Chris Daughtry’s traditional approach to songwriting is doing the music first and then putting lyrics to it—but when he started writing “Baptized,” the opening title track to his newly released fourth album, with new collaborator Claude Kelly, he says the words, “Take me down by the water” poured out immediately and the concept of the song took shape very quickly.
The song, produced by Martin Johnson (who is also credited as a co-writer), became the perfect metaphor for a collection that finds Daughtry making a new creative start for himself and his eponymous band after three hit albums produced by Howard Benson. Baptized’s lead single, the electro-pop driven “Waiting For Superman,” sold 53,000 downloads its first week on the Billboard Hot 100 and debuted at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks chart. It also hit #15 on the Adult Pop Songs chart.
“The song ‘Baptized’ isn’t a spiritual or gospel song in the traditional sense, but I wanted it to have that ‘O Brother Where Art Thou type gospel feel to it, complete with a chanting section,” says Daughtry, a North Carolina native who released his band’s multi-platinum debut album—the fastest selling debut rock album in Soundscan history—just months after his fourth place finish in Season 5 of American Idol.
“Lyrically, it’s really about me and my wife Deanna, but it’s also very powerful in the way of analogy for this rebirth in my career. I worked for the first time with Claude Kelly, Martin Johnson and another incredible songwriter, Sam Hollander. My bassist Josh Paul had left for a while but we just got him back, and since the last album we have a new touring keyboardist, Elvio Fernandez, who also co-wrote with me and Claude on the song ‘Witness.’ Everything feels fresh and exciting.”
One of the most successful former contestants in Idol history, Daughtry and his band have scored four #1 hits on the Billboard Adult Top 40 chart (“It’s Not Over,” “Home,” “Feels Like Tonight” and “No Surprise”), earned four Grammy nominations (including Best Rock Album for their debut Daughtry), won four American Music Awards, sold over 7.5 million albums and 17 million singles. In addition to various tours in the U.S. and Canada, the band has performed everywhere from the UK and Germany to Singapore, Russia and South Africa. Daughtry also co-headlined a U.S. tour with 3 Doors Down.
The group’s follow-up albums to Daughtry have kept their momentum going, with Leave This Town marking their second consecutive #1 on the Billboard 200 and Break The Spell (2011) hitting the Top 10 and achieving gold status within a month of its release. Daughtry the band is also using its global popularity to raise awareness about a number of charitable causes, including an ambassadorship with DC Comics’ We Can Be Heroes campaign.
Early on in the process of crafting a follow-up to Break The Spell, Daughtry made a conscious decision to approach the songwriting and production from a different angle. He sought out Johnson (Boys Like Girls, Hot Chelle Rae, Taylor Swift), Kelly (Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Bruno Mars) and Hollander (Train, Neon Trees) to write with, but originally intended to record the final tracks with his bandmates—who do not appear with the singer on the final product.
“The only premeditated shift I made was working with different producers,” Daughtry says. “I wanted to change things up, shake up the process a little bit and go somewhere different sonically. After doing everything the same on the previous albums, no matter how well they did, it was just time. I didn’t consciously set out to exclude my band. I wanted to bring these new songs to my label (RCA/19) to see if they liked them and then planned to bring them in once they were approved. The label felt the new energy I was capturing and started freaking out on the songs and wanted to release them as quickly as possible. I was flattered, of course, but this meant I couldn’t go back and re-record the tunes with the band. The label loved what they heard and didn’t want to mess with the chemistry and magic that was already there.”
“At first,” he adds, “I felt like I was cheating on the band, so I went to the guys and basically told them the way things were happening. They were cool with it, like whatever works best for the project, they were behind it. The last thing I wanted was for them to feel like I was pushing them out.”
Daughtry chose his wish list of producers—which ultimately included Rock Mafia, busbee and Jake Sinclair—based on his admiration for their previous work, but was still happily surprised by just how strong his chemistry was with some of them. Both sonically and lyrically, he cites Kelly and Johnson as helping push him to creative heights he had never imagined for himself.
“At first,” he says, “it’s all about testing the waters, but then I got in the room with Claude and there was an instant connection that led to ‘Baptized’ and ‘Broken Arrows,’ some of the best songs I have ever come up with. Likewise, Sam and Martin were pulling things out of me that no one ever has. The challenged me to go somewhere funny, and be a little more witty. The way we address my rock heroes on ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’ and that line in ‘Waiting For Superman’ about washing the cape at the Laundromat is pretty hilarious. No one I’ve ever worked with before evoked that kind of humor out of me.
“So it was fun to work with guys who were fans of what I brought to the table but also wanted to challenge me to go places I had never gone before,” Daughtry adds. “Sonically, it was the same deal. Martin, who produced half the album, would kind of dial the track in a little bit as we went along, so I could put my vocal on it. He created synth sounds on tunes like ‘Waiting for Superman’ that I had never used before, and drum loops even on some of the more ballady songs like ’18 Years’ and ‘Wild Heart’ that created a unique kind of rhythmic movement. Whether it was on keyboard, piano or even banjo in some cases, the soundscape felt really alive. We’d write a song together and cut the vocals right then and there to capture that energy. Because it happened so quickly, we didn’t have to overthink anything.”
Well aware of the fate that befalls many talented Idol contestants even after a strong showing for their debut album, Daughtry cites several key factors behind his ability to sustain and build upon his early success some seven years after he came to fame on the talent competition. “I’ve got a ridiculous work ethic, and I never know when to stop,” he says. “Hard work is so important. You never want to get complacent. I also attribute a lot of this momentum to our fans, who have stuck by us all these years. And of course, it’s about making sure I’m writing and recording songs that stand out. I always aspire to write melodies that instantly hook people, and lyrics they can relate to but also come from an honest place inside me. There’s always the danger that you’re writing something only you can relate to, so it’s a wonderful feeling when a song starts connecting and everyone responds positively.”
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+