need You Now’ had been something she was listening to a lot while she was making her record.
Hillary: Adele came to one of our shows in Minneapolis and she didn’t tell anybody. We didn’t know she was there until after the show was over. We presented a Grammy to her on her big night, but I’d have loved to known she was there at our show to hang out with her. I guess she likes to fly under the radar, though.
Nathan Chapman’s (Taylor Swift, the Band Perry) influence can be heard across 747. What made you switch up producers and go with Nathan for this record?
Charles: We just wanted to mix it up. A new environment, new producer, new influences; he has such an infectious energy in the studio but we were really impressed with him from when we were in the studio with him before [Compass] and realised his creativity was what we needed. He works fast, which meant the whole process wasn’t a drag – we could get ideas in there straight away and work them out quickly. The difference between touring two or three years ago, and touring now, is that our set back then was based around two or three songs, but it’s now full of singles we’ve released. You’re still constantly looking for ways to make it better, but it’s a real nice feeling.
You had over 1,000 songs to choose from when putting together 747, how do you cut down songs from such a staggering amount?
Charles: Once we had the bulk of that narrowed down, we just knew which would make it. We had so many amazing demos from great songwriters – each of us received so much stuff from our friends in the business. We had about 15 songs that we all loved collectively.
Talk us through some of the guitars you use to write and record with…
Dave: Both Charles and I use a lot of Gibson acoustics. I have an original 1931 L-00 that I use a lot – it was the main guitar I used to record ‘Damn You Seventeen’. Our producer brings a huge entourage of instruments with him, too. He has a lot of stuff that’s really old. I play bouzouki on a lot of our records, too – as well as when we play live. On ‘Long Stretch Of Love’ I used a handheld Appalachia dulcimer, made by a company called Woodrow. That was the key instrument that our co-writer Josh Kear used to write the track on. We all love those instruments that surround the acoustic guitar – a lot of the Celtic and Irish stuff. An old vintage Gibson from the 40s or 50s would be my ideal acoustic. Although there’s a great Martin D-21 I have which was used on 747. I love electric guitar, but I’m obsessed with acoustic guitars. You get the character from the wood, and you can really hear that through the recording if you mic it up well. To me, there’s something about the body of an old vintage instrument, especially a Gibson, that’s just incredible.
After seven Grammy Awards and countless US stadium tours, how do the three of you define success?
Charles: That has changed for us as we’ve gone on through our career. If you asked us this question a couple of years ago, we’d all say that success meant winning a Grammy Award. Now, after seven, it’s kind of like, “Oh my gosh, I never thought that would’ve happened.” Now I think our live shows are what we’re focusing on – growing a fan base and keeping it. We’re playing arenas and we love it, so if we can stay here for a long time, that’s how we’d define success. It’d be nice to go and do theatre gigs for artistic reasons and playing stripped-back sets – not just because you have to do theatres. We’ve already made more money than I thought we ever would in my life, so that really doesn’t drive us at all. It’s about wanting to be proud of what we’re doing and to still be relevant.
Lady Antebellum’s 747 is out now. They headline the Country 2 Country festival at the O2 arena in March 2015 with Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and a host of other big US country names. Tickets are available now.