Josh Kelley just may conquer the world one day. At 31 years old, he’s blissfully married to one of today’s most beautiful comedic actresses, and if there's one thing we'll make sure of in this interview, it's finding out how he got away with writing a song called "Baby Blue Eyes" when Katherine Heigl's eyes are definitely brown.
Josh made an impact as a solo artist with the 2003 hit "Amazing." He's written for movies and TV shows, including the theme for Mike & Molly, and he's written country songs for other artists, but Georgia Clay, released on March 22, is his first country album. And while he loves pop, country is a style that suits him. It also runs in the family: his brother Charles is one third of Lady Antebellum, and he makes a great songwriting partner. The pair teamed up to write the title track, which was released as the first single and is making its way up the charts.
Besides songwriting and taking care of his young daughter, Josh makes an occasional foray into the underbelly of celebrity golf, and as we found out, it's not just business deals going down on the golf course - songs are written there too. With all that going on, it’ll be tough to find time to do any world conquering, but we think somehow, some way, Josh Kelley will manage.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): You’re getting some good response for “Georgia Clay.”
Josh: Oh, yeah, we just hit 18 today on the charts. Woohoo! And the CD is coming out tomorrow. I got my first copy of it yesterday when I arrived at the hotel here in New York. I had gotten five copies, and I gave one of them to the lady at the front desk and she upgraded me to a nicer room. (laughing)
Songfacts: Use it, baby, use it.
Josh: Use it, come on, playas. (laughing) No, it’s great. And it looks really good, too. Finally. On an album cover, I finally look like me, it even sounds like me. Man, it took 10 years to do that.
Songfacts: As far as “Georgia Clay,” you talk about how you used to go to the lake and drive your truck around. What lake? Can you tell me more specifics about that?
Josh: Let’s see, what lake was it that we used to go to… I think it was Lake Chatuge, up in the North Georgia Mountains. It’s in Young Harris, Hiawassee area. I know it’s crazy, it’s way up in the mountains. But yeah, that truck was up there a lot, because that’s where my dad’s farm was. He raised Black Angus cattle up there and stuff. Half of our life we grew up raising them, helping him with the cattle and bush-hogging the land. We were his slave labor. So we would go out to Lake Chatuge and take out the pontoon boat.
Songfacts: Going back a few years, can you tell me any particular stories about “Amazing,” why that song was special to you?
Josh Kelley: “Amazing” actually started off as a bluegrass song originally. I was in school in Mississippi and I had a great idea. I basically had the chorus and I was like, man, this chorus sounds great. So my roommate, he goes, “Yeah, it’s awesome.”
We used to throw these little block parties, and I’d met this girl. And she was just really cool, really spunky. I remember that night, middle of the night, she was like, “let’s travel to Tunica and go to the casino.” It’s like 2 in the morning.
And the next day I had some free recording time at a studio to record this song. But I hadn’t completely finished it yet. And so from her little spunky attitude, I actually got some ideas for the second verse on the way to the studio that next day. And the reason I even got that studio time is because I had basically traded a guitar amplifier, because I had no money in college. I just traded this guitar to this guy and he gave me six hours of time. I was young then, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to sing about, but I knew that I was chasing girls. I mean, now looking at it in hindsight, the lyrics don’t even make that much sense. (laughing) Now I’m a much better writer than I was when I was 21. Or maybe I was actually 20 then. I think I was 20. And I’ve just become a much better writer.
So going back to the lyrics, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” But it’s funny how it used to be a bluegrass song and then I tried to get a record deal with country music when I was 21 and I got turned down. And then six months later, a guy from Hollywood Records heard that song on the Internet, heard it on Napster, and they signed me and they turned it basically into a pop song. And I was totally fine with that. I love pop music. So I love a well-produced song. I think a really crafted, well produced song is like candy.
So that’s kind of the story behind that. It was probably good that I got turned down from country music when I was younger because I really wasn’t ready. I needed this time to season and to develop and to grow and to become better. And now that I’ve finally made my way back to country music, I’m a much better singer, much better writer, and a much better performer.
Songfacts: That is intriguing to me, because I wondered how that transition happened from what you were to country. I know that a lot of the pop artists are going that way.
Josh: Yeah, the thing is, I think it works for the people who were basically born in the south. I know that Darius (Rucker - Hootie and the Blowfish), I think he was actually there from up in Virginia, which is more redneck than anyplace in the country. Sorry, Virginia. But he went to school about an hour and a half away from me in college in South Carolina - Columbia. And so that’s also about as country as it gets.
I’ve known them for years. I thought a lot of their songs were already country songs. His transition, like mine, was a lot easier, because we just came from that southern background.
Songfacts: Your voice plays to country music so much more naturally than it does to the earlier stuff.
Josh: Absolutely. Because I’m able to sound like a man now instead of sounding like a little freakin’ emo. (laughing) So it works better for me. I’m able to write about little things. I love to write little short stories, little 3½ minute movies. They’re fun. And it’s hard to do. It’s really hard to fit the amount of information that might be in 20 minutes of a movie into, like, two lyrics. And it’s such a challenge that it makes it fun. I like chasing challenges.
Songfacts: Tell me about “Only You.” I know that you met your wife (Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy) making that video. Obviously the song was already written. So where did it come from?
Josh: Actually, the idea for that song started when I was in Australia. I was on tour with the Counting Crows then, and I was dating this little girl - she was a Kiwi, she was from New Zealand, but she was signed to the same label that I was signed to in Australia and she was the opening act for a while. And I was just spit-firing little ideas out. I mean, I don’t really specifically write about people all the time, not really until I got into country music did I start writing about my little girl and my wife. But I just kind of come up with ideas about things that are going on. And when I got back home, my A&R guy said, “There’s a writing team called The Matrix and they’d love to write with you.” And so I walked in, I said, “I’ve got a couple of ideas.” And I started singing that one, they said, “That’s the one, let’s do it.” And so then we finished it all together and it just became about a concept.
Songfacts: Explain The Matrix to me.
Josh: They’re a three-person writing team. It’s a husband and a wife and then a best friend. And they’re great. But it was actually kind of my first co-writing experience. And I had a great time doing it because collaborating can be fun if people are willing to really collaborate. And so yeah, I had a great time doing that and it sort of opened up a new world for me, too, in making relationships with other writers and learning how to become a better writer by seeing what they do. I mean, you teach each other sometimes when you’re co-writing with people who are really good.
Songfacts: I’ve heard that if you’re open minded enough to want to learn from others, then it can only be a good experience.
Josh: Oh, man. You can never stop learning in music. I mean, there’s no ceiling if you’re open minded enough and want to keep learning. I love learning. I spend an hour and a half every morning with a cup of coffee with my electric guitar just learning new licks and just coming up with new ways to sound better.
Songfacts: And I have to ask you, of course, about the Lady Antebellum connection. I kind of wondered if the fact that your brother (Charles Kelley) is in the band is what caused you to maybe sway in the direction of country again, because they’re having such success?
Josh: No, it actually didn’t. It was “Gone Like That.” I was coming in to write songs, just write songs - actually, when we finished “Gone Like That,” I wanted to pitch it to Keith Urban. I was like, “I want a Keith Urban cut,” which is obviously almost impossible. But I sent it to my publishers, and they said, “Josh, no, you’ve got to try country again. This sounds like you, these sound the best you’ve ever sounded.” And that’s really what made it happen. I even sent it to Charles, and Charles said the same thing. He goes, “Bro, this is as country as it gets. Man, you sound great on this. You’ve got to give it a shot.” So he motivated me. I was doing great as an independent artist and I was making the kind of money that I wanted to make. It’s just when that happened, I realized that, okay, this can really happen. Let’s try to get a record deal. And so I put together $20,000 from the publisher company and that helped me with a 5-song EP. And then we shopped it around to everybody going to Nashville.
Songfacts: Do you enjoy co-writing with your brother?
Josh: Oh yeah, we do it all the time. We’ve been writing together since we were 11. We had a band when we were 15 and 16 called Inside Blue, and we had a record deal on the table with Atlantic Records, actually. And my dad didn’t want us to do it because we were too young. But we’ve been writing together for a long time. We wrote a couple of songs recently for Lady Antebellum’s record, and one of them they’re using called “Like I Do.” I write with Charles all the time. He’s a fantastic writer. So is (Dave) Haywood. “Georgia Clay” I wrote with Charles, and “Ain’t Letting Go,” which is, I think, track number 10. We write all the time.
Songfacts: You are now with MCA. And that’s a major label. You went from a major to an indie to a major.
Josh: Yeah, it’s a great feeling. When I was independent, that’s when I really started creating a fan base. Because you’re forced to learn how to really entertain people. And we were on the road all the time. I was on the road all the time as an independent artist. I made four albums independently. And one of them, Special Company, was Number 1 on iTunes for two weeks in a row, and that really put me back on the map. That record put me back on the map and a lot of those songs are country songs. Just done a little different. And I think that’s kind of what got the ball rolling on people going, “You need to give country another shot.”
Songfacts: So why did you go ahead and sign up with another major instead of just gearing yourself towards that?
Josh: Because you’re limited to how big you can get independently. And when I started really feeling the drug of pulling off a great live show, I wanted to be bigger and bigger. And it is, it’s a total drug. It’s amazing. Not like the Charlie Sheen drug. (laughing) But it is. I remember the last tour that I did as an independent artist, Rod Stewart asked me to come and be his opening act. And when I played those huge venues and people responded to the songs, I was like, Oh, man, I want this really bad. And that’s when it started happening. I started focusing even more and started writing in Nashville all the time. And I wrote a song called “Gone Like That” with Clint Lagerberg, who has now ended up becoming one of my best friends. He produced the album. And that’s what got me the deal. That song got me a deal.
Songfacts: Is there anything that we can drill down into on “Gone Like That” that you haven’t already talked about?
Josh: Probably. What’s funny about that song is that me and Clint both came into the session with an idea. And we both came in with chorus ideas. And when he played me his and I played him mine, we both looked at each other and we were like, Oh my God, they fit. They’re in the same key. Were we cosmic? And what was going to be my chorus, we turned that into the verse and manipulated it a little bit, and then turned his chorus into the chorus. And the lyrics just started coming out, man. We started talking about different girls that we had dated that would just bolt. Just leave, and we didn’t know where they were. (laughing) And you’re sitting here going, “Who is this chick?” And then just when you start to get over a girl, I mean, it’s almost like the day that you decide that you’re over this chick, they come back into your life, whether it’s a phone call, or they just show up at the bar that you go to all the time. And that’s what that song is about. Like, I am not going to get back into this wormhole again, no way. I can’t take another gone like this chick keeps giving.
Songfacts: (laughing) Okay, on “A Real Good Try,” tell me about how that came together.
Josh: Oh, yeah. “A Real Good Try” is one of the two songs that I wrote 100%. Originally, I was telling my little brother Charles (Kelley of Lady Antebellum) and Cassie, his wife, I said, “I would really love an Alison Krauss voice on this song. It would just be so pretty.” They said, “Dude, you have got to hear Ashley Monroe.” And they were really good friends with her. And so I met Ashley one day kind of randomly, and I asked her if she would come to the studio with me and sing on a couple of tracks. And that one just turned out to be the best one for her, and she loved it. And she nailed it. She sounds just like a little angel.
Songfacts: What’s going on in the song?
Josh: Well, the idea was when I was in sort of the deepest moments of being an independent artist and really working hard and I wanted to kind of send a message not only to my wife, but to everybody in my family, like, “Don’t worry about me. I’m totally fine. I know you guys see me working hard here and basically putting all my money back into the career. But I’m giving it a real good try, and I’m telling you, this is an investment, and it’s going to work.” And it was kind of a song for myself, almost like a self-motivator. And I think relatability-wise, it’s for all the people out there that are working real hard to achieve what they want to achieve. And it’s about just being patient. It’s gonna happen. You keep doing it, it’s gonna happen.
Songfacts: And I read that you said that your mom always gave you that advice, to always write something that’s relatable.
Josh: Yeah, my mom always said, “You write a song people can relate to and you’ll go far.” And my dad was always saying things like, “Just keep on giving it a real good try.”
Josh and his wife Katherine Heigl adopted a special needs daughter from South Korea. His song "Naleigh Moon" from the Georgia Clay album is named after her.
Songfacts: I know that you want to tell me about “Naleigh Moon.” I have to tell you that you and I have that in common. My son is adopted, as well.
Josh: Right on! Fantastic!
Songfacts: That’s the best way to go, I think.
Josh: Best thing ever, man. Oh my God. She is the cutest, coolest little kid on the block. And she’s a total daddy’s girl. I mean, I’m obsessed with her. I love her. I take her every morning - I’m the morning dad, so I get her in the morning and I take her to my studio and lay a bunch of little shakers and little toy pianos and stuff on the ground and I get in the my studio and she plays and sits in my lap and hits the piano every now and then.
Songfacts: And she’s how old now?
Josh: She’s almost 2½ now.
Songfacts: Can I ask why you guys decided to go to South Korea?
Josh: Well, Katie’s sister was adopted from South Korea. And when we decided that we wanted to adopt first, we thought that would be sort of the logical place to start. Let’s keep it in Korea. And we started doing the process, it took a while, we were open to special needs of almost any kind. And her special need - which is funny that this is even a special need - is that she had two holes in her heart. She had surgery at three months and then at five months. And luckily for me and Katie, my dad is a heart doctor. It’s great. So he checked up on her when she came in and he said she’s 100%. He was like, “They did a great job on the surgery and she’s completely recovered.” That’s why we got her early. We got her at like 9 months. She was actually born when we started the process. (laughing)
Songfacts: How did you guys get hooked up with her? Did you go over there to an orphanage or something?
Josh: No, we went through Hope International, the same thing that my mother-in-law went through for Katie’s sister. And did all the paperwork, did everything, it was like filling out 5 novels. It’s insane. I actually think that every expecting mom and dad should actually have to fill out these same questions. Because they ask you things that you would have never asked yourself. It’s amazing. So that’s kind of how it all went down. And now we have a daughter, and she’s the best. She’s awesome.
Songfacts: And every one of your songs probably has a little bit of her in them now, huh?
Josh: Uh-huh. She made me a better person, instantly. And definitely more selfless. I think to even be an entertainer, you have to have some self-absorbed qualities and she just flipped me upside down, started seeing everything in a different way.
Songfacts: What would you like to tell me about that song?
Josh: Well, actually, I wrote it with Clint (Lagerberg), my producer. And Clint had just had a little baby boy. So when we sat down and I said, “I want to write a song about Naleigh,” we just started talking about our kids. And we were just so excited. We were both like brand new people. And the lyrics just started pouring out, everything that we were talking about became the lyrics. And I think that was just one of those really fortunate happenstances that both of us were experiencing something at the same time and we could write about it, even from a different perspective.
My wife was working on a movie, Life As We Know It, she was playing this mom who had all of the sudden got a kid out of the blue. (laughing) Right when we had a kid, she gets a kid in her movie. It was in the air.
Songfacts: I guess that portrayal was pretty realistic, then, for her.
Josh: Oh, absolutely.
Songfacts: My second favorite song off of this album is “Great Idea.”
Josh: Oh, nice! No way!
Songfacts: Why? Talk to me about “Great Idea.”
Josh: That’s great! I love that song. The song is kind of about going to your high school reunion and meeting up with the same person maybe you used to date, and then going back through all those motions. Like, “Oh, my God, let’s go back to where we experienced this, and let’s do this.” It’s kind of about that. Is this a great idea, or a good memory? Should we do this or not? You know. That song really goes over well live, too, man. People love it right when we start kicking into that thing.
Songfacts: Yeah, these great stomping fast songs are fabulous for that. Like “Rainin’ Whiskey.”
Josh: Yeah, I was actually just looking at that right here on the CD. “Rainin’ Whiskey” is - and that’s debatable as to whether we’re going to put that as a single or not, because it definitely sounds like one. It’s also a great live song.
Songfacts: And a great country song.
Josh: Yeah. I love that song. I was just sitting with some buddies that actually came to Atlanta, too. I wrote it the same time that I wrote “Naleigh Moon.” And I was just sitting with my buddies and I was like, “Hey, man, should we pour a little whiskey and do some writing?” (laughing) And we just kind of started talking about that and the next thing you know we were talking about the idea of how you portray a party that you want your friend to come to, but they refuse to leave the house. Well, you go to the party and you’re like, “Dude, it’s off the chains, man. It’s so crazy here, it may as well be raining whiskey.” And so we thought that would be a great way to get Johnny to finally come out of the house kind of thing. So that’s what that song is about. Just a party song.
Songfacts: And did you plug it to Maker’s Mark yet?
Josh: No, I want to. I’m trying. I think we’ve been plugging it to every whiskey company on the planet. (laughing)
Songfacts: Perfect. Tell me about “Baby Blue Eyes.”
Josh: “Baby Blue Eyes” I wrote with Lee Brice and we both wrote that about our girls. And my wife’s eyes are brown, but he won out on getting his girl’s eyes on there. But we wrote it about our girls and how much we love our girls. That’s kind of about it on that one. That’s just what it is, it’s about how much we love our ladies, and he was talking to me about how pretty he thinks his girl is and I said, “My girl’s pretty, too.” And how cool, and I was like, “My girl’s cool, too. Let’s write about our women.” Van Morrison already got brown eyes, so I don’t even know if you can put another brown-eyed song out there.
And “Learning You” is really cool. It’s kind of a reminder to make sure that you keep passion alive. We’ve been together for six years now and it’s like, I want to make it so that there’s always something new to learn, so that keeps the spark alive.
Songfacts: Well, you’re just the perfect husband.
Josh: (laughing) Yeah, right. Well, music for me is my journal. Because I don’t journal. So that’s why a lot of stuff is kind of autobiographical, because I like to write about things that I know. Because I think the audience can tell if you’re not relating to it, they’re not going to relate to it.
Songfacts: I spoke with your buddy Steve Azar a while back, and that’s exactly what he said.
Josh: Oh, Steve. (laughs) I love Steve. He’s hilarious. We wrote some songs together.
Songfacts: Yes. He told me. Because I had talked to him about “Sinkin’ or Swimmin’ With You.” And I just thought that is just the sexiest song ever.
Josh: I think so, too. I love that song.
Songfacts: Tell me your half of that.
Josh went to the University of Mississippi on a golf scholarship.
Josh: Well, Steve and I met, randomly enough, it’s because of a celebrity golf tournament, this whole weird little underbelly world where you can go and play celebrity pro-am’s before pro tournaments and stuff. And it’s the most fun thing ever, because a lot of the same guys do it every time, because there’s only so many celebrity golfers. I mean, there’s probably more nowadays. But it’s like this weird little underbelly world that’s fun to be a part of and I just kept on seeing Steve. And we were at the Hootie and the Blowfish event called Monday After the Masters. We were backstage and we just kind of hit it off and we started coming up with ideas, because I’m always carrying a guitar around. I just walk around with the damn thing all the time. And Steve, he started coming up with this idea and we had it ready to go.
I lived in Nashville at the time. And when I got back home I called up Steve and said, “Let’s finish this song.” He came over to the house and I recorded a demo of it and the next thing I know he sent me the record. (laughing) He said, “It’s on the album, dude.” He didn’t even tell me. He didn’t even tell me he was going to record it or anything. I think that was my first… wait - that was my first country cut! Oh my God! (laughs) I had another one, too. I’m starting to get into that world of writing for other people and that is so much fun.
Songfacts: You had another one? What’s that?
Josh: Well, Jason Jones is an artist on Warner Brothers that has a new single out called “Ferris Wheel.” And I wrote that song, as well. It just came out and just started impacting. People are responding to it really well. I’m excited. It’s fun to be making music right now.
Songfacts: Does your wife ever have any problems with the poetic license that you take sometimes?
Josh: No, not at all. She loves it. She’s my biggest motivator, and my biggest fan.
Songfacts: Anything else that you would like to tell me that we haven’t talked about yet?
Josh: As far as writing is concerned, I write for other people, but I also write for movies and television. And I actually scored the theme song for that show Mike & Molly, the number one comedy. That’s my song. Keb’Mo’ is singing it, but me and Keb’ wrote it years ago, and so that’s my song. It’s called “I See Love.”
Songfacts: Did they come to you and say, “We need a song for this”?
Josh: Keb’Mo’ called me and he said Chuck Lorre came out to one of his shows and he really loved that song. He said, “Looks like he’s going to use it for the theme song.” I had to put something down, because I was smiling ear to ear, and I said, “That’s awesome, dude.”
Songfacts: Okay. Thank you so much, Josh. Please tell your wife that I’m really looking forward to her portrayal of Stephanie Plum (in her upcoming movie One For The Money).
Josh: I will. That’ll stoke her up for sure. You rock. Thank you so much.
Josh Kelley talked with us on the day before his first country music CD release, March 21, 2011.
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