omg: Your story is really interesting and a little bit different than some writers. You went from being on the road as a touring musician for Jason Aldean to being a staff writer at Peer Music. Walk us through how you first got started playing with Jason.
Justin: Okay, well Jason and I got started playing early on. I've known him a while. We've been friends since we were teenagers. We actually met playing a house gig. He would get up and sing a couple of songs a set, and we just got to be friends talking about songs. I did that for three or four years, all throughout high school. Then after that, I was like "Man, let's get out of here." We took off on the road and played showcases. I was there really early on, and by the time Tully and those guys came on, I was like, "You know what? I'm going to go to school, get off the road and go to college.” We kept writing, and I moved to Nashville in 2002. I got my first deal in 2003 with BMG. Ron Stuve was the one who signed me there.
omg: Wow, that's pretty fast to get a deal.
Justin: It was. It was nine months, but I had 67 publisher meetings. I learned a lot about the process of, like, getting a deal. You know, learning about your own songs, because you kind of get in your own bubble, and you find stuff that you like, and you don't know how people are going to react to that. When you're writing songs for yourself or for an artist, it's different. Like pitching songs around, there's definitely strategies and ways to go about it. I didn't know any of that stuff, so I think going through those meetings, I kind of learned. I was just soaking it all up.
omg: Oh absolutely. So, do you have any fun stories about what life was like on the road with Jason?
Justin: Oh, it was crazy. *laughs* Well, we were kids just being kids. We played the crappiest dives. There was this one place called Dew Drop Inn in Georgia, and it's the only place I'd ever seen a father and son actually get in a fist fight. This was all while we were playing, so I was like "This is an interesting place. Don't ever book this place again." *laughs*
omg: It was pretty much like you all got a show while you were on stage.
Justin: Exactly, you know that's what it is about half the time. You get so used to what you're doing, you get to really soak in the people.
omg: A lot of writers choose writing to avoid tour life and being away from home with a semi-normal schedule. Your journey was really from road life to being a staff writer. Can you talk us through that transition?
Justin: It was good. It was what I needed. You know, writing- I think you can write out on the road. Like now, I kind of go out on the road just to write. So it's like that's what’s fun- just to go out there and that's all you're doing is writing. But I think being here, being in the studio a lot more, allowed getting into production and being able to do a lot more stuff like that. It's hard to do that on the road. That was the biggest thing- having more time to do that.
omg: We love your song "Like I'm Gonna Lose You." Tell us a little about the backstory of writing it, pitching it to the artist, and how it came to be.
Justin: Thank you. Well, I wrote that with Meghan [Trainor]. I got to be friends with Meghan through Carla Wallace. She called and asked if Meghan could sit in with Erik Dylan, who writes here now, and I. We were writing that day and I was like "Sure, tell her to come on." We hit it off right away and started writing. That song was me, and her and Caitlyn Smith. I think it was the first time we had written, and it was kind of crazy. We sat down, we talked about a lot of ideas. I'd had a dream the night before, and it was kind of like the whole scene in the first of the song, like it was a black and white movie. I had the title "Chasing After You" or something like that- I never wrote it. My wife said "I just want you to love me like you're going to lose me." They were like "Whoa." They lit up. Then we talked for like an hour and a half about losing people. Meghan talked about her brother and Caitlyn talked about one of her friends who had lost somebody- lost her husband, I think. So here we are. I talked about a dear friend of ours who had lost their daughter in a car accident. She was an elementary school kid. It was really, like, all these emotions being poured into the room, and we just wrote the song out of that. We just stopped talking all of the sudden. We were like, "Let's write it." And it all just kind of came from an honest place. But you know, Meghan wasn't an artist at the time. She was just doing demos. Caitlyn actually sang the original demo, and we did it in a reggae style, so it was totally different. We just knew that the song was awesome and meant something. Kelly Clarkson had it on hold for a year, but then Kelly had her baby, and her record kept getting pushed back. All the while, Meghan's like, "I'm putting out a single. It's called ‘All About That Bass’." It was a hit, and then she was like, "I really want this song on my record" and her uncle kept bringing it up and saying she needed to put it out there. She just didn't know how to do it. Then she was talking to Chris Gelbuda- the guy that produced it. Chris sat down with her one day and was like "You just do it 50s style," started playing it on the guitar and keys, and like, actually did it right there. She sent it to me and asked what I thought. I was like, " Oh my gosh, it's amazing." It progressed so fast. John Legend heard it. They have the same manager, so John heard it and was like, "I wanna sing on that with you." Seriously, like two days later, John sends in a rough of his vocal from New York and it was like "Boom."
omg: So, the song really just came to life from you guys sitting around talking about your dream. That's insane.
Justin: Yeah, talking about friends, talking about losing people. That's what made it mean something. And another thing is you get a lot of cuts and ones that really mean something to you are few and far between and that was one of them. Especially for that to happen on a single.
omg: What is your typical day-to-day routine?
Justin: Day-to-day, gosh. I usually show up pretty early. I get up pretty early. I have three kids and a wife. I usually wake up and cook breakfast, get them out the door. My wife's a teacher, so she goes with them. They all go together to school, then I get ready for the day, as far as working up tracks or coming up with ideas. I'm usually here by 8:30-9:00.
omg: That is early for a writer!
Justin: *Laughs* Yep. So I'm here and usually coming up with stuff before people get here. Then sitting down with people, then I'll leave here and go finish it up or whatever.
omg: You mentioned building tracks. How did you get into that end?
Justin: Oh, I've been doing it since 19- I'm totally telling my age here- 1994 or 1995. I did a record in 2006, that was like my first record that I did. One of the songs on there, I had the entire track built, like everything and I didn't know the melody or lyrics. But I'm one of those writers that does it all. Like I'll sit down and there are some songs that I've written that were just all lyrics. Like no melody, basically just poetry. Putting yourself in a box sucks, so I never put anybody in a box when I walk in a room. We love to term people "track guy" or say "that guy does lyrics." I love to sit down with a lyricist and say "Oh you don't sing?" and they're like "No," and I'm like "Well you're gonna sing in here, so sing something. Because what you're going to sing is probably so easy that it's gonna make the song great." That's what I'm always shooting for, like I love songs where you can sing along- it's not so out of your range or whatever, it's just right there. I love that. So many hits are like that. So yeah, putting people in a box is stupid, because people will surprise you. And in this business, it's all about people to me. I haven't written a song by myself in probably 6-8 years, because what's the fun in that?
*knock on door- Michael Knox comes in*
Michael: Oh, you’re interviewing!
Justin: If you want to get in on this, you can. We’re talking about songwriting.
Michael: You know, today it’s all about live music.
Justin: When we’re sitting down to write, we’ve got to consider that. We’re doing what we do, but these songs are going to be played live. Artists are out there singing these songs every night.
Michael: Part of the problem is that they’re doing everything backwards now. It used to be that they would go and find the bands that were incredible live, record them and sell it. Nowadays, they’ll go and cut something, then they’ve gotta teach the artist how to play it. So, that’s why sometimes you go to see an artist and they can’t do it. The producers are great- they can make you sound amazing- but when you go watch them live, it’s horrible. The world is backwards now, but that might be contributing to why our record sales aren’t where they used to be.
omg: Do you think it’s going to stay that way?
Michael: I hope not. It just depends on the people who run things. Right now, that’s how they do it.
omg: Why do you think it’s being run that way?
Michael: Well, a lot of these people are signing really good singers that might not make really good artists. We’ve got a lot of great singers, we’ve got a lot of great producers, we’ve got a lot of great songwriters, but we don’t have a lot of great artists. Sometimes, a great singer makes you think they’ll be a great artist. Eric Church, Aldean, Luke Bryan- all of those guys would have lost these singing competitions. They’re artists, not singers. They’re more than singers- they’re a personality, an identity.
Justin: When I met Jason, we had another lead singer who was a lot better. Jason would get up and sing like two songs a set to mix it up for the crowd. He was all about the Tracy Lawrence stuff. His voice fit that really well. Jason and I got closer when we started writing. We got to talking and said “Hey man, there’s a lot more to this than the Top 40. Let’s do originals.” It wasn’t like today, though. Today, if you’re an artist and you’re pretty good, you can play some big shows.
Michael: Spotify’s changing that a lot. You can get out there and find somebody on Spotify, but it doesn’t mean that record labels are signing them. Chris Stapleton never would have happened if he didn’t pull the favor and have Justin Timberlake sing with him on the awards show. He still didn’t have a hit, he was just up for some newcomer award, and they weren’t giving him a slot to perform. He asked if he could have a slot if his buddy could get Justin Timberlake to perform with him, and they said “Sure.” He went from selling 50,000 records to being 2x Platinum. Don’t act like that was planned. It just happened. But these guys that are the pulse- these producers, independent songwriters, guys out on the street- don’t get listened to as much as they should from A&R. You’re too used to people, like an attorney or another publisher, bringing you stuff. These guys out on the road with people like Aldean are seeing a whole new generation of artists coming up that don’t know how to get to Nashville. These *gestures at Justin* are the guys you need to listen to on that. I’ve never signed an act that an A&R person’s brought to me. I’ve always signed acts that have come to me in other ways. That’s nothing against A&R, they’re doing their job the best way they know how. It’s just all in how they got there, too. We’re just backwards right now is all. We’re signing singers and teaching them how to be performers. We need to be signing artists and teaching them how to be commercial. It’s a whole different process. The Beatles were doing something and turned into commercial superstars. Be a performer that turns commercial, not commercial that learns how to be a performer.
Justin: On Spotify, you can go out and find someone that’s not signed, that doesn’t have a hit, filling up 2,000 seats.
Michael: Spotify is a nightmare for the record business, because they’re telling you what they like.
Justin: Kane Brown is a great example of that.
Michael: So is Riley Green. He’s a brand new artist coming up, but he’s a huge ticket buy. You’re going, man, this guy’s selling 1,200 tickets in a venue that even a new artist on the radio can’t. He’s totally crushing it. But why did it take him three years to get a record deal?
Justin: It’s all changing so fast.
Michael: We were talking about that this morning- the speed of the internet, the speed of people. We’re definitely in the age of 15 minutes of fame, but you’ve got to move fast to keep it. An artist is an artist, you know? If you want to save your format, you’ve got to find artists, not just singers. Singers are one hit wonders and artists are a lifestyle. Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood- they’re artists. You know them when you see them.
Justin: And a lot of that’s artist development. Michael runs Peer in Nashville, and a lot of that falls in his lap. He’s 100% artist development at this level.
Michael: Because record labels aren’t doing it. We spend all this money and when it comes down to the creative decision, we have no say. That’s the hard part. You spend three years developing an act, then they get signed, and the record label stops listening and puts out something different and the song tanks, and then they don’t give them another try. It’s not about releasing the best song, it’s all in releasing the right song. There are a lot of better songs. You know, “Hicktown” wasn’t a life-changing song. It wasn’t the best song, but it sold me almost two million records.
Justin: And it died at #12. People think “Hicktown” went #1, but it’s all about that recurrent hit. It was as big as a #1, if not bigger than most #1 hits now.
Michael: It’s funny the past is now the future. Guys like Justin are the future. You’ve got the singer/songwriter/producer guy that’s writing, but he’s learning how to do the tracks. It’s back to melody again, now. But when I say we’ve got to go backwards to move forward, I mean we’ve got to get back to the true songwriter. *Pats Justin on the back* This guy’s the real deal.
Justin: Michael’s such a mentor to me. Ever since I moved to town, he’s been the one I called to see if a deal was fair. Having somebody in your corner like that is awesome.
omg: A lot of our audience is made up of aspiring writers, musicians and artists. You've been very successful. What piece of advice would you offer them?
Justin: Do something you love. It's easy to come to town and get caught up in what's happening or what's going to make you successful. But all the success I've had has come from friends or people that I love. The other stuff never really hits. I like to have goals, like whenever Aldean comes up I want to get some Aldean songs. It's cool to have a goal, but at the same time within those parameters, do what you love and stay with it. I noticed that I'll start on something that I really love and maybe it doesn't get the activity that I want it to, or maybe I'm not getting cuts. Say I'm on a real country kick, and I'm writing these songs, and I'll see nothing's happening, so I'll change gears and then cuts start happening. Then I'll be pissed. *laughs* Like, "Damn, I should have stayed with that a little longer." But yeah, stay with what you love. It's easier to do. The other stuff's really hard.