From songs like Willie Nelson’s plucky, euphoric “On the Road Again” to the Highwaymen’s snarling and sinister “Highwayman” and Chris Stapleton’s soulful burner “Traveler,” surmising one’s journey on the literal and metaphorical road of life has been a pensive and sometimes bewildering journey in country music. Newcomer Chris Wills might only be 22 but he has collected more than enough wisdom on his travels (such as his rebellious teenage years) to regard his next steps, which include the release of his debut EP, This Place Ain’t for Me, later this summer. Leading into the project, he shares the smokey, filtered title cut with B-Sides & Badlands today, premiering below. The song (out this Friday) essentially hit him like a bolt of lightning one night. “Right before I wrote this song, I realized that for the entirety of my life I’ve always felt like I was stuck in a place or situation where I clearly didn’t belong. Stuck on this path with a construed trajectory not of my own envisioning,” he says.
“As I was getting older, the stakes were getting higher and soon the outcome of my life would slip from my hands. I felt deflated and defeated. Like I failed every challenge I faced and made all the wrong decisions. Then, I thought how precious every action must be because it seems that one day they’ll add up to put you in the current place you find yourself now,” he further explains. The song is suitably stark, adorned with a haunting windswept orchestra beneath him: powered with heartthrobs of percussion and an unshakable uneasiness. “Maybe I’ll stand and wait for a train to take me down, down to New Orleans,” he considers, rattling his core to come up with the right answers, “where I don’t know a single soul. But me, maybe I’ll, I’ll meet a friend–the kind that stays until the very end . We’ll have those crazy nights…in New Orleans.”
When he revisited his own wellspring of fresh shrewdness, it dawned on him: “I could make a change and regardless of the outcome, the thought of being who I was and starting something on my own felt like an accomplishment in itself,” he says, then detailing the time and place the song sprang to his mind. “And so, all these thoughts were going through my head, and one night when I was walking home after it rained, everything felt very surreal and dream-like. I remember how vivid the puddles looked and how their oily surface reflecting in the street lights seemed brighter than usual. Even the cars driving by seemed louder and every time they passed, they startled me like unexpected thunder. Then I got home, started playing guitar, and this song came out all at once. It was such a weird experience but I felt refreshed and at ease afterwards.”
In much the same way the song challenge his staunch songwriting, he struck up a deal with himself–to record the song live and in one take. “Maybe I should have taken more time to get it just right. And when I was putting this EP together I thought about going back to try and make it ‘perfect.’ But when I thought about it, I like that it was recorded kind of Neil Young-esque,” he says. “The performance felt so raw and vulnerable because the experiences leading up to the creation of this song were still so fresh. Going back to try and make it perfect would have killed the vibe for me. What you’re hearing on the final version is me having written the song and recorded it live all within in a week.”
What he might not have realized, initially, “This Place Ain’t for Me” would soon become “the impetus for the entire EP,” he says. “It set the whole thing in motion both creatively and personally. It’s very much the musical reflection of my new perspective on life and a new way to write. It’s about a character who’s not happy with where they are, but they’re not afraid to set out and start looking.” The forthcoming debut is produced by Grammy nominee and engineer Koby Hass, who has worked with a bevy of pop stars, from Rhianna and Lady Gaga to Kanye West and Paul Simon.
“I think people will vibe with the music on the EP but maybe they’ll be also be able to connect with themselves and apply the EP to their own situations and use it to navigate their own lives. Even if it’s only in a subtle way, that would really get me going,” he adds.
“Maybe I’ll head down to Chinatown. I’ll catch me a bus, be Carolina bound–where I hear that the girls are always pretty, and that’s for me. Maybe I’ll meet one of them pretty girls I’ll actually care for, more than the whole wide world. We’ll settle down and raise a family…at 32,” he later surveys on the second verse. He might still be seeking his redemptive place in this world, but it sure sounds like he’s found the right road.
This Place Ain’t for Me EP arrives August 11.
Top photo credit: Shervin Lainez