Daughtry: Out On His Own (and Loving It)

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Chris Daughtry, frontman for his acclaimed namesake rock group Daughtry, remembers being young and belting out lyrics—loudly—in his bedroom. The albums would blast, and he’d sing along, in love with music and the possibilities it offered his brain. He’d wonder, “How is Chris Cornell doing that with his voice?” He’d learn dips and surges from Live’s Throwing Copper. He’d dive deep into Alice in Chains’ Dirt. Thankfully, for the then-young Daughtry, his parents didn’t mind. He laughs about it now, wondering what must have been going through their heads while their son screamed “the devil’s music.” But their encouragement—or, at least, their lack of discouragement—set the foundation for the wildly successful career he would later embark on. For Daughtry, his life in music is both about the journey and its discoveries. Today, with the new label he’s founded, Dogtree Records, and the debut album under that imprint, Dearly Beloved (2021), Daughtry is rejuvenated, looking for fresh sounds and all that’s new in the world. He’s also bringing in his long love of acting, action, and comic books. In other words, he’s pouring as much of himself into his work as he ever has. 

“As a kid,” says the 42-year-old Daughtry, “I was always drawn to earworms. Melodies that just got stuck in my head. I was always singing along to the radio, mimicking whoever artist it was. But I didn’t think anything of it at the time.” 

While Daughtry didn’t at first consider himself a singer, he surely is one now. He comes from a lineage of musicians. His father plays guitar and his grandfather played “all kinds” of instruments, including lap steel. But it took some time for the young Daughtry to “connect the dots” when it came to his relationship to the art form. As a young person, he was into comic books and action heroes. He wanted to grow up and be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme. He would shred up his blue jeans to look like Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk. But in his mid-teenage years, his ears began to perk up. He became infatuated with the band Live and their album Throwing Copper. He also had an older brother, five years his senior, who had also just gotten out of the military. His brother introduced him to Live, Metallica, and Soundgarden. 

“My world was opening up,” Daughtry says. “I started getting super-duper focused on listening to these records.”  

He began to hear himself in the work, too, finding an identity within the lyrics and melodies. Around then, Daughtry also had a friend who played guitar. He entreated his friend to teach him how to play, to show him a few chords. That’s when the all-important math class assignment came in and changed everything. 

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“My guess is that my teacher that day, Ron Shultz,” Daughtry says, “had run out of things to do with us. So, he put us into groups and said, ‘You guys get in groups of three or four and write a poem or a song that uses these terms that we learned this week.’” 

Daughtry and two friends took the assignment very seriously. At the time, he knew he could sing alright. He’d done it at home (in his bedroom, largely). But no one else on Earth (except for maybe his parents) knew he could do it at all. So, when Daughtry and his two cohorts came back to class the next day with a song ready, a lot was about to change. 

“Mind you,” he says, “I’d never performed before. This was all terrifying territory to me. But I was excited, at the same time.”

He got up in front of the class and had the lyrics in front of him, written by one of the three people in his group. And the second person, his friend Robert, had a guitar and began playing a “beautiful” chord progression, finger-picking the notes. Daughtry then started singing, finding a melody in the lyrics that had been written for him. That’s when Robert, shocked, stopped outright and said, “Are you kidding me, dude? You sound just like Tracy Chapman!” Daughtry, who loves Chapman, says there must have been something to his lower register. But he and Robert finished the song, earning applause from the math class. Then Robert invited him over to jam. Daughtry accepted. He sang some U2 covers with Robert and company, and a few Live songs, too. 

“Instantly, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’” Daughtry says. “I felt alive!” 

He wanted more. At 17 years old, he later went to see Live and became even more obsessed with the idea of playing in a band and performing on stage. Suddenly, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. So, he told his parents. He explained he wouldn’t be going to college and that he wanted to be a “rock star.” Thankfully, for him, they didn’t get in his way, both because they could see he meant it and also because there wasn’t much money in the household that could go towards formal higher education, he says, even though his parents worked hard to put food on the table and keep the lights on. But his folks cautioned, “Make sure you have a good job!” 

“They never discouraged me,” he says. “But I’m not sure if it was encouragement as much as it was a relief because they couldn’t pay for college. We didn’t have a lot of money.”

Hooked, Daughtry went to work. He sang incessantly in his room at the top of his lungs. He laughs, thinking his parents must have wanted him to “just shut the hell up.” But the work was starting to pay off. He was learning, absorbing techniques and styles. He was becoming a rock singer. To this day, he’s still discovering new aspects of his vocal range. On a recent cover of Temple of the Dog’s hit, “Hunger Strike,” Daughtry learned he had a new upper register that he’d never fully taken advantage of before. He remains looking for what’s new, next, and just around the corner when it comes to his skill set and interests. In 2006, after a successful, though not show-winning stint on American Idol (he finished fourth during the show’s fifth season), Daughtry released his debut self-titled LP with his namesake band. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and sold some 7 million copies. All the wailing in his room had worked. Then in 2009, he followed it up with another No. 1 album, Leave This Town

“Man,” he says, “those first few years were such a fast and furious blur. Everything was happening. Songs were going No. 1. We never expected any of that.”

He remembers the label he was on then projecting the sale of some 500,000 copies of Daughtry, but he outdid that by 14 times. The record came out and it was everywhere. He ran into songs of his in restaurants, in shops. Anywhere he went, there he was. 

“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, well, this is just how it’s going to always be!’” he says, with a laugh. “We made it!” 

When his sophomore album came out, it also did well. Maybe not as well as his debut, but still, it sold some 1.5 million copies, he says. But even though he was quite successful and on top of the world, some tougher times would soon come. When one is as successful as Daughtry was at first, it creates an urge, an itch, to stay on top. To keep making music that the entire world will devour. But that’s not always possible, of course, and it can lead an artist to chase a goal, rather than summon it up internally. The latter is honest, the former is contrived. Though his next albums did well, they didn’t match his early success. So, he says, he found himself scratching his head, wondering what to do next. 

“The only way I can put it,” he says, “is it was a total mindfuck. We didn’t know where we fit in because we weren’t pop enough for pop radio, and we weren’t hard enough for rock radio at the time.”

Other things to consider at that time were the changing in tastes in modern music. Guitar-based albums were becoming less popular with the rise of SoundCloud and electronic music. Also, people weren’t (aren’t) buying albums as much as they once did. Streaming became en vogue. So, Daughtry wondered, where did that leave him and his crew? He began to take advice from label heads; he listened to outside voices way more than he listened to himself. The result was him feeling a bit lost as an artist. 

“I forgot the most important voice of all,” he says. “Mine. I have a say here, too!”

Daughtry knew where he belonged, even if no one else did. He began to think back to those early days of listening to Live, Soundgarden, and Metallica on repeat. Those artists have never fallen down the ranks. Their music is as timeless and impactful as it ever was. Those were his peers. So, he doubled down on his own interest and began to bet on himself again. “Why am I not putting out records like this?” he’d think, spinning Superunknown or Dirt again and again. After he put out Leave This Town in 2009, Daughtry released three more albums with his label, RCA—Break the Spellin 2011, Baptized in 2013, and Cage to Rattle in 2018. All of which include standout tracks. Yet, they didn’t feel connected to his true, deep love for songs. So, he knew he needed to make a change. Daughtry departed from RCA, the label he’d signed to prior to his 2006 self-titled debut, and founded his label. Now free and his own boss, the decisions were his to make. 

Photo by Rob Loud

“Now that I was independent,” he says, “I didn’t have anyone telling me what I couldn’t do. That’s where Dearly Beloved came in.”

Daughtry released that album in 2021, his now sixth studio LP and first on Dogtree Records. With the benefit of hindsight, he says, he wishes he would have continued to put out rock records from day one, and if they did well then great, and if not, so be it. “It didn’t stop the Foo Fighters,” he notes. He feels like his creative efforts became “victim” of the record label and its input. That’s what the business can do to you it can play on your fears as opposed to your insights. He wondered if he was “even a good songwriter,” if he “even knew” what he was doing. Doubt is a powerful thing. “But that’s how we learn,” Daughtry says, now as resolved as ever to do what he wants first and foremost now. His 2021 album, which began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, began with an open mind and producers he felt comfortable with. 

“When we started the writing process,” Daughtry says, “it just felt free. We weren’t chasing anything. It was like, ‘What feels the most fresh?’ out of the gate. That’s what’s going to make people to, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ But it will still have enough familiarity where it makes sense.”

He remembers going through some possible options for songs before stumbling on a folder on his co-producer’s computer marked “fresh as fuck.” Daughtry wanted to hear what that file held. His instincts were right. In it, he heard a melody that quickly opened up the first song he wrote for Dearly Beloved, “World on Fire.” Daughtry and company began writing that song, and when the pandemic hit, along with the protests after George Floyd’s murder and the news of Australia’s coast burning, he wondered if he had somehow predicted the future. Not ready yet to release that song, he and his crew kept working. And they had to do so remotely, but the energy behind the work was so strong that they weren’t impeded by the distance. 

“Somehow,” he says, “it worked out beautifully to our advantage.”

By following his instincts, Daughtry is now beginning to incorporate other loves into his day job. Growing up, he was something of an obsessive child. He went through stints when martial arts were his top priority. He went through phases where comic books were his entire world. So, now that he’s his own boss, he can bring those into the creative fold, too. For recent music videos, he’s acted and done many of his own stunts. He’s also drawn graphic novel covers and worked with famed comic book companies like Marvel, DC, and Image. These feed a part of his soul that’s both different from music and part of it. He’d largely put them on the backburner for years, but now they’re nearly boiling over on the front.

“I was like, why not?” says Daughtry. “Why not combine all of these loves into one brand? I think that also came from not being on a [traditional] record label and having to do it all myself. Now that I don’t have anybody telling me what I should do, I get to figure out what I actually want to do.”

Yes, Daughtry has no boss telling him what songs to write, what types of records to put out, or to dissuade his instincts about what his legions of fans might dig. For many years, he says, he kept his loves separate. Now, he’s at work melding them as artfully as he can. Because of that, he says, “I feel more myself on stage than I’ve ever been. That’s something to celebrate as an artist. I’m finally me up here.” Now as Daughtry looks to the future, he’s thrilled by the open road. Sadly, he’s also endured a lot of loss, from the death of his mother to that of his stepdaughter. All of this, though, combined with the difficult years the entire world has gone through as of late, has given him “a lot of things to write about.” So, Daughtry will be heading into the studio soon after he arrives back home in Nashville following his current tour, which ends, as of this writing, on September 18 in Melbourne, Florida. 

“I’ve been busy writing, recording demos at home,” he says. “Just getting some ideas down. My process usually starts with me humming something into my phone. I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands, of voice memos. But I’ve gotten really terrible about labeling them.” 

He’s in a true creative groove. He’s “inspired.” He’s thrilled about his next project. He may even get home and jump on his bed and sing his lungs out. (But that’s just a guess.) Daughtry even knows the first song he’s going to work on and complete for his next yet to be titled album. He also says he plans to incorporate more featured guests in his music, and he may feature on other artists’ projects, too. The Dogtree, if you will, has many branches, and he’s allowed to climb any he wishes. That’s the beauty of it all for him now. 

“Music makes you feel something,” Daughtry says. “No matter what you believe, no matter your religion, or however you identify, all of that can be pushed aside for the love of music. Everyone can agree on that. It’s therapy. And that’s a powerful, powerful tool. Especially in a world that’s so divided and so full of negativity, we could use more of that—that musical glue—to bring us all together.” 

Photo by Rob Loud

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