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Interview: Charles Esten teases upcoming headline UK tour, new music and a Christmas record in the future

The actor and singer chats to us ahead of his return to the UK next month.

Charles Esten
Credit: Christie Goodwin

Charles Esten is best-known across the world for playing Deacon Claybourne in the hit musical drama Nashville.

After the show came to an end in 2018, Esten threw himself into continuing his journey recording music and performing live. He was in the UK for a solo tour in January, which went down a storm, and he’s back in October for a headline tour with a full band, including a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of Country Music Week.

I caught up with Charles to find out what we can expect from the upcoming tour, discuss the new music he’s been writing, and to talk about his desire to record a Christmas album in the future.

You’ll be back in the UK in October for headline shows with a full band. What can we expect?

Expect the unexpected (laughs). Expected next level is what I would say. The first time I was going to all those venues I said, ‘I’m going to go over first just myself, just with a guitar and just with a piano. Although you’re missing that band on stage it has other benefits where you’re able to get very intimate and connect, if you’re able to pull it off and hopefully I did. I think so. You have those moments of it’s just you and the audience so that was what I wanted to start with but then I said I wanted to escalate it and that’s all we’re doing here. Now that I’ve been able to do that I want to recapture some of those moments within this show even though there’s a band, you want it to come way down and just be you and that audience. You also now have the firepower of this incredibly talented group behind me all led by Colin Linden.

You’ve heard this band actually – Gary, Johnny and Colin were all in that Nashville band that you heard last time we were there. Not only that but anybody in the know understands that Colin, who’s my bandleader, was also the voice of Deacon Claybourne’s guitar. Meaning whenever your Deacon sing, you heard me sing and whenever you heard Deacon play that was Colin in the studio and then later God bless him, he would teach me exactly what it was that he played so perfectly and I would get as close as I could. When we shot it, those were my fingers on that guitar fret board and I would play along. It’s been a great, great thing for me. That’s a heck of a way to become a better guitar player (laughs) imitating the greats and Colin is one. I just wanted to come back and go next level.

In terms of the setlist I always like to mix it up. There will definitely be a couple of Nashville songs there and not just because obviously there will be people who first met me on the show as Deacon and I want those songs, but not just for them, honestly for me as well. I love those songs and was blessed to get to sing them on that show and I’ll hopefully get to sing them for the the rest of my life, I have no problem with that. There is also going to be a bunch of songs that people who have become fans know of mine, whether it’s from 54 singles – my Every Single Friday songs I put out. It’s very cool when you go to the UK… the level of knowledge of your music. My friends that are country artists here from Nashville that go over there, again and again are just elated. It’s what an artist wants as a fanbase, when there’s an audience that knows your next level songs. They don’t just know their singles, they know their deeper cuts and of course for me I don’t have any hit singles (laughs), I only have deep cuts.

When people go to social media and ask for a particular song, or say one that means something to them, that’s extremely cool for all of us who get to play over there. There will definitely be those songs and then there always be a cool cover or two, something unusual or different, hopefully unexpected. Then finally the ones I think that I’m most excited about are the new ones that people haven’t really heard that much that I’ve been working and writing on since I last saw you guys over there. It’s a combination of all those things and what I’m trying to do is create moments of connection and you want a bunch of those in a show because to me that makes it memorable, just moments where you lift everybody or they bring it down.

It’s funny you ask that question. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be but it’s already coalescing in my head what I’m trying to bring. Somebody asked me for a setlist online the other day (laughs) I literally laughed out loud because that’s just not how I operate. My band would laugh harder at that than anybody because it’s very possible that morning for any of these given shows, I’ll come to them with an unusual cover and I go, ‘can we pull this together?’ Maybe it’s my improv background but I don’t like to submit to be dry on anything before we get there. I like to be sort of open to the moment. If I get a better idea, I’m going to try to bring it in to the show.

You have a shorthand with this band as you’ve toured with them for a while and you know each other. That must make changing things up regularly a little easier?

That is absolutely correct. You’re right and they do give me that freedom. It’s their own fault that I do it to them because they’re too damn good (laughs). Sometimes they’re like, ‘oh, we’re going to learn that and do it tonight?’ and I’m always like, ‘well let’s just try it and see how it goes’ knowing full well that we’ll try it and it’ll be amazing and then they’ll be hooked as well. You’re right, I’m given that power because of their excellence and because of our relationship. I’m a lucky guy in that way.

It must feel special not only to be returning to the UK but also headlining the Royal Albert Hall solo and closing out Country Music Week? No pressure…

(laughs) You are not kidding. Well the funny thing is that pressure is an interesting thing. I’m kind of drawn to it, I don’t know why. The opposite of pressure is to me boredom. If you have nothing to worry about then it means it’s not that exciting. This is something special, you’re right. That is a special, special venue and I just happen to be closing out that special, special week of artists, that so many of whom I admire very, very much. All that does to me is gets get that tingle going that this is a special thing and that means I got to bring it. In the end all you can do is all you can do. You can only bring as much of yourself as there is so I try not to worry about any of it and just use that, instead of letting it detract at all.

You lived in the UK back in the day and you must know from the Nashville tour, and your solo tour earlier this year, that people love you here. I remember seeing you on the Nashville tour and just the mention of your name was enough to get the crowd going wild. I don’t think you have much to worry about…

(laughs) Thank you very much. I appreciate that. That sort of connection is hard to describe because first of all I do have that old history with the UK. It means so much to me. I got to go up on that stage when I was a much younger guy and play Buddy Holly at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. I remember then just being blown away. It was the power of that show and of Buddy Holly’s music that there were literally people dancing in the aisles. I’d always thought that was just a cliché but I remember being on stage playing going, ‘that couple is literally dancing in the aisle’.

I was introduced early to the passion of the British fans and I got to do Whose Line Is It Anyway? over there too. After all these years to go back is incredibly special for me and to get to go back to playing my own music is well past my wildest dreams. To think that these songs that we recorded for Nashville… we shot these scenes on quiet soundstages here in Nashville and that it ends up overseas and it builds this connection and this fanbase that has been more than content to open their hearts not just to Deacon but to the guy that played him. It would be very possible for them to go, ‘look we love Deacon Chip so try to keep playing the Deacon songs, enough with your stuff’ (laughs). That would be very possible but to me it feels like the exact opposite. It feels like they want both. Whenever I ask what songs you want to hear invariably I’m just thrilled to see that they want to hear mine as well. That connection, that’s what this is about and that’s why I’m coming back, and why hopefully we’ll be able to continue to come back. This is a relationship that I enjoy. (laughs).

You mentioned new music before. It’s been a little while since we had anything new from you. What are you working on? Another run of singles, an EP, an album?

Well I’ve done the singles thing. In my mind it will be an album. There won’t be an album out by the time that I am there but there will be at least the single. There’ll be something, I know that for a fact. I’m not going to tell you which one yet but it will be out in advance for that. I will be playing that. Then the songs that they will be hearing will be songs that will be ending up on an album, is my guess, that will go alongside that single. I’ve been writing a bunch and I’m really enjoying getting to play these songs out here and trying to get them ready. I’ve already played some of these at CMA Fest here in Nashville with this exact band. We have some of those up our sleeve as well. My goodness I still have a couple of months to write a couple of new ones that I’ll play (laughs) that haven’t even been written yet. I like to keep it wide open for anything.

It’s funny, I talk about this relationship, but it’s unusual because I just really want to bring it. The words don’t sound right – you want to destroy, you want to really just tear it up – it sounds all so violence but it’s not, it’s the opposite of that. I just want to everybody to feel something deeply on the night that leaves a mark and it’s a memory that we’ll all have as we have these other ones from before and just keep building on that. I don’t take it for granted that people spend their money, whether you’re getting sitters or the car set up or whatever else it is, to go out and maybe it’s not the best weather on a given night and you go all the way out and spend all that time and money to sit in a couple chairs in a theatre or in a dance hall… I take that as not just something I’m grateful for but something that means I owe a debt here and my debt is to leave everything I can on that stage.

On the acting side you’re going to be in a new Netflix series called Outer Banks and you’re also going to be recurring on a TNT show called Tell Me Your Secrets. When you were on Nashville it was easier to balance music with your acting because the two went hand-in-hand. What’s it like balancing music while doing those shows?

It does have its challenges. It is difficult and if I’m going to be honest it sort of means that I have to really like what the project is and want to do it because in any given moment I really love being in a room just writing a song with somebody or being on stage playing somewhere. The great thing about both these shows, especially this Outer Banks one was over the summer and we’re almost done. It’ll be 10 episodes and it’ll probably come out in late spring or the summer but it should be 2020 though. Now my diary is just open and that’s why in October we’re heading to the UK and then I’ll be playing some dates in the states as well. I’m trying to balance them as best I can. It’s funny people would say, ‘are you a singer that acts or an actor that sings?’ and Nashville meant that I didn’t really have to answer it because at any given moment I was both.

Now there is that stress between the two more than there was then and I think in my heart of hearts the music has such a powerful hold. I think one of the reasons is because it’s so direct and purely me. The nature of television acting, movie acting and even theatre acting is collaborative. It’s all these people coming together, not that there’s not many aspects of collaboration in music clearly there are your producers, your musicians and all, but what I’m saying is when I’m on a show I am saying words that somebody else wrote and somebody is directing me how to say them and somebody is editing them in the order they want and the takes they want. Somebody else is putting clothes on me. These are a bunch of people that have come together to make this, and I love that process and I love collaborating with them, but there’s something that is pure and direct in just holding a guitar and singing a song that you wrote live in front of an audience. That connection, if it happens, or that impact when it happens… that’s like nothing else so that’s just a long way of saying I love acting but I have to want to do these projects now because I’m so drawn to the music.

Christmas is around the corner so can we be expecting any Christmas songs from you this year?

I actually had one in my 54 singles called Won’t Cry on Christmas but I do not have a new Christmas single coming out. I would like to do that in the future I can see it, not just as a couple of singles but a whole album. I would like to do it. It’s my favourite holiday by far. I’m very fortunate I’ll be in my hometown on December 27th playing a place called the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, which is my hometown. It won’t be a Christmas show in as much as I won’t be singing all Christmas standards but I get to be around my friends and my family. I love that holiday. Not this year but believe me I’ve thought of it so maybe your question will inspire me a little bit.

Everyone loves the Christmas album don’t they? It’s a natural thing to be thinking about…

You’re not kidding, yeah. That’s the crazy thing that I learned when I was in Nashville is when everybody’s doing their Christmas albums they’re doing them in June because you have to get them ready. It’s always funny to me because I’m just a little slow on the uptake and I start thinking about it in September, which is just a little bit too late for that so I’ll be on top a bit more.

It sounds like a nightmare doesn’t it to record a Christmas album in the blazing heat of summer but I guess that’s what you got to do?

(laughs) You create the mood and the atmosphere in the studio itself, make a little tinsel and make a little cocoa or something like that. From the distance it’s even more beautiful the things you’re thinking about. It does work! That’s when some of the finest songs you’ve ever heard about Christmas were recorded I would bet you!

Charles Esten is heading to the UK in October for a string of headline dates including a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 27th October 2019 to close Country Music Week. You can pick up tickets at https://ticketmaster-uk.tm7559.net/PW44Y.

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