Q&A: 'Nashville's' Chris Carmack on Playing Gay in Country, Pop Music and 'The O.C.'s' Legacy

by Sophie Schillaci 6:20 PM PDT, May 14, 2015
Photo: Courtesy of Chris Carmack

Warning: Spoilers ahead if you are not caught up on the season 3 finale of Nashville.

Chris Carmack is proud of Will Lexington.

After his Nashville character came out of the closet on Wednesday night's season 3 finale, it's almost as though a weight has been lifted.

"I'm happy for Will," the actor tells ET. "It's the first step in his journey of personal fulfillment, and I think he's going to be able to live a much richer life now that he's out and accepting of himself, and has the courage to face whatever's gonna come his way."

WATCH: Connie Britton's Face in These 'Nashville' Bloopers Will Make Your Day

For his part, Carmack is embarking on a new frontier of his own. The 34-year-old -- more than a decade after breaking out in Hollywood as the jerk-heartthrob Luke on The O.C. -- last week revealed his first solo single, and will independently release his first-ever solo EP later this year.

ET caught up with Carmack by phone for a wide-ranging interview, touching on everything from his new pop music, why he's "not surprised" at country music's void of gay stars, and what The O.C.'s legacy means to him today. Read on for more.

Your new music is pop but I think with your role on Nashville, a lot of people would expect you to go country. I would also argue that you have the talent to really go either way - why pop?

To be honest, I had to check a box to put it on iTunes. If I could have not checked a box, I would have not. People like to define things by genre and, in fact, this single has a lot of country elements in it, but some of the other songs on the EP are less country and as a result, I just kinda classified the whole thing as pop.

But you performed at Stagecoach, a country music festival. Do you believe that the genres are all sort of blurring together lately?

It certainly seems to be. I'll hear stuff on country radio that sounds like a right-down-the-middle pop song or a rock song, for that matter. I do think the boundaries are blurring a little bit. That said, I do have some stuff comin' out that I think would firmly not be in the country category -- that's why I checked that box -- but people can call it whatever they want to. I'm not taking sides either way.

And your producer works with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Ben Fowler, yeah. He's actually working with them right now on a live album. He did my whole EP and he's somebody that I came to know in and around Nashville, and we started chatting about doing acoustic stuff and then it grew from there into, "Well you know, maybe we should add drums, or bass." It grew into a whole day of studio musicians at Blackbird [studio, in Nashville] and "Let's see what we can do." It started small in our imagination and grew from there.

Your bio says that you grew up playing saxophone. Can you still play?

I do! Well, no. I still have the notes under my fingers, but my chops are a little bit rusty. Every once in while I'll pull out the sax and toot on it a little bit, but none of that's on my album. It's funny because when I went into the writers' room in Nashville, the show, they were all about "What other talents do you have?" Sam Palladio plays the drums, so they worked it into the script. He got to teach his TV son how to play drums. Clare Bowen rides horses, they were trying to work that into the script. I go in there and say, "I play the saxophone" and there was this palpable disappointment. They were like, "That's terrible. We're never gonna use that. Go home."

At what point did you decide to pursue music, not just acting?

I've always been performing music and writing songs and recording songs, but on a very small-scale operation. It wasn't until I became involved with Nashville that I thought I had opportunities to record my music in a way that I would want to put it out into the world.

Who are some of your influences?

Songwriting influences, I would say Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee. I've always been a fan of Buddy Guy as a guitarist, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan and those blues guys. I'd say those are pretty big influences on me. Vocally, I don't know. I dont consider myself a good enough singer to put myself into camp with anyone. I'm a fan of Otis Redding, I've sat around trying to copy some of his phrasing and learn from him but it kinda falls short. The good news is, you can fall way short of those guys and still make music.

Is the single "Being Alone" a good representation of the EP as a whole?

I think it's a nice representation. There's gonna be a lot of different sounds on it, as well. The song that I think most exemplifies my influences is "Pieces of You," which is going to be the title track, and it is not yet ready to be released. That's a song that I'm very proud of the lyrical content and melody, but also there's a lot of jazz chords thrown in, a great groove, great beat. It has a naked feel at the beginning and it grows into a large-sounding, almost rock anthem at the end of the song. I really do feel like that song encapsulates my musical influences and ambitions.

I know that you wrote "Being Alone," but did you write the whole album by yourself?

Yeah, I did. Interestingly enough, I wrote a lot more when I was in Los Angeles than since I've come to Nashville. I think it's a function of being so busy since I've been in Nashville. A lot of time in Los Angeles was spent in reflection, to define myself, to myself to discover my own identity and who I am as a man, and I wrote songs along the way.

How important was it to you to come out with your own music, rather than singing other people's songs?

I read an interview that Lil Wayne gave, where he was talking about how he wanted to start rapping all improv, nothing written down, but he had tons of back catalogue of things he wrote for himself. So what he did was record this 50-minute rap or something, a very long rap, that got all that material out and he said he finally felt free to move forward. I kinda feel like these songs would have haunted me and possibly held me back if I didn't ever record them and release them. I think they are definitely the most personal thing I've ever written and they just needed to be recorded.

This EP is being released independently, why did you want to go that route?

That just seemed to be the right thing to do. The Will Lexington thing that I do on the show is a very packagable identity and I think if I was to try to move forward with a Nashville label, I think I might be encouraged to create music more along the lines of a packagable identity. I wanted to create music that spoke from my heart, about my heart, about my life, and record it the way I wanted to with musicians I wanted. For example, a lot of the songs on the EP are going to be longer than a radio-friendly format and I didn't want to make compromises in recording these songs.

You just got off the Nashville tour. I'm curious if you feel like you could ever collaborate with your co-stars, in the musical sense, on something non-Nashville related?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, me and Sam have sat down to write songs together. Me and Chip [Esten] have talked about it, me and Clare. Sam and I are often on the same working schedule, which means we also have the same time off, and we've actually sat down and embarked on it and had a blast with it. That creativity is flowing through all the cast members and it's fun to get together.

Will we ever hear your collaboration with Sam?

Maybe. I think certainly the tendency I have had and Sam too is to get together with co-writers and write parts of songs, which is one of the reasons why I have opted for songs that I've written mostly by myself. I've found it really hard to finish writing songs when you're writing on not just your schedule, but somebody else's.


Let's talk about the finale. How did you feel about Will finally coming out?

I felt great about it. Probably about three episodes towards the finale, I finally realized, "OK, alright, fine. He's not going do this episode, but it's gotta be the finale!" It was all pointing in that direction. I felt great about it. I'm happy for Will, it's the first step in his journey of personal fulfillment and I think he's going to be able to live a much richer life now that he's out and accepting of himself, and has the courage to face whatever's gonna come his way.

You've said that the fans have been pushing for this for a long time, how long have you been waiting for that moment?

I'm kinda with the fans. I've been wanting Will to come out, but at the same time, what we want from him and what we hope for him is not necessarily what's best for him. It's one thing to, as a third party, say, "You should just come out! You'd be happier!" but it's Will's life and if he's not ready to come out publicly, it could be devastating to him to be out publicly. He needs to do it on his own terms and in his own time frame, which might be frustrating and longer than the audience wants it to be. But I think in the season finale, we saw Will come out on his own terms and recognize for himself that he was ready to do it and that's where he needed to be. So while I'm kinda with the fans on, "Do it already!" I think it needed to happen in the time frame that it did.

After that episode, I would say that Nashville the show is arguably more progressive than country music in the real world. We still don't have a major, mainstream country artist -- on the same level of fame as Will -- that is openly gay. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn't surprise me. I've been playing the character who is deathly afraid to come out, so it doesn't surprise me one bit! I was at a GRAMMY party the other day and I ran into Ty Herndon, who I hadn't met, and he hollered at me and I came away and he said, "Thank you for the support on social media" and I said, "Thank you for being brave." He invited me to participate in a GLAAD event -- we haven't chatted about schedule and I don't know if I'll be able to, but here we were in Nashville, talking about being an openly gay country singer, and it felt comfortable and OK. So maybe progress is happening.

I know the show strives to create a solid balance between being an accurate representation of the music industry and a soapy drama. With regard to Will's storyline, what sort of feedback have you gotten from people in the business?

None, really. But people in the business are scared to commit to opinions one way or another anyway, so it's like, everybody just turns around looking for what somebody else says and then says, "Oh yeah, absolutely!" Nobody's gonna have the cojones to say anything to me. This is an important story to me and it does feel important in that it starts conversations that may not have otherwise happened. It might give those who are in the silent majority permission to say 'We're OK with this,' as opposed to the louder minority who might not be OK with it. This is all speculation, by the way.

I was a diehard fan of The O.C., so I'm hoping you'll humor me for a minute. Looking back on The O.C. today, what does it mean to you to have been a part of that cultural phenomenon?

To be honest, it all happened very fast. The effects have lasted much longer than the actual job. I only filmed The O.C. for a total of nine or 10 months, then I was done. But it was the beginning of my professional acting career and it's been a double edged sword. I've got people who say, "You'll always be Luke to me" and I go, "Well, I've done three times as many episodes of Nashville as I ever did of The O.C., and I feel more proud of the work I'm doing" -- it's more mature work and deeper material than Luke ever got to sink his teeth into, but still people say that. On one level, it's flattering and I'm happy that I was a part of such a flashy, splashy program that got such great response and a following, but at the same time, it can be frustrating that even fans sometimes can't put that behind them and see the new character with fresh eyes.

Does it still surprise you that fans are so invested in that show?

It is shocking. Sometimes I remind somebody, "You know, that was 12 years ago" and often times people go, "No way!" It was 12 years ago, but I have to say, I have been hearing it consistently over the 12 years, so I guess it doesn't surprise me.

Do people also constantly ask you about doing a reunion?

Right around the 10-year mark I was hearing a lot about that. I don't know necessarily what that would comprise of. What would an O.C. reunion be? We didn't go to school together, we worked together for less than a year. I'd love to have a cocktail with those guys and chat about what we've missed in each other's lives, but I don't know if it'd be worth televising.

Do you keep in touch with any of the cast?

I don't. I was very young, 23, and I didn't really understand Hollywood or the business or how it worked. I honestly thought I was gonna see these people again everywhere. I just always thought I was gonna run into them. That's not how it works. I came off the show, and I really never saw any of them again. I've run into Ben McKenzie a couple of times in L.A.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about before I let you go?

I do like to share a fun little fact that the electric guitar on my album is the same one I played on the Nashville cast tour. And the one I'm taking on my solo gigs this weekend is a guitar that I made myself. I like to share that 'cause I'm proud of it.

What can we expect from your solo shows?

Right now I'm kinda doing a mix of songs from the show, my favorite Will Lexington songs because I think in terms of drawing an audience, a lot of them are familiar with my character. Also some songs off the EP, I'll be performing those songs live, plus a few rockin' covers here and there. I try to give a good show and have some fun with it. It's all about having a good time. If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.

Follow Sophie on Twitter & Instagram.