You probably know Chris Carmack’s face. Maybe he’s the puffed-up jock boyfriend from that show that you obsessed over when you were in middle school or a character on one of your more recent favorites.
“I get a lot of, Hey, can I get a picture with you? And then, as they’re walking away, I loved you on Sex & The City!” Carmack jokes. We’re holed up in a cocktail bar in Nashville talking about his new EP, and if there was any doubt that the actual person behind that face is separate from the characters it embodies on TV, it’s completely dissolved amidst chatter about jazz and country and song arrangements and, hey, maybe a couple of rounds of whiskey. But the recognition of Carmack as the character you got to know on television is a hard thing to shed. “If you’re a musician and someone recognizes, people are probably familiar with what you most care about: your music. As an actor, they recognize you because your face was on TV.”
Most recently, viewers will recognize Carmack as Will Lexington, the closeted gay country singer on ABC’s Nashville, and he’s certainly not trying to shed that role just yet. The role, which involves a heavy amount of on-screen musical performances and tackles issues faced by a marginalized demographic in the country scope, is one Carmack was particularly keen on from the beginning.
“I remember it said, ‘Jason Aldean-type country singer,’” says Carmack with a laugh of the audition. “And I remember, for what they wanted to hear at the audition, it said in bold: ‘No ballads.’”
Bro country and big green tractors weren’t the aspects of the part that stuck out to Carmack, but rather it was the non-negotiable requirement that hopefuls for the role would have to sing and play the guitar. He was notably excited about the role—the 34-year-old actor has been playing guitar and singing since he was a teen, and he knew that the casting director wouldn’t be able to deny that he was the guy for it.
“I guess the idea behind it was that they wanted a guy that could rock out and fill stadiums—somebody with a big stage presence,” he says. “I was like, you know what? They’re not going to be able to argue the fact that I can play guitar and I can sing and I can play this role. I can inhabit this character.”
He was right: Within 24 hours of the audition, he was working on the soundtrack with T Bone Burnett. But what he brings to Will Lexington’s role has seeped beyond the music.
“Something I heard very much in my 20s was, ‘Take advantage of everything while you have your freedom.’ ‘Enjoy it while you have your freedom,’” Carmack says. “‘You’re not married. You don’t have kids. You can just pick up and leave, and do whatever you want, willy-nilly, the whole time.’ And that’s true—you do have freedom in that. But also, over the years, I discovered there’s a lot of loneliness in that.”
Carmack’s first big role was on break-out teen drama The O.C. as Luke Ward, the overbearing boyfriend of Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton). He wasn’t exactly playing a sensitive singer/songwriter type, but off-screen he was beginning to play solo acoustic shows in Los Angeles and even jammed a bit with The O.C. cast and crew on set. (The band called themselves Jimmy’s Apartment after the spot on set they’d camp out and play—cue swoon from The O.C. nerds out there.) But achieving that kind of visibility, especially in such an easily typecast role, was a struggle for Carmack, who says he ‘tried on identities like sweaters’ and was constantly looking to fill the void and figure out who he was. He spent much of his 20s equating success in the entertainment industry with long-term contentment.
“Your journey to happiness is your responsibility—it’s not going to come with any one achievement,” says Carmack. “That is what I saw as the journey of Will Lexington. The sacrifices he was making were in service of this greater happiness that [he thought] was going to come when he had his success. As Chris Carmack, [I’m playing this role] knowing full well that when he has his success, it’s not going to make him happy.”
That sentiment comes through most clearly on the EP’s opening number, “Being Alone,” but the record has a number of songs that border on confessional. Pieces of You is notably free of any co-writes: Carmack says that he’s most comfortable writing and singing things that are true to his experiences. But it’s evident when he speaks about his music that it isn’t all about him or his lyrics or his feelings—he’s less likely to dwell on the turns of phrase than he is the scales and bridges and progression between chorus and verse. Much like acting—which he approaches with a degree from NYU—Carmack’s foray into music is as rooted in study as it is his natural affinity for the medium.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with the academics of jazz and music theory. I really genuinely enjoy it. I enjoy the mathematics and the science behind it all,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been taking jazz guitar lessons and gypsy jazz stuff—stuff that I’ll never get to use, but is fun to know and to enjoy.”
Pieces of You is far from a country release, but Carmack admits that recording in the city did have its effect on his influences and sound. It’s not uncommon to catch Carmack checking out shows around Nashville when he’s not on set. He says he values the ‘shithole’ factor in a good venue, and sees a particular care taken in music programming in the city that wasn’t present in Los Angeles. If there’s any kind of country music that has infiltrated Carmack’s repertoire, it’s the revival of outlaw and alt-country; he’s full of praise for the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and says that keeping his ear to the ground for new talent has given him a heightened respect for the genre and the city that breeds it.
“My exposure to country was sort of [limited to] anything that was ‘crossover country,’” says Carmack of his tastes before moving down South for the show. “So when I came to Nashville and all of a sudden I was hearing legit country music, it blew my mind. This is good stuff! You sit there and you think, why is country music keeping this a secret?”
Nashville, or at least Nashville, left its most tangible impact on Carmack’s music simply by instilling the confidence to release it at all. He’s wary of the actor-turned-musician stereotype, but the reception of the show’s cast and soundtrack sparked an interest in recording himself. Adamant that things needed to happen organically, a team of friends and friends of friends slowly assembled around what would become Carmack’s debut EP, diving into a recording session at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios and cutting the five songs in five hours. The idea that his on-screen success could affect his efforts in the studio isn’t something that weighs much on Carmack.
“In some ways, I think the things that may have held an actor back about playing a role are no longer that much of a hurtle,” he says, citing social media as a helpful tool to distinguish himself from his on-screen persona. It doesn’t seem like the idea of separating Chris Carmack: Musician from Chris Carmack: Actor really means much to him—the release of Pieces of You is less about pursuing fame in a different arena than it is diving into a lifelong interest and feeling empowered to fully pursue the priorities that have always been present.
“It was just always something I naturally did for fun…But privately I always wrote more sad songs, and I always wondered who would sing them,” he says with a laugh. “So I learned how to sing and how to play guitar a lot better so I could do it.”