Matt Wilkinson was joined by Chris Stapleton in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A for a very special Beats 1 pop-up show. Chris spoke to Matt about his new album, From A Room: Volume 1, the possibility of volumes, the process he goes through when song writing, working with Justin Timberlake and much more.
It’s such a pleasure to meet you, ‘From A Room: Volume 1’ is out this week. I feel like we need to talk about this room, this is the room. This is an incredible space. For anybody watching from Apple Music around the world would you be able to give it some context? Both what it means to you in a personal sense and also to country music in a wider way as well
This room is a very historic studio in Nashville and one of the only ones we really have left. Dolly Parton recorded “I Will Always Love You” in this room, Waylon Jennings recorded in this room, Elvis recorded in this room. Jerry Reed. Lots and lots and lots of country music and just music history in general in this room so that alone is enough to make it special. Now fast forward to when we were going to make the last record we have out which is called ‘Traveller.’ We were looking for a place to make the record and the first place that Dave and I called was booked for the week we had available to make the record. At the time this was on the chopping block so to speak because it was going to get torn down and turned into condos so we said, ‘well we should make a record over there just to say that we were there and remember what it was like’. We thought we were going to be the last record that got made in this room and then thankfully a man named Aubrey Preston stepped in and bought the building and very much wants to preserve what it is, keep it like it is, keep it running and keep it making music and letting the history of it kinda live on.
It is history, it’s like a museum when you’re walking around, even the sound that your boots on the floor sounds really great. What is it like to record in here, you did most of the album in here, right?
We did, yes. We would be basically circled up close to the control room about where the drums are sitting, those ones closest to us, would be where I would be standing but you know the rooms kind of like a member of the band in a way because all these things are in the wall. You feel that and you feel responsible to it and you want to kind of play up to it but also this room just has a sound. It sounds like this room. Much like you were saying even when you walk across the floor it has a sound.
What’s a typical session for Chris Stapleton like? What time do you start?
Oh, we’ll roll in about noon and maybe eat some lunch and if you’re making a record you can have a little bit more luxury than doing other things but we kind of tool around with ideas, play with drum sound, play the guitar sounds after lunch and maybe then we’ll eat dinner, maybe we have a cocktail, maybe not and whenever the mood strikes and that could be early in the day or it could not be, we will have banged around but usually we wait ‘till its dark.
This is what I like about you, you’re a vibe man, it’s not a kind of like, ‘let’s get in and treat this like we’ll be out by 5 or 6 and then we’ll have the evening’. You’re about the vibe.
Absolutely but I also believe music should be played at night. That’s just a personal preference particular for recording. I just don’t feel right and we can do kind of pre-production and mess with sounds or talk about things or throw ideas around amongst everybody but I really don’t want to record one minute before everyone is perfectly in the mood to do it.
We will go on to ‘From A Room’. I kind of want to switch it back to October 2016 ‘Traveller’, that tour is coming to a finish, you’ve been on the road for 15, 16 months straight. You’ve had a year of blowing up and being absolutely huge. When you get back to the ranch after those dates wrap up and you’re 2-3 days at home with the family, does it hit you? Is there a moment where you take stock of everything that’s gone on so far? Where you are when you’ve started the album and where you’ve ended up?
We’re still in the middle of taking stock of that and trying to get used to some new realities of what we’re doing. We walk out on stage every night, me and my wife, the other guys in the band, we look out at each other and go ‘Wow this is crazy!’ It wasn’t that long ago that we were playing a club of eight hundred, one thousand, fifteen hundred people.
There’s like 15,00 a night right?
Yes, sometimes. Sometimes more. Sometimes less.
Is the sound always good in those? How does it compare to those where you can see the whites of people’s eyes?
Well we stay set up just like in the club we didn’t want to all of a sudden want to try to do something more elaborate. I always want to try to keep that feeling for the guy on the top row. I want to feel as intimate as it can. We’re still figuring it out too, it’s a new group of things to deal with.
Does it still feel new? It’s two years into this thing. It must be refreshing that it doesn’t feel dull, if you’re doing it every single night.
Yeah, there’s always new, I don’t want to say issues but always new things to deal with. Just trying to figure out to bring everybody down into where we are and make it feel like that whites-of-your-eyes-club-experience, that’s what I like. Sonic issues, you mentioned the sound of the venues, my kind of backdrop production I spent instead of buying a bunch of lasers and stuff I built this giant diffuser basically that tunes the stage and hopefully helps diminish to some degree some of the sonic issues you may have in places like that.
It’s important to do that isn’t it?
Well as far as I know no one’s ever done that but we did in an attempt to make that the sonic experience as good it can be in any room were in.
When it comes to starting this album, well two albums because there is one to follow, normally when I interview artists about their new album I ask questions like ‘what headspace you were when you were writing’. With you, because I know you have this huge pool of songs, did you even write for this album or did you go back? Are these all old songs?
All of these songs pre-date the last record.
Thats such a unique place to be in,
I guess in a way. I like to be able to have, I like songs to have that amount of age on them almost because its easy to think that the song you wrote, the day you wrote it is a good song. Obviously you think it’s good otherwise you wouldn’t have finished it or done whatever you’d done with it but it’s a lot harder to live with a song for a long time and go, ‘Alright. I like that, it’s good.’
It’s about the filter process, how can you truly judge something two weeks after you’ve written it.
It’s pretty hard for me. It’s pretty hard for me anyway.
So how do you judge these songs? Do you know how many songs you’ve written?
A thousand plus?
How do you pick these?
Well my wife thankfully knows my catalog better than any body ‘cause she’s known me basically my entire songwriting career. She has a really good sense. She kinda makes the long-short list. Then we kinda talk about this like ‘Nah, I can’t do that one!’ Then from there we have another meeting where we whittle it down with A&R, the label and Dave would come in and from that we get an even shorter list that’s still fairly long and then we come in here and see what happens and that’s where the kind of see where the night takes you comes because there’s a list but we don’t know what were doing, until we do it.
Traveller was made in a week?
Six days. That’s the recording process, we probably had another week worth of mixing.
How did this one compare to that?
Well because I knew we were going to need a little more time because we hadn’t had as much time to kind of hash things out on the road. A lot of ‘Traveller’ the songs on there were things we were playing out and on the road. So I gave us two months to flip the switch back to ‘alright were not playing live were going to park it in the studio and see what comes out’ and that was the amount of time we had to make the record and mix and all that stuff. We didn’t work all of those days.
Did you do both (albums) in that period?
Is the second one completely done and sequenced and ready to go?
The recording part for sure and the mixing is done.
Right now I thought it would be nice to get back to the start for you, can you remember where you first were or how old you were when music first touched you?
When it first touched me, no. I don’t have a specific recollection of that, I do have a picture of me, however, the first time I’d ever picked up a guitar. It was right next door on the tour right next door here in RCA Studio B. There’s a picture of me holding a Telecaster. At the time they had instruments that were used in the studio on the tour so I was holding some guitar that was played on it was a late 60’s Telecaster.
How old would you have been?
Like 7. 6 or 7.
Then I’m guessing by the time you get to like 10 or 11 you get that thing when you start to get a little more personality. You discover music it’s like those things, music and film and culture and things like that where you really dive into it. Was that the case for you?
I guess for me If I had an early memory my dad always listening to music in the car all the time and when my mom wasn’t in the car it was loud. He liked loud music.
What kind of stuff?
Outlaw country and also old R&B like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding stuff like that so I got this kind of mixture of those types of things.
Those are all fantastic singers, it’s hard isn’t it because your voice is incredible. It’s God given, I don’t think you can teach that kind of voice. It’s just odd that you had it instilled in you from a young age. It was already there it must have been pretty cool when you realized, ‘Hey I can actually do this I can kind of sound like those people, I have the lung capacity to do it’
I’m sure that I was terrible at singing but my parents thankfully never once told me that I was. They always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do so I’m sure that played a part in me figuring out whatever my voice was.
Was it a musical family the whole time you were growing up?
I didn’t really grow up in a particularly musical family but my grandfather was in a gospel quartet and they sang real like southern gospel quartet style music but not like professionally. My father was a coal miner and he played the radio. He could hold a tune but he wasn’t necessarily a singer and my mom’s a beautiful kind of almost Julie Andrews kind of sounding singer but she would never really sing in public. She would sing cleaning the house. Walk around singing ‘Hey Jude’, That’s an early memory is my mom cleaning the house singing ‘Hey Jude.’
But now flipped is the entire family musical?
My children? They like music and they like to dance to it. They’re young enough where their reality is mom and dad play shows and thats just normal life for them. It doesn’t register to them as ‘Oh were a musical family’.
On his kids seeing him on TV:
I’m telling you, it’s not strange to them because it’s just like a normal – like they’ll see somebody on TV that maybe I don’t know, and they’ll be like ‘hey can you text him?’ I’m like ‘Well, I don’t have everybody’s number but if I run into him I’ll tell him you really like what you did, so.’
On the country scene 2-3 years ago, before traveling as much as you do now:
I don’t know if I’m a good judge of that, necessarily. But I always feel like there are cycles in music as to how things sound, or what might be popular, or what is not popular. I don’t know that the industry itself is altogether different anymore than it would be just naturally kind of evolving with new technologies, and streaming and discovery and the way that things work like that. I don’t know, I – it would be hard for me to say. It doesn’t feel that way to me because I’ve always been a part of the music industry in some capacity. And so, it’s like when you see someone everyday, they don’t look different to you but when you don’t see someone for 10 years and then you see them, you’re like ‘Oh, oh I didn’t recognize you.’ For me, it’s hard for me to judge whether or not I feel like 2-3 years ago the industry’s different. I feel like it may be a little bit more open to trying to tailor how it works to fit an artist more than trying to tailor an artist to fit how they think that the industry works. I think that is a little more open but I don’t know that I can really say that it’s an enormous change to me in my head. At least my natural experience and I can only speak for my own experiences. I can’t speak on other peoples’ experiences because everybody’s is different.
On country fans saying they’re grateful for what he did for Nashville:
Hopefully it should feel that way. I think that’s how you should make records. I feel like that’s how I like to make records. And not to say that I won’t ever call on people to do collaborations or do collaborations with people. Cause I’ve done all of those things in the past, and written songs for lots of different people, and played on records. And I do all those things but when I get in here, I like for it to feel a little more insulated than that and a little more – it feels more intimate to me to try to dive down, and take each song, and try to distill it down into what serves this song. And if calling somebody else out, some megastar to sing on it, is not the proper thing for the song, then I don’t think that you should do that just maybe cause you can.
On what he aims to do when writing a song:
Write the best song that I can possibly write. Whatever kind of song that is, for whatever the idea is that day. Whatever air is in the room, whatever comes down out of the sky. That’s what I wanna do. I mean typically for me, I’m more of a sit with a guitar, and hum, and strum kind of guy. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t walk down the street or you and I could be having a conversation and I’ll see something or hear something that doesn’t spark an idea. And then, I’m pulling out my phone putting an idea in there or I’m humming things and people think I’m crazy and I’m talking to myself on my phone. That happens. But I don’t know, it could be anywhere. It could be anything. if you’re a songwriter, you are writing songs all the time. And people don’t even know it. You’re in a room with people having fellowship and somebody’s saying something and you’re filing it away, you know? It’s a skill and a blessing in some ways but it also, there’s a bit of a curse to it because you’re always kind of like ‘Oh, I’ve got this music coming to my head. Excuse me, I’ve got to go to the other room.
On if he ever fears losing an idea and not being able to write a song:
Uh, no. Because it’s also sort of an addiction, you know. It’s something that – that’s what you do, you would do it anyway. Not because it’s an industry or because it’s a something—you’d be doing it anyway. But, will I always want to write songs? Sure, it’s always gonna be part of my DNA. That’s just part of my personality. Attributes or flaws, however you want to see it.
On seeing his craft evolving or changing in the future:
I’ve written songs in most situations you can dream up. I have certain ways I like to do things. I don’t really particularly like to write on the road. I don’t really particularly like to write, you know, with more than one or two people. I don’t particularly like to write with people who don’t like to write songs fairly quickly. I like to have a song done in 2-3 hours, you know? And then call it a day. I don’t like to work on a song for a year. But I’ve done all those things. Most of the time, I’m gonna chose not to do things the other way but that’s not to say that I won’t do it.
On whether or not he ever had second thoughts about putting out a track after the fact:
Well I mean everybody’s gonna have – everybody’s done something in the realm of either trying to make a living or trying to find out who they are musically. Or, you know, you work some job. All those things exist that you’re like ‘Ehh, well…that paid $500. I got the $500 out of it. I needed the $500 at the time.’ So, yeah. Always gonna be stuff like that exists in the world, whoever you are, whoever you speak to. And if they say no, they’re lying.
On his perspective about artists finding success who further down in their careers lose that edge they once had starting off:
Absolutely, and I think it can only happen – you have to keep loving music and you have to keep music centric. All the other stuff would make you get noise and, you know, peripheral things. And I can see that, yeah – I love music and music is always in the middle of it. And I always try to make music lead and keep the other stuff where it belongs.
On family life on the road:
Kids travel, mother-in-law, father-in-law, mother when she wants to. So yeah, we have a traveling family care van.
On how many takes “I Was Wrong” took to record:
Probably not very many. We’ve played that one a bunch. And I’ve played that song for years. And I don’t remember it [how many takes it actually took].
On his collaboration with Justin and whether he had a feeling that it was going to be something special:
I didn’t know if it would do anything or not. I knew that people would – I knew we were having so much fun that somebody watching it was gonna have fun. I didn’t have any expectation on it as far as what it would do, as far as the trajectory of the record or venues we’d play in and some of the effects that it has had. But again, there was a build and then there was like a – somebody set it on fire and it was that moment.. I think anybody that gets to have the good fortune that we’ve been so lucky to have, has that 8 minutes then. They have that 2 minutes or they have that 30 seconds that sets it on fire. Everybody can – I don’t think you’re gonna talk to anybody that doesn’t have one moment they can point to like ‘Well we were building, everything was going great. And we’d played for a long time and people seemed to be liking what we were doing. And then we did this, and somehow 30 million people watched it, or something you know?’ I don’t think anybody doesn’t have that story. On the last – for ‘Traveler’, if I had a goal for it, it was to sell 50,000 records. And if I’d have sold 50,000 records, I would’ve felt like that was a huge commercial success and a victory for just making a record and go and play live. That would’ve felt great to me. And so if you want me to put expectations on this records, if we can sell 50,000 records and still get to go play live, that would be a victory for me.
On how many “Volumes” he plans to make past 2:
You know, I hadn’t planned on going beyond it and I’m realizing as you’re asking this question that I could but I haven’t thought that far ahead. So I’m not gonna say no. But I’m not gonna say I’m 80 percent sure that that’s probably gonna be. To be, the collection is the moment of the 2 months that we made the thing.
On the direction of the songs on the new album:
They definitely go together cause they were all recorded in the same headspace, I guess. So there’s a definite thread that runs through them both musically and sonically and all those things. Hopefully they go together. I look at them as more of a collection of songs that we did in a period of time than like this song puzzle that fits together. But maybe it is and, you know, I’m not a good judge of those things.