For over two decades, Brett James has been one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville. He has co-written 26 songs that have become number one hits, and he’s a Grammy Award winner for co-writing Carrie Underwood’s hit, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (which won Best Country Song in 2006). He’s also twice been named ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year.
Although he continues to be a top pro songwriter (he co-wrote Underwood’s recent hits, “Love Wins” and “Drinking Alone”), James has decided to return to his early, original career as a singer/songwriter. For the first time in decades, he has released a new EP called I Am Now, that he wrote & produced. On top of this, James will be releasing a second EP in June.
Born in Columbia, Missouri, James (who is now 50) initially attended medical school before deciding to pursue a music career as a recording artist. He moved to Nashville in 1992, and he signed a label deal with Career Records (a subsidiary of Arista Nashville). In 1995, he released his self-titled album, Brett James, and he during the next eight years, he had five singles that made the Billboard country chart.
Notwithstanding his artist credits, it’s been James’s massive success as a pro songwriter (writing for other artists) that he’s known for. Besides “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” his list of #1 country hits include: “Somethin’ Bad” (Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood); “Blessed” (Martina McBride); “Cowboy Casanova,” “Church Bells” and “Something in the Water” (Carrie Underwood); “The Truth” (Jason Aldean); “I Hold On” (Dierks Bentley); “It’s America” (Rodney Atkins); “The Man I Want to Be” (Chris Young); “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Out Last Night” and “Reality” (Kenny Chesney); and “Who I Am” (Jessica Andrews).
In addition, James has co-written pop hits such as “Mr. Know It All” (Kelly Clarkson); “Life After You” and “Start of Something Good” (Daughtry). Also, several of his country hits crossed over to become pop chart hits.
For his new EP, I Am Now, James recorded his songs at Nashville’s SmoakStack Studios, and he produced the songs himself. This EP displays his strong, distinctive lead vocals, and a soulful flavor that combines with his country style. The EP includes the title cut “I Am Now,” the focus track “True Believer,” plus “Wait,” “Still On My Mind” and “Lonely Ain’t So Lonely.”
Here’s the video of Brett James’ new song, “True Believer.”
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with James. He talks about the writing & recording of his new EP. Also when asked, James discusses the current situation of songwriting and the music business in Nashville, during the Coronavirus shutdown. Interestingly, he explains how pro songwriters are making the best of a difficult situation by writing songs online using modern technology.
Here’s our interview with Brett James:
DK: You’ve just released new music as an artist for the first time in many years. What made you decide to become an artist again?
Brett James: I turned 50 last year, and I had one of those birthday epiphanies. I thought…I’d been writing songs for other artists for a long time, and I wanted to re-evaluate things. And I don’t think my kids have heard my voice (as an artist). They’ve heard me do a lot of demos for other people, but they’ve never heard me sing for me.
I hadn’t put out any music of my own in around 25 years (laughs). So maybe it’s time to sit down and really do that. I got inspired to do that without thinking about genre or trying to write radio hits. I know what my most natural voice is, and that was my only preconceived take on things. The EP turned out to be what I would call a Nashville soul record…I’m kind of a natural soul singer. So I started writing it and let creativity lead the way. I took time off from my day job as a working songwriter, and I wrote about 11 songs in two weeks. And I had as much fun in those two weeks than I’ve ever had writing songs. So that was the impetus for doing it.
It took a long time to get the record made, and to find the right people to put it out with. We finally released the EP last month, and the first track, “True Believer,” came out in January. I’ve just been having a blast with it…it’s been fun to put the EP out and seeing people’s response. And we’ll be putting out a second EP in June.
DK: Obviously with the shutdown, there’s no touring now. But when things open up, will be playing some shows and touring?
Here’s the lyric video of Brett James’ song, “I Am Now.”
James: I do plan to do as much touring as I can. I’m excited about getting on the road and playing. Hopefully, that will happen sooner than later.
DK: Although you’re currently focusing on your artist career, are you still been writing songs for other artists?
James: Yes, I still have my day job of writing songs for other people. I still love my day gig. I don’t think you have to quit one to do the other. And I have my music publishing company which has some wonderful writers, so we’re keeping busy.
DK: As a pro songwriter, do you have some new singles and cuts coming out?
James: Right now, I have the current Carrie Underwood single called “Drinking Alone,” and a single called “Love Wins” off her latest album. I’ve been lucky to be with her for about 15 years on some level or another. I was part of her first single “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and then a bunch of singles such as “Cowboy Casanova” and “Church Bells.” I also have a new cut out with Kenny Chesney called “Knowing You” from his new album.
DK: It’s great that you’ve continued to have hits for over two decades. That’s not easy to do.
James: Well, I still enjoy working with the old friends and new friends. It’s fun to be in a room working with a 19-year-old, and try to pretend that you know something even if you don’t (laughs). I would say that the secret to writing later in life is that I try to listen a lot more. When you get to be an older writer who’s written about 3,500 songs, there’s a part of you who thinks you’ve heard it all when you’re in a writing session. And yet, the young kids always have a fresh take on things. So what I try to do is just listen a lot more, and let the younger artist drive, and help push them in the right direction.
DK: I want to ask you how songwriters are doing in Nashville during the current shutdown. How are you and other songwriters trying to write these days? Are you using Zoom?
James: I think the overall consensus with the writers I’ve talked to, is that it’s not as bad as we thought. Some of us had written songs using Skype and we were familiar with it, although we never thought we’d be doing it everyday.
Here’s the video of Carrie Underwood’s current hit “Drinking
Alone,” which was co-written by Brett James.
I do feel that a lot of writers like doing it with familiar co-writers. If you get to know them, you know what their method of writing is and how they work. So it’s a bit easier writing with your friends, with people that you already know. What I do miss is the ability to jam in the room, because there’s some magic when two or three people start singing and playing together.
Overall, I think that it’s been fine. I’ve got writers [at my publishing company] who are doing two sessions a day, and it’s not slowing them down. So I think it’s great that we’re still able to collaborate.
DK: Have you had a recent writing session where you worked via Zoom?
James: Yes. Last week, I worked with Carrie Underwood and David Garcia, who’s the producer. So that was very much a typical situation, with the three of us on Zoom, and the song gets written. We would write the song, and then David and Carrie would stay on and start recording. David would throw on something…a guitar or piano with a click track, for Carrie to sing to. Then David would send that to Carrie, and she would play it on a computer using headphones, while singing the vocal into her iPhone. She would then send David her vocal, and he would plug that into the track and make a demo around it. So that’s the way we’re working in the era of COVID. Carrie is just singing into her iPhone, but of course because she’s Carrie Underwood, she’s still sounds better than anyone else (laughs). And the next thing you know, the demo is done.
DK: On the business side of the music industry, are music publishers still plugging away and pitching these new songs?
James: They are pitching, and they’re hustling. But because live musicians aren’t supposed to be in the same room together, we’ve seen a shutdown of what we call Nashville sessions, where you get a band together and play music. So a lot of people are putting off projects because it’s a little more of a pain to do them right now. But I think people are also used to working under these circumstances. If you take a producer like David Garcia, he’s used to getting a drummer to lay down a track, and all the studio drummers can record a track at their house at their home studio. So a producer will send the drums out to one guy and the bass out to another guy, and electric guitar out to another guy…that’s a way to do it without everybody being in the same room. And that’s a pretty common way of doing things.
Here’s the video of Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood’s hit
“Somethin’ Bad,” which was co-written by Brett James.
DK: When a producer and musicians work in this way, will it be master quality?
James: It will be master quality; those will be records. You can even make studio band records during this time without people being in the same room. It’s just more challenging and a little less fun, because you don’t get to be in a room with a band and everybody’s rockin’ out.
DK: Thank you Brett for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?
James: I think what I would say about me as an artist, is that you’re never too old to try. You’re never too old to take on a new challenge and put yourself out there. That’s what this is about for me, and re-energizing some creative juices and muscles that I probably haven’t used in a while. The other thing I would say, is the goal…while I’d love for it to be a big thing and worldwide, the goal is to have it be a success where you get to keep doing it (laughs). Because the joy is in the making of it and the performing of it. But I will say I’m happy that my song “True Believer” is on the new NOW 74 compilation along with Lizzo and Justin Bieber (laughs). That’s a pretty fun thing…you never know what’s going to happen.