Jake Owen Keeps His Cool on Sophomore CD
On the strength of his debut album, 'Startin' with Me,' and his collaboration on 'Life in a Northern Town,' with tour mates Sugarland and Little Big Town, country newcomer Jake Owen notched Grammy and ACM award nominations this year. With his sophomore effort 'Easy Does It' arriving in stores Tuesday, the Florida native hopes to continue building on those successes. The Boot sat down with Owen at his Nashville home, where he opened up about everything from his songwriting habits to his lifelong habit of, like the song says, "putting peanuts in my Coke."
It's worth pointing out (for obvious reasons) that as we arrived, the first thing we noticed on the front porch outside Owen's home was a giant cowboy boot. We felt welcomed right away! Once inside the warm, comfortable space -- which is decorated with family photos, yet still exudes a cool, bachelor-pad vibe -- we're introduced to Owen's roommate, a three-month old English bulldog named Vern, who barely stirred during the entire visit.
Is it safe to assume Vern is named after a particular classic country artist?
Check this out. [Picks up framed autographed photo of singer Vern Gosdin] This is the one picture in my house that's not someone in my family. I've been a huge Vern Gosdin fan my whole life. He's not as respected as he should be. To me, he's one of the greatest singers I've ever heard interpret a song. He's just got this coolness about him. He's behind the scenes, and that's how Vern [the dog] is. The lines in his face tell stories. So yeah, he gets his name from ol' Uncle Vern.
Both Verns are pretty laid-back, and the title of the new album seems to suggest that you're pretty mellow, as well.
Nothing comes easy to anybody without working hard, but I would say that my demeanor is pretty easy-going. I'm not really in a hurry. The last three or four years of my life have been consumed with making music, playing music, making friendships and supporters. I think the record title ... it's kind of the way my life has been the last few years, and how I display who I am to people.
What's your process for writing songs? The same laid-back attitude?
It's really nonchalant. I don't really write for records. I just write for pure enjoyment, or for release of certain thoughts or feelings. There are a few songs on this record that were written before the first record was even made. Quite a few of the songs were written on days off, or written in the back of the bus, or just in a very casual way. I didn't say, 'I've got a record that's going to come out on this day, I've got to write for it.' A lot of people do ... I just have never been that way.
'Eight Second Ride' seems to suggest the opposite of that casual approach. And it's one of those that's been around a while, as you also had it on your first record. Why did you decide to include it on this one?
I wrote that song when I was in college. I wanted to write a song I could throw in a set list that was rockin' enough to where people wouldn't be mad if I wasn't playing a cover. It always went over so well. One of the main reasons it wasn't released [as a single from the first album], is because it doesn't really define who I am as a person as much is it just allows people to have a really rocking good time. It's the one song on this record that doesn't necessarily fit the mix, but it fills the void of a song where people really want to turn it up loud and sing along. And that's a good feeling to do that for somebody.
What's the biggest difference between making this record and making your first?
The biggest difference is I had a lot of time to play these songs on the road for a wide audience, whereas with the first record I didn't. I was just writing in Nashville for a record deal, so I was writing a lot of songs that weren't ever played on the road. This record, I would write a song, work it up with my band, play it the same night and get a huge response from it. That was really a great way for me to gauge which songs I should record or shouldn't.
'Green Bananas' is a memorable song from the new album. How'd you get the idea for that one?
It wasn't necessarily an idea as much as a lesson I learned as a young kid from a guy who used to take my brother and I fishing all the time. He had a boat that was called Green Bananas. He had a buddy of his that had passed away from cancer at an early age. His buddy said to him in the hospital, 'Man, this is a perfect example of why you should never buy green bananas, because you never know what tomorrow's going to bring.' From the time he told us that story, when I was 12 years old until now, I never forgot that. Every time I walk into a grocery store and see a bunch of green bananas, it always makes me think of Bill Curley and the lesson he taught me. It doesn't matter who you are, everybody has had somebody in their life that they've lost, and they've had to deal with it.
You've had some similar reaction with 'Ghosts' from the first record – a song that deals with alcoholism.
This guy came up to me crying with his little daughter and told me how much the song meant to him. And he gave me this coin with "III" on it. I still have it. He said, 'I want you to have this because this is my three year anniversary of being sober, and [taps chest] that song hits me right here.' He said, 'I almost lost my daughter because of a habit I had. And thanks to songs like yours, it keeps me realizing how lucky I am that I got my life on track.' I said, 'Man, I don't want to take your coin that you worked three years to carry around in your pocket to remind you of how hard you worked.' And it was the coolest thing I've ever heard anyone say -- he said, 'That's all right, I'm going to be getting my four-year one here pretty soon.'
You have a twin brother. Does he get mistaken for you a lot?
Oh yeah, and he loves it! It's weird to have a twin, with me doing what I'm doing, and with all of his friends asking him about me. He could get tired of it, but he doesn't. Never once has he been like that. He's so proud to tell them all about me.
What about you? Do you ever get mistaken for someone else?
I do, and it's always the same few people they say I look like, which I don't think I look like at all. I get Matthew McConaughey sometimes. And I used to get Tom Cruise a lot, because I have a bigger nose and dark hair. When I was in college, I had my dark sunglasses on, and I went into a gas station right by my house. [The cashier] was on her phone behind the register. She was talking to her girlfriend and she goes, 'Man, you look like Tom Cruise! You sure do!'
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I'm addicted to Coca-Cola. I'm not supposed to drink them, because I'm o
n a pretty hard-core diet. But it's a staple in my life. I grew up drinking Cokes with my dad, and putting peanuts in them. That's what I always loved about hearing Barbara Mandrell sing, 'I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool.' I'll never forget -- I was on my way to Perry, Ga. from Vero Beach, Fla. with my dad. I was about 12 or 13 years old. My dad had his duly truck and he pulled this gooseneck trailer behind with his horses. We pulled off at a gas station, and at the time they had the little glass bottles of Coke. My dad got two of them, and two packs of peanuts. The cool thing about those long packages of peanuts is that you can tear a little hole in the top and you can fit it over a Coke, and it'll perfectly put the peanuts down in the Coke. And when the peanuts go down in the Coke, because of the salt in the peanuts, the Coke kind of fizzes around it. And when you drink that ice cold Coke and eat some peanuts with it [look of ecstasy]. I still do it!
Have you always had a low speaking and singing voice?
Always. I used to be embarrassed by it when I was a kid, because all my friends would make fun of me. I was always the kid in class who had the really low, low voice. My friends sounded like kids. When I first started singing people would listen to my music and they would say, 'That doesn't even sound like you. That sounds like an older man.' But I think it has a lot to do with listening to people like Vern Gosdin growing up, and Merle Haggard and people that just have an amazing timbre to their voice that adds so much character to a song. But it could be the peanuts in the Coke [laughs].
Whose music do you have on your iPod these days?
I've got everything from Chet Baker to Steve Earle to Jay-Z. And Styx's 'Mr. Roboto.' I was listening to that last night.
Do you have an all-time favorite film?
I like funny movies. I like 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Kingpin.' But I also like movies like 'Gangs of New York,' 'Tombstone' and 'Snatch.'
What are your career goals for the future?
I've already accomplished what I set out to do. And that's to play music and travel around the country on a bus with friends, and to meet people and greet people I saw at shows previously that have come back. I just aspire to keep doing what I'm doing. I don't take myself too seriously. I have goals to reach another level. I want to headline my own shows. I want to play big arenas and have my own name on the ticket. But I don't think you can plan all that in a day. You've got to build it. And you can't build a big house without a solid foundation.