Charles Kelley on Lady Antebellum's Return & Why They Needed an 'Artistic Reset'

Lady Antebellum
Eric Ray Davidson

Lady Antebellum

Lady Antebellum's "You Look Good" hit No. 8 on Hot Country Songs while the trio’s Heart Break debuts at No. 1 on Top Country Albums.

Lady A used horns for the first time on “You Look Good.” How did that come about?

We hadn’t heard horns in a country song in a long time, and we [thought] if we just put out a song that feels like familiar Lady Antebellum, it’s going to be like, "You took two years to make new music for this?" We really wanted to push ourselves. Hillary [Scott] has always wanted to put horns on a song, and if there was ever a song to do it on, it was this one. We could always push the mute button. But it felt fresh and different, something that would come out of nowhere and catch our fans off guard.

The band has had nearly 20 songs chart on the Hot 100. Is there one that you have a particular attachment to?

“Run to You” is the song I would say I’m the most proud of. Lyrically, we really stretched ourselves to dig deep. "I run from prejudice/I run from pessimists." I think these lines are very different for country music. It’s one of those messages, too, that rings really true today as well. "This world keeps spinning faster /Into a new disaster so I run to you." It’s one of those timely songs. No matter where we are in the world, there’s always going to be a little bit of craziness going on.

“Heart Break” is a girl-power anthem. Was that written at Hillary Scott’s behest?

Obviously “Heart Break” is a female empowerment song about not jumping into another relationship, but you know, us as well -- we felt like we needed to take a little heart break and get back to the heart of the band, which is the songwriting. That was the key for this record. We got sent a whole bunch of songs, and none of them felt special or unique to our band. So we were like, "We’re going to have to write this thing and really get our story into this." “Heart Break” got us off to the races. It was like, okay, now we have a direction. Because, for this record, we didn’t know if we were going to do traditional country, or super pop, or R&B, and that song felt modern but still familiar to us.

What prompted Lady A’s hiatus? Did you feel the quality of the music was suffering, or was it personality-driven?

It was a few different feelings. It was needing an artistic reset. We’d been going pretty hard for 10 years. That seems to be the country music mentality. We felt like we needed to go live a little to get something to write about. And, also, to give ourselves a chance to try some personal projects that we’ve always wanted to do. Hillary has been talking about wanting to do a Christian record with her family for a few years. I’ve always wanted to explore an organic, more Southern-rock type of record. We always knew that we were going to come back and that Lady A was going to be the main focus. It just felt like the perfect time to let the fans miss us a little bit and let us miss them.

Everybody did something, musically, during the break. When you’re in a successful band, do you get to a point where you need to prove to yourself and to your bandmates that you could do something on your own?

Every artist has a desire to try something different when they’re in a group. I never had a desire to make a Christian record, but Hillary did. The only way she would have been able to do that was to do it on her own. I’d always felt like we skipped that whole club-tour run, because we were really lucky -- we went straight to opening up for other artists. We never got to be a club band and, honestly, when I got into the music business that was my dream. Lady A shows are always going to be a little more structured, so this was the perfect opportunity to go and have more of a spontaneous show. But the best thing about it was when we came back. I really missed being able to play two hours of songs that people know.

“Leaving Nashville” off your 2016 solo album The Driver is beautiful. Could that have been a Lady Antebellum song?

I want Lady A to be what Lady A is. I tried my best to not have [the solo album] repeat a Lady A record, just without Hillary and Dave, because that wouldn’t make any sense. “Leaving Nashville” wouldn’t mean as much coming from three voices. It’s such desperation, it needs to be from a singer. I wanted to be a little bit more vulnerable, and stretch my vocal chops a little bit. I could chase down whatever key I wanted to with any song. With Lady A it’s more of a unifying compromise. Hillary sometimes has to sacrifice different keys because I can’t sing a harmony if it’s too high or too low, and vice versa. You have to do what’s best for the song and the band.

“You Look Good” and “Heart Break” feel like they come from a place where you’re unattached and hanging out in bars and hooking up. Even though that isn’t where the band is at personally anymore, do those narratives come easily and are those the sort of songs you think your fans want?

You don’t want a whole record full of songs about our kids! That gets old. I think of “You Look Good” as a couple in love and enjoying each other and feeling confident. My wife and I have this moment, especially at an award show or something, where we get dressed up, and it’s like, all right, we still got it. We can go out there and have a fun night and be attracted to each other. But I do think as songwriters we love nostalgic songs, like “Big Love in a Small Town” or “Teenage Heart.” We like to tap into emotions that we’ve seen or places that we’ve been before.

This article originally appeared in the July 1 issue of Billboard.