This is the interview that I did with singer/songwriter Josh Kelley in Kansas City last Sunday at The Grand Emporium. He is touring with Five for Fighting, and it was clear, as we approached the theater, that it was going to be a great show. The crowds were already lined up around the corner waiting for the doors to open.
Once inside, I met Trey, Josh's tour manager, and he informed me that Josh would be with me in a few minutes, but that he had gone to the drug store to get some medications to dress his wounded foot. It was only then that I learned of the terrible bus accident that they had been in a few days before.
When Josh appeared and we were on our way back to the "quaint" little dressing room in the back, I noticed that he was limping. Once we were settled in he apologized and proceeded to remove his shoe and sock, revealing a nasty-looking badly bruised foot. I hadn't started to record the interview yet, but he shared with me the horrific experience; the fact the bus slid on a patch of ice in Minneapolis, that it flipped and rolled a minimum of five times, and that, in his opinion, the only thing that saved them was the fact they were asleep in their bunks! He confided that he had a few staples in his head, and I could of course see for myself the injury to his foot. But in true showmanship fashion he declared, that 'the show must go on,' and that, I assure you, it did!
I stayed for the show following the interview and it was excellent! He left no stone unturned. Accompanied by the superbad bassist, Darwin Johnson, and starting his set with the provocative "Lover Come Up", Josh drew us in, and we clung while he scatted with the tone and pitch of an original bluesman, got into every note of "Only You" which revealed his own deep rich sound and then listened in amazement as it seemed Prince had somehow slipped into his vocal cords. He brought us down with my favorite, "Just Say the Word" and the crowd exploded and he took us all the way back up with "Almost Honest", and it went on and on like that.
Do yourself two favors. First, buy the "Just Say the Word" CD, and second, if Josh is performing anywhere near you, don't you dare miss the opportunity to experience him!
Here is the interview!
Could you tell us a little about your musical journey thus far?
If you are talking about a synopsis, I started off playing music when I was about nine. I started making drum sets out of our pots and pans and things like that. My mom was tired of always taking my homemade drum sets apart and she actually scrounged up some money and bought me a cheap drum set and a cheap guitar, and about age ten I started learning both and started coming up in the scene playing with James Brownís band when I was a kid, and I had a record deal offer when I was fifteen from Atlantic Records but my dad wouldnít sign the papers Ė said I was too young. Then I went to the University of Mississippi for sports and for artsÖ
Yes, sports and arts also. Then I just kept on playing music. I really just started writing my own material probably right around when college started, and it was crazy. I started figuring out a way to promote my music. I started playing every Thursday night at this place called The Blue Marlin and I started off playing for about twenty or thirty people and it just kept growing and growing until five months later I was playing for a thousand people every Thursday. They were coming from different states to come and see me play and I knew that I could do this for a living.
I serviced the first version of ďAmazingĒ -- which was the single that became a hit later on -- I serviced the first version at college radio, and it became a college radio hit, sort of on my own and then I got signed by my junior year in college, and the rest is history.
Pretty much Iím just still growing, still building, still learning how to entertain. Now, pretty much where I am is I started off this business and got turned out into the lionís den a little bit before I was ready. We didnít know that I was going to have such a big hit single, they thought they were going to be able to develop me; so really, Iíve developed myself on my own until we got to the place where our show is just pure entertainment.
And that single was ďAmazingĒ?
ďAmazingĒ was the first single, yeah. That song just took off and next thing you know it was like Ďoh my God, Iím never home.í
That was on the Hollywood Record Label?
Yes, Hollywood Records, about 2003.
And you had a second album with them?
Yes, the second album was called ďAlmost HonestĒ and the first single on that was a song called ďOnly YouĒ and that is actually how I met my fiancť. That song became a hit single as well. It hit number five on the charts. I toured on that and basically got to the point where we put out ďAlmost HonestĒ and the label sort of dropped the ball on the record prematurely without fighting for the single. I realized they were very scared of what was about to happen in the music business and I didnít want to be a part of that, so I asked them nicely to let me off the label and they did. Then I started my own label and now here I am; Iíve got more press, better tours, and everything than I did when I was on the label, itís crazy. So, this is probably the vision that Iíve been setting in motion quietly for a long time and then, finally, I had the chance to do it and in a very loud manner we pretty much took off.
Iíve had an opportunity to listen to your albumÖ
Have you heard the new album?
I love it. Actually, the single Ö
ďJust Say the WordĒ?
Yes, I listened to that song for most of the day today and I heard some mind blowing things in it. Basically, what I hear is what I think is going to be the makings of you as a new legend as far as an artist is concerned. I hear the things that put me in mind of the Lionel Richie hits that were and are enduring; Kenny Rogers type songs that everyone covers, the originality that isnít commercial, but seminal. So, what is your vision from the standpoint of originality with your music?
You know, itís tough because Iím still learning and Iím such a chameleon that Iím aware of my identity crisis for sure, but I enjoy it and it makes me happy, so Iím not going to suppress it, Iíll just let it out. You know, if I want to write a love song Iíll write a love song, if I want to write a sad song Iíll write a sad song, and if I want very minimal production, you know, with just cello and an acoustical guitar, Iíll write that.
There are many different styles on this CD. The reason I know it works now is because every time I get in my friendís cars I notice that theyíve got a burned CD of seventeen different artists, seventeen different styles of music. Iím like, okay, well this is what theyíre doing, theyíre putting on their favorite songs, so what I did is I wrote about a hundred songs last year and I took my favorite songs and I put them on an album.
Iím not trying to change the world with a concept record, I do want to make a concept record one day Ė actually Iím thinking of making one about this bus accident Ė making a record that teaches awareness and also tells the story from start to finish of how we walked away from it. So there are a lot of ideas right now. Right now Iíve got a lot of ideas and not enough time, but Iíll figure it out.
It seems like youíve got some time because you were able to walk away from that accident.
I know! I know! My dad said that he feels like this is supposed to be an indication to me that there are a lot of things left undone for me.
Youíve had a lot of good exposure from the standpoint of the media such as Ellen, Good Morning America and that type of profile. Did that put additional pressure on you in any way? How do you feel about that exposure?
No, no additional pressure really. I mean Iíve gotten more used to it now. Those shows would have been better served for me to be going on now, now that Iím very comfortable with being in my own skin, comfortable with being an entertainer Ė I would get a lot more out of those shows, but, I think we are going to be able to do them again. You know, we just got the Macyís Thanksgiving Day Parade. Iím performing on that Thanksgiving Day on the float right behind Santa Claus. Iím going to do ďJust Say the WordĒ Ė Iím going to have about two and a half minutes to play it. So, with things like this, now that Iím on my own label, everything that I get Iím very grateful for.
Itís like this Five for Fighting tour, it is just great that this came about, the Gin Blossoms tour, the Shawn Mullins, Collective Soul, this Macyís Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it looks like I might get Martha Stewart Ė all these things I am much more appreciative of, grateful for. Now when I play on these shows I actually really do pour a hundred percent of my heart into it rather than letting myself be nervous Ėthat doesnít even exist anymore.
Now itís about I canít wait to get up there and show the world what Iíve got. Before it was just ďman, I hope we sound goodĒ or ďI hope people like usĒ, itís not that any more. I know people are going to like it. If I play it the way it was written Ė Iíve played enough shows now that I know what songs evoke what kind of emotions out of which kind of people, so now itís just like ďhey man, keep it coming, bring it on and Iíll show you we have what it takes.Ē
Do you have a Ďbusiness hatí from the standpoint of your label?
Oh yeah. Thatís something Iíve always had because of my dad. He is a business machine. Heís a cardiologist, he raises Black Angus cattle, and heís a real estate mogul. So, because of learning underneath him, I learned how to think with a business mind and an artistic mind. I built this label and I was patient; I covered every base. Iíve got an A&R Department, Iíve got a Radio Department, Iíve got three interns, Iíve got a Computer Graphic Design Department, Iíve got my Manager, Iíve got my Publicity Department, and more Ė and legal. They are all a part of my label, Threshold Records. Itís crazy. It is a very well-oiled machine.
Do you have other artist that you are producing?
No, not yet. Looks like weíre going to be able to sign Lady Antebellum pretty soon and maybe a kid named Randy, but Iím waiting before I start investing money until 2007 and when ďJust Say the WordĒ becomes a hit single, thatís when Iíll move forward. Once we recoup the cost of putting out this record on a national level, because it costs a lot of money out of your pocket to put this record out. We put out 50,000 copies around the country because orders came in. Target came in and they wanted 30,000, Borders wanted 10, 000, all these things, so you know, Iím a little nervous about that, but you know what, thereís no big reward without taking a big risk and here we are Ė playing our hearts out to make sure we sell enough records to pay us back at least.
I think the independent approach is the future of music.
I agree with that as well.
Do you have any words of advice for an emerging artist?
I just gave some the other day. You know what? There are things that are very helpful that a lot of new artist donít realize and it is that they are the entertainer and they are in control, and if you do it right people are willing to let you control their emotions for the 45 minutes or hour and a half that you are playing because they are there for a reason; to be entertained. So, thatís the approach that Iím trying to teach friends of mine about it, is that youíre an entertainer, stand up there with confidence and that confidence -- we are animals, Iím sure we can just sense it when someone is Ö when theyíre feeling a little fragile and uncomfortable -- and it makes you feel uncomfortable and you wonít react the way you ought. The audience will feel like they are a part of a family and a team if you engage them in the right way, especially in the very beginning.
Iím happy if I can teach that message, but the more I talk about it the more I figure it out, how to say it verbally because I know what it means in my head. I know exactly how to engage any kind of audience, even if it is 30,000 people I know that me and Darwin (Darwin Johnson) and our acoustic dual, I know that we can keep 30,000 peopleís attention.
I think itís a certain way of just being on stage and being confident, looking people in the eye and talking to them directly, not looking down at my guitar or something. I bet you that if a kid studied Broadway entertainers I think it would change everything. Thatís what weíre going to start doing with the full band show. Iím going to turn it into theatre. I just need to make sure we generate enough revenue to be able to do that, to see my vision through.
Now that sounds exciting!
It is exciting and Iím ready to do it.
Josh, I know youíve got a show in just a few minutes, so Iím not going to keep you very much longer. Is there anything else that youíd like to share?
I donít know how significant some things are, but there are certain things Ė the reason I produced and engineered this album is because I wanted people to know that Iím a multi-instrumentalist also. I want the world to know that I can play drums, bass, guitar, piano and all these instruments because Iím realizing now that not everybody can do that. I didnít know it when I was a kid because I was just in my house all the time jamming. Now I realize that itís something thatís very rare and Iím aware of these talents and I want people to know about it, plus, itís fun.
Itís fun for people to know this because itís a lot of hard work, with all that time put in you kind of want people to know, and it has also made it easier for me to express a style, the delivery of a song the way I want the song to be delivered to peopleís ears, and that allows it to be a hundred percent the way that I envisioned it, rather than having twenty-seven cooks in the kitchen telling me Ďwell, I donít know if you should do that part that wayí in a smart ass way that kind of makes you go Ďmaybe I shouldnítí, but really if you trusted your gut youíre there for a reason.
Well, thatís what I found with ďJust Say the WordĒ. The instrumentals were just phenomenal.
Itís a good feeling song; itís one of my better productions on my own for sure. I think that song can be a hit and weíve got Jerry Lembo now helping us with radio and he wouldnít do it if he didnít think it was a smash - he said Ďweíre going to make this a hití and I said Ďwell, letís do it buddy!í
Thanks Josh, it has been a real privilege.
Well thank you for coming, especially into this Ö tiny little dressing room while Iím here bandaging my foot! Thank you for coming.