A lot of the songs on here are written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The guy who shows up in these songs is often addressing a woman. Why do you think you gravitate toward writing songs in that mode?
I don’t know. I think that the same girl kind of kept showing up throughout the scenes of this record. I’d had somebody that I really cared about. You know, you go through a lot of trials and tribulations as I’m moving around and we’re not together. You never get to see them. I think that first-person was always the easiest for me to come out and just be like, ‘This is how I would say it, ‘instead of speaking from the third-person. I could speak more plain English. And I was always trying to focus on speaking this record in plain English: How would somebody say it to one another? And not trying to get so crafty that you completely confuse whoever’s listening to it. I wanted to speak how it would come out of your heart, how it would come out of your mouth. I didn’t want to trip people up, and I felt like first-person was the easiest way to do that.
Have those songs have earned you a lot of female listeners? Have they responded as though they feel you’re singing directly to them?
I’m proud that it’s 50-50 in my audience. There’s just as many guys that are loving the stuff. I really focused on, with this record, speaking from a masculine standpoint. A lot of songs are so fluffy I think that it turns guys off. If it’s too sugarcoated and too fluffy and it doesn’t seem real, a guy’s not gonna… You know what I mean? I tried to write it from how a man would really say it. And then I think that’s what attracts the women listeners, because there’s an honest vulnerability behind it. I think that when you hold that masculine quality in lyrics, guys will gravitate toward it.
Do you think part of that is the sound of your voice?
Yeah. I think it’s a combination of that. I think it’s a combination of the sound of the music, as far as sonically. I focused on a real edgy sound musically. I decided to make the lyrics push the boundaries somewhat and stay edgy but stay honest.
Pushing the boundaries by doing things like throwing in a reference to pot? That kind of stuff?
Yeah. I think so often people are scared of doing that stuff, but I mean that’s life and that’s reality. And I think that people gravitate towards that, you know? It doesn’t mean that it’s right, but it’s just that’s the way it is.
The relationships you’ve written about on the album cover a wide range. “Drive Me Crazy” and “Crazy One More Time” capture the heat of youthful attraction. Others speak to a bit more mature mindset, realizing that something is missing. Then there’s “Hey Pretty Girl” that…
Is more of an idealistic thing. That’s what I hope for it to be: Someday when I’m able to pull back my reigns and settle down. That’s a song of hope.
The songs that speak to that second stage seem like they’re probably a little closer to where you actually are in your life right now.
Yeah. I think there was definitely a growth in the record, you know, a sense of the character growing throughout it. Then by the end of it “Faith When I Fall” caps the whole thing off.
Do you get the sense that your audience is at a similar place?
I think it varies from person to person. I’ve got a very wide range of different kinds of people, age gaps. I mean, it’s anywhere from 18 to 50 year-olds in my audience. I think this record straddles a lot of boundaries. I think it straddles a lot of emotions. I don’t find it’s something you can put in a little box, you know?
Like I was alluding to earlier, the singer-songwriter tradition you were shaped by, the Springsteen tradition, was really good at talking about the young love thing, the coming-of-age thing. I think in the past the country songwriting tradition has been known for speaking to the realities of adult life and marriage.
I made a conscious effort on this record to try to capture the youthful spirit that we all have inside of us. So often people as they get older they feel like things have to change inside their spirit. We all have to mature and take on different responsibilities. I tried to really capture with stuff like “Up All Night” that you don’t have to let your soul die or spirit die. You can still keep that youthful way and still live that way.
Was it eight years that you arrived in Nashville?
Yeah. About nine, actually.
What different phases did you go through between being the brand new guy in town and having a top ten single? Was there much of an artist development process for you?
Oh yeah. That’d be hard for me to even sum up in this conversation. My first three years were just spent observing and seeing where the talent level was at, almost approaching it like a sport and seeing where I had to be. And I realized I was below the bar. And the next few years were playing constantly, playing clubs and bars.
Where did you play?
I played all over. You name it. I played everywhere in Nashville. Lots of songwriter rounds. Then I got a publishing deal. You know, you’re at the bottom of the barrel as a writer. You have to earn your co-writes. You write well with them and you get other co-writes. My publishing boss, Brett James, really allowed me to find myself as a writer and an artist, because he let me record whatever I wanted and really believed in the way I was saying things. That’s how I found my sound, is just doing it over and over, recording until I found the sound that I wanted, the lyrical style I wanted.
You mean you were doing lots of demos?
Yeah, lots of demos. And all that while I was playing clubs and I was getting a small following and it was growing and growing and labels started paying attention. It took a long, long time.
A lot of artists now don’t get much of a chance at artist development. It sounds like your style must have substantially changed since you showed up in town.
Oh yeah. It completely changed, and I think that’s most people in Nashville. I had a raw way of saying things, so I learned how to craft those things, and how I wanted to say ‘em. I think you learn from recording a lot of bad songs that you thought were good, and you go back and listen to them and you’re like, ‘This isn’t that good.’ Yeah, I definitely changed throughout the years drastically, with every aspect of my approach to writing.
What did your songs sound like to begin with?
I don’t quite know how to answer that. They didn’t sound ready. I could just say that. They weren’t ready. They weren’t up to the bar vocally, they weren’t up to the bar lyrically, melodically, everything.
Do you remember the first time you heard somebody say they heard Springsteen’s influence in what you were doing?
Yeah, about four years ago, I think. I think that I listened to so many of those records that it subconsciously rubbed off on me. All of it did: Seger, John Cougar Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson. They all rubbed off on me in some form. I think that when you’re as much of a student as I am, you’re always listening. It’s one of those things that sometimes you just get it inside your blood. I think that people, whether it’s the sound or gravel of my voice or whether it’s the melodic style, the anthem-type songs, people just tend to make references to the Boss.