Q&A: Kenny Chesney

Oct 18, 2010 6:59 PM, By Barbara Schultz


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You and Buddy Cannon are both credited as producers on the album. How does it work with you sharing production duties in the studio?
We have that mutual respect when it comes to song sense, and he knows I’m going to want to turn the guitars up a little loud, and I know he’s going to want them down. I thank Buddy for telling me to turn down the guitars, and I also thank Justin for turning them back up when Buddy left the room!

How do you like to lay down tracks when you make a song? Is it a piece-by-piece process? Do you like to record live with your band?
We’ve done it both ways, but on this one, we pretty much did it live. I wanted to capture a live feel. Especially on the last six records, I’ve wanted to capture the live element of what we do. That’s hard to do sometimes because you get creative and artistic, and that doesn’t necessarily bring the live element into it. But when you cut live, you don’t overthink yourself.

As a producer, I’ve learned to treat different songs different ways, obviously, but you should always picture yourself doing [a song] for a lot of people, I’ve always felt that I needed to keep in mind the kid that I was, watching my heroes play, and that’s how I approach going in to track.

Do you like to sit in on the mix?
Yeah, but not the whole time. Justin gets it to a place he’s happy with, and then Buddy and I will come in there and sit with him for a couple hours and finesse it. Justin and I have a really great working relationship. He’s learned to predict what I’m going to do. The last part of Hemingway’s Whiskey, there wasn’t a lot of twisting and turning of the knobs when I came in there, because it sounded really round and sonically good when we got done. It took a couple of records for Justin to be able to predict what I’m going to do. Now, I’m in there when we close all the mixes, but I’m not in there when he’s getting kick drum sounds.

Do you enjoy that part of record making?
I really do, just because I love the pure process of hearing a song come alive. If somebody’s just got a guitar and a vocal and they give me their song, I love the whole process of taking that song into the studio, making a record on it, and living with the rough mix of that song for a good while. When your ears get used to that, you go in and really make it a record.

It’s tough sometimes because I can get really excited and out-think myself. I have to try really hard to keep everything in perspective, because a lot of stuff sounds really great in a studio on big speakers; that’s why I’ve got to live with it for a while. Justin has taught me a lot about not overthinking it. You can mix the hit out of it as Barry Beckett used to say. You can sit here and turn knobs all day long and lose your feel. That’s what I’ve learned the most from guys like Buddy and Barry and Justin.

When you go on the road, is it a goal to make it sound like the final mix on your record?
Well, yeah, but every environment is different. Doing stadium shows—there’s a learning curve there. The first couple of years, I would be really frustrated because I couldn’t find it. Even in my ear monitors, it was just a different sound. I’ve had to learn a lot, but we’ve got that dialed in now. I think our live mix does reflect the record, and I think the record reflects the live element. I’ve been working on that through trial and error for several years now, and even though our mixes are pretty edgy, I still like the vocal to lead the track instead of the track leading the vocal. That’s what I’m going for, and I’m almost always going get pretty loud. I love people to feel that bass drum in their chest. That’s what turned me on as a kid watching my own heroes.

Who were your heroes as a kid?
There were so many! My first concert I ever saw, I think, was Bryan Adams opening for Aerosmith. I was also always really excited about the guys and girls who wrote their own songs and played, too. Springsteen was huge, but I actually never saw him live until a couple years ago. I was a kid who loved Van Halen. I listened to everything.

In east Tennessee, you’re consumed by country music, and that’s the way I sing and the way I talk—I can’t help it. But I listen to everything, and I think that’s reflected in the ways I mix my records and track my records.

What country music do you like?
I think Zac [Brown] is doing a good job. I like his records a lot. Willie Nelson I love. That was a highlight of my life when Buddy and I produced a record on him (for more on Willie Nelson’s album Moment of Forever, read “Nashville Skyline” from Mix’s July 2008 issue). That was a lot of fun. It was one of the most inspirational moments of my career. I still love George Jones, too. He sang on my record [on “Small Y’all”] and has been a part of my life; he’s like a father figure to me. I thought it was important to push him on my record because there’s starting to be a generation of people out there that doesn’t know the genius of him. I still love to hear Strait sing, and I still love to hear Reba sing. I love old Alabama records. Jackson Browne, [Jimmy] Buffett, [John] Mellencamp. There are all kinds of people who wrote their own songs that I love.

Do you finally get some time off now?
Yeah, I think so. I’m going to finally have my summer vacation, even though we’re closing in on Halloween. I’m looking forward to it. But I know I’ll get anxious and I know the band gets anxious to get out on the road and feel the energy. We’ll be back out in the spring.

Barbara Schultz is Mix magazine’s copy chief.

Visit Kenny Chesney online at www.kennychesney.com.

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