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Interview: How ‘The Driver’ Helped Charles Kelley Find Himself

Charles Kelley The Driver album cover
Capitol Nashville

Charles Kelley‘s nine-track debut solo album, The Driver, has been a labor of love and self-discovery for the Lady Antebellum singer, who is both excited and anxious for his solo music to finally be heard.

“I’ve never been more proud of a project since the first record or two with Lady A,” Kelley told The Boot and other reporters at a recent media event. “I just feel like I was able to strip away a lot of the pressure that comes with a Lady A project with this. Nobody had heard it until I sent it in.”

In fact, the singer says that, while working on his solo material, he found some of the magic that had been lost for him since the release of his trio’s self-titled debut album in 2008. As Lady Antebellum’s singles climbed the charts in rapid succession, Kelley found his vocals changing — and not necessarily for the better.

“It’s something I knew had happened over the last few records, but [I realized] how far away I had gotten from probably the best spot in my voice,” he reveals. “I was listening the other day to “We Owned the Night” [from Lady A’s 2011 studio album, Own the Night], and I’m singing probably two keys higher than I started out singing on the first record … I’m trying to get back to the sound of my voice on [the group’s debut single] “Love Don’t Live Here.”

“That was one thing that [producer] Paul Worley wanted to do at the start of the record,” Kelley continues. “He said, ‘Alright, what do you want to accomplish with this? I said, ‘I don’t know. I want to cut some songs that, first off, maybe Lady Antebellum would have stayed away from. And then, secondly, I want to get back to that rich spot in my voice.'”

The tracks on The Driver are as diverse as Kelley’s tastes in music, from the pensive “Leaving Nashville” to the rocking “Your Love.” But the most honest song is, according to Kelley, “The Only One Who Gets Me,” a track that the singer wrote with Nathan Chapman about his wife of almost seven years, Cassie McConnell Kelley.

“It’s one of the last songs I wrote for the project,” Kelley explains. “I went in to write with Nathan Chapman one day. We started two other ideas, and I just felt like I was chasing something. He goes, ‘What have you never written?’ I said, ‘Honestly, I’ve never written a song about my wife that was just my story. It’s always been a little bit of Hillary [Scott]’s, a little bit of Dave [Haywood]’s, a little bit of mine, a little bit of whoever else we’re writing with.’ He said, ‘I want you to be the guy who’s leading the charge, lyrically, so it’s exactly your story.’”

With lines like, “I’m kinda selfish, little crazy / But you love me anyway, baby / I’m hard to handle, sometimes reckless / With a heart that’s always restless / You’re the only one, the only one who gets me good,” Kelley says that the song embodies everything he loves about his wife.

“I’ve got a lot of little quirks and moments that my wife, she knows exactly what to say and how to handle me,” he says, “’cause I can be hard to handle.”

"I’ve never been more proud of a project since the first record or two with Lady A. I just feel like I was able to strip away a lot of the pressure that comes with a Lady A project with this."

The Driver also includes a song that Kelley co-wrote with his brother, Josh Kelley, called “Round in Circles.”

“We haven’t written together in a long time,” Charles Kelley notes. “Josh, when I first moved to Nashville, he really helped teach me how to write songs. He really did, and the people he was around: His band would write with me, and I was this nobody; he would bring over writers.

“And so, last year, in January, my wife and I just randomly decided to get out of the cold. The band was off for a couple months from the tour. We [rented a house with Airbnb] for a month, so we went out there in January. And Josh and I reconnected like we haven’t in a long time,” Kelley continues. “We wrote a bunch of songs, and I felt like Josh and I became best friends again, which was really cool. I was proud of my brother to be a part of it. It was kind of cool. I love him to death.”

The challenge of being a solo artist has been invigorating for Kelley, but also intimidating, as he becomes the focus of the music.

“It’s really fun and refreshing, after doing the same kind of thing for eight or nine years, just to completely have a different environment,” he admits. “The first couple shows were incredibly nerve-wracking … I was clearly nervous about the fact that I was doing Lady Antebellum songs without them here. It’s like, dude, just relax and enjoy the show and play it. So I’ve gotten this thing where I have developed a little more of a confidence with it all as the journey has gone. I think when we go back out on the road shortly after the record is out, I’m going to be so much more prepared and ready for it.”

February of 2016 will undoubtedly be a month to remember for the singer: In addition to the release of The Driver, Kelley is nominated for a Grammy, and he will become a first-time dad when his wife gives birth to their son (who is due on Feb. 17), after years of struggling with fertility.

“It’s like, everything comes in threes. It’s so true,” Kelley muses. “In my career I’ve always felt like all great things came at once, and when something goes bad, it always seems that everything else seems to start going bad. It’s an amazing thing, the parallels between this record, all the anxiety I had doing it, and when I finally just let myself be free of it and just be proud of it and let it go and not put so much pressure, things started happening and started coming together.

"It’s definitely going to have its ups and downs and stuff, and it’s not going to be as easy of a road, I guess, that Lady Antebellum’s had. But I don’t know. I’m willing to kind of go after it."

“Same thing with trying to have a baby,” he adds. “We were so anxious about it; it became such a stressful thing … I always believe that if you put it out there in the universe and you believe in it, you will stuff to happen … My wife prayed every night about it and for it. And then, when all the stress went away, it happened.

“It’s definitely an amazing moment, and the Grammy nomination was just, like, this piece of cake on top that I needed right when I needed it,” Kelley concludes. “It’s almost like God was like, ‘Alright, I’ll give you this. Don’t give up yet.’”

As Kelley embarks on his solo career while looking forward to hitting the road for a series of shows this summer with Lady Antebellum, he is acutely aware that he is starting at the beginning; he can’t ride on the success of his trio with The Driver.

“I think I need to be cognizant of that and let it take its journey and just, I guess, focus on the fact that I believe that I made a good record,” Kelley says. “But it’s definitely going to have its ups and downs and stuff, and it’s not going to be as easy of a road, I guess, that Lady Antebellum’s had. But I don’t know. I’m willing to kind of go after it.”

The Driver is set for release on Feb. 5 and is available for pre-order via iTunes and Amazon.

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