Lady Antebellum’s 747 touches down today, bringing with it a big, booming sound that owes more to “Downtown,” the group’s funky-tonk single from last year’s Golden, than blockbuster ballads like “Need You Now.” Written on the road and recorded during breaks in the band’s 2014 headlining tour, it’s an album that feels a lot like a live show. That means less strings, more electric guitars and plenty of triple-stacked harmonies, with a focus on tunes that aim for the feet as well as the heart.
Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hilary Scott sat down with Rolling Stone Country earlier this fall, days before Haywood’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, to talk about the record, the tour and the challenge of reinventing yourself in the spotlight.
When you began writing some of these songs, were you scared that they were too much of a departure from your usual sound?
Kelley: One thing we’ve learned — and it’s been proven to us over the past couple of years — is that when we do take chances, the fans have responded really well. “Downtown” was our first really off-the-wall song, and “Bartender” is much more danceable than what people are used to from us. That was exactly what we needed. We’d fallen into a very similar style, that mid-tempo thing with some melancholy to it. With this record, we wanted to try different things and make it really in your face.
Scott: We always knew we could reel ourselves back in, so why not just go for it and explore every avenue, every option, while we’re in the studio? We can always pull back. A lot of times, we went that extra mile and didn’t have to pull back, because we got there and realized, “Oh, this is totally another part of who we are. This is awesome.”
Kelley: We need to evolve. Recently, the songs that have been the biggest successes have been left-of-center for us.
Dave, you started writing a lot of these songs in your home studio. Did they sound different from the very start, when they were just demos?
Haywood: Starting to write with a little bit of a different track can steer your music in a different direction. We usually just write with an acoustic guitar or a piano, but when you do that, it’s probably gonna end up in a similar spot as some other songs. That’s just the nature of those instruments. This time, by creating some fully prepared tracks with drums and bass and guitars, we could push ourselves to write in a live mindset. An upbeat mindset.
Scott: There’s something cool about listening to a track, and it’s just a distorted guitar riff… it takes you to a whole new place. It opens up your mind, lyrically and melodically, in ways that a piano or an acoustic guitar can’t. All those intangibles help bring something new out of you.
What made “Hey Bartender” the best option for a leadoff single?
Kelley: We sent some of our songs to the label, and we were surprised that they gravitated toward “Bartender” so much. I think they’d been feeling that our last couple records had been a little heavy. They wanted us to get back a little bit to some of the sound from that first record, with songs like “Love Don’t Live Here” and “Lookin’ for a Good Time.” That fun, youthful energy. I think we did get into a bit of a melancholy thing for a while, and that’s not really how our live show is. It’s not how we are. When we started about thinking what could really set off the tone of the record, “Bartender” seemed like something fresh. It was such a danceable song. We needed that for our live show, too — a spot for Hilary to have more moments like “Downtown.”
The album is almost out, but the tour is nearly over, too. Are there plans for more shows in 2015?
Scott : Right now, we’re just in the brainstorming process of what the next tour could be, with all these new songs. That’s one of the most exciting things. We can sit around a table and talk about how we can continue to make our live show better.
Haywood: That’s how we want to make our living for 20 years: out there on the road. It’s a big focus for us. We change the setlist almost every night, trying to find the perfect setlist for the perfect crowd. That’s always been a priority.