Success came early for Joel Crouse, who moved to Nashville when he was 17 years old, then hit the charts with his debut single, “If You Want Some” (2013). That lead to his equally successful debut album (2014’s Even the River Runs) and opening slots for the likes of Toby Keith and The Band Perry. Unfortunately, Crouse never felt entirely comfortable in the country world, so this success was somewhat bittersweet. But on August 7, he’ll release a pop rock EP, wasteLAnd (on Hum Records), which he feels finally sets him on his true musical path. “I found my voice again,” he says.
His new single, “Survivin’” – which was released on July 17 – chronicles Crouse’s roller-coaster experience with the music business. “I had gone from touring with Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran and Darius Rucker,” he says. “Four years later, my business manager ends up going to jail. I ended up getting in this horrible deal that I had to fight my way out of. And at this time, I’m broke, too. I’m on food stamps, trying to survive. I end up going to write a song with Todd Clark and he was like, ‘What’s going on in your life?’ I told him, ‘Dude, I feel like I’m just surviving.’ That started everything. I just started writing everything that was going on around me.”
Calling from Nashville – his home for a decade now – Crouse explains that his “new” sound on wasteLAnd isn’t really a radical switch in styles for him, but rather a return to form. “I come from playing in a pop rock band in high school,” he says, “and I really wanted to go back to playing the music I was playing [then].”
Crouse had no doubt he was on the right track as soon as he started writing these songs. “Once you hit it, you know,” he says. “It felt like I was free. It felt like I was released of all these different mental chains that I had on me at the time.
“This record, I’m more lyrically connected to than anything I’ve ever put out before,” Crouse continues. “I’ve been holding on to these songs for a couple of years, and now that they’re finally coming out, I get to relive that experience of the songs through people hearing them for the first time. Lyrically, I wanted to be relatable, but also wanted it to be my story. It’s such a personal thing.”
To help him hone in on the desired pop rock sound, Crouse changed his songwriting routine, switching from using an acoustic guitar to playing the bass as he wrote “because the bass is one note [at a time], so I could only focus on that note, and I wouldn’t have other notes screwing with my melodic process.”
Now that he’s found his true place in the music business, Crouse is able to look back at his younger, more impressionable self with empathy. “I was so young,” he says of his early days in Nashville. “It’s really hard to not listen to what the older people are telling you at that point. I was thrown into writing rooms with people who’d been doing it for 20 years. You feel out of place at that point. I remember my first writing trip in Nashville, I went back to the hotel in tears because I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m good at this.’”
Still, Crouse makes it clear that he has no regrets about those difficult early days. “One thing I’m glad about that chapter in my life is, I really did get to learn from Hall of Fame writers and how they crafted a song,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone through that chapter, there’s no way I would have been able to hang in a room with a writer like Ed [Sheeran] or any of the writers I write with now. That really was my college, in a sense.”
Crouse has certainly proved he’s certainly learned his songwriting lessons well, holding his own as a co-writer with some of the biggest names in the music business. Last year, Hootie & the Blowfish released “Wildfire Love” on their Imperfect Circle album – which Crouse co-wrote with Ed Sheeran and Hootie leader Darius Rucker.
Also last year, Crouse picked up his own performance career again, co-writing and recording the track “On My Way” with Sheeran (who also sang backup vocals on it) and Kyle Rife. “It’s a really powerful song, and it meant a lot to me, and it started doing really well,” he says, adding that this success was what prompted him to finally pull his EP together. “I really wanted to finally show the rest of the project.”
Becoming a professional musician was a somewhat unlikely career choice for Crouse, given his background in a very strict household. “I grew up a pastor’s kid,” he says. “When you’re growing up in that type of environment, you’re just behind a big shadow figure.” At this point, he says, he was “feeling very claustrophobic by my whole life situation. I didn’t have a lot of freedom growing up, to the point where I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio until I was 13.”
Crouse recalls a pivotal moment when he was on a family vacation, when his parents were out of the rental house and he was left to flip through television channels unsupervised – and came across MTV for the first time. The first video he ever saw was “Fly Away” by Lenny Kravitz. “I’m like, ‘That is so cool!’” he says.
Crouse started playing guitar when he was 12 years old. “It was The Beatles that started everything,” he says of the decision to take a more active role with music. “I noticed when I’d hear songs, I would get goosebumps or chills. It was the coolest feeling in the world, and I wanted to write music like that.” After The Beatles, Crouse got into alternative rock artists such as Death Cab for Cutie and Audioslave.
By the time he was in high school, Crouse was touring around his native Massachusetts and the rest of New England with a pop rock band. When the other members quit so they could go to college, Crouse moved to Nashville instead, where that unlikely country career awaited him.
Now, as Crouse prepares to release wasteLAnd, he says he’s comfortable about showing his true self to the world. “This time around, it was like, ‘If there’s ever a time where I can finally say what I want to say and do the type of music I want to do, it’d be now.’”