Songwriter Interviews

Jason Michael Carroll on "Livin' Our Love Song" and his Kickstarter album

by Greg Prato

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There was a time in music where for most recording artists, having the backing of a major label was crucial for sustained, long-term success. Not anymore. With the advent of such alternatives as Kickstarter (which helps raise the funds necessary for a project), artists can do their thing completely on their own. Case in point, Jason Michael Carroll, who went the Kickstarter route with his fourth studio album overall, 2015's What Color Is Your Sky.

Debuting in 2007 with Waitin' in the Country, Carroll's first two recordings were on Arista, and resulted in a string of hits on the US Country chart (the two biggest being "Alyssa Lies" and "Livin' Our Love Song" - the latter of which was certified gold). Although his union with major labels was short-lived, Carroll has built a loyal fanbase thanks to his heartfelt tunes and consistent touring.

Carroll chatted with Songfacts right before the release of What Color Is Your Sky, touching upon such topics as how country music has changed over the past 20 years, songwriting with others, and the stories behind some of his biggest hits.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss your new album, What Color Is Your Sky.

Jason Michael Carroll: How much time have you got, buddy? [Laughs] What Color Is Your Sky is a record that when we were putting it together, it just really kind of happened. For the last four years, I've been touring on the road, staying busy - my agency, Buddy Lee, has been keeping us on the road. We have not had any time off, which is great. But in that time, you've got to make time to write, you've got to make time for family, you've got to make time for all those things you're juggling around with it.

So being on the road and doing all that stuff was fun, and a great way to test out songs. I could write a song on a Thursday, and that evening if we had a show, play it for the fans. Because what better gauge on if a song is any good or not than in front of the people you're writing it for? So I played acoustic, and after about three-and-a-half years of doing that, people were asking me, "Hey man, all this new music you're writing is great. When are you going to put out a record for us?" And I'll be honest with you: embarrassingly, I didn't think about taking the time to make the record! All of this work into putting the songs together, I totally forgot to take the time to record them.

So after doing that, we started working on some cool stuff, and it just came together. Talking to the band, and through the miracle of modern technology, we all agreed that we could do this album fairly easily by recording in our own home studios. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there's some folks out there, the real "music connoisseurs," if you will, who will probably say, "I can tell this wasn't recorded in a full-on studio." But I don't think there's that much difference. We've got songs my bass player recorded at his house, my drummer recorded his drum tracks at his little studio, my keyboard player recorded his parts at his little studio at his house, and I did my vocals for the most part in my little 10x12 office at my house in North Carolina. So through emailing parts back and forth to each other, we came up with the record.

The writing of the songs was the part that came about organically - they just seemed to happen naturally. "Close Enough" is a song that we released about a year-and-a-half ago. We made a video for it. I called a friend and we did the video treatment for it, and he was like, "Let's go record it." So that was actually the lead-off single for the record, and it stayed on CMT Pure's countdown, which is a fan-voted show, at #1 for five weeks in a row because of my fans supporting what we do.

Based in Nashville, AJ Babcock has written tunes for Mark Townsend, Paul Moak and TobyMac. He is a member of the Christian rock band, House of Heroes. Pete Good also calls Nashville his home - starting out as an acoustic singer/songwriter, he then transitioned to writing tunes for others.
But that song came about, it was so organic - it was one of my first times writing with some of my writer friends, Pete Good and AJ Babcock. Pete's from South Dakota and AJ is from Ohio. Somehow, those two met, and I was in town for a week or so - this is about three years ago now - and I was calling a friend of mine at Curb Publishing, just saying, "Hey man, I'm in town, I want to do some writing. If you have any writers you can send my way..." I'll write with anybody - I just love to write. He called me back and said, "All my guys are in Key West for the Key West Songwriters Festival." Which I've been to. There's no songwriting there, but it's a lot of fun. [Laughs]

I digress - going back to the story, this guy called me back and said, "All my writers are down there, but I've got these guys that are a writing team, and they want to write." So I sat down with them, and at the time, there was four of us - it was me, Pete, AJ, and a guy named Nate Sallie who was signed to the Curb Records Christian publishing division. We just clicked. That day, the first time writing together, we wrote two songs. And then the next time we wrote together, we wrote two songs, and then after that, me and Pete and AJ really clicked and Nate was busy doing something else, so after that, it was me, Pete, and AJ. We wrote basically every song on the record. There's a song called "Here's To" on the record that Pete called me up one night and said he had an idea for the song. We met at the bar, and two-and-a-half hours later, we had it finished. So breaking down song by song, I can tell you more about each song as it was written.

Songfacts: I noticed the album came out through a Kickstarter campaign. Why do you think more artists are going that route today?

Jason: Here's the thing: We were with Arista Records for five years. We left Arista for our reasons, and through Nashville being such a small town, you don't know what side of what story people get when somebody leaves. We had five Top 20 hits, and weren't sure where we were going to wind up after that. I didn't think it would be that hard to be picked up at another label with the success that we'd had, but just through hearing different things in town, there was a little bit of talking going on from other people that we had to kind of combat. You can't tell me that with five Top 20 hits, that we were done. Thanks for stopping by... you know what I mean? So it was a matter of being able to stay on the road and stay the way we are touring that shows that my fans really support what I do. People ask what I think a successful career would be, and I've always said to me, a successful career would be if 20 years from now, if people still want to hear me play my music, then that would be awesome. And we're on our way to that. It's a great thing.

The one great thing about a label is the fact that they have the funds to push things - it costs money to go to radio, to do visits, to do some free shows for radio and that kind of thing. But other than that, we're moving at a pretty good pace on our own, just pushing things the way we have been, and the only way that we can do that as far as help support our record and help go to radio when we can is to go through the Kickstarter campaign, and that really helped us push it to where we are now. The fans are stepping up, and we're doing what we do because of our fans.

Songfacts: Why do you think over say, the past 20 years or so, that country music has moved towards a more rock and pop direction?

Jason: I think country music is becoming more of a staple format. Back in the day, it was kind of, "Oh, you listen to country?" Now, you've got pop stars that are wanting to be country. You've got country acts that think they're pop stars. It's a lot of different things that are melding together. It's a good thing, but you know how in rock n' roll you've got heavy metal, heavy rock, soft rock, light rock, pop rock? I think that is one thing that is affecting the format. Right now, you've got one or two country stations in a town, and they're both playing the same songs. Eventually, it's going to be six country stations, and you're going to be, "Oh, this is soft country, this is light country, this is outlaw country." It's just going to keep going that way until eventually the format is going to be watered down. If you talk to people that know rock n' roll and rock n' roll history, they're going to say that is exactly what happened to rock n' roll. Becoming the most popular brand is a good thing, but I think it's also going to be one of those things where it's not going to be managed correctly, and it's going to become a watered-down format.

Songfacts: One thing that I miss about country music is that back in the day, the songs had great storytelling-type lyrics. You mentioned your song, "Here's To," and that reminded me of those old-time country songs.

Jason: I really hope people, when they buy my record and listen to the album, that that's what they get from it. Because telling stories, to me, was the best part of country music. Willie and Waylon, you've got "Pancho and Lefty," all those different songs that just really told some amazing stories.

Here's the thing: I like other types of music. I really do. And I like country. But there's a lot of country today that sounds like they're not only trying to be pop music, but really bad pop music. Like, the lyrics don't make sense. It's like, "What are you doing?" We're sacrificing a ton to sell music right now, and I think the integrity of the format is being sacrificed, instead of the music actually speaking for itself and bringing people to that level, we're stepping down.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few of your songs, starting with "All I'm Drinking 'Bout."

Jason: True story: I was watching Pulp Fiction on AMC one day. Remember how VH1 used to do Pop Up Video? AMC was doing it for this movie, and I'm really surprised I could keep up with the movie and the little bubbles popping up - the little factoids. It was the scene where Uma Thurman and John Travolta are sitting at Jack Rabbit Slim's, and in the background there's this Spaghetti western song playing, and this little bubble pops up, and says, "In every one of Quentin Tarantino's films, there is a spaghetti western song." And I remember thinking back to all these different movies that I've seen from Quentin Tarantino, and I'm like, "Oh wow, there are!"

So I got to thinking about that more, and when I got back to Nashville I went to my friends, Pete Good and AJ Babcock, and I was like, "Guys, this is going to sound crazy, but I want to write a spaghetti western song. I want to write a song that Quentin Tarantino would put in his film." We started goofing around on guitars and we came up with the lyric. I can't remember who actually came up with "You broke my heart when you walked out, Baby now that's all I'm drinking 'bout." We were just going to kick the song in right after that, but when they started playing the little solo part over top of it, AJ had come up with that little slide, and I started whistling it with him. Then something clicked in my head - that's spaghetti western too, that whistle.

So that's where that song was born: it was the idea that Quentin Tarantino would possibly put the song in his film someday.

Songfacts: And what about the tune "Livin' Our Love Song"?

Jason: My wife Wendy and I, we dated in high school - she was younger than me. I had just gotten home from the Marine Corps. I was visiting home and was about to be switched to reserve status, and her parents found out that she was dating a musician/Marine, and it was not cool. So they sent her away to a Christian University - Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina - to get her away from me. When they did, she wound up meeting a guy down there. They got married, and I was dating somebody in North Carolina. I had a couple of kids with my girlfriend, then we got married. We had one more kid, and things over time just didn't work out. We separated when we lived in Texas for a while, and she moved back to North Carolina with the kids. I didn't want to be a once-a-month dad, so I moved back to North Carolina to be close to my babies. Wound up joining my old band that I toured with in North Carolina before I moved to Texas again, singing with them part-time at first, and then stepping up to a full-time role again. And one show we were at, Wendy came into the club. I saw her, jumped off stage, walked up to her, and was like, "Look, I think about you all the time. I'm sorry things went the way they did. You never have to speak to me again, I just want to get this off my chest." I hugged her, got on stage, and our very first song that night was Kenny Chesney's "Just Don't Happen Twice." We started talking after the show - we clicked like we hadn't missed a day.

Now, fast forward several years being on a tour and promoting "Alyssa Lies," and one of my guitar players comes up to me on the bus in between cities in California, and he's like, "Hey Jason, how do you write a song?" I remember I looked at him and said, "You better go ask a songwriter!" At that point, I had already written "Alyssa Lies," and that had success, but I still feel that as far as where I'm at as a songwriter, I love my songs, but I still think there are millions of people that are way better at it than I am. So I said, "Man, you just write down what you're feeling. Tell a story. Make sure you tell a story that connects with you, and that you think would connect with somebody else, because the odds are, if you've been through something, there's going to be several people out there that have gone through it."

He started playing something on guitar, and I said, "Take that, for instance" - I was playing XBox, and I pushed pause. We started writing the lyrics, and probably an hour and a half, two hours later, my other guitar player gets up from his nap in the back of the bus, he sits down with us, and we finish the song in another 30 minutes after that. The radio rep on the road with us loved it so much that we wound up playing it. She asked us to play it for the radio station the next morning, and we did. She was making phone calls to Sony at the time. They called me up, and said, "Hey Jason, we thought we were done with the record, but we're going to put you back in the studio - you're recording this song." We went back in the studio, recorded it, and that song was our second Top 5 single.

Songfacts: And what about "I Can Sleep When I'm Dead"?

Jason: That was a fun one to write. I'm a huge fan of Rivers Rutherford, and I remember I had a chance to go write one day, and I called my rep at Sony, and I said, "I want to write." So he said, "I have somebody I want to set you up with. Have you heard of Rivers Rutherford?" Rivers has written a bunch of songs for Montgomery Gentry and artists like that. So I wound up going to the meeting, and Rivers was there and Jim Collins was there. As soon as we sat down and started writing, Rivers' phone rang. He had something going on with NMG [Nashville Music Guide] that week, and he's like, "I've got to take this call." So Jim and I step out of the room, while Rivers was on the phone for literally 30 minutes. Jim and I were talking, and he asked me where I'm from. I'm talking about all different kinds of things, like how I grew up on a tobacco farm outside of Raleigh, North Carolina; how I learned how to drive my truck out there, just different stuff. And I told him about my ex-wife and trying to be in a band on the weekends and keep a full-time job during the week, seeing my kids on Sunday every week that I can. And he looked at me, and he's like, "Man, when do you sleep?" And I just said it without thinking, "I can sleep when I'm dead."

It's something I've grown up hearing all the farmers around the barns by my house say. When I said it, his eyes lit up, and he's like, "Dude, we're writing that today!" So Rivers got off the phone, and he's like, "Let's come up with an idea," and Jim and I are like, "We've already got one." So we started it, and that song took off.

The song only got up to #17 on the charts - at the time, it was my lowest-charting single, before I left Sony. But the cool part about that was when we play it live, you can't tell that it was one of my lowest-charting songs. People are jumping up and down, singing along with us to this day. That, to me, speaks volumes.

Songfacts: Lastly, who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Jason: That list can go on forever. My favorite songwriters are some of the well-known ones - I love Steven Tyler - I'm a huge Aerosmith fan. Steven, the songs he's written, a lot of them were drug-induced, but the stories about where those songs came from are incredible.

And this may be an uncommon answer, but the guys I write with, Pete Good and AJ Babcock, they are two of my favorite songwriters. Together, we come up with some really amazing stories. That's one of the coolest parts about being able to step into a room with somebody - whether you know them or not - and just click like that. Be comfortable enough to tell some stories that may embarrass you at first, but you're going to get some good material out of it.

Rivers Rutherford is another, Casey Beathard and Paul Overstreet are also amazing songwriters. Paul and Casey and I wrote a song on my second album called "That's All I Know," and we still get a ton of requests for that song today. We haven't played it in forever, but I'm getting requests all the time for that song, so I need to try and put that back in the set.

May 4, 2015.
For more Jason, visit jasonmichaelcarroll.com. For the "Alyssa Lies" story and a look at his early years, check out our 2009 interview with Jason.

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