Whether it’s as the writer of Platinum selling songs, singing harmonies with artists climbing the charts, or bringing down the house with his bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, Chris Stapleton is an absolute force to be reckoned with. His soulful vocals and prowess with the marriage of melody and words have caught the attention of Nashville and beyond – Justin Timberlake, for instance, recently lauded Stapleton on Twitter.
Since his first solo single, “What Are You Listening To,” was released to radio in 2013, peaking at #46 on airplay, a solo effort hasn’t seemed to be much of a priority for Stapleton. He recently was featured on Gary Allan’s “Hangover Tonight” and sang background vocals on Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn,” both of which he had a hand in writing. On May 5th, he’ll bring another card to the table, when he releases his much-anticipated debut solo album, Traveller. Stapleton has previewed some of the album already, and the title-track single hit radio this past Monday.
We caught up with the phenom in anticipation of the album’s release.
You’ve been writing for quite some time. How much of your career is reflected in the songs on Traveller?
Stapleton: They span the entirety of my entire songwriting career in Nashville for sure, about fourteen years probably. Of course, some of the covers are older than that.
Along with writing, you’ve been performing with your bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. Was a solo album always in the back of your mind, or did that come about later?
I’ve always been a fan of bands, I’ve been in a lot of bands over the years, so I’ve always sort of gravitated that way. I think that probably a solo project was sort of an eventuality that was going to happen at some point. I don’t know that I ever directly set out to do that, it’s just kind of what happened.
You’ve had a number of your songs recorded by other artists. What made you decide to include “Whiskey and You,” which Tim McGraw cut in 2007, on Traveller, and how did you settle on the stripped-down presentation?
We tried a couple different ways to record that song. It’s a song that I played for a long time at songwriter rounds, and in different places, a song that people who came to watch me play shows wanted me to play, but there wasn’t a recorded version anywhere for anybody to have. So when we got down to the final mixing process of the entire record, that song hadn’t made it yet, and I said, ‘You know what guys, let’s go throw up a microphone.’ And so that’s just me and a guitar on the microphone. That’s kind of the way it was originally, and I felt like it was probably the way that it should live on a record.
What made you decide to record covers on the record, and how did you settle on those two?
Really, those covers are songs that I’m a fan of in general, those are songs that I’ve always sung or loved, that decided to make their way into the room. We didn’t exactly set out with plans to record those songs, they just kind of happened in the moment and we felt to include them.
As a songwriter, I think you get your education from other people’s songs. You’re certainly influenced by them, and I don’t know any songwriters who don’t point to, ‘Man, I really wish I could write a song like ‘insert song.” Both of these songs are certainly songs that I’ve done that with for many years, have been sort of standards to me, examples of how you should try to write a song. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a songwriter but also being a fan of other songwriters and songs. In fact, I think it’s important that you do. I think that’s important to pay homage to.
So many of your songs seem lyrically driven. Do you start with a lyric, or does each song’s process vary?
It varies, but typically I don’t start with the lyrics, I’m more of a strum on the guitar and hum and little bit, find a melody, from there follow up on a word or a phrase or a description or feeling that works into what you’re playing and humming along to. To me, lyrics always follow melody as a general rule. That’s not to say I haven’t written entire songs and had to put melodies to ‘em or come from an idea. Songs happen in lots of different ways, it really just depends on the moment.
You’ve written with writers who also have careers as artists. How do you balance your style as a writer and artist with theirs?
I think it’s important to know if you’re writing with an artist for a project that you try to serve their vision of whatever that project and their selves as an artist is. You’re there to help them try to achieve that and when you’re functioning solely as a songwriter, that’s what you do. Inevitably, whatever it is that you bring in influence as a player or a singer or whatever, those things end up in there, but the main thing is to try and serve the song and particularly when you’re writing with an artist, their vision of what they want it to be, and hopefully help them achieve that.
As an artist, your solo work doesn’t cater to radio trends, but as a writer you’ve been able to be quite successful with artists that do more intentionally court radio. Does that work a different muscle, or shift the mentality as you’re writing?
I don’t think there are rules to writing songs necessarily, I think it’s all exercising the same thing. Writing a song is writing a song, and some songs have different purposes. Anytime you’re writing songs you’re always just trying to do the best at writing whatever it is you’re writing that day, and I find that whatever that song’s supposed to do kind of goes out to the world and finds its way on its own. You don’t really have to try too hard to have this songs find whatever their match is gonna be.
You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a straight country act, but that you do belong to Nashville. As both the town and the genre evolve, how do you see those definitions changing?
I think country music is always, whatever that moniker may be, people are always going to have different definitions of what that means. If you look back over time, that’s always been kind of a moveable definition – things will be more pop at some point, or things will be more traditional. It’s always changing and it’s always evolving, and there’s a pendulum that always swings back and forth. What’s old is new again, and some other types of music get fused. It’s a really broad question and I don’t know that I’m the guy to answer it.
I think from a personal standpoint, I can only do what it is that I do and hope that it fits into something for somebody. Or not. It doesn’t really bother me to make music and know that it’s the best that I can do or hope that I’m offering something of substance that call hold up over time. And only time can reveal those things, I don’t think anybody has a crystal ball where they can look into what music is doing where they can say, ‘This is going to happen and this is going to happen and this can make something better or worse.’
There’s always gonna be a return to things as well, the foundations of things are always there. The great part about Nashville music right now is there’s so many elements to it that are very alive – rock and roll, there’s bluegrass, and Americana and country and all those terms get interchanged based on who claims who, and it doesn’t really matter in the end of it. You just make music and hope somebody comes to watch you play live.