Country star Jerrod Niemann is at ease as he calls from his Red Room – a space devoted to music inside his Nashville home. “When the world outside these four walls is crazy, you come into this room that’s out of control with the red shag carpet, red walls, red chandelier, red jalapeno lights, and crazy instruments all over the place,” he says, “and literally, you forget about what’s outside, and it gives you a true place to just be creative.”
The latest evidence of Niemann’s creative songwriting comes with his new singles, “Tequila Kisses” and “Ghost Rider,” both set for release on August 7 (which is also the date when Niemann will take over American Songwriter’s Instagram account for the day). Both songs are taken from his new Lost and Found project.
Niemann calls Lost and Found a “project,” not an actual album, because he isn’t following the usual album format with this material. Instead, he plans to release a song every few weeks “for as long as anybody will listen,” he says, adding that the benefit of doing it this way means that “Every song can get its opportunity to be heard. Then you get to hear where my head’s been at for the last year and a half.”
That past year and a half has been an eventful one for Niemann. While he is exhilarated by the ever-broadening songwriting he’s done in that time, he also got divorced – and both things strongly informed Lost and Found. “When you go through a divorce, you do feel lost, like, ‘What do I do now?’” This new material, then, is his way of “getting back on your feet, finding your first step in the right direction – but also finding all these fun new instruments,” he says, referring to his habit of constantly learning to play different things. “So it’s ‘lost and found’ as a personal thing, and then as in learning to do stuff.”
In keeping with that spirit, “Tequila Kisses” touches on Niemann’s past while showing how he continues to innovate now. He wrote the song at his home in 2008 with his friends Jon Stone and Lee Brice. “We wrote two songs that night,” he says. “One was called “You’ll Always Be Beautiful” – Blake Shelton was kind enough to record that. But “Tequila Kisses,” Lee Brice was saying he was going to cut it, Jon Stone was saying he was going to cut it, I claimed I was going to cut it – and it kept getting lost in the mix.”
Part of Niemann’s resistance to actually recording “Tequila Kisses” was the fact that he had a very specific, and rather difficult, vision for how the song should be done: “I wanted to do an acapella version of that, and try to do every instrument with my voice and challenge myself.” How to actually do that, though, eluded him for years.
“And then one morning I woke up, and right when I opened my eyes, I was like, ‘That song is happening today.’” He went to his Red Room and began laying down vocal tracks for every component of “Tequila Kisses” – even for the percussion and bass parts. At the end of that day, “I had sung 25 vocal parts,” Niemann says. “Then I doubled them and sang the same parts in unison 25 more times, so there’s 50 vocal parts.”
Niemann knows the end result is a highly unusual song, but “I hope everyone else will enjoy it and get what I was trying to do, and it will take them on vacation,” he says, adding that “Music can take you on vacation. When someone gets out on the water, whether it’s a fishing hole or the ocean, I would love to be someone that pops into mind when they want to throw some music on.”
Niemann’s other new single, “Ghost Rider,” also had a rather unusual creative path. “I was walking around the house going, ‘ghost rider, ghost rider.’ And I thought, ‘What is that?’ I thought I was stealing someone else’s song, so I looked it up. I even asked a couple of buddies: ‘Is this another [artist’s] song?’” Assured that it was not, Niemann began fleshing it out.
As he set to work, Niemann realized that his idea fit nicely with music that he’d worked on in a previous songwriting session with Lance Miller and The Warren Brothers (“They bring such a cool vibe to the room,” Niemann says.)
Niemann recalls that writing session: “Brad Warren was holding the electric guitar, Brett Warren was holding the acoustic, Lance was sitting there helping us put everything together. And I was running the console and engineering it. I just loved what they were playing, so I said, ‘Man, let me record that!’” The resulting song is an emotive examination of how haunting an ended romantic relationship can be.
Niemann’s innovative and sometimes unorthodox way of writing set him apart as soon as he moved to Nashville in 2000. By the next year, Garth Brooks had noticed him, and they went on to write three songs together. Many other major artists have since recorded Niemann’s songs, including Lee Brice, The Cadillac Three, Jamey Johnson, and Colbie Caillat.
All the while, Niemann was building his own recording career. He self-released his first albums, Long Hard Road (1999) and Jukebox of Hard Knocks (2004) – but had a breakthrough with his third album, 2010’s Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, which contained the hits “Lover, Lover” and “What Do You Want.” He has continued to chart with the three albums he’s released since then.
It’s a career that Niemann actually studied to do – he was a music major at college in Texas. Even though he was formally trained, though, he doesn’t adhere too rigidly to those lessons. As he says, he likes to “forget some of the laws of songwriting that have been embedded in your head. I like to challenge myself and not do everything the way you’re supposed to sometimes.”
Even though he may disregard country music’s rules, Niemann is never irreverent. If anything, he seems to have a deeper understanding of this genre’s history than many artists. “I’ve always been a sucker for the past,” he says. “I love to dig deep into country music, clear back to the 1920s. I’ve absorbed it my whole life and loved every single detail I ever heard.”
Niemann recently found a way to literally bring that past history to life in his own music. “Three months ago, I bought a guitar that’s 95 years old. It was set up to play like a dobro but it was tuned like a vintage lap steel, which originated in Hawaii.” To show this unique sound, he puts the call on speaker and plays a few licks on that guitar before picking the phone back up and declaring, “Out of every instrument I’ve ever played, somehow this instrument is my soulmate.” He’s now exploring ways to use it in his new material.
Thanks to Niemann’s encyclopedic knowledge of country music history, he’s able to explain this instrument’s importance. “During the Depression, there was a Hawaiian craze in America, and everybody loved that [lap steel] sound,” he says. In more recent times, though, “Everyone’s abandoned the lap steel for the most part, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I bring it back?’ I always feel like, if there’s a void, I want to try to put something fun in there. Sometimes people gravitate toward it, and sometimes not as much, but it’s just part of the journey.”
Niemann says that he learned this open-minded attitude toward music from a very early age. When he was really young, growing up in Kansas, he remembers hearing his parents playing everything from Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama to Bruce Springsteen. As he got older, he kept that diverse outlook. “I obviously love music country music more than anything, but I do love Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley, and Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he says.
As a teenager, it seemed like a natural step for Niemann to start actually start playing music himself – though he admits he wasn’t initially very good. “I’d have friends come over to my house as a kid and force them to be in little bands, and force them to write songs.” He laughs. “They’ll tell me now just how dreadful it was!”
Clearly, Niemann has come a long way since then – but he says he’s as excited about creating music now as he was when he first started out. “I feel like a little kid even talking to you about this,” he says of his latest songs. “I’m so excited because it’s all so new to me.”