Charles Esten Fulfills Lifelong Dream With Release Of Debut Album, ‘Love Ain’t Pretty’

Years in the making, Esten says releasing his debut album is a “very, very special thing.”


Lexi Liby

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January 26, 2024


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Charles Esten; Photo by Kirsten Balani

Charles Esten has officially unveiled his debut album, Love Ain’t Pretty.

The 14-track album eloquently captures a spectrum of emotions, spanning from intense romantic experiences to contemplative reflections on life, all woven together under the overarching theme of love. Over the last decade, the Nashville actor has co-written each track, crafting an album that he is proud of and eager to introduce to the world.

“I know very few people release their debut album at my age, but I think there’s some beautiful parts of that too. “It means that I’m old enough to know how special it is and how fortunate I am,” Esten told Country Now.

“This is a very, very special thing for me, and I’m so grateful for anybody that makes themself a part of it by listening, by putting it in their homes, their headphones, their hearts,” Esten continued.

Country Now recently caught up with Charles Esten to discuss the significance of Love Ain’t Pretty and his upcoming solo tour of the same name that will take place throughout the UK and Europe. Keep reading to learn more.

Charles Esten - Love Ain't Pretty
Charles Esten – Love Ain’t Pretty

Why did you choose “Love Ain’t Pretty” to be the title track?

Well, it’s funny because it was actually the last song to get written for the album. Some of these songs I’ve had for a couple of years and even had started on an album just pre-COVID, but like so many things, once I recorded them, the whole world changed. At that point we knew that I had changed too, so we weren’t sure that this was the album. We ended up scrapping that aspect of it. Then when I got together with Marshall Altman after all the lockdowns, he was the key piece of the puzzle. Marshall’s my producer, and he and I did a whole lot of pre-production and somewhere in there, we said we should just write. We weren’t aiming to even write for the album, we just thought, let’s write a song. So we got together with Jimmy Yeary and “Love Ain’t Pretty” is the song that came out. It might just be that that was all the songs we were immersed in at that moment. That was very easily the through line for them all. This concept that love ain’t pretty and life is hard, but it’s so beautiful. That’s the dichotomy there. The times you can imagine your life when you’ve been the most broken, love was somewhere in there. Maybe you just lost someone you love in one way or another, or maybe there was a time when you were lifted up. Love was definitely in there. So once we wrote that it became clear to both of us that that’s what the whole album is saying. I also love that it starts out of the clear blue with my voice. There’s just no real musical intro per se. So, the whole album just starts and here we go, and this is telling you this is what it’s about. 

Overall, what personal significance does this debut album hold for you and how would you describe it?

This album holds all the personal significance in the world. I am, as a lot of people know, an actor. I was a singer-songwriter first, back in college, or even before that, but I go into this life of acting where I play all these roles and I play all these other people. Even in my music, for the longest time, I played Buddy Holly in a musical. I would sing like Buddy or I would be on “Whose Line [Is It Anyway?]” So on any given day, I would sing Sting or Bono or Michael Stipe or something like that. Part of my journey in Nashville when I came here, I would sing like Deacon Claybourne on the show, but Deacon of course is a part of me. So the 10 years it took me to finally do this album were very much about finding out who I was. I put out a whole lot of singles along the way and I would go, “That’s me,” or “That’s less me, but I love that single.” That was sort of the answer to trying to figure out who I was. So, the message of this album is that these are the things that I care about and that are meaningful to me. I have to make sure that it matters to me and means something to me because if it does and I say it as clearly as I can, then hopefully it’ll mean something to you. Coming back to the theme of life being hard but beautiful, I want you to know that wherever you are on your journey in that story, from the very bad to the very good, hopefully, this album can meet you there and it can speak to you in that place. 

Charles Esten; Photo by Kirsten Balani
Charles Esten; Photo by Kirsten Balani

What was the writing process for this album like?

One of the things I loved the most when coming to Nashville was the co-write. I’ve been writing by myself for so long and there are wonderful things about that. I still have songs in this town where I write by myself, but I love that process. I love being with songwriters. I think to be a great songwriter, you have to be a whole lot of things. You’ve got to be emotionally intelligent, you’ve got to be a good storyteller and you’ve got to have a sense of humor. Songwriters are just good people to hang out with and if I go down the list of all these songs, I can just remember the really wonderful time writing them and bringing them to life. So writing, to me, is my favorite part of it. Then you get these songs, which become what goes on the album. For me though, it always starts with the writing. It all starts with a song, as they say, but if I’m honest, that might be my favorite part of the whole process.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Eric Paslay on the song “Down The Road” and how that came about?

I’ve been wanting to write with Eric for a long time. The first song of his that I knew was “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which a lot of people don’t know was the very first song on Nashville as the credits rolled and it started to come into the town. I know he wrote that with Will Hoge, who’s another fantastic guy, but the other thing is I would see Eric in concert or at writer’s rounds with that voice of his. We kept saying, “we got to write, we got to write,” and then finally there we were at his house writing. It took a minute to come upon this topic and we wrote it with Dylan Altman, who’s not related to Marshall, but they’re great friends. I think this is a very Eric song too, in that he has that outlook and it fits well with the whole “Love Ain’t Pretty” aspect. It’s like, I know life is hard right now. I know you want to give up, but don’t give up, and don’t let go. To say that serious thing with that sort of rock punch and crunch, I love it. I’ve been thrilled to see he’s over touring right now in the UK and Germany and some other countries. He’s over there with just him and a guitar and I saw him singing “Down the Road” and that makes so much sense to me. I love it in his voice. During the recording process, I was getting ready to record a harmony and sing with myself and it just didn’t sound the same without my buddy Eric on it. We called him up and fortunately, he couldn’t have been any closer. He was like three minutes away so he popped right over, hopped in that booth and knocked out the most incredible lyric. He sings one of the verses and then he sings all the harmonies and I’m so glad he did. 

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You’ve received a lot of feedback on your song “Somewhere in the Sunshine.” Why did you decide to write this song?

It is interesting. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have written it without my friend and co-writer Jon Nite, having the title. I also know that Jon Nite would’ve written a totally different song to that title with somebody else because he was thinking more of a beach, somewhere in the sunshine, margarita song, which also would’ve been amazing. I had just been at a place in my life where I’d been visiting with a friend of mine who had been battling cancer for years, and he was reaching the end of that road. Our discussions had gotten very real. We talked about how he was feeling, how this all goes, and where we all end up. He was a man of strong faith, but even with strong faith, you just don’t know. He was hanging onto that faith tooth and nail and we were talking about that and what it was like. I was able to play him this song before he passed and then I was very incredibly moved and blessed to sing that song at his memorial service. I know that’s where he is. He’s somewhere in the sunshine. Strangely, I have a picture of him, he and I went walking, he was in his bed and it was very, very near the end. I went by the house to help as I could, and I said, “I’m going to go walk your dog.” He said, “I’m going to go with you” and he climbed out of his bed and we went. I don’t think we even walked a whole block, but he walked with me and it was a cloudy day. He stopped at one point and he just stopped because the sunbeam was just hitting him full on his face and I’ll never forget it. That was after the song was written. It was one of those moments that my mom calls “God incidents.” Once Jon Nite and I knew that we were writing this song from the voice of that person that you miss so desperately who is in a far better place, we could provide healing and reassurance that they’re more than okay. Once we understood what we were writing, we wanted to make it as simple and conversational, kind of like the voice of a friend. That was the goal and we did the best we could and we’ve been blessed to see that it does seem to resonate. 

How did you choose the location for the music video?

That location is actually a place not too far from our house. My wife walks our dogs every single day and I go there with them in the summer to run them. I throw them sticks and they go swimming in the creek. Right by there, there are some steps that you can see in the video. My son was an Eagle Scout and his Eagle Scout project was building those steps down the bank with his friends. I didn’t want the location to be some setting that meant nothing to me. All of those places in the video resonate with me. That’s a place where someday if they were to scatter my ashes, that would be fine if they were just right there. I wanted it to be a place that was filled with meaning for me. It was a perfect day and the sun was coming in through the leaves. It was just beautiful. That video was shot by Erika Rock, who did such an incredible job. I don’t think she minds me sharing. In fact, I’ve asked her, and she said, “no, no, that’s fine.” While we were shooting I could hear Erika. I looked up and I saw that she was crying while we were shooting. I was like, “Are you okay?” and she was apologetic, like, “I’m so sorry it’s not super professional.” She shared that she had lost her father and that in that moment it was hitting her. The song was full force hitting her. The meaning and the words. I gave her a big hug and said, “Do you want to take some time?” She said, “No, no, no. Let’s keep going. Let’s just do it.” I said, “Alright, but from now on I’m looking right down that lens and I’m singing to you. He’s fine. He’s in the sunshine.” It’s hard to put into words. That’s why there’s magic about that video. It feels real. I’m not acting anything. I’m full of emotion right there. But if you think about it, the person singing that song is not sad in emotion. The person singing that song is like that vale of tears. I passed through it, there’s no more pain and I’m finally free. I’m right where I’m meant to be. I love the verse that says, “I know it’s been hard on you, and he knows it too. He hears every word you ever pray and every tear running down and every single doubt when you get here, he wipes ’em all away and I’ll be waiting on you till that day.” I had to remember not to just sing it sadly, but to sing it from that, I’m past all that pain and now I’m just trying to speak to somebody I love and let them be okay. 

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How will you celebrate the release of your debut album? 

We are going to have a concert that night (January 26) at the Exit/In. I’ve been so blessed to get to play so many venues in this town. I’ve been on stage once at the Exit/In with my friend Kendell Marvel and his honky tonk experience, but I have not ever had a show there before. I just thought it would be a great place to do that. And of course, all these people will be converging here from the livestream and family and friends. So, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate these songs than to play ’em with the people who have been part of this journey all along the way. The writers will all be there and hopefully, the musicians will be there too. It’ll be a real feeling of completion for sure. I already have that, actually. Now I just get to talk about it. But once it’s finally out, that’s going to be beautiful. 

You’re going on a UK and European solo tour in 2024. What will it be like to return there and perform your debut album?

It’s going to be such a joy. I left under such bad circumstances the last time I was there as a solo performer. I left when C2C had to shut down because of Covid and it broke my heart. I didn’t get to play the O2 arena, not to mention all the terrible things going on around the world at that time because of that. I did get to go back with my Nashville friends for another taste of the UK, but now to get to go back to Germany and the Netherlands and to places I haven’t been to in Denmark, I’m really thrilled. I should say we have the shows scheduled a little bit early in the afternoon because of that fandom out there. That group of people has been so kind to us. We want them to be able to enjoy themselves before it’s bedtime. There’s also just a different type of listening over there because it’s not the air they breathe. This country music, it’s so far from them. They seem to know the lyrics even a little better or the cuts that other people don’t know and they’re actually listening to them. I just love that so much.  

What songs are you most excited to play for them?

Well, the answer to that is it will change. I need to get downstairs and start workshopping on what they sound like, just me and a guitar. I also have a keyboard player, a pianist, who is on the Nashville reunion tour, but I’m going to find out ways that different songs are going to go. I’m more looking forward to being surprised by the ones that they lift up. I’m curious about the ones where they all start singing or all the flashlights come out because I know that’s how it is over there. I have made this album to connect and they’re going to tell me what has connected the most. I wouldn’t be able to tell you because I could go, “I can’t wait to play this,” and I get there and it goes pretty well. Then maybe the one after that that I didn’t think would resonate at all, really got them. So that’s what I’m interested in finding out. 

Fans can keep up with Charles Esten on Instagram.

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Lexi Liby

Written by

Lexi Liby

I am a senior at Kansas State University, where I am majoring in Communication Studies. Throughout my time at college, I’ve had the opportunity to publish a few of my pieces in the University’s newspaper, The Collegian, and I’ve created my own website. I’ve previously interned for Country Insider, an iHeartMedia-owned country music industry newsletter and I am currently interning for CountryNow, a Red Light Management owned publication. I’m very passionate about music and writing, so I hope to find myself in a career that incorporates both of these passions.