Josh Kelley Comes Back Home to Country
Wearing jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with one word, "SOUTHERN," Josh Kelley walks into Nashville's Fido coffee shop feeling right at home. The Augusta, Ga. native known for his soulful fuse of pop and rock was a Music City resident for several years before moving to Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife, actress Katherine Heigl, and the baby girl they adopted from Korea.
The Boot met up with Josh for breakfast during what was one of his many recent trips to Nashville to work on a permanent move here ... a career move, that is. The singer has inked a deal with Universal Music Group to make a country record, due likely in March 2010. And Josh isn't just jumping on the country bandwagon -- he grew up on the genre and has been writing country songs for years.
Besides, Josh can also take a lot of credit for one of the most successful new acts in country music today, Lady Antebellum, whose earliest beginnings were formed, "rent free," in his home. We shared a few laughs with the charismatic southern singer about the good ole days, when little brother Charles Kelley and his Lady A co-founder, Dave Haywood, turned their digs into "Josh Kelley's Nashville frat house." Josh also gives The Boot a sneak preview of his new project and tells us how being a dad has given him a whole lot more to sing about.
What made you decide to cross over to country?
The one song that made all this happen was a song called 'Gone Like That.' I wrote it with Clint Lagerberg, who is producing this album. When I sent the song in to one of my publishers, everybody started asking me who was singing it. I was like, "Dude, it's me! I'm from the south; I know country music!" And they called me back saying I should keep that song and that I should make a country album. So once I felt like people were getting behind me and I had the opportunity to do it, we took the reins and started writing everyday. The next thing we know, here I am with a [record] deal. It's exciting ... And this isn't a flash in the pan thing. Country music is what I'm doing for the rest of my life ... 'til I'm 89! [laughs] At 90, maybe I'll try urban or hip-hop.
Will there be any collaborations with your brother -- or any other country singers -- on the album?
My little brother is quite a powerhouse. We wrote two of the songs on the album, and they're two of the strongest. I also wrote with Kyle Jacobs, Rachel Thibodeau, Rob Hatch, Paul Jenkins -- we wrote 'It's Raining Whiskey' together, because we felt like we needed a party song. It's probably my favorite summer song ever. But the catalyst of this whole thing was 'Gone Like That.'
My producer and I are talking about the band we want to put together and the kind of mindset we want to have. I'm just ready to work. I love radio. I love conference rooms -- they call me the 'Conference Room Ninja.' I love touring. And now I've got this little baby I've got to put through college, so I need some hits! [laughs] Let's go!
Speaking of your precious daughter, will there be any songs about her on the album?
Yes, 'Naleigh Moon.' My little girl's name is Naleigh -- for Nancy, my mother-in-law, and Leigh, my sister-in-law, who was also adopted from Korea. I don't think I could've ever written a song like that without having a kid. You know how people write songs about things that they don't really experience, but they're so good at writing that they can do that? That's not me. I have to experience it to write about it. And when my little girl started touching my beard and wanting me to hold her instead of other people, I was like, "Aw, she's mine! And she loves me!"
Tell me about the first time your wife heard that song. Was it an emotional moment?
Katie loves the song, but it takes a lot to jerk her tears ... Actually, Miranda Lambert's song, 'The House That Built Me' -- we cried together the other day singing that song. [Mocking his wife crying] "My dog was buried in the backyard, too!" Charles and I really relate to that song, too. It's just our life, identical.
Do you sing to Naleigh?
We all sing to Naleigh! She's going to be a singer. She wakes up singing, instead of crying, which is awesome. [laughs] She's a good baby. She's spoiling us.
Some artists have a hard time earning industry respect when they cross over to country from another genre. Is that something that you worry about?
I don't know what the secret is, but people can tell when that's a focused goal of yours. You can tell when somebody just wants to be a celebrity. I just like to write songs. I record every day, and I don't really give a s--- about all the other stuff. I just like making music, and I just want people to come out to the shows!
How are your fans reacting to the news that you've gone country?
I think they're excited. This album is a journey -- it has popular songs for radio, but it also has a concept to it. I don't want to give it away ... I want to wait until you hear it. When we were writing this album, we felt like we had everything we needed, and then we were looking through all the titles and realized we didn't have a party song. We needed to make you cry, laugh, drink, dance, all on the same record.
Lyrically, a lot of your past hits could be country songs. So is it safe to assume your writing style hasn't changed much with this new album?
Yeah, definitely. The lyrics and the songwriting process are all the same. The only thing that really changed was the production, but not too much. I have some songs that are a crazy mix of different styles, but that's because I didn't have anybody telling me I couldn't do it. And I could put a hip-hop album out, but I grew up on a farm! We grew up listening to country music our entire lives. My first concert was Randy Travis. My mom took me and Charles when we were kids. And then my dad took me the following week to see Vince Gill. And then we saw the Judds. My first five concerts were country.
With your career and your wife's, you're immersed in the Hollywood celebrity scene, which is probably old hat by now. But but does anyone in Nashville make you starstruck?
More people in Nashville make me starstruck than in L.A. I get to meet George Strait soon, and that's exciting. And I really want to meet Willie Nelson. I think we'd be best friends! And Dolly Parton -- she is just so great. But she doesn't live here anymore. She lives in Dollywood, right? [laughs]
I heard it was Dolly's live show that really moved you to change the way you perform.
Yes! Songs that are not singles -- you still want your audience to relate to them, even if they don't know them. And Dolly did a great thing with her new songs -- she'd tell a story first that would make the audience relate to the song. And then you couldn't wait to hear it! I just thought that was genius. Just throw in a little tidbit that makes the audience feel comfortable and feel like we're going to go on a journey, instead of we're going to have a couple of awkward moments.
Lady Antebellum fans might not realize that they actually have you to thank, as you were the one who really pushed your brother to pursue a career in music.
Charles was working in Winston Salem, N.C., selling dumpsters for a waste management company. I called him up and told him I was going to buy a house in Nashville and said I wanted him to come live there. So he quit his job and the next thing you know, he's writing songs and hooks up with my old buddy Dave Haywood from a jazz band we had in high school. And Charles asked me, "Can Dave live here, too?" And I said, "Of course, man. The more, the merrier." So Dave came and lived with Charles in my house ... for free! [laughs] And they had my studio, which was in my house upstairs, to record all the demos on. Every time I would come home, they'd say, "We have a new one. Can you record this for us?" And Dave finally learned how to produce by sitting in on my Pro Tools sessions and stealing my techniques. [laughs] Then Hillary [Scott] got in on the mix, and the next thing you know it's the Josh Kelley Nashville frat house! Sometimes I'd show up from touring and 90 musicians would be there, some of them wearing my pajamas and some of them eating my food and drinking my booze. [laughs] We had an amazing time. And now, when I come to Nashville, I get to stay in Charles' house for free and drink all his vodka. I've been stealing his clothes, too. So I feel like we're almost even.