Country music’s first “visual album” comes courtesy of Brad Paisley, arriving April 28 as a companion piece to his latest studio effort, “Love and War,” which was released April 21. The hour-long compendium — which will initially be an Apple Music exclusive — was intended as a surprise for fans, but also somewhat mandated as one, since Paisley didn’t get around to filming 15 of the 16 concept videos until a month ago (the exception being “Today,” which came out in 2016).
Indeed, one of his new song titles, “Let’s Go to Bed Early,” may have fresh meaning for Paisley after the series of punishing all-nighters he pulled as co-director to get the whole collection to Apple on time. Then again, Paisley has long looked like he was having a little more fun making music videos than just about any of his country music contemporaries. He didn’t just nick some of Mark Knopfler’s fluid picking style for his virtuosic own; as a child of the 1980s, he also has fond memories of when “we all started making little movies for singles, and with MTV, it was like, ‘We could really get their attention if Dire Straits is a cartoon.’” So his doing it in bulk isn’t necessarily a complete shock.
Paisley spoke with Variety about balancing comedy and tears in the new collections, pulling in Mick Jagger and John Fogerty for guest appearances, and the rush to the finish line for what surely won’t be the last everything-at-once video album the genre produces.
Seeing as very few visual collections — where every song on an album has an accompanying conceptual video — exist, were you inspired by Beyoncé’s video album?
I didn’t see all of “Lemonade,” but I loved what I saw. Obviously my take on this is a completely different thing. On the songs that lend themselves to comedy, that’s what I’m doing, and the same with the more poignant songs, because the first half of this record is really a lot more upbeat than the second half. You know me. I live in the extremes.
When did you decide to do this?
It wasn’t until the “Today” video [for the album’s first single, released late last year] that I got the idea to do this visual album. I saw the way that just blew up and was really connecting. So I went to the label and half-jokingly said, “I can do this with every song on this record. They’re all very visual.” It was [Sony Music Nashville’s executive VP of marketing & new business] John Zarling’s first day when I suggested that, and John, who moved over in January from Big Machine, said, “Seriously?” And the rest of the label people, I honestly know they were saying, “Yeah, right. They’re never gonna make it.” And then Apple Music said, “Listen, we feel like this would be perfect for what we’re doing with our platform.” And I said, “Well, all right, I’ll get it to you.” And we went guerilla-style, everywhere we could do this.
And the rest of the videos, besides “Today,” were done just in the last month or so?
I feel like a deadline that’s that imminent makes you go with your best instincts right off the bat, as opposed to you have six months to sit around and tweak something. “Heaven South” ended up being the last video shot, Saturday before last. Which is funny, because we were going to do that first, just because it’s the first track on the album, and then it rained cats and dogs in Franklin (the small-town square of which is the setting for a massive crowd scene) — that’s Nashville, this time of year — so we had to push it two weeks. This has been the craziest few weeks of my life in many ways. We turned my studio into an edit bay. On the heels of finishing this video, which was all-nighters, one after another, I went straight from that to the “Good Morning America circuit,” which is all 4 a.m. call times. I’m feeling a little out of whack, but good.
Where Beyoncé was kind of aiming at telling a single story, you’re telling 16 stories.
I hope that “One Beer Can” cracks you up, and I hope to tug on the emotions with the one-two punch of “Love and War,” with me and John Fogerty on the deck of an aircraft carrier, which fades into “Today,” as the soldiers come home. I hope that there’s not a dry eye watching that… We had sort of one-line log lines for each of these. With “Heaven South,” it was essentially “Truck through Franklin, a la (the Kentucky Headhunters’ ‘80s video) ‘Keep Your Hands to Yourself’.” And for “Last Time for Everything,” it was “Stranger Things and Knight Rider.” Next thing you know, David Hasselhoff found out I was using the Knight Rider car and said. “I’m around if you want me in it.” I said, well, yeah, what time, where? You say where and when, we’re doing it. “Go to Bed Early” was “pop-up concert in a Sleep Number store,” which was more fun than you can imagine, and also terrifying for me. We had me in an anti-gravity chamber for “Contact High.” In “One Beer Can,” that’s my parents’ house. We cast 30 Belmont students [for a raucous high school party scene]. I never did that to my mother — I never threw that party — so it serves her right that finally at my age I’m trashing her house. With a donkey.
The video for “Go to Bed Early,” where you walk through a mall and end up playing a concert in a Sleep Number store was one way of solving the problem of how you were going to do a video about sleeping with someone. It looks like the reactions really are that spontaneous.
I haven’t been in a mall in a while. I remember calling my manager eight or 10 years ago saying “Well, you’ve done a good job,” because I had gone in the Cool Springs Mall, where we filmed this, incognito, and I remember getting on the escalator and realizing that people were looking out of stores at me all the way down. You’re a sitting duck in a mall if you’re a celebrity. It’s like that scene from ‘Guarding Tess,’ I think it is, where Shirley MacLaine goes to the mall just to feel good about her celebrity. Word spreads in this fishbowl. I said, “I think what’s really funny is, this is a really sexy song. But what if there’s just a banner that says ‘Free live music, 5 p.m.,’ in the Sleep Number store, and then I just walk in.” We ended up filming that on Good Friday, so it was packed. All that’s real. We didn’t really re-do it. None of us noticed any of the reactions in the moment. Like, I didn’t notice the way the girls reacted when I took their waffle fries. I might as well have been the Easter bunny.
This came together late enough that it’s probably not easy to reconvene all your guest stars. You must’ve been glad you had some in-studio footage of Mick Jagger recording your duet of “Drive of Shame,” which has already been released as a single in the U.K.
I’m really thankful that he’s willing to allow that (footage). When you’re with somebody as iconic as Mick Jagger or John Fogerty, I’m really aware that in asking these guys to collaborate with me, I don’t want to add a footnote to their career that’s like: “Shouldn’t’ have done that.” It’s important to make sure that they’re well represented. What’s amazing with the way that we edited “Drive of Shame,” all you see from Mick for about the first half of the song is an elbow, but you know it’s him, don’t you? The same with Fogerty. [In “Love and War,” a song about veterans being forgotten], it’s like you’ve probably been thinking, “You make a good point,” but the minute you hear Fogerty’s voice, it’s like, “Now we’re gonna really take this serious, I guess, because he’s talking now, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Your voices work as well together as one could hope on the Jagger duet. You never really know what the blend is going to be until you hear it.
The trick with Mick and with John is [to tell them], “Listen, don’t come [toward] me — don’t try to be country-er than you are. You have influenced country music to a degree you don’t realize, maybe.” There’s so much of our airwaves that are those guys. So, “All you gotta be is yourself. You fit. You belong. We’ve already come to you.” Not only that, but I’ve been ripping off the Rolling Stones since I was 12, so it’s like, all I had to do was not disguise it.
Was it tough to get Fogerty to turn up to shoot alongside a military ship in San Diego on the spur of the moment?
We’re really close. This is a man who practices guitar four hours a day, still. He’s committed to learning new things. He’s bought some gear that’s stuff that I use and vice versa; I’ve bought some stuff that he uses. There’s a mutual love there. The other thing with John is, he believes in this message. What was so heady was, when we sat down to write, he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever co-written.” I said, what? He said, “Yeah, sometimes other people were part of the song by the end of it, but as far as co-writing, I don’t do this.” I said, “You’re gonna love this, because it’s a lot less lonely and only one of us has to come up with a given line.” I told him the idea (about military veterans) and said, “I know this may not be a well you want to go back to right now.” He said, “No, I want to say this, this is a point I want to make, I’m sick and tired of what’s going on, and I agree.” He was all in, so it really was easy to say, John, I’ve got a video idea for this, what do you think? Absolutely. The same with this past Sunday night [where Fogerty showed up for a lengthy jam with Paisley at the famous Tootsie’s nightclub in Nashville]. I said we were doing an album launch thing, and did he want to come in? He said, “I’ve always wanted to take over a bar in Nashville and just jam. Do you want to do that?” This was all him. So in that sense, it’s been easy. He’s got a lot of energy for… uh… 50 years old or whatever he is. [Laughs.]
As far as release patterns nowadays, everybody’s experimenting. Do you give people one song at a time, or everything at once? And if it’s everything at once, do you prepare them for it or surprise them? With this project, it’s a traditional album setup, but you’re also surprising people with the video album by, I don’t want to say dumping…
[Laughs.] We’re squatting. Yeah.
Is there some sweet spot in getting the public’s attention where you do things traditionally but also throw an element of surprise into it?
Surprise is important. I think that’s the essence of entertainment, really. In this case, it’s also because it was a last-minute sort of edit. We didn’t have the luxury of knowing we were gonna do this six months ago, video-wise. I wasn’t even sure which exact songs were going on here six months ago. “Meaning Again” [the album closer] wasn’t written until February, and shoot, “Last Time for Everything” [the just-released second single off the album] wasn’t written until January or February. So I was still looking for the missing pieces, and as soon as I had them, then this came about. I knew I wanted to do something like this, but I didn’t know if we had the time. Now it’s like, well, how do you best present this to people?
What’s nice about this is there aren’t really rules. We’re all working in a broken industry right now. We’re working in an industry where people still love music, they still want music, but they don’t seem to want it the way we’re giving it to them. And so it’s a fun time to try things. I mean, I kind of like the anarchy of that. I sort of like the fact that we don’t have a lot to lose, in some ways. Getting it wrong just sort of means status quo. Getting it right means we learn something, and we might have delivered people something they really wanted.