Josh Kelley — A Day in the Life
"It's like a drug. I cannot stop!" says a beaming Josh Kelley on a brisk spring day in New York City. His vice: writing country music, a talent that has come full circle for the platinum-selling musician.
"This whole journey started with a song I wrote about two-and-a-half years ago called 'Gone Like That.' I was actually trying to get a Keith Urban cut," Josh told VEVO staff during a performance at their midtown Manhattan offices.
"I was going to Nashville and just writing all the time," he continued. "I've been writing country songs since I was a kid, but I was trying to get it cut. I wanted a big cut. I promised my wife [actress Katherine Heigl] I'd buy a beach house ... I gotta make some cash here!"
After Josh wrote the song and recorded the demo, he sent it to his publisher who refused to pitch it around, instead encouraging the singer/songwriter to give country another try and record the song for himself.
"They decided to take the ball and run with it, and we put together a budget for a little five-song EP," Josh explained. "Next thing you know, I've got a record deal and next thing you know I have a full album. And now I'm sitting here having the coolest pizza party ever!"
Two years later, on the day of his debut country release, Josh has invited The Boot's camera crew along for the ride to several press events and performances in the Big Apple. Throughout the day, the Georgia native fills us in on his songwriting process, his early years writing and performing with his younger brother, Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley, and some defining moments in his career and personal life.
Our first stop of the day is Music Choice, where Josh shows off his multi-instrumental skills. Playing the drum kit set up in the reception area, Josh keeps the beat to Usher's 'DJ Got Us Falling in Love Again,' which is blasting from the speakers. Clad in blue jeans and a black leather jacket, he looks at ease behind the drum kit.
"This is brilliant they have this here. Does this make people mad, you think?" he asks us.
After the song ends, Josh takes to his phone to update his Twitter page before a four-song performance for the Music Choice staff. "I hate saying that word: 'tweet.' It's such a stupid word," he laments while typing away on his iPhone.
Shortly after 11:30 AM, Josh arrives in the Music Choice conference room and immediately straps on his guitar. "Can we start rockin' some songs?" he asks the staff before introducing that song that started it all, 'Gone Like That.'
"Something happens when you turn 30. It's like a seasoning," he says of the inspiration behind the song. "'Gone Like That' is about that moment where you've decided that you are over this person who has left you. For some weird reason it's like clockwork: the moment you've decided you're over somebody they call or text or show up where you are."
The energetic 'Rainin' Whiskey' is next, inspired by Josh and his mother-in-law's favorite drink. "We decided one day years ago that we never want to have to pay for whiskey ever again, and we were trying to figure out how to do that. Should I start a distillery, or should I write a song about whiskey and maybe one day I'll get a sponsorship or something like that?"
He obviously opted with the latter.
"So, if you ever see my bus and it says 'Josh Kelley Makers Mark Whiskey Tour' on the side of it, you'll be like, 'That kid, he made it!'"
As Josh begins to strum the first note on his acoustic guitar, he tells the staff that he wishes he had an electric guitar with him. "Just imagine a really killer solo right there," he interjects in the middle of his performance.
While deciding which two songs to end his visit with, the proud father concludes, "I want to do the song about my kid. I've got a little girl, Naleigh. She's the coolest, raddest thing ever. Me and my wife adopted her from South Korea about a year-and-a-half ago and she's turned into this crazy daddy's girl.
"I wake her up in the morning, because I'm on morning duty. I take her to my studio and give her a bunch of shakers and tambourines and toy pianos, and while I'm recording vocals she's hanging out there. It's at the point where I'll play a chord on my guitar and she'll sing within that note. It's freaking me out! She understands music."
After he plays the beautiful ballad dedicated to his little girl, 'Naleigh Moon,' Josh closes the 20-minute set with the infectious title track to his album, 'Georgia Clay.'
"This is written about my dad's old truck that was me and my little brother's rite of passage into manhood," he says. "I wrote the song as if the truck could talk, if it was like Herbie and could tell you what it had seen. All the nonsense that we got into."
After reminiscing about his dad's white 1977 Chevy Silverado, which brother Charles totaled when he went off to college, it's time to head to the next stop of the day: VEVO.
On the car ride to the office, Josh fills The Boot in on defining moments throughout his career and personal life. He tells us that his interest in music dates back to childhood. He specifically recalls when his brother-in-law at the time gave him two Stevie Ray Vaughan video tapes, 'Combo' and 'Live at Austin City Limits.'
"It was something I watched every day for a year, because I could jam to it and I really liked the way it sounded," he says. "I can't say that it looked achievable, it just looked like fun. I was getting better every day at piano and guitar, and that got me all jacked up about learning more and next thing you know, Charles and I are writing songs and my mom got us a drum kit and we just jammed every day. That's the big thing, just jamming all the time. That's what makes you better; it's like being in the field."
Josh and Charles continued to write together and recorded a five-song EP as teens with their band, Inside Blue. Encouraged by their talent, their engineer sent the recording to James Brown's manager and "they were freaking out over the stuff," Josh recalls.
"I remember they wanted to sign us to Atlantic Records and my dad said, 'No way, you guys are too young. You have to live first before you get out and do all that stuff.' At first I was angry. Now, in hindsight, I realize that he was totally right and there's no telling where I'd be today if we had taken that deal. I definitely wouldn't be sitting here right now that's for sure. Who knows?"
Though Josh has had a successful career on the pop charts, he says his heart has always been in country.
"Over the years, I kept gravitating back to country music because it's such a pure form of writing. You're allowed to write these three-and-a-half-minute little movies that capture a moment. It's like a drug. I cannot stop. I love writing. It's all about the story. That's what I think is the heart of country music anyway."
A huge part of Josh's story is his family. Married to actress Katherine Heigl, and father to two-and-a-half-year-old Naleigh, Josh says his family has greatly influenced his songwriting.
"Meeting my future wife, I wrote a lot of songs about her and when we adopted Naleigh, she was 9 months old and she became an instant source of inspiration. Also, I just love her to death. I could chew on her little arms.
"I'm always being inspired. I write probably every other day, maybe every day. I'm writing songs that I relate to. Especially in country music; the fans are really smart. They can tell that you don't relate to the song [and] they're not going to want to relate anyway. So, I write a lot about what I know instead of writing about things that I think might happen one day. I usually write about what's going on in my life. My starting point is always the music and the melody first and then the lyrics. Even though the lyrics are the most important, they always come last because the music draws people in first."
Extremely personal in his songwriting, Josh says he always tests out material on his wife.
"[She] ends up being sick of every song, because I do thousands of remixes. The evolution of a song is a weird thing because you write it and demo it up, and you're changing the demo and the next thing you know it's a year later and you're actually cutting it. So, a song has a really long shelf-life before it's even out. She hears everything. She's my little file cabinet, and she lets me know whether she likes it or not. She doesn't hold back."
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One song he wrote over a decade ago that means a great deal to him now as a married man is 'Home to Me,' a track on his first record.
"I love that song, and now that I actually have a wife and a kid, it means even more because you're relating these people to home. They're home to you. Wherever you are is where I want to be and wherever you are, that place is home. That's one that takes on a new meaning 11 years later."
As far as making his relationship work, Josh says a little bit of distance makes the heart grow fonder.
"If I was home all the time, I would probably be the most annoying husband. She comes out on the road with me. She brings Naleigh. We get a little pack-'n-play on the back of the bus, and everybody hangs out like a big family," he says. "And whenever she does movies, she does it on location and that's where our home base is. Wherever she is, is where the home base is. That's how you make it work. I go home every time I get a chance, and that keeps a little spice in the relationship. It makes it so the love doesn't get too rusty."
Josh wrote or co-wrote every track on his album, and although he's written by himself in the past, he says he enjoys co-writing the most.
"I used to write by myself a lot when I was in college and a little bit when I first moved out to Los Angeles, but I like co-writing a lot better than writing by myself because you have somebody to celebrate with. That's kind of the big thing because you can't pat yourself on the back and go, 'Let's have a beer, Josh' when you write a song by yourself. It works out better with your bros or your hoes."
Shortly after noon, Josh arrives at VEVO, and as we navigate to the check-in area he sings to himself before he turns around to inform us, "I have a sunburn on my back right now that would make you guys cringe." Always the southern gentleman, he holds the door for everyone in his entourage and makes small talk with all who enter the elevator.
"I feel like we're shooting a reality show about elevators," he jokes of all the time he's spent in elevators throughout the day.
Upon arrival at VEVO, Josh learns more about the segment he'll be taping, "Ask:Reply," where he'll be answering fan questions for Vevo.com. After he records his answers, he's informed the staff will be holding a pizza party where he'll perform some of the new tracks off his record.
Clearly excited to finally have some New York pizza, Josh enthusiastically chats with the staff on his way to the party location. "No one says no to pizza," he insists. "Pizza is a universal yes."
"Who's gonna destroy some pizza? I'm gonna hide this juicy piece over here so no one can eat it," he says to his publicist.
"Why don't you just eat it now?" she asks, to which he responds, "You don't want to eat too much before you sing."
With the pizza set up on a pool table at the VEVO offices, Josh fills us in on his dream to build his own pool room in his house.
"This guitar case is almost filled with stickers. When it gets covered up, I get a new case. One day, when I have enough money to have my own pool room, I'm going to put all the guitar cases with stickers on the walls to show all the different radio stations and places I've been. But I keep forgetting that one side is going to be facing the wall, so if I kept stickers off that side, I'd probably finish the case a lot sooner."
As the staff joins his pizza party, Josh informs them that it took him two years to make 'Georgia Clay.'
"The day of reckoning is making me really nervous," he says before playing a 20-minute set.
Josh's VEVO performance ends with photos with staffers and has him proclaiming it was the "best pizza party ever!" as his album can be heard in the background.
With some downtime before his last press event of the day, Josh makes a Starbucks run -– a tall iced vanilla soy latte –- and finds out he'll be doing a guest DJ set at Sirius, joking with his publicists that he's going to "give it a real good try," alluding to the title of his favorite song on his album, 'A Real Good Try.'
While waiting at the studio to tape his segment for the Sirius/XM station, the Highway, Josh debuts a new track he just wrote, 'The Best of Me.' With beautiful lyrics and his deep vocals, the song is sure to strike a chord with fans.
"Isn't that a cool one? That's gonna be on the next one. I'm saving that one," he says proudly.
As he prepares a list of songs for his guest DJ set, Josh finds out his album is No. 1 on the iTunes country chart.
"No way! That's awesome. We're No. 1 on iTunes right now, ladies and gentlemen. Best day ever. Can't believe it. Am I getting good reviews? No, don't look at them Josh. We've got five stars there right now. Thank you world, I really owe you one."
Still soaking in his chart-topping glory, Josh says he's anxious for the future.
"This is really exciting right now. One of my New Year's resolutions was to start living in the moment and stop sweating the small stuff, so that's what we're doing right now. We're living in the moment in New York."