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Josh Kelley – Life in the Pop Game

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

Josh Kelley

Josh Kelley

Life in the Pop Game

by Jay S. Jacobs

Back in its heyday, lots of musicians had a problem with the peer-to-peer file sharing program Napster. Josh Kelley was not one of them, though – it was through the site that he was discovered. Through Napster, Kelley was able to get his music to an A&R rep, leading to his signing with Hollywood Records.

His debut album, For the Ride Home, was released in 2004 and featured this hit single “Amazing.” The guitar-based pop album received good sales and nice buzz but was too often compared to the work of John Mayer.

Kelley’s second album, Almost Honest, came out in the summer of 2005. Not only did the “Only You” single get some serious airplay and show another side of Kelley’s music, it also brought him love. Actress Katherine Heigl of the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy was hired to appear in the video for the song. The two hit it off and are now engaged.

Even though the second album sold fairly well and “Only You” became a hit, it occurred to Kelley that he and the label had different priorities. Therefore, he negotiated his way out of his contract and is releasing Just Say the Word, his third CD and arguably best, on his own Threshold Records label.

Kelley sat down with us to discuss his career, his new album, getting the music out there as an indie artist… and yes, we couldn’t resist asking about his famous fiancée, too.

How did you originally get into music?

You know, I started this whole world when I was about nine years old. I used to make a drum kit out of my mom’s pots and pans and things lying around the house. She got so frustrated with that she finally just bought me a drum set so she could have her cookware back. From there on I just started learning as many instruments as possible. I just love music. I kind of cut my feet in the business with James Brown’s band – a side project called First Born, I was the guitar player. I was about seventeen.

You are one of the artists who must sing the praises of Napster – you had been an unknown singer in college when some of your songs on the file sharing program made it to record execs. How surprising was it when your songs started getting label interest from there?

Yeah. Well, you know what? I came up with the idea when I was sitting in astronomy class in sophomore year. I had gotten some kind of random text message or whatever it was, it was like an instant message from somebody through Napster. I was… what is this? I realized you could send an instant message. Napster never really promoted that. So, what I did is I would get on Napster every day – I would go to the library for about an hour and sent 100 random messages to 100 random people. Every day. About a month after doing this, one of those random messages got caught by a guy named Eric Clinger, who was an A&R guy. He sent me a message back saying he loved the music and let’s talk. We talked for – shoot, you know we talked for about a year. He signed me to Hollywood Records about a year later.

Josh Kelley

For the Ride Home actually was rather slow burning, taking a while before it and the single “Amazing” really caught on. Did it surprise you when it finally caught on and what was that like?

It did surprise me, because we didn’t expect it, you know? We expected for me just to sort of develop slowly. Because, you know, I think back in the day that’s what labels did. They sort of developed artists. What they expected was for the record to just sell like 20,000 records and we would just keep moving on and let me develop. What happened was ‘Amazing’ took off and then all of the sudden demand was high, and things started moving before I was really ready as an entertainer. But luckily, I’ve been able to develop as a young artist in the last three years in the way that big label developed artists back in the day… like Bob Dylan and all that. Now, here I am, I’m actually a better entertainer than I ever thought I could be. Exactly where I want to be as far as captivating people.

On the last album, you went for more of a pop sound, working with people like the Matrix. I know on your first album you were compared to other artists, were you trying to stretch out to show your diversity?

I still have an identity crisis because it’s impossible to figure out what you want to stand for, musically. I love every style of music. And the thing is – I can play every style of music. So, it’s like, what should I do? Another example is, every time I get into a different friend of mine’s car, they’ve always got some burned disk with seventeen different songs and seventeen different styles and seventeen different artists. I realized that it doesn’t matter. If I want to put out a CD that has a lot of different styles of music on there, I can, because that’s what people want. People do not want to feel like they’re taking a trip and the whole disk is monotone.

Well, that change was rewarded by another hit with “Only You.” Suddenly you’re all over the radio, VH1 and stuff – how surreal was that?

Crazy. It’s definitely a crazy game they’ve put together for you. Now that I understand the game, in hindsight I would have been better at manipulating the game. But I feel fortunate to have had all the revelations now rather than earlier. I get back to the overwhelming feeling – it all could have been overwhelming for me. I think I wouldn’t have been ready for any of it. These new songs would have never hit. The songs that I love… this new album, I was listening to it yesterday on the plane, because I haven’t heard it in a while. I wanted to get away from it. I was on the plane listening to the album and I was like, my God, this album is really awesome. I called up my manager and I said, Debbie, I didn’t realize… This album is awesome. She said, “Yeah.” She started laughing, she said, “I know, it’s great.” It just makes me more excited to actually push it and get people stoked about it. Because, I realize that there are so many records out there that basically get pushed in the right direction and that’s how they get there. That’s really all this record needs. To have a chance.

Josh Kelley

You’re on your own label for the new album. How did you make that decision and how is recording for an indie different after being with Hollywood Records for your first two albums?

I realized after Hollywood Records dropped the ball on the single “Almost Honest” – which I think is the best song I’ve ever written –that we didn’t share the same vision. They wanted me to be some teenybopper – and my lyrics and my look and my music is far from that. I realized that if I didn’t try to get away now then I would never be able to get away. So, I got out of the deal, after some clever finagling and started my own label and this thing is a well-oiled machine, buddy. It’s awesome.

On the new album I noticed that not only did you write and sing all the songs, you also produced, engineered and played the majority of the instruments. What was it like to sort of have an “one-man band” thing going?

Yeah. And I did the artwork and all the paintings. You know what? It’s a very rewarding feeling. It’s like you’re Willie Wonka in the factory and an everlasting gobstopper comes out. You kind of feel like a madman but it’s so rewarding. That’s my drug. My drug is when I finish a new song and I go to the car and listen to it and I know in my heart and in my gut that it’s a great song. That is the drug. 

Musically Just Say the Word is rather diverse, there is rockier stuff like “Pop Show,” “You Are A Part of Everything” is rather poppy, ”Cain and Able” is more folky acoustic, “Lady of Mine” feels almost like classic country. Were you looking to experiment with styles on the album? 

Oh, yeah. Plus, it makes the live show better. These are just styles that I experiment with all the time. I’m always recording music. My next album is already in the can, it’s ready. This is something I do, because when I was growing up in music – before I knew I could sing – I wanted to be a producer. I have been engineering and producing music for longer than I’ve been a singer. I have an unbelievable studio in Nashville that is mine and it’s at my fingertips whenever I want it. So, recording music is easy for me. It’s something that I enjoy doing and it doesn’t cost me a dime.

One thing I like is that you aren’t afraid to have a tune. A few years ago, it was something of a sell-out for a rock band to have a melody. Why do you think the world is so ready for more melodic rock?

I don’t know. I think things just kind of come around full circle, you know? I think the old-school 70s style music is coming back. That’s because people are in more control of their careers than they were. In the 70s, people were in control of their careers. They were in control of melodies and it wasn’t tainted. I think it’s just a simple fact that things just come around full circle. We’re back to melodies again. People love lyrics and they love – I call them “ear worms,” when you put on your headphones and the production is really warm and spongy and the melodies and the harmony just create sort of an ear worm.

A lot of the time, when songwriters turn to love, the relationships are in trouble or dying. It was interesting that in your album, when the songs turn to love, a lot of the relationships seem to be happy, like in “Lady of Mine,” “Just Say the Word” and “Goodbye Beautiful.” As a songwriter, do you find happy relationships more interesting than troubled ones, or is that just a reflection of where you are in your life?

It’s a reflection of where I am this year. But also, I like to be happy. I’m not a big fan of being depressed. If I’m depressed, I will do some writing, but it’s too hard on my soul. It hurts too much. So, I don’t like it. I like to be happy and have happy relationships. I try to steer my life in that direction.

Josh Kelley and Katherine Heigl in the music video for “Only You.”

You met your fiancée on the filming of the video for “Only You.” Nice bonus. What was that like? Were you familiar with her before? Did you pick her for the video?

No, no, no. It was just a random thing. They asked her to do it and she wanted to do a video. Thank God she said yes. When I got there, we started doing our scenes together and just hit it off.

I also really liked your version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” on the Queen tribute album. As a respected singer-songwriter, is it easier or harder to record someone else’s music?

For me it’s never been hard. I did a duet with Melissa Etheridge recently. She told me that that’s not her forte. She likes doing her own songs. But my voice has a pretty extensive range – which I feel very fortunate for – and because of that, and because I’m a studio soup mixer, I enjoy doing other people’s songs. I enjoy doing stuff like that. I had a dad-gum hey-day putting that song together. It came out great, too.

Beyond straight albums, artists have so many new ways to get their music out there. Like you mentioned, you did a couple of songs with Melissa Etheridge on the Brother Bear 2 soundtrack and had another song on My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I saw that “Cain and Able” was going to be on Smallville. There are so many new ways to get the music out there. Do you think they can help spread the word on artists?

Well, you know what? I kind of picture my career as being like this big pond. Like a big old fishing pond. I want my pond to get as big as possible. I want to get as many people going to my pond as possible. Every little thing I do increases my surface area and the awareness of my music, because I get off on people relating and getting off to my songs. As long as I can keep paying my mortgage for the rest of my life making people happy with music, I’m honestly going to be fine.

Nowadays musicians have so many more ways to reach out to their fans, the forum on the official site, your MySpace page. What is it like being able to communicate directly with the fans like that?

It’s an enjoyable thing, but also there is a line, I feel, that does need to be drawn. Because then you become too accessible. Then it’s not as magical when somebody goes to see you live. So, I keep my distance as much as I can. I do a lot of things to hear the fan’s voices, but I don’t always let them know it’s me. It’s part of the mystique, you know?

I remember when I was in college, I had a writing professor who said, “if you feel inspiration you should lie down and wait for it to go away.” I always thought that was a really bad attitude. What are your feelings about inspiration? Does it drive your writing and performing?

Oh, inspiration is exactly what drives my writing and performing. I mean, I don’t know why that professor would ever say that. It seems like the most idiotic statement I’ve ever heard.

Yeah, he was one of those writing as a nine-to-five job types…

Well, that’s stupid. That’s stupid. That makes life really boring. You know, I get inspiration from anything. It can be anything in life that happens. I bought a twelve-string guitar in a pawn shop for $75.00. I cannot stop the great songs from coming out of that. Every time I pick it up. I actually stopped picking it up, because I can’t finish these songs in time. Inspiration is in everything. I feel like maybe there was somebody that had that guitar back in the day, or something, and maybe these are his old songs or her old songs that they could never finish that I’m finishing. I believe in anything.

Radio playlists are so regimented these days. You used to be able to hear rock, pop, country and soul on the same station and that just doesn’t happen anymore. Do you think that can make it tougher for an artist to find an audience? 

It makes it a lot tougher. I think the state that the business is in is making it very tough. We are all working it hard and luckily, I have a great relationship with radio. I do love radio, because I love going into a different city and walking into the station and being able to play my songs, but unfortunately, it looks like radio is not selling records like TV does. That’s unfortunate, because I really want radio to work. We’ll see what happens. But we’re pushing “Just Say the Word” as the single and it’s actually is getting some good airplay, but TV is something that we’re really gunning for. We just got the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade. I’m performing “Just Say the Word” that morning. We’ve got Smallville, which is going to be on tomorrow. “Cain and Able” is on Smallville. Just as many things as possible is what we’re trying to do. We really just want to break this album. (laughs) If you come up with any ideas, you let me know.

In the end, how would you like people to see your music?

I don’t know if I have a vision of how I want them to see my music. In the end, I want to play stadiums. I want to play stadiums now, you know what I mean? That’s my big goal, to be able to play in front of like 30,000 people a night. I know I can keep their attention. If I wanted to, I could keep their attention with just me and an acoustic guitar. That is one of my biggest gifts – somehow being able to entertain. So, my goal is to sell out stadiums. And keep making great songs. It doesn’t matter what it looks like to them, it just matters how it feels.

Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?

You know what, I think… I don’t know if there are misconceptions or not. I think when I came out as a young artist, with For the Ride Home, I think a lot of serious artists just thought I was a here-today-gone-tomorrow thing. But here’s the thing, I don’t really have to clear it up because I’m doing it. I’m doing it with talent. With great songs and great live performances. So, everything is really kind of clearing itself up. Time and doing what you want, doing what you’re passionate about, will kind of clear anything up.

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: December 3, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006. Courtesy of Threshold Records. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006. Courtesy of Threshold Records. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006. Courtesy of Threshold Records. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006. Courtesy of Hollywood Records. All rights reserved.

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