Videos by American Songwriter
“Peter Pan” – An Interview with Jesse Lee
Written by Jesse Lee, Forest Glen Whitehead, Kelsea Ballerini
Recorded by Kelsea Ballerini
Peak Billboard Chart Position: No. 1 Hot Country Songs & Country Airplay
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Jesse Lee?
I don’t know that I have any kind of days that most people would consider “typical” [Laughs]. Mainly because a lot of my days starts with being landed on by our pet bird Rex who has free reign of the house! A lot of days I am writing, hunting for antique treasures on Facebook Marketplace, or as of late, flying somewhere to play a show.
When and where did you guys write “Peter Pan?”
We wrote it in 2013 in a writing room at Black River (the publishing company where Kelsea and Forest were previously signed).
What inspired the song?
I don’t really know…the idea came to me about six months prior to writing it. I wrote down in my phone, “You’re never gonna grow up, you’re never gonna be a man, Peter Pan.” I knew it was special the day I thought of it and held onto it until the day I told Forest and Kelsea the hook.
What has your overall experience been like collaborating with Kelsea?
Kelsea is a true artist. She’s a really great songwriter, which is often not the case with a lot of artists. I told her very early on when we started writing that I was most impressed by her because she had her own sound and really knew what she wanted to say. A lot of people (myself included when I was a signed recording artist) struggle with their musical identity. Kelsea has always had one and has stayed the course.
Could you tell us some of the song’s back-story? How much or how little did you edit it, during or afterward? Were there any phrases or lyrics you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?
This is one of the rare songs that fell out almost effortlessly. It was true collaboration that if I remember correctly, felt seamless. Once I threw out the idea and we started talking about it, the lyrics and melodies fell out of the sky. I remember the first verse coming out in what seemed like a few minutes. We spent the most time on the chorus and the 2nd verse. I don’t remember writing a bunch of lines that didn’t make it. I do that a lot when writing, and like to beat everything [the first go-round], but this is one of those songs that we wrote the right way the first time.
Did you guys demo it or simply worktape it? How did it wind up getting cut and becoming a single?
Forest is Kelsea’s producer—and was at the time. Once we had the idea he started playing it on guitar and pretty quickly started a track so we could write to that. We recorded the whole song that day when we were finished writing. Kelsea sang the lead vocal and Forest and I sang BGV’s [background vocals]. Funny enough, Kelsea went to record the album and ended up not beating the vocal that she had done the day we wrote it. What you hear on the radio is the vocal from the day we wrote the song (including the BGV’s Forest and I sang)! It was never a question if “Peter Pan” would be on the record or a single. Everyone knew how special this song was. From the beginning I think the plan was almost to make it the 3rd single.
What do you enjoy most about writing songs in general?
Nothing beats a fun day of writing. Of course I wish I could write a hit every day, but it’s also pretty cool knowing that any day could bring the next big song.
Is there a particular period or moment in your career when you were faced with adversity or doubt and had to dig deep to stay the course?
[Laughs]. A lot of music friends of mine will say the same thing. There were a couple times when I really did almost quit. I said I was going to quit a lot of times, but the time I got the closest was actually right after we wrote “Peter Pan.” Which is ironic, because I’ve always said every time I get close to quitting, I’m pulled back in with some kind of good enough news, that it keeps me going. “Peter Pan” was that. I also wrote my 2nd No. 1 song six months after “Peter Pan.” I think that was a sign of some sort that was trying to tell me… “You still have a lot to say. You’re not done yet.” It took I think three years for both of those songs to be released to radio as singles. I was very proud of them from the beginning… I think knowing they were special helped me stay the course.
Do you have any advice for aspiring or newly professional songwriters?
The business has changed so much from when I started more 15 years ago. It’s so easy now to learn how to do everything—I think it’s important to learn how to make tracks, learn an instrument and then just write as much as possible. For most people, it takes a lot of years and a lot of songs written to hone the craft. Everything takes practice. One big piece of advice that I want to give, is to seek honesty. I don’t like publishers or friends to tell me I’m great all the time. I want you to tell me when you love a song. I want you to tell me when you don’t. Then, I want you to tell me why you don’t. Sometimes I take that advice and I re-work a song to make it better… other times I remind myself, “Well, I love this song as is. And you know what they say about opinions… they’re like____ and everyone’s got one! One last thing…. be authentic! It’s hard to make stuff up. It’s easy to write the truth!