Lady Antebellum’s ‘Ocean’ Blends Career Firsts With Musical Familiarity [Interview]

Lady Antebellum’s new album Ocean, which releases today (Nov. 15) represents a homecoming to the familiar, harmony-soaked sounds they introduced on their early albums (such as the breezy country of their Platinum-selling “American Honey” and the sleek pop sound of their crossover smash, the 9x multi-Platinum selling “Need You Now”), while moving forward with several firsts—a new label home, new producer, and the trio’s first proper recorded collaboration.

In October, Lady A’s Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, and Dave Haywood returned to Nashville club 3rd and Lindsley—the very venue they first took the stage over a decade ago to showcase their for Nashville labels in pursuit of their first label deal. This time, they were showcasing music from Ocean, their inaugural album for their new label home Big Machine.

The new deal reunites the five-time Grammy-winning trio with Jimmy Harnen, who previously served as Sr. VP, Promotion at the trio’s former label Capitol Nashville, and helped usher their song “I Run To You” to the top of the radio charts in 2009.

“There are a lot of firsts on this album, so it felt a bit like the early days all over again, just a fresh energy,” Haywood told MusicRow. “I think Big Machine has been great about giving us permission to be fearless. Looking back, that’s the way we started our career. ‘I Run To You’ was that kind of song—I run from prejudice, pessimists and hate, that was a bold statement on radio and we didn’t have any fear about it then. Getting back that fearlessness is important.”

“Now we have trust—the label being new to us, they trusted us,” Scott said. “There was a true foundation of trust and a collaborative experience to it all. With Jimmy knowing us from the very first album, it was like the old with the new and it felt comfortable.”

The 13-track project embodies a return to their tight-knit harmonies, and a deepening of the trio’s lyrics and perspectives. The transparent “Be Patient With My Love,” which Kelley penned alongside Dave Barnes and Ben West, pleads with a lover for commitment and trust in the wake of a partner’s one too many mistakes.

Might have done it this time/might have drank too much wine/might have said something that I just can’t take back, Kelley sings on the anguished track.

“I wrote that and sent it to the guys and they were like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard you write this honestly.’ Hillary wrote ‘Let It Be Love,’ which was incredibly honest. And so we had these couple of songs when we first signed over at Big Machine and Jimmy [Harnen] and Scott [Borchetta] just loved the direction we were going. They asked, ‘What do you really want to sound like on this record and what do you want to say?’ And we really wanted to get back to the sound of those first records. Honesty and total transparency just became the theme,” Kelley says.

“We felt fearless with being vulnerable in our music,” Haywood adds.

“Boots,” which Kelley wrote alongside Ross Copperman, is a fiddle-drenched ode to fidelity with a traditional country-leaning groove reminiscent of the trio’s 2008 hit “Love Don’t Live Here.”

Scott penned “Let It Be Love” when her twin daughters Betsy and Emory were eight weeks old. She wrote the track alongside Jordan Reynolds (Dan+Shay’s “Tequila”) and visiting UK-based pop songwriter Amy Wadge.

“The write came together super last minute, they came over to my house around mid-afternoon,” Scott says. “ I remember being so nervous because Jordan is a friend and we wrote on Heart Break, but Amy wrote ‘Thinking Out Loud’ with Ed Sheeran and she’s coming from the pop world. I thought, I’m eight weeks postpartum with twins, am I going to be on my game?’ But she’s a mom of two daughters and we just met each other where we were at. And Jordan, with his melodies, we found our way to that song. I’m so proud of it. It’s very much like the things that I struggle with—what happens to me when I feel comparison or anger? That’s very much me in those lyrics. In a way, too, the chorus is my hope and prayer for myself and my daughters, and for people to just put love first and love well.”

As with previous albums, Haywood plays instrumental parts on several tracks—banjo (“You Can Do You”), dobro (“Pictures,” “Alright”), keyboards (“Mansion”), as well as acoustic guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, resonator guitar on several tracks. He co-wrote three of the tracks on the album.

Ocean marks their first time working with producer Dann Huff, known for his work with everyone from Keith Urban to Bon Jovi to Megadeth.

“He has such patience with his process,” Kelley says. “He doesn’t try to get in there and hammer out as many songs in a session as he can get. He just lets the song, the moment, take on its natural evolution. It gave us a lot of confidence, and he is a session player himself. He really never quits. He’s hands-down the busiest producer I’ve ever seen in Nashville. He’s on so many projects right now. I love how versatile he is as a producer.”

The trio’s vocals sound warmer, more intimate this time around—and they credit Huff’s home with helping to capture that sound.

“For me, that opened up a place in my heart just because it was in the comfort of someone’s home and his home is so warm and welcoming,” Scott said. “That opened me up to a place vocally that I had never gone before because—”

“You’re not on the clock,” Kelley interjected.

“You’re not on the clock and you’re not in this studio—it’s a studio but it’s not a sterile studio environment that can sometimes make you feel like you are a fish in a fishbowl,” Scott summed.

“We tracked at Starstruck [Studios in Nashville] and then we would take it to his house and he even did some overdubs at his house,” Kelley says. “It was really cozy you knew you could call him out of the blue—you didn’t have to book studio time, you could just say, ‘Hey, I’m feeling really good today, do you have a couple of hours I can come in and knock out vocals on a couple of songs?’ And that’s our lives now—with kids, we are juggling so much that we kind of needed that flexibility that allowed us to do that.”

Approximately half of the songs on the album are outside cuts—something of a rarity in Nashville circles. One track, “What I’m Leaving For,” beautifully sums how the trio’s approach to career and touring has shifted over the past few years, as the trio’s bandmember have each married spouses and the trio now has six children between them—Kelley’s son Ward, Haywood’s son Cash and daughter Lillie, and Scott’s three daughters, Eisele, Betsy and Emory.

“What I’m Leaving For,” penned by Laura Veltz, Sam Ellis, and Micah Rayan Premnath, captures those visual reminders—new cradles, lawns scattered with toys, and family vacations—that keep them going, even as providing for family means being on the road.

“When I heard that song, I was driving to the airport to head to Vegas for the residency and I thought it was so well-said about why we are doing this, for our families and our kids, and to provide,” Haywood said. “We are always ambassadors for great songs no matter where they come from. We just wanted to find the best songs. And other tracks like ‘Ocean,’ I have to give Hillary so much credit for killing it, not just vocally, but emotionally just bringing it. She really raised her hand for that song and stuck with that one. I’m thrilled that represents the whole project.”

The trio’s slow burn first single “What If I Never Get Over You,” penned by Veltz, Jon Green, Ryan Hurd and Ellis, returns to a bit of the sleek heartache shown in their 2009 crossover hit “Need You Now,” though this time, the song chronicles the trio’s maturity, trading the latenight temptations of singlehood for a musing on the aftermath of losing a lover.

Typically, even songwriters don’t hear an artist’s finished version of a song until said song is completely finished. However, Lady Antebellum brought the writers in on the process, sending them updated versions of the track as it was recorded, mixed and produced.

“Their original was just a male lead vocal, with Ryan Hurd singing. I love when songwriters get to hear how we make the song our own, too,” Haywood said.

“And as songwriters, we’ve been on that side of, ‘They might be cutting your song,’ or ‘It’s on hold,’ and ‘It’s getting cut today,’ and the next thing you know, it’s like, ‘Well, another song took its place.’ So to give the writers tangible proof of ‘Yes, we cut your song,’ I know how that feels.”

Lady Antebellum brings their first true recorded collaboration on the new album, joining vocal forces with fellow country group Little Big Town. The dramatic, sweeping tune “The Thing That Wrecks You” combines all seven of the two groups’ voices into a lush, airy chorus, while each of Little Big Town’s members get a featured line.

“It was a dream come true,” Haywood says. “We’ve never had a true collaboration on our album. We’ve talked with them about it for a few years. It was a free for all, they worked out their parts and doubled some of our parts. I loved watching them do their parts. That was my favorite part of the day, watching Phillip talk with Kimberly, watching Karen figure out parts—everything has their thing of how they handle who is taking what parts.”

“Dann gets a medal because he had to balance out seven different vocals,” Scott added. “We love that it is just an art piece on the album.”

“It’s a dark lyric, but it’s really vibey track. Charles came up with some of these ‘ooohs’ on the outro which is a brilliant idea. It’s a selfish musical artsy song. It was fun in the studio that day,” says Haywood, who strongly predicts a future live performance of the song from Lady A and Little Big Town. “We have to at some point. I think we will. I don’t know what that will look like, but we need to.”

In February, Lady Antebellum launched their first-ever residency at Palm Casino Resort’s Pearl Concert Theater in Las Vegas, and brought along singer-songwriter Dave Barnes for the 15-date engagement. As the first country band to headline at the venue, they found the intimate 2200+ seat venue to be a perfect place to test the waters during the making of Ocean.

“That theater environment was the perfect place because the people are right there with you in that moment and it’s a very intimate environment, so it was the perfect place to try out new songs,” Haywood said. “We tried out songs like ‘What If I Never Get Over You’ and ‘Crazy Love’ in the room before we recorded them.”

Another track, the Barnes-penned “On A Night Like This,” came courtesy of those Vegas shows.

“We had thought, ‘We’ll have him come out, play some shows, and we’ll write together,’” says Scott. “But we ended up performing a song he wrote when he was in college, and we knew we had to record it.”

“The audience reaction, the way it felt,” Kelley adds. “And it was the first time, too, that we had heard that song from a female voice. We all walked offstage, and looked at each other and were like, ‘We might need to cut this song.’ So we said, ‘Dave, let’s not write tomorrow. We are going to cut this track.’”

One of the album’s most uplifting tracks, and fiddle and dobro-backed “Alright,” is also its most emotional. The track was co-written by beloved songwriter/producer Michael James Ryan, professionally known as busbee. busbee, the sole producer on Lady A’s 2017 album Heart Break, died in late September following a brief battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“It’s definitely one of the more positive songs on the album,” Kelley said, as the trio sat down to discuss the making of Ocean in a Nashville studio in the days following busbee’s passing.

“I love that it starts out as if it’s going to be really heavy and then it turns around,” Kelley said. “It’s very much busbee. He looked on the bright side of everything. He always lit up a room, a big presence and a big, strong voice. That’s how we will remember him. That was one of the last ones we wrote with him, and I like that it’s a fun song.”

“I think it is so priceless and precious to have that,” Scott adds. “It feels so quintessentially him—the way it makes you feel, the melody, the lyrics—we will cherish it forever. That bridge is him—Ain’t nothing that a new day can’t face/ain’t nothing that a good love can’t shake/ain’t nothing that the good Lord can’t change. That is what he believed. It’s tough to see that and know that his time here on earth was cut so short, but I love that we will have this forever.”

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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