"When I get a question like, 'Which one of these songs meant the most to you?' I'm like, I didn't prepare for that one, I don't know what to say." This is Josh Shilling, consummate professional, stumbling over his own responses. It's fun to see his discomfiture, because he is otherwise so flawless.
The Mountain Heart singer/songwriter and session musician has recently released his first solo EP, a too-short (in our opinion) offering of his exceptional talents. Few singers can perform the songs they wrote with anything approaching the unapologetically anguished notes that are Josh Shilling's voice. And on this EP, he captures it raw, the way nature intended.
Josh Shilling: [Laughing] I want you to send me that quote in an e mail so I can show it to my girlfriend. "Hey, honey. Yeah, here you go."
Songfacts: "Next time you want to kick me out for anything, just read this."
Shilling: That's right. I think the songs and this project turned out very strong. The songs were chosen from a playlist of my faves. So I'm pretty proud of each tune and I think they all had a special place on the record.
Songfacts: Well, I've got three that are my stand out favorites. And by that I mean when I hear new music, if there's one that I keep going back to and going back to, then I know that that's obviously my standout. And there are three on your EP that did for me. So let's start with those.
I want to know the story behind "Letting Go." I want to know who that was about, what happened that caused you to write that.
Shilling: That song has a dual meaning for this project. It's the title track and it's about someone moving on after a breakup. However it also stands for me letting go of all of the anxiety and fear of putting out a solo record that I've carried around for a decade now.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song itself.
Shilling: I was writing it with a guy at Warner/Chappell, which is a publishing house in Nashville. The guy's name is Chris Roberts. He started out just strumming his guitar, some kind of open tuning. And the chords just sounded completely normal, nothing unusual about it. And I was sitting at the piano trying to get some inspiration. I remember thinking "what could we do to actually make this seem like it's worth our time today." Just fooling around, I started playing solid 8th notes on my left hand. And so it had this kind of driving low end thing going on the piano.
And when we started singing the melody over the piano, it was like, man, this sounds like Coldplay, or like an arena rock type song or something. And so we basically just used that as our inspiration. It has this moody, not very dark, but not super happy vibe to it. It felt like maybe a breakup, but it also felt like the singer is being strong about this situation. And so that's exactly what it was. It was a couple splitting up, and for the first time this guy's really going to try and move on. The hook line says, "I'm getting better at letting go." And it's basically just saying, I'm getting stronger and I'm moving on.
Songfacts: So you actually let the mood of the music dictate what you wrote the words about?
Shilling: Yeah. On this particular piece. It's different with every song. Sometimes you come in with a title and you just try to build the music and story around that. To be honest with you, when we got together that day, I was just kind of like, "Well, are we going to waste our time today?" [Laughing] And then the music took a turn that excited us both and the song literally seemed to write itself.
It's has an uplifting chorus. The chorus really comes after this kind of mysterious place in the verse to this uplifting rockin' place in the chorus. And so if we were going to write a breakup song, it definitely did not feel like this guy was just completely down and out and broken. He's getting stronger
Songfacts: I've had only ever one other artist tell me that the music told him what it was saying, and he sat down and wrote the lyrics to that. So that's interesting to me.
Shilling: Doing this project is something for me to have to sell on the road and something to put on iTunes and represent what I do. But it is also, for me to use as an example of my songwriting catalogue. Any of you big artists out there that might be looking for a song, maybe I've got one that suits you. Songs like "Letting Go" would be amazing in the hands of an artist like Lady Antebellum
Songfacts: No! Keep it! You do that better than they could do it.
Shilling: I guess maybe I agree with that. [Laughing] I think a song performed by the writer can come across stronger than when it's performed by someone else not as emotionally attached. But yeah, this CD has so many purposes for me. The songs act as demos for pitching as well as promotional tools. It was beyond time for me to have some presence on iTunes as a solo artist!
But anyway, I guess my point of all that was when the song pluggers first heard "Letting Go" just a few hours after we finished it up, they were jumping up and down about it.
Songfacts: Which one of these songs made you jump up and down? Which one did you say, "I can't believe I wrote that song, it's so great"?
Shilling: Oh, gosh. I was actually playing with Jack Pearson, who's an ex Allman Brothers guy, last week. And he said, "Man, every now and then it's like I play so much music that I just get uninspired, and then I'll hear two notes played a certain way and they're special again…it's like it's the first time I ever heard them. And I'm so excited about the emotion I got from those two notes." And I think it's that way with song writing. Like John Oates said, sometimes it takes a huge production for me to be intrigued. I have to be listening to this huge sounding track to get into it. And then the next week I just need a simple song performed by a guy and his guitar to get turned on. Every so often, I'm more inspired by just a great lyric and a simple soft voice and a guitar strumming.
And I think that's the case for me. It changes as I evolve musically. When I hear "Letting Go," I'm like, Wow, that is a great huge-sounding piece. I love how the chords move and the chorus soars, love what happens in the verses. I love all the different vocal lines and arrangements that we put in there.
But then I hear where I actually came from musically speaking, songs like "Wondering if You're Wondering," which is track 5 on the CD, that particular song I wrote when I was 18 and I've wanted to record it for years and years. I've played it live, but I haven't recorded the song until this album. It's a simple lyric and has a very Sam Cooke-ish almost Etta James, Ray Charles kind of melody and vibe about it. When I hear those songs played and sang that way, and performed with that kind of emotion, I can't help getting sucked into it. That is what I think I'm meant to do. It's not because I wrote it solo, I think it's just because I have such a weakness for those kinds of songs. So I guess "Wondering If You're Wondering" grabs my attention and excites me every time I hear this album.
Songfacts: Did you write "Wondering If You're Wondering" as a duet originally?
Shilling: The lyrics could go either way, but no, I never thought of it as a duet until this project. I was making lyric sheets for each song before I went into the studio to sing and before I did liner notes and things like that, just to make sure I had all the lyrics correct. And I was thinking, I'd love to get one of these knock-out female singers around town to come in and guest on something on this CD, someone that had a little bit of a name, but also more importantly, somebody that just moves me as a singer. And there were a lot of people that came to mind. But Cia Cherryholmes seemed to stand out. We've worked together some and she's always blown me away. She actually lives right around the corner from me here in Nashville. She's a petite, sweet, incredible musician that just sings her butt off.
And so I think I got to looking at which lines would the girl sing and which lines would the guy take. And almost immediately I was like, wow this is going to be an incredible duet. So it happened by accident on my couch right here at the house.
Songfacts: That just sounds wrong. [Laughing]
Shilling: Yeah. Well, it does. I did say she's my neighbor, maybe you shouldn't write that in here. [Laughs]
But it would have been foolish to have her singing harmonies when she's such a standout lead singer and this song would be such an incredible duet. She was the girl to do it. Basically I went in and sang most of my parts, and she came in and sang her parts in the studio after that. We got in the booth together and worked out the harmonies and things like that. And we did some interesting not-like-your-typical-elementary block harmonies. We sang flat 5's and 6's together, and we sang a lot of really interesting kind of jazzy harmonies, especially towards the end of the song. So I'm thrilled with how that entire thing turned out.
When we were recording, we were getting ready to start recording the music, the guys were like, "Josh, you just need to come in like Ray Charles would do it. No chord, no nothing. Just start singing." And I was like, "No. I really want to do some little piano intro, just me and the piano." And they were like, "I think you're crazy."
And so I had the entire band just sitting there watching me, and I played that little piano intro once and started singing raw and live as can be, just like that. And I thought, Well, if we don't use it, I can at least edit it out later and just have the band come in straight….maybe just come right into the song. A month later and now a year or so after we tracked that, I listened back and I'm like, man, this is one of my favorite parts of the song, just this open intro featuring me and a piano.
Songfacts: Out of your comfort zone.
Shilling: I hate to hide behind the piano and sing on stage, but I feel totally comfortable playing a piano and singing. Mike Clute is the guy that produced this with me, and he said, "Josh, we've just got to let you do what you do." And I think that was a very mature and wise decision by him that helped produce or push me to produce this the way we did
Songfacts: Let me delve a little bit into the history of that song. Because you touched on that the last time we talked, and you had said that you had written that about your old high school girlfriend. And it seemed like when we talked before, that that song kind of pulled some emotions from you. And now that you've taken it and you've put another female singer on it and you're doing it a different way, I'm wondering if it kind of loses that emotion for you and if maybe it's gone to a different place.
Shilling: Yeah. I mean, I don't know how to answer that other than to say that I think anyone can feel the emotion in this song. I think it's a real simple thought and story.
And yeah, I wrote it when I was young, and really my only love experience would have been my ex. We were together for maybe four years or five years or something like that. So we were really close. When you split up after that amount of time, you feel like a huge piece of yourself is gone. And I think that was just kind of driving me a little nuts at the time. In the song, the guy's definitely a little bit heartbroken and it's something that he can't get past. And I think maybe it's not as personal to me when I put another singer like Cia on there, but I also think it opened the song up to where it's a guy and girl singing about the same things and they're not sure how the other one feels. I think it opens it up to anyone, guy or girl, whether you're 15 or 100, I think you get that emotion. I feel like by adding her it really made the piece a little stronger.
But maybe it's not as personal as it was. You can't just always think of every song that you write like this one about this person that you really loved once upon a time, because you might just make the one you're loving now a little bit uncomfortable. So you have to play those cards exactly right!
Songfacts: You'd better have somebody in your life that understands that, "I have had experiences, and yeah, I did write about them."
Shilling: Yeah. And what really sucks is when you start writing, like, break-up or cheating songs and you're still in that relationship.
Songfacts: Oh, no. [Laughing]
Shilling: [Laughs] Sometimes, I think all songwriters pull from what they're living to write songs about. But I also think that, when you write so much…daily sometimes, I think you have to start looking at other's lives and what's going on in the world and what your friends are going through. And you just kind of pull emotions from their experiences into the song. You can't only write about what you've lived, because it seems like there's so much more out there to sing about that a guy like myself hasn't lived through.
For me, it can get a little too personal sometimes to hear songs back that I've written. Like we started this song recently, it's called "Come Back Down." And it's basically about my brother, it's about him being very addicted to everything, and me losing the ability to keep trying to stop him. And so it's like when you let go of a balloon as a child, and you reach up and you're trying to grab that balloon, and no matter what, you can't quite grasp it; that's the image I'd like to create with this song. It's like there's this guy that's just getting higher and higher and higher, like the balloon, and you're trying to stop him. And it's just too painful to not be able to stop him. And so the gist of the song is I'm just going to close my eyes and pray that you come back down.
And so that kind of song is just almost too personal to write or record or sing. It would be very uncomfortable to sing that on stage for me.
Songfacts: What do you do, if you record it and then you release it eventually, and then it becomes a huge hit, and then what do you do?
Shilling: Well, that's how history's made, usually, when you have a huge hit about something that personal.
Songfacts: Another song that I wanted to ask you about, we had touched on this in our earlier interview, is "One More For the Road." I watched your little movie that you made about you guys recording some of these songs and stuff. And you say you used the first take of something and that this one "just happened." But how many takes did you do before you decided the first one was the best? Did you work on that for a long time and then just go back and say, Yeah, let's just scrap all the rest of these and do the first one?
But he has a very deep voice and a very different vibe when it comes to a song like that. This version is more of a rockin' vocal. Kind of like a Chris Stapleton-ish, just going-for-it type of vocal. And in the Mountain Heart shows, Aaron from the band and myself have been playing that song on barstools in the middle of the show for a few years now. We just strip it down for maybe 10 minutes and do a couple of songs, just guitar and dobro, and me singing.
In the video you saw, there's an upright bass player and then a dobro player. Well, the guy playing upright is actually our mandolin player and he's also a great dobro player. But Aaron and I, the guy playing bass in the video, already knew the song very well when we into the studio. So we added Randy, the dobro player, in the video and with no lyric sheets or charts or click tracks. We decided let's just go in live and do this.
I knew I wanted to do it completely stripped down. I didn't want to try to do drums or anything on this track. I just thought it really stood strong by itself with the guitar and vocals. So when we went in, I was completely comfortable with that.
The dobro player on this cut is a guy named Randy Kohrs. He was producing a record for a guy named Jim Lauderdale, who's a monster songwriter and is an incredible musician and performer. They were doing some kind of Grammy thing the night we recorded "One More For The Road," so Randy was in a rush to get out of the studio. I remember when we recorded it, we went in and I think we played it three times. And we kept the second one, if I'm not mistaken. I didn't know we were going to keep the second one, really, until a few weeks later. We recorded it three times all the way through, took us maybe 15 minutes from start to finish. So they just started recording all the tracks and they said, "All right, guys, you're in the red. Take your time, play the song, and do it as many times as you want and then we're done." That's how they record something that live. And that's how they recorded back in Sinatra's day, or Ray Charles' day. They just arm all the tracks and say, "All right, do your thing." No tuning, no punches, no fixes, no work like what's done on every Nashville record these days.
So I knew Randy had to get out of the studio, and I knew that, vocally, if I started thinking about it too much, I would start taking away from the emotion that I actually needed to capture. So we played it three times. And I didn't know at the time if I had anything that we could keep for the record or not. I didn't know how in-tune I'd sang or how in-time we'd played, or if everybody's instrument was in tune. I didn't know anything, because we're sitting in the studio in the dark, basically, just going for it.
But a few weeks later I went through the tracks and I listened to all three passes of this song. It was just one large chunk of audio. I listened to all of it. And I was like, Wow, this second take is pretty much nailed. It's really in time for a live performance. We didn't have a drummer, we didn't have a metronome, we didn't have a mandolin…nothing to keep us in time. It's just us sitting there with internal clocks basically to keep time. And my singing was very in tune for a live performance. Everybody just played great. So I thought it really had that raw emotional vocal that we wanted and I thought that we really captured what I needed to get.
But as far as rehearsing it that way, Aaron had never played bass on it at all. He had only played dobro on it live. So that was his first time. And Randy had never even heard the song. So we were just going for it and trying to create something special. And if you listen to the tracks or watch the video, you can see us joking and laughing back and forth, because we were just having fun with it and we weren't aware of how good it would end up.
Songfacts: I did. And at the end of that, I think you said, "I hit a couple of wrong chords." I'm wondering if you kept that one.
Shilling: Well, that was one of the three that we took, and I think where I said that, I think that was the first pass of it. You can see us just real still and real quiet at the end of the take. We ended our take and we played our last note or last chord and we just kind of let it ring out like you do in the studio. And once enough time's passed, Randy said, "Man, I blew the chorus, that first chorus." And I said, "Yeah, I missed a couple of notes. I didn't reach it like I wanted to" or whatever I said.
But yeah, that's how raw it was. We were just sitting there looking at each other the first take and probably the third and fourth possible take, they just weren't the ones. There were little things that weren't perfect about them and I thought the second take was the one that wound up on the CD. We also didn't have time to keep taking, because Randy had that rehearsal. So we just called it. We had no idea how strong the first two takes were.
Because there's a real special thing when you're accompanying yourself, you play more live when you're singing and you complement your voice the way you should. You can't always capture that when you sing the vocal later on after the music is tracked. You get a great band in there and they play the song and it's great. Then you do the vocals a few weeks later. Usually, there's a real good possibility that the band didn't capture exactly where your vocal will sit in the track and therefore doesn't support it dynamically the way it should
I guess my point is I think that on "One More For The Road," the guitar parts I played and the guys just really accompanied the vocal very, very well.
Songfacts: My other favorite was "Don't Move." That is a song that you wrote with your buddy Jimmy. How much did you have to do with that, how much did he have to do with it? Who came up with the idea? All those good things.
Shilling: Well, "Don't Move" to me, first of all, it sounds like a three-minute monster hit for country radio. Jimmy and I started that song. Jimmy played the little guitar riff from the record…that's actually him playing acoustic on the CD too. But he played that guitar riff when we were writing and was just a simple musical thing that's not too difficult to play. It's a simple three or four chord song. But it had a vibe to it. I remember him saying, "Where does this put you mood wise?" And I was like, "It's definitely positive, and it feels like it could be a love setting, or maybe a first love type song."
And so we started writing this thing, "Tailgate down," and you're on some back road; I don't remember the lyrics right off the top of my head. But basically you're on the back roads with your woman. Just you and her and everything's perfect in that moment. For that one special moment you don't need anything, money doesn't matter, all the things going on around you. It's the guy just saying, "Let's sit here perfectly still for one second. Just don't move." So that's the gist of the chorus.
I knew that I wanted this song to have kind of a Jackson Browne-ish thing to it, like lap steel and piano, and Hammond organ. I knew I wanted all those things. And we actually ended up using that line in the song. "Jackson Browne on the radio, the two of us on a gravel road." So it's putting you in that place, cool night air, summertime, you're on the tailgate, you're in the middle of nowhere just you and your significant other, and you're listening to an old Jackson Browne love song. "So this is what it feels like to not need anything if only for a moment…right here, right now, I'm holding everything…don't wanna ever get over your touch, your smile, every kiss….every little thing you do, baby don't move"
Songfacts: Is that a newer song or is that an older one that you wrote?
Shilling: That one's probably a couple of years old. Jimmy and I started the track, or the song, and we actually had a date booked with a guy named Michael Dulaney, who's a very successful Nashville song writer. This guy's written tons of No. 1's. He writes hundreds of songs a year. Jimmy and I had a date with him to write so we went in and got with him one day and let him hear most of the lyrics we had and let him hear the music, and when it got to the chorus or the ending of it, he was like, "'Don't move.' That sounds like our title." I was like "'Don't Move'…that just doesn't sound like a title. That doesn't sound strong enough." And Michael was like, "Man, the way you're singing it, it does. Sounds like the perfect title. Sounds like a hit."
And so we just started leaning towards that. And it's just a feel-good driving piece. It feels like something that when you hear it in your car, you just roll the windows down and put your foot a little further towards the floorboard. I think that one just kind of came together really quick, once we got with Michael that second day.
I've had three or four women say that the lines, "This is what it feels like to not need anything" really stands out for them, because love can make you feel that way. And I think that people take that away from that track, too, for some reason.
Songfacts: Well, see, and you can tell your girlfriend that you wrote that one about her.
Shilling: That's right. And if we were to ever split up, I can call you back and tell you the truth about it. [Laughing] Because you always ask me, you say, "What did you write this one about?" And I'm like, "I don't know if I can tell you that." Bad. It's bad, so I'm going to make something up. I'll say, "I wrote it about a friend or something."
Songfacts: Don't be making stuff up, now.
Shilling: No. I'm honest. I think a lot of people try to have the very romantic story that goes with every song they write, but I don't think I could do that every time. I don't think I've got a very personal story with every single song. But sometimes it's more powerful when you do write something that's super personal, then it's like, Oh, okay I totally get where he was at in his life with this one.
Songfacts: What song on this EP would be the most personal to you, like the one that you're writing about your brother; which one of these would be that song?
Shilling: Hmmm. That's a tough question. I don't know if you listened to "The Man I Should Have Been," but I really like that tune, because it's kind of me in a nutshell. "I've been thinking about all the second chances I've been given". All the people that let me get away with screwing up so many times. The guy's beating himself up a little bit for all the mistakes he's made. And then he's trying to find a way to make time to be the man he should have been.
I think that's a pretty strong piece lyrically. I don't know if it's the most personal one on there for me, but it definitely is me in a nutshell as far as when I look back at all the turns I should have taken and all the things I shouldn't have done. I'm pretty lucky and thankful for second chances and people that love me.
I think anyone that's ever been a cheater or just kind of forgotten about their family for a while or put themselves first in general, I think they can relate to the lyrics of that song. I've been told I'm an old soul as far as the lyric writing is concerned. Especially the musician side of me. "Wondering if You're Wondering" sounds like it's 60 or 70 years old, and I wrote that when I was 18 or something. So definitely I feel like I should have been born four or five decades ago!
Songfacts: It's not just that. But it's the ability to examine yourself internally, I guess. Self awareness. And people that are new souls can't do that. Old souls can do that.
Shilling: I think a lot of young guys are really, really selfish and totally self consumed. I think I've been that guy a bunch. But it's mainly because I was chasing all the career stuff. But I also think that I've always been able to open up and say hey, these things are wrong with me and I know that, and maybe I should do a little better about it. But a lot of my guy friends are just totally oblivious. It seems like they're getting it now a little more as they creep up on 30. They're starting to realize that maybe that really hot girl they had that one time that wanted to get married, maybe there was nothing wrong with her. Maybe that other really cute girl that left because of this or that, maybe she left for a good reason. I think a lot of guys start figuring that stuff out five or ten years after the women do.
But as far as being personal, "One More For the Road" has a little bit of that self examination kind of thing going on, too. It sounds like an older man writing a song, I think. But it's kind of the same idea as "Man I Should Have Been." That one comes from a little bit of the same places.
But when I think about what's the most personal tune, we haven't talked about "Back to Me and You." I think that song actually is as personal as anything I've written on this particular project, just because, to me, it's written more about my current situation, I think. If there's ever been a wedding song that I've written that I would allow to be played at my own wedding or a friend's wedding or anything like that, I think this tune is a great one. And I actually think, when I hear it, I'm like, man, this sounds like a Rascal Flatts No. 1. It sounds like it's a huge radio song.
Songfacts: Quit saying that. Because it's going to be a Josh Shilling hit.
Shilling: One thing about me, you're talking about old souls, I'm usually pretty realistic. [Laughs] I'm not going to fool myself and think that I'm going to be able to take this particular project and be selling billions of records or anything. I'm a creator, I think, at heart. I'm an artist. But I think I get a lot of joy out of getting songs recorded. And I've had 20 or 30 different things recorded by all kinds of different artists over the last few years. And to me, when I get in my iTunes and I go to my playlists, and it's all there, the stuff that I've had cuts on. It's a little bit of an ego thing, but I like to sit and I love to listen to the things that I've created.
Shilling: Yeah. It is a different element to being a musician or a studio player or a songwriter or whatever. It is kind of strange. Let's take Chris Roberts and Michael Delaney and Jimmy Olander, who are all signed at Warner/Chappell. And so that means they all get a salary to write songs. And they have to turn in a quota of fully produced songs. You don't just get a salary to be a great songwriter. You've got to turn in material. And it's got to be strong material, and you've got to get songs cut or you lose your deal. That's how that works.
So the pluggers and the A&R people at the publishing house will set up appointments. They'll say, "I've got you open for December 9, 10, and 11. And it's like, "Well, try to get me in with Neil Thrasher one of those days, and if you can get me a couple of days with Marcus Hummon, he wants to get together." And so the plugger or A&R person goes, "Okay, what time do you guys want to get together?" And so they call the other person, and basically, they book you with your co-writer December 9, 10, 11, and so you just have appointments.
They can be cancelled. There's nothing contracted or anything. But in order to really be a busy songwriter and all that, you have to say, Okay, we're getting together this day at this time and we're going to be creative. So get your thinking cap on.
Songfacts: You can't force creativity, though. You can't.
Shilling: Well, and that's what I was saying a minute ago about there is something extremely romantic about someone saying "I wrote this about the love of my life" and all those stories that really make the back stories awesome. But when you're writing songs for a living, or when you're in a town like Nashville or LA, pushing to get cuts, you're kind of writing whatever comes to mind daily. Sometimes it's personal, sometimes it's not at all.
It seems the better songs are more personal, for sure. But sometimes you just get in a room and it's like, Okay, let's create something. Like the song "Letting Go" was written that way. We didn't have a clue what we were doing when we got together. So simply getting together and collaborating can work, and it can also just feel like pulling teeth or watching paint dry sometimes.
Songfacts: I'm just thinking, if you're forced to do it, then it's disingenuous. And you're talking about honesty in what you're writing so that you can sing it honestly and people appreciate it. I don't see how that can be forced.
Shilling: It can be hard to pull that off something brand new and inspiring like that everyday I think. An appointment is simply, "Hey, you and I are going to get together and co-write." And sometimes you have something that you're writing about and both parties know about it or have lived it, and sometimes it's just, let's get together and see what we come up with.
When someone goes in with a veteran, hit songwriter, it can be like seeing a counselor. The hit writer is going to try to use their skills to write something. Something that's very personal but also, often they want to pull from their co-writer, because they've written so many songs that they can run low on fresh ideas.
So I think anybody that I've ever written with definitely tries to say, "Well, talk about something you know about. Let's talk about personal." And so that is always first. But the whole appointment thing, it can be a drag sometimes. It can be a lot like work. But heck, that's a great way to make a living.
And like I said, it's not as romantic as a special back story. But there are a lot of people that are full time session musicians and full time songwriters in towns like Nashville. They do this every day. And they have to be inspired by something every single day. I think all of those guys have some special mental state they go to that allows them to remove themselves from everyday stress and focus on connecting to the song they're playing or writing.
It's extremely tough when you're hired for recording. Like when you're a hired Hammond organ player or steel player or guitar player; show up at 9 am, bring all your stuff in, tune everything up, get a mix in your headphones, and whether you were out drinking all night or whether you slept late…no matter what, you've got to bring your best. And it takes a very special person to come in with that every day. Not only the talent level, but the people skills, you have to deal with a lot of people.
Songfacts: And you've been a session musician, haven't you?
Shilling: Oh, yeah. I've played on probably 20 records this year. Sometimes it's just what they call overdubbing, which is they'll send me the files with drums and bass and a vocal and guitars, and I add piano and organ or harmonies or something to it. I'm getting ready to start this week or next week, I'm going to be singing on a Bob Seger tribute thing. I've already got the tracks. So I've got drums, bass, and guitar, and a couple other instruments. But I'm going to be adding the vocal. And so that is session work. It's overdubbing, but it's session work. Sometimes you go in and you've got to look through the charts and you and a drummer and a bass player and a guitarist go in and cut live.
It's hard. You've got to find a way to be inspired and creative, and sometimes you do have to force it. You're on the clock. When they say "10, 2, and 6" in Nashville, that means those are blocks of time, from 10 to 1 is one session, from 2 to 5 is one session, and then 6 to 9 is one session. So if you were 10, 2, and 6 at master scale, it would pay a ton! So you've got these guys like Eddie Bayers or Brent Mason or Michael Rhodes or Chad Cromwell or Paul Franklin or all those other phenomenal session guys that make lots of money every year playing in the studio. But they know so much music, and they bring it every single day.
So it's an interesting lifestyle. I don't know if I could do that every day without getting burned out. But all the guys in my band Mountain Heart definitely are hired and paid to be on other people's projects.
Songfacts: Well, hey, if it makes you a decent living, it's honest work.
Shilling: Well, it's kind of like piecing a living together. A lot like sales or something. My girlfriend works in a cube. [Laughing] And she makes great money, but she's sitting in an office every day. And I just haven't done that before, and I don't know if I could. I came straight out of high school and have been a musician ever since. I don't know if I could give up making my own hours and appointments and making my own schedule, just doing whatever I want to do.
Like this CD, no one told me to do this. I just decided to open my own umbrella and handle everything. I put up the money and wrote the songs and recorded them and handled the shipping and everything else. So it's been a massive undertaking, but a huge learning process. And it's something that needed to be done. I'm definitely seeing a lot of benefits by having something out there and by knowing all the things that go into putting together a record.
Songfacts: Have you gotten any of it on the radio yet?
Shilling: Radio is tough and in many cases is about money. Let's say Luke Bryan or Rascal Flatts has a new song, they spend like between a half million and a million bucks on shopping a song to radio. And they get it on the charts, and once they're played and enough money and time is spent promoting that song getting it out there, it sometimes can rise up in the Top 10. And most radio stations will latch onto something like that and start playing the crap out of it once it's in the Top 10. But until that point, they don't.
Long story short, most of the time, for a song to be a hit or a Top 10 charting radio single or whatever, it costs hundreds of thousands. So it's not so appealing when you start looking at it from that angle. But about my project, there's been a lot of Americana stations and some XM play and things like that. But mainstream country or rock, it's pretty much impossible without a huge machine and millions of dollars.
Songfacts: That's just dumb. If it's good material, the DJs should play it. I don't understand why they have to be paid to do that.
Shilling: It's not necessarily the DJs…what they play is controlled by the powers that be for the most part. You've got to have a lot of people involved, a lot of the right people involved, and timing, and then all the money and stuff like that.
The days of Ray Charles getting on a bus and carrying around 100 albums in a book bag or something and running up to a radio station and handing somebody $50 and saying, "Man, if you like it, please play it," the days of walking up and shaking a hand and handing someone a disc and getting airplay simply don't exist for the most part. That stuff is gone. But, yeah, I am getting some support from stations like WSM here in Nashville.
But your big country station in whatever town you're in, if you listen to the radio, you'll never hear anything that sounds obscure. They might have like one hour per week dedicated to local artists or something, like a homegrown show, sometimes they'll have those. But other than that, it's a very controlled thing.
And you'll notice that they all play the exact same songs. And that's all by design, too. That's how you build a mega hit. In 50 states, you get all these radio stations blasting a Luke Bryan song every 45 minutes. It is a business, and it's not all just romantic, like the old stories of sitting down with a pen and paper and an old guitar, like Kris Kristoffersen did it. And so that's why I find myself digging more into what are artists like the Allman Brothers or Mumford and Sons and Amos Lee and Bonnie Raitt, the more Americana acts are doing. They're doing their own thing, making tremendous music, and they're doing what the Allman Brothers and people like that have done for years, which is ride around the country and build your grassroots loyal fan base, and they stay with you for a lifetime.
The music business, I hope, is getting back to that. Because we can only take so many artists that are simply low on talent. It's almost force fed, it seems. When you hear something 15 times a day, and it says something about "Bud Lite on Friday night" and "Sweet tea on the front porch" it's like people think, "Oh, man, I dig that. That's totally me. That's what I do on Friday nights!" And that is, unfortunately, what a lot of the success or interest behind those songs seem to be.
And I'm definitely against that. I try to put more into the song, into the lyric, emotion, and I try to use people that believe in being a strong musician on my projects. Whatever happened to George Jones and Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley, when you think country music, and whatever happened to all the groups like Boston and the Bad Companys and the Queens and the Doobie Brothers the Allman Brothers. I mean, those kinds of bands that are just insanely talented, there's not as many of them these days. And it's because radio and the record labels are just reaching for whatever might sell. And unfortunately, it's stuff like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. As much as I love Taylor - she's pretty much a neighbor of mine - but it's like, what is this? How much money are they putting into this one thing? Come on.
Songfacts: But here you're saying, "Well, I hear that as a Lady A song." And I'm like, "No, Josh! Don't do that!" They're too slick. They're too commercial. I just don't get that.
Shilling: Well, they are very commercial. But I would have to argue just a little bit in that they're one of the more creative and talented groups around town. They write a lot of their own songs, and their producer is great. They have a great band. And I think that they have a good sound vocally. If you hear Charles Kelley in a room singing, he can sing a song and sound pretty damn good.
So for me, it's like at least they're able to go and write and create and play and sing. Because there are very, very few people in this town that are artists that can still do it. It used to be Hank Sr., or Elvis, or Haggard, or somebody like that would just write a great song and sing it with their guitar and teach it to the band, and they'd go in and cut it. And they were that strong of a talent to where that's all they needed. They didn't need a bunch of fixes and a bunch of money. They'd just go in and play and sing and it was that good.
And so I just want to get back to that. And that's why that video that you're talking about on my CD, it really points to the fact that we tracked a couple of the songs completely live for that purpose; I want to capture the real raw emotion the way they did in the old days.
It's just not like the show "Nashville" that they're airing on TV now, it's just not that at all. You don't come to town anymore and write a decent song and go into a record label and they hand you $500,000 and you make a record and it blows up, and you just walk into the places like the radio stations and everybody jumps on board. It's a huge, huge machine. The fact is all the big labels have all but shut down, except for a few of them, so everyone is sort of afraid to take chances, it seems.
The main reason is people don't buy CDs these days. Most people don't go to Walmart and buy a CD anymore. It's iTunes, it's Napster, it's all that stuff, people downloading, people trading. Heck, I do it. We share files all the time and you just don't have to buy anything. So it's really hurt the music business all the way around.
I guess my point was that the labels are just sitting back going, Okay, who's going to bring us the perfect prepackaged money maker? Because that's the only thing we can work with these days. I was 22 or 23 in this town not too many years ago, singing and playing decently and writing well, and didn't necessarily have the push or money or machine behind me that it would take to get the big record deal. So it's just a little different than it used to be.
Songfacts: It's sad that raw talent can't just get you that anymore.
Shilling: It can on occasion I guess. Sometimes, there's the X-factor with certain artists. There's just something about Dolly Parton. When she walks into a room, there's no doubt about the fact that she's somebody. I think every case is different. But I do know this; the likelihood of someone coming to town and just blowing up is comparable to getting struck by lightning.
But anyway, people make appointments and they force themselves to be musicians and song writers sometimes. And a lot of times I think there's a lot of money spent just to get not-so-well-written songs on the radio. And the craziest thing about it is a lot of songwriters that are great - really are great - are demeaning what they do in order to be hokey or cheesy in order to fit in on the radio.
Songfacts: The dumbing down of the music industry.
Shilling: Some of my favorite songwriters are writing these crazy tunes. I mean, I guess they're catchy. But when you write and every other song is about a tractor, it's like, really? I know some guys that have made millions of dollars off of tractor or Bud Lite songs. They figured something out and made a lot of money, I guess. It doesn't really take anything away from what they can do, it's just like, Come on, man. You're really, really, really good at this. You're like a poet. And you're doing this? I don't get it.
Songfacts: Well, it sets him up financially, and now he can get back into the integrity of it, maybe.
Shilling: That's exactly right. And the fact is they never stopped being incredible at what they do while they were writing those songs.
But I don't know, it is a different thing. And I'm probably just a little bit jaded about it all. But I do love the creative process. I mean, I write all the time and seldom get paid a dime for any of it. I love it and do it for I think what seems to be the right reasons. I would probably actually turn down more money at any point if it was something I didn't believe it. So I'm always definitely fighting against dumbing down the music. Mountain Heart has struggled some over the years. But it's doing better now and the guys in the band are as talented as they come. These guys are known by every good musician in this town for being a bunch of badasses. I sound cocky saying that but everybody appreciates what we do and it's for the right reasons. It's passion and we do what we believe in…there's no rules and there's not some guy in a suit holding a checkbook or anything behind us. It's more about what we believe in and what we write and what we do and what we play, and it's not as much about money and the glam of being involved with a big star.
The fact is, in this town, it's crazy. The talent level everywhere you go it's like, wow, there are still people out there that are just phenomenal. So I definitely haven't given up. I'm still as driven and excited about it all as I was when I was 5!
We talked to Josh on November 15, 2012. Bring him home at joshshilling.com
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