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Country star Kenny Chesney found a ‘whole new energy’ in L.A. while working on his new album

Kenny Chesney will receive the Pinnacle Award at Wednesday's CMA Awards.
Kenny Chesney will receive the Pinnacle Award at Wednesday’s CMA Awards.
(Allister Ann)

Kenny Chesney didn’t particularly stand out when he strolled into a Malibu cafe last week and plopped down at a corner table with a view of the water.

Wearing a tight T-shirt that read “Kennebunkport” — and minus his signature straw cowboy hat — the 48-year-old country star could’ve been just another muscular, well-tanned guy with no reason to be trapped in an office on a Monday afternoon.

But you can bet he’ll turn heads Wednesday night at the annual Country Music Assn. Awards, where Chesney is set to receive the Nashville trade group’s highest honor, the Pinnacle Award.

Presented only twice before (to Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift), the prize is meant to recognize an artist “who has achieved global prominence through concert performances and record sales at levels unique in country music,” according to the CMA.

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And the description certainly fits Chesney, whom Billboard ranked last year at No. 2 on its list of music’s biggest money-makers and whose last 10 studio albums have topped the country chart. He’s almost certain to make it 11 with his latest, “Cosmic Hallelujah,” which came out Friday.

In addition to the type of party songs that have made him a reliable draw in stadiums across the U.S., though, the new album offers deeper, more nuanced thoughts on the distractions of the Instagram era (in “Noise”), the small comforts of home (“Jesus and Elvis”) and even the stagnation of the American dream (“Rich and Miserable”).

It also includes “Setting the World on Fire,” a duet with Pink about being “drunk on La Cienega Boulevard” that follows several earlier numbers Chesney recorded with another gutsy female singer, Grace Potter.

“There are songs my audience is going to expect from me,” he said of the album, parts of which he recorded in Malibu at producer Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio. “And there’s a few where I’m taking them somewhere new.”

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Over sweet tea, Chesney and I discussed how the album squares with those expectations. These are excerpts from our conversation.

You refer to Los Angeles more than once on this record.

I spent a lot of time here last year, and it was such a creative atmosphere for me — such a needed atmosphere. You can get in a rut creatively when you work in the same room, driving down the same road. But when we came out here it was a whole new energy. I didn’t want to go back East.

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You also sing about trying to focus and be present, which strikes me as very L.A.

We communicate at such a fast pace now, and if you don’t, you’re left behind. With all that, I felt I’d lost this certain sense of intimacy on every level of my life: I wasn’t creative; I was a bad friend; I was a bad boyfriend. I wasn’t communicating — or I was, but it was too shallow. You take that along with everybody on TV trying to get their message across and it all just becomes white noise. You can’t hear a damn thing.

When you look out from the stage during one of your shows, I assume you see more phones than faces.

This year at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, I reached down to shake a girl’s hand — to personally thank her for coming to the show — and she never saw my hand because she was staring at her phone. I stood there for literally four or five seconds, had my hand out. She probably still doesn’t know. It’s terrible, but that’s my point.

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Do you worry that some might find a song like “Noise” too preachy?

I’ve never been that good a preacher.

But it’s kind of a sermon.

I see it as me raising my hand and saying, “I think this pace has gotten the best of me, and I’m trying to come back a little bit.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t communicate like that, but maybe think about it.

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Tell me about these duets you’ve been recording. They have a different attitude toward women than many current country songs; you’re not objectifying your partner or trying to contain her.

Well, I grew up in a family of women. My mom and my grandmother were in the hospital at the same time having us — I have an aunt that’s my age. And my mom’s a twin. And I’ve got a sister.

Your last album had “Wild Child” with Grace Potter, about your appreciation for a woman with “a spirit that can’t be tamed.”

I’m attracted to that free spirit who loves really hard and has this certain — I don’t know, what’s the word? — a certain inner beauty. I mean, they can be gorgeous. But the way they walk through the world — I’m very attracted to these kind of women. And you’re right: There’s not a lot of songs out there lifting them up instead of objectifying them. But I do think that trend’s going away a little bit.

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The objectifying trend?

Yeah. But that comes with getting to a certain spot in your life. I mean, I couldn’t have written “Wild Child” when I was 28. I’d be saying, “What up? / Get in the truck,” just like everybody else.

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Other older country stars put across ideas about male sensitivity, but usually they’re family men like Brad Paisley, who’s singing about his kids.

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I haven’t written family songs because I don’t have a family; it’s not my truth. Hopefully one day I can write a song about it. But that’s not me yet.

You’re an exception in that way.

I don’t have that family vibe at my show, but I also do — it’s just a different kind of family. People are out there raising hell, but not in a disrespectful way, you know? There’s no profanity in our show.

Why’s that important?

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There’s kids out there. I think it’s a product of where I grew up.

Could you get up right now in here and play with just an acoustic guitar?

Yeah, it’s happened. Takes me back to East Tennessee State University in a Mexican restaurant, playing for tips and all the beer and enchiladas I could eat. I miss that. And I want to do that again — even though I love being up there [in a stadium] with that machine and feeling all that energy coming at you.

Is that addictive?

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Of course! I haven’t done a lot of drugs in my life, but it’s better than any of the ones I’ve done.

‘The 50th Annual CMA Awards’

Where: ABC

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

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Twitter: @mikaelwood


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