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Interview: Luke Combs on UK audiences, songwriting and working with Leon Bridges

We caught up with the rising US country star during his recent UK tour.

Luke Combs
Credit: Sony Music

It’s safe to say that Luke Combs has had something of a meteoric rise to fame.

After releasing his debut EP in 2014, Combs came to many country fans’ attention with his debut single, Hurricane, which topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart in May 2017. Since then he’s landed three more number one hits, a chart-topping debut album, This One’s For You, and a slew of accolades including the CMA New Artist of the Year Award. He made his UK live debut at Country to Country earlier this year, and returned last month for a run of sold-out headlining dates.

I sat down with Luke ahead of his recent show at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. Read on to find out more about his songwriting process, what he’s learnt from touring and who he’d like to work with in future.

How have you found touring in the UK?

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It’s been good. I’m really tired still. This is our third day over here. We flew in from Nashville but we came to Nashville from the west coast so we’re all kind of just super-jetlagged and trying to get some sleep. It’s been crazy. I didn’t get to sleep this morning until like 10am. You’re tired the whole time, you just can’t sleep. But the crowd was great last night in Birmingham, that was really awesome, and looking forward to these two London shows as well.

Has anything particularly surprised you about the UK fans’ response?

Yeah, I think they listen more, as far as digesting the lyric of the song. It’s not as much of a party in that sense. I think out here it’s an under-served market for us. Not as many folks come over here and are willing to take the time to come over here. So I think when people do take the time to come over here I think you guys appreciate it a lot.

You’ve just released a duet of Beautiful Crazy with Leon Bridges – how did that come about and what was he like to work with?

So CMT does something called Crossroads and the idea got presented to me a while ago. His stuff is so good and I love singing anything. If I’m singing I’m having a good time. So I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try and sing his stuff. He was great to work with, he was so nice. He’s a soft-spoken guy and a little shy, but he was so great to work with and we’ve stayed in touch after that. I think both of the tracks turned out really well, his song as well. So it was a really good thing for both of us. It got him in front of my fans and my fans in front of his, so it was a mutually beneficial scenario for both of us.

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Is there anyone else you’d like to work with in the future?

Oh man, there’s so many folks. I’m a big [Ed] Sheeran guy, I like him a lot, I think he’s very, very talented. I love Adele, everybody loves Adele, and I’m a big Elton John fan as well, I love him. Billy Joel, I’m a Billy Joel guy. Any of that stuff. Anybody that’s a consummate singer-songwriter that’s had large-level success is really cool to me. It’s interesting, I can’t imagine being that famous worldwide – like you can’t even go to India and be left alone.

It seems to be getting close to that level though – you’ve got sold-out shows here, in the US as well… Has the speed of your success been quite surprising to you?

It absolutely has. I don’t think you could ever plan for anything like this happening over the course of 10 years, let alone three. It’s only really been three years since we started digging into this thing and it’s just taken off. There’s just something different about what we do, I can’t really put my finger on it I guess. It’s been fun, it’s definitely been a test for me and all my guys physically and mentally. Because there’s a lot of sacrifice involved with doing this many shows and being away from your loved ones and family and stuff. That would be the hardest part of the whole thing. You can never prepare for it. It doesn’t matter how many conversations you have with people and they can tell you what it’s gonna be like. Until you’re actually doing it you’re not gonna get a grasp on it.

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You’ve been touring pretty relentlessly for the last few years. What have you learnt from that?

I would say planning better, I think. Planning more time for yourself I think is a really important thing. The shows have all been great – the crowds have been great and that’s there for us right now, but I think the thing that none of us have is that peace of mind where it’s like, ‘we’re gonna get a little bit of time to take our foot off the gas and relax’. Because you do all these things and go to all these great places, but you don’t get to see or do anything while you’re there. You just see the green room or whatever it is, you just see venue after venue. You have no time to explore places. I’d love to be able to bring the guys’ wives and girlfriends out but you just can’t do that right now.

Is there anywhere on this tour you’re particularly looking forward to visiting?

Well we had such a great time here in March but we’re going to Berlin and Amsterdam which we’ve never done and I’m curious to see. Because over here everybody speaks English and I’m sure most of the people who come to our shows there will too, but it’ll be interesting to have first-hand experience with playing somewhere where English is not the first language. So I’m interested to see what that’s like, for sure.

You’ve mentioned you’re working on songs for the next album. Do you have a typical songwriting process?

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It’s a little bit sporadic, for sure. I go through phases where I write a bunch of stuff for a couple of weeks and then I don’t write anything for a couple of months. Me and my band leader were talking this morning about prioritising things. You can really only have so many things on your plate and you have to distribute your time based on how much time things take. So right now our top priority is this, touring, and that takes up 99.9% of our time, so if you wanna write you have to do it in your only time to rest or your only time to get away from the music for a little bit. That makes it tough to get in the mindset of being creative or to be excited about writing something as opposed to going, ‘I just wanna take a nap or watch TV’.

I think that’s something people take for granted. I’d love to be bored right now. I’d love to say I wanna go, ‘God I wish I had something to do’  because we’re at the complete opposite end of that spectrum, so I would love to have that time to be creative. We’ve gotten great songs over the last year – I’m not worried about the quality of the songs at all but it’s just getting to that place of peace a little bit. You need a little bit of calm and stillness to foster that creative thing.

Are you someone who finds it easy to write on the road?

I did it on the Jason [Aldean] tour a lot. We’d be out for three days and we averaged about a song a weekend, and that’s strictly based on time or how tired I am or how much rest is involved. I think I’m trying to take a little break from that next year and just go out and play and come home, and then write when I’m home or when I’m off – whenever I feel like it. The way it works in town, you have to plan stuff so far in advance, but if I book a write three months from now I don’t know how I’m gonna be feeling that day. I might just be like, ‘I don’t wanna do anything’ and I’ll have somebody hoping we’re gonna write a song and I’ll cancel on them. So I’ll let it come as it comes.

You put out the deluxe edition of This One’s For You this summer. Did the new songs on there come out of this year, and how did you decide on them?

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Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I recorded this album in March of 2016, so they were songs i wrote in between recording the album and releasing it. The fans had heard them, and I really just wanted the fans to have an opportunity to hear those songs recorded because they had been asking for them. It just felt like the right thing to do – if they’d been asking for it why not give it to them?

What’s coming up for you in the next few months?

We’ve got a headline tour, and I just bought a house recently but we haven’t even moved in yet so I’m looking forward to getting in there. Spending some family time, some quality time at the new house – I’m really looking forward to that. And then just getting this tour really dialled in as far as rehearsing, figuring out what our setup’s gonna be and we gotta hire a bunch of people and stuff. I love that because we’re such a family right now, so we’re gonna try and bring in the right people. I’m looking forward to bringing some new folks in and seeing how it works as the headliner.

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