Josh Kelley is living the good life. His family unit is strong (Kelley and his wife, actress Katherine Heigl, are enamored with their newly adopted daughter, Naleigh, and Kelley’s younger brother Charles is tearing up the charts in Lady Antebellum), and his country music career is in full swing. Kelley’s “Georgia Clay,” co-written with his brother, was a Top 40 hit, and his album of the same name is due March 22. We talked to the singer-songwriter about his long journey to the top.
You’re album Georgia Clay comes out in March. Are you excited?
I’m very excited. We’re in a good spot right now. We’ve got a lot of really good movement going on, so everybody is kind of getting pumped and geared up for the next phase. We’re really just laying down a good foundation for this album.
It’s a bit different than your previous work. It’s got a bit of country. What brought this on?
It’s different for sure, but to tell you the truth, it’s more fulfilling. I’m getting back to what my mom told me when I was a little kid, she said, “write songs that people can relate to and you’ll go far.” As far as the switch to country, I’d say it was a song called “Gone Like That”. I wrote that with Clint Lagerberg, and it was sort of a last minute writing session. After I was loaded up in my publishing company, everybody freaked out saying, “We don’t want to pitch this song. We want you to do it.” From there on out, I had a bit more confidence and started writing a bit more songs, and a year and a half later, you know… or maybe two years after that… it took a long time to make this album, but I think those are the best kind.
What song are you most proud of on the album?
I think the song I’m most proud of is “Naleigh Moon”, which is a song about my daughter. Have you heard it?
I have, it really tugs at the heartstrings.
Oh, great! Yeah, I know! I love that song. I wanted to capture that first moment when I got to hold her for the first time. Because you know, when we got her, she was nine months old. We adopted her from South Korea, and when we got her, Katie had her for the first two hours, and then finally she was like, “do you want to hold your daughter? And I was like, “Yeah, give me my kid.” So, I got to hold her. And when I held her, she nuzzled her little head in my neck, and she put her hand on the back of my neck just to say, you know, “you are my dad”. It was weird, but an amazing feeling. I just wanted to capture that moment. Probably about two or three weeks later, I got together with Clint again and I told him what i wanted to write about. He had just had a baby boy, so we were both in that mode and knew exactly what we wanted to say. A few hours later, it wasn’t long, we were both like, “wow, what a little gem of a song.” I think Naleigh really likes it. She gets the wiggles.
I was about to ask what her reaction was.
[laughs] Maybe someday she’ll like it.
I can’t see her not liking it. So, was there a particular song on this album that was difficult to write or record?
Well, I wrote a lot of songs for this album. I think we were picking between 50 or 60 songs. All the songs we ended up recording for this album were picked for a reason, so they were all fun to do. As far as having a hard time with anything… I mean. When I was an independent, I was used to doing like four takes of my vocals and then putting them together. But Clint is a perfectionist, and he is really amazing at getting the best out of me. I ended up doing like 40 or 50 takes on a lot of the songs, and I remember wanting to kill him halfway into each one of them. But he got the best out of me, and that was something that was pretty amazing and something I’d never done before.
I remember on my first album, I did all the vocals on the album in one day. So I was kind of used to being the dude that kind of nails it, but he was always the one saying, “you can do better”. He even had this percentage thing where he’d be like, “alright, 90%.” [laughs] I was like, “am I ever going to get to 100%, Clint? Or are you just going to keep saying that?” He’d say, “give me more.” No, he was great. I think that is who really made the difference on this album. We didn’t just get the vocal takes that sounded good, we got vocal takes that were emotional and sounded great. I’m really, really proud of that.
How long have you known Clint?
We’ve known each other now for, oh my god, I guess maybe three years. He has become my unofficial brother. It’s great, really great. He has been kind enough to go on tour with me too, because he is an incredible guitar player. So, he came out, played electric, and sang harmonies on the tour. I think he’s going to come out with me again. I know we’ve got more Miranda dates, and we have an exciting opportunity for summer, which I’m not allowed to say yet. I think we’ve got some big tours coming up, so we’re real excited about it!
With “Baby Blue Eyes” another track on the record, is it safe to assume that that’s about your wife, Katherine? Doesn’t she have brown eyes?
Well, me and Lee Bryce wrote that song together. We wanted to write a song about our girls, but Katie’s eyes are brown, and his girl’s eyes are blue. It’s definitely about both of our girls, and how much better they make us, but Katie’s always like, “that song’s not about me. My eyes are brown”. [Laughs] When I sing it for her, I sing “Baby Brown Eyes”.
Where were these songs written? On the road?
I wrote “Baby Blue Eyes” in Nashville, but some of the songs were written on the road. Most of them were written here. There are two songs that are 100 percenters, which I wrote alone. I rarely write by myself anymore, but when I do, it’s usually in a hotel room. Both of those songs are hotel room songs. “Two Cups of Coffee” was in Florida, wrote that in some random, crappy hotel in Florida. “A Real Good Try” I wrote at the Pheonix Hotel in San Francisco, which is like an old school, rock and roll hotel. It’s an amazing hotel. I love it. It’s not the nicest in the world, but it’s so vibey. It’s really cool.
Is it easier for you to write on the road?
Well, no. I write at home a lot as well. But, I don’t know. I’ve got a little baby girl now, so when I’m home there’s a lot going on and I want to be focused there. When I’m in a hotel room, and I’ve got a long afternoon or something, having that solitude really helps me out. There’s a lot of long pauses with me and my writing [laughs]. Whenever I find writers that I co-write well with, usually guys that don’t take stuff too seriously, they’re usually pretty patient. They’re just ready to chill and have a good time.
Do you typically start with lyrics first or melody?
I usually start with a cool riff, and then a melody over that. That’s probably one of the biggest things I bring to the table when I do a co-write. Then, we put the melody over it. A lot of times, I’ll start saying random words, and then all of the sudden that will kind of pick what happens next. It could be anything. I’ll say a bunch of gibberish that sounds like words sometimes. They guys will be like, “did you just say so and so?” and I’ll be like, “yeah, I did.” [laughs]
Do you do this when you write with your brother, Charles, from Lady Antebellum?
Yeah, we write together. We wrote “Georgia Clay” together. They are actually cutting a song I wrote with a couple friends: Jason Cellars, Rob Hatch, Paul Jenkins. They’re cutting a song called “Like I do”. It’s a really cool song. It’s a huge blessing that they’re doing it. It’s great. We just got a chance to listen to it a second ago, and it sounds awesome! I’ve been trying for years to get in on the world of getting cuts, I don’t know. Jason Jones, his first single coming out is a song that I wrote called “Ferris Wheel”. I’ve had a couple cuts before, but this is the first time anybody’s ever singled it. So, I’m very excited to see what happens with Jason Jones, and the Lady A song as well.
What do you think about Lady Antebellum’s latest album and success?
Oh, love it. It’s amazing. It’s funny, you know, because we are spending more time together now than we did when I lived in Los Angeles and he was living on the East Coast. Now that we’re both basically based out of Nashville, we’re getting to spend that good quality, brother time that we didn’t have there for a while in the interim.
Was there any kind of family competition when you would write songs?
No, no. We’ve been writing together since we were kids. It’s funny. It’s like putting on an old hat, man, an old, comfortable hat.
I read somewhere that you met James Brown at a young age.
We did, we met James Brown when we were little growing up in Augusta. I remember we had this band called Inside Blue, and James Brown’s manager was a guy named Larry Friday. He tried to get us to sign a record deal when we were younger, but my dad didn’t want to sign the paper because we were too young, you know? It was a good experience, because it made getting into the business more beautiful. We realized that if we could have done it when we were fifteen, then there’s no reason we couldn’t do it down the road. So I think that helped build confidence a lot, knowing that it’s possible.
Was James Brown apart of the Kelly playlist growing up?
Oh yeah. For sure. His backup band actually had a side project in Augusta called “First Born.” I was the lead guitar player for their band for, like, seven or eight months. I kind of moved around Augusta and would play for all these different bands. I had a good time, and learned a lot from them! I learned a lot about the pocket. I love those guys. They were amazing! I think it was just drums, bass player, keyboard player, and I don’t know. It was just really full. I learned a lot about music growing up, for sure.
Would you say that was a career highlight?
Um, yeah I think it was a career stepping-stone. It’s something I look back on a lot. I don’t think I would have been doing music for a living as soon as it happened if I hadn’t gone off to Ole Miss, though. I was in this small town where I was the only person doing what I was doing. I was the only person writing songs and singing my own music every week, every Thursday. I developed a great fan base, and I grew a lot of confidence, because I think being a big fish in a small pond sometimes can really pay off. I think making it, expecially in the music business, is that confidence. Living in Ole Miss, and doing well there, really helped out. Instead of trying to chase the dream to a big city, Luckily, when I was at Ole Miss, Napster was shut down so I started flooding Napster with my music. That’s basically how I got a record deal. The A&R guys found me on Napster, and they flew into Mississippi to see me play.
Yeah, so what’s funny is that in 2001 before they came to see me play, I actually drove to Nashville to try and get a record deal. I drove with a guy named Andrew Ratcliffe and I can’t remember the other guy right now, but they were doing my demos in Mississippi and they drove me out here. I did a showcase for a couple labels, and they turned me down. They said, “we love the songs, but you probably need to keep coming to us. We want to see you again.” [laughs] It’s just really funny. One of the labels that turned me down is the same label that I’m signed to now, 10 years later. But, you know, they were right. I was not ready. I don’t even think I was ready when I got signed to Hollywood Records. It was just one of those things, it just kind of happened.
Is there any song you wish you’d written?
Any song out there that I wish I had written… hmmm. [Maniacal laughter] Give me two seconds. I can tell you that! Hold on one second, let me just look in my little playlist right here. Ah, I gotta find it! I’ve almost got it. Alright, this is a song by Anders Osborne. Have you ever heard him before? He’s from New Orleans. He’s a great songwriter! He’s got this very unique sound. There’s this song that he wrote called “Lucky One” that just kills me. It’s about this guy who has lived a self-induced, rough life. It’s all about how it’s his wife that makes him the lucky one. She is. I love this song. I think I’m going to try and cover it on the next album.