CMW - Country Music Week

Interview: One of Nashville’s finest songwriters Chris DeStefano talks writing, working with Carrie Underwood, playing the UK and more

Chris DeStefano is one of the most sought after songwriters in Nashville. Chris is a Grammy Award winning songwriter, a record producer and a multi instrumentalist.

The calibre of artists that Chris has written for and with is really quite astounding. Chris is in part responsible for songs such as Good Girl, Something In The Water, Smoke Break, Little Toy Guns for Carrie Underwood. Something Bad for Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, Aww Naw for Chris Young, Brett Elderidge’s Number one hit Don’t Ya, Luke Bryan’s That’s My Kind of Night and many more, the list just goes on and on.

Chris heads over to the UK this month as part of the CMA Songwriters Series during Country Music Week, tickets and info here.

To get to see a songwriter of his calibre perform some of country music’s finest songs the way they were written is always a very special moment.

We caught up with Chris to discuss his songs, his journey, playing the UK and more. It was such a pleasure to talk with Chris as he is such an interesting man.

Enjoy!

Hi Chris how are you? You are in Germany right now I believe?

Yes I am! We got here yesterday from Oslo and have had most of the day to walk around Hamburg and experience a bit of the city which has been great.

It is lovely there isn’t it?

Yeah it’s beautiful!

Have you any German beer and food?

Yeah we had some Wiener Schnitzel, a Bratwurst and some beer.

Nice! At what age did realise that you wanted to be a songwriter?

I was about eight years old and I was asked through my music class in elementary school to audition for The Philadelphia Boys Choir and I did and I got in and I was in that for about three years. It was three years of falling in love with music and singing and learning to play a little bit of piano and I just really fell in love with it. I remember thinking then that it was what I wanted to do even though I was so young. There was really no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it. At the time I didn’t really know the difference between a songwriter and a singer or a performer or a musician. For me it all blended together but I loved all of it and I knew that I wanted to have a career in music.

Did you ever think that those dreams would be a reality and did you ever consider a different career?

I don’t think that I ever really gave anything else an option. I did grow up playing quite a bit of hockey and that never happened which is ok because fortunately the music thing worked out. I kind of made a choice in high school as I was playing a lot of music and studying music. I made the decision to go to college at Berkley in Boston and study music full time so that was definitely a turning point when I said I had to stop playing hockey and play music full time. That is the other thing too, Hockey, at least back in those days the equipment was different. I still play but I kind of have to watch my hands a little bit because I need them for my career so it is pretty important. I still love to play and I train up with and play with some of guys who play at NHL level and AHL Level so I still get to fulfil that dream a little bit. I had this opportunity earlier this year with the Nashville Predators. Craig Smith who is a friend of mine got me on the ice with the team at Bridgestone which was really amazing. I am a goalee so they were shooting on me. They are great guys. I am closest to Craig but I know Mike Fisher quite well too through Carrie Underwood. It is pretty great to be in a town and be able to be a professional songwriter, producer, singer/songwriter and be able to play hockey and kind of fulfil that dream.

I admire the passion and atmosphere for sports in the US.

I need to see some sports in Europe. We follow the World Cup. I have heard great things about the team sports in Europe. Yeah, in the US it is this whole thing, kind of like a religion. There are other cities who are better than others as far as being friendly to other fans and things. Fortunately Nashville is really respectful of other teams and fans, there is never any harsh words said to other fans but there are other cities that aren’t so gracious to the opposing teams fans.

Who are your songwriter inspirations?

James Taylor was a huge influence on me. Sometimes I am asked the question “What is your desert Island album?” And it would probably be James Taylor Live the double CD. That is probably my favourite album of all time if I had one to pick. I think Mutt Lange as far as writing and producing. Mutt Lange and dating back to the first album I ever learned on guitar which was Def Leppard – Hysteria. At that point I didn’t really know who Mutt Lange was but then I kind of realised as I got more into it that he had worked with AC/DC and Shania Twain who was a big influence on me as far as country music goes. So Mutt Lange kind of encompassed all the genres of music that I really related to and enjoy!

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote and do you consider it to be good, great or a disaster?

Haha, oh my gosh! It was not good no haha. I am not going to say that it was terrible but it wasn’t a good song haha. I do remember it! It was just real simple but I don’t think I can play it at this point and I have probably forgotten most of it. I do remember some of the chords and guitar lines which was just me learning guitar and seeing what interesting rock riffs we can do here. At the time I was like “I am getting all this figured out” it gave me a hope that I could do this and that I could start from nothing and actually create something. That fundamentally was a huge thing. I was probably only 13 at the time.

What was the first song of yours that got cut by an artist?

My first cut in country was a song called Every Other Memory with a band called The Eli Young Band. I wrote that with Josh Kear who is a legend in Nashville and a girl named Catt Gravitt. It was actually my first writing trip to Nashville back in 2010. It was really just an amazing way to kick off my Nashville life which has become my entire life now. At this point but in 2010 I was living in Los Angeles and went to Nashville for a writing trip and ended up writing that song and it got cut, so that was pretty special. I enjoyed the process and the people so much and to this day they are some of my best friends. My first pop cut was by an artist called David Archuleta. He is a really belting singer and he was one of the winners of American Idol. The song was called Something ‘Bout Love . That was a moment that I got to produce on the song too so that was a special one too and I think both were around about the same time.

Have you ever written a song that once taken by an artist has completely changed to almost unrecognisable and if so, did you like it?

You know that is a great question. I haven’t really had that happen but I have heard some stories of that thing happening. I think nowadays a lot of the time, the way the song is presented is not as important as the song itself but almost as important as the song itself. The way it is presented in a lot of ways can almost help sell the song and ends up being what the recording and end production is inspired by. I feel like traditionally there may be songs that are just acoustic guitar vocal or piano vocal and it can be taken in a number of directions as you have a much more open canvas to paint on so to speak but I think now this is happening less and less because demos are so flushed out and they almost sound and do sound like finished records so a lot of time artists, labels and producers want to keep the artistic merit there.

When was the first time you heard one of your songs sung by an artist and it completely wowed you?

Well gosh! Well I knew she was THAT good but the absolute WOW moment was when I heard Carrie Underwood perform Good Girl at the Bridgestone Arena and that was my first number one song. I remember being at Bridgestone and it was just like a moment where you think “Wait, whose life am I living right now?” I remember looking at the seats and everybody was singing along. That was a real special moment and that doesn’t go away. I still feel that to this day and every time it happens. But that was the first time that I experienced that kind of feeling.

Which artist has impressed you the most in the writers room? You write with a lot of songwriters but when you write with a big name artist, who has really impressed you?

That is a great question. I get to write with so many talented people. I think as Carrie Underwood and I have written so many songs together and just consistently I am so blown away by her not only writing ability but her voice and her ideas as a songwriter. It is a tough question because there are so many singers. Kelly Clarkson again is an incredible vocalist and also an incredible songwriter and has an incredible energy in the room – she is just so explosive and has this massive personality and that is exactly who she is. Chris Young is one of those guys that gets on the mic and it’s done in one take and you think, well that was easy. It is pretty easy with all of them and I could go on and on.

You mentioned writing with Carrie Underwood – when you were writing with Carrie and Hilary and came up with Idea of Smoke Break, it is said that came to be whilst you were all taking breaks during writing another song that you were struggling with. What happened to the struggling song, did it ever see the light of day?

It did not. We have written so many songs together that I can’t even remember the song that we were in the process of writing. It got demo’d and submitted but it just never came to be. I feel like we caught the lightning with Smoke Break but we just missed it with the other one which is fine as it totally happens. We wrote Smoke Break in about 45 minutes. We were outside taking a little coffee break and thought that Smoke Break was a better title.

I agree!

In pop music we often see the singer get credited for Songwriting as they are the artist even if they only added maybe one bit of harmony – how do you feel about that? I often see their name first which would indicate main writer.

Oh great question. That is a tough one! I think that boils down way more to politics than it does contribution. Politically I think it is a necessary thing sometimes. It is what it is and you just have to go with the notion of; if the artist is big enough then sure, ok, no problem, I am totally good with it. I think outside of the politics everybody has a different opinion but again politically as songwriters we tend to look at the good things about it, especially if it is a big cut then we’ll take it.

When writing Something Bad – it was originally written as a male/female duo, did you have anyone in mind when you wrote it?

When we were writing it we did not have anyone in mind actually. We wrote it at a 13th century Chateau in The Dordogne in France. We were just having fun, we weren’t thinking of anyone in particular, we weren’t thinking pop or country, we were just thinking “Let’s write something that is out of the box”. We weren’t even thinking of a placement for the song which we do a lot of the time. We won’t necessarily think who we are writing for? But then a lot of the times we will. This particular day we were just having fun. Brett’s publisher sent it to Miranda and she reacted to it right away and put it on hold and I remember thinking as soon as she put it on hold “Oh my gosh! She would be amazing on that song “ I was thinking “Please Miranda, cut it!”. She then took it to another level with Carrie. I found out about that because Carrie texted me a picture of one of lyrics and said “Look what we’re cutting today for Miranda’s record”. So then I knew that Carrie was going to be on the song too and that just took it to another level. I have so much respect for both those women and together it was so much fun. That song just keeps on going and we re wrote the lyrics for the Sunday Night Football theme and that ran for a couple of seasons as well so that song just keeps on going and I think partly because we didn’t have a real target, we were just going for the energy of the song and I think that is a large part why it just has so many different ways of presenting itself.

Yes mentioned you wrote it in the Dordogne. Ashley Campbell has mentioned that to me before, is it the writers retreat?

Yeah! Same one! The Chateau. It is an amazing ASCAP retreat that we do every year. Actually we just wrapped up this years about two weeks ago. I had an amazing trip this time actually. Whilst I was there I had a single drop by another artist named Noah Kahan who is incredible. He and I wrote that at the Chateau a couple of years ago so it was interesting timing but perfect timing.

Sounds like such an amazing place.

I love it! It is amazing there. It is one of my favourite places on the planet.

Is there a song of yours that is unfinished that you intend to delve back into and complete?

That’s a great question. We tend to finish every song by the end of the day. If we started at 11am or 12pm, a lot of the time we will finish it by 4pm or 5pm. There’s not too many that don’t get finished. There’s a song that I just wrote in Sweden actually called Love On Me that we haven’t finished on the production side yet. I am excited to finish it. We will probably turn out a country version and a pop version. It’s a really cool song so I am excited for that.

I can’t wait to hear it. I hope you enjoy all the songwriters rounds over here. We are really happy to have you and it is going to be an exciting series of shows.

Oh I am so excited to come over. With the amount of times that I have been to Europe I usually end up in Italy as we have a lot of friends there and my mum used to live in Florence so we go and visit them. As many times as I have been to Europe, I have not spent time in the UK so this is perfect. Just being able to really see it and meet the people and everything is going to be a special moment. I was there with the Philadelphia Boys Choir but I was about ten years old and it was for about six hours so that doesn’t count haha! It is going to be amazing and I can’t wait to get there and see it all.

You will have a great time as we are a very welcoming crowd.

Thanks so much for talking today.

It was so great talking to you.

 

 

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