"I think I've finally grown up," says 36-year-old Josh Kelley, comparing his current musical mindset to that of his 23-year-old self: the singer-songwriter who catapulted to pop stardom with 2003's "Amazing." "When I first started out, I had a big hit single and I felt like I pulled one over on everybody, like I didn't deserve it. So I just kind of retreated."
What came in the years after "Amazing" was what the Georgia native calls "boot camp": a long period of personal and musical growth during which, with each sequential album, he gained a greater sense of security in his career. That maturity manifests itself in the introspective lyrics, the throwback grooves and the intricate, homemade production of Kelley's eclectic eighth studio album New Lane Road, out April 22nd.
"This is the first time I am not just putting out a batch of songs that I like," he explains, sitting in his publicist's Nashville office. "These songs mean something as a whole; they're all born out of the land we live on in Utah and the last three years of our experiences there."
"We" is Kelley, his movie star wife Katherine Heigl and their two daughters, Naleigh and Adalaide. The family moved from Los Angeles to a ranch about an hour outside of Salt Lake City several years ago to get away from the traffic and back to nature. Kelley made most of the new album in his studio at their ranch — passing horses, pigs, goats and a majestic landscape on his way to make music every morning. "There's all this beauty," he says, "it's impossible not to want to create."
The album's title track is named after the road that runs alongside their sprawling property – but was actually penned in Los Angeles. "I wrote that when I was yearning for home. It was a rainy day in L.A., and the lyrics were pouring out," Kelley recalls. "I was thinking about [the ranch] in the morning when the sun glistens on the stream, and the blue skies. . . It's one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I love raising my babies there. This song is about being very thankful to live where we live."
That love letter to home is accompanied by several songs inspired by Heigl — most of them romantic, like the strings-and-steel-laden ballad "The Best of Me" and harmony-heavy "Rock Who Found a Rolling Stone" — but one of them a heart-on-sleeve account of a huge fight they had at the beginning of their marriage. "It's your move," Kelley recalls saying to his wife during a heated yelling match. "And I was like, that's a great song title, so I got out my phone. [Laughs] Well, that did not go over well!"
When Kelley's new label, Sugar Hill Records asked him to make a video for the soaring, emotional "It's Your Move," he enlisted Heigl to not only star in their artistic recreation of the big argument but also direct it. Everything from the storyline to her wardrobe to the professional dancers in the clip was her idea, as created in a "look book" she had already made for the song. (She also encouraged her husband to lose 15 pounds for the video — weight he's kept off by exercising more and "drinking a lot less bourbon.")
It's safe to say New Lane Road is a family affair. Kelley secretly recorded a phone conversation with his father, using his words of wisdom in the middle of "New Lane Road," and his daughters can be heard on several tracks. Younger brother Charles Kelley (of both Lady Antebellum and solo fame) is a co-writer on two songs that reflect their earliest musical influences: the Michael McDonald-sounding "Call It What It Is" and a song reminiscent of early Eagles and Joe Cocker, "Take It on Back." Additionally, Kelley dedicates the sentimental "Cowboy Love Song" to his youngest daughter, leveling his little girls' playing field five years after releasing the heartfelt "Naleigh Moon."
"So now they both have a song. They can't fight about it," Kelley says, rolling his eyes. "Because Naleigh, if you give her the chance to hold something over her sister's head, that would be one of them."
"Naleigh Moon" is featured on Kelley's first foray into country music, the 2011 album Georgia Clay — a longtime musical dream come true for the singer. He actually knocked on Nashville doors for a country record deal when he was in college, but could only get his foot in the pop door at the time. New Lane Road has the singer-songwriter teaming with some of the same Nashville-based co-writers from Georgia Clay, but this time around he transcends genre. With its mix of pop, soul, rock and Seventies "cowboy country," as he calls it, this new set of tunes is label proof.
"Did you hear me in that last interview?" he asks about his chat with another publication just before talking to Rolling Stone Country. "I felt like maybe I screwed up, because [the journalist] asked me, 'Is this a country record?' And I said, 'I don't know.' Oh, man, did I totally screw up by saying I don't know? But I don't know why everything has to have a stamp on it. I love making music. I love writing lyrics and singing, so it just comes together like it's supposed to be."
It's that organic mindset that drives New Lane Road. Kelley acts as multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, singer and backup singer on the homegrown project. ("I try to sing my own harmonies like Crosby, Stills and Nash meets the Band. . . just a little bit dirty," he says.) In the five years between albums, he wrote some 500 songs but had little trouble narrowing it down to the 12 tracks that make this project: He simply picked those that create a snapshot of the musician, husband and father he's become in the last few years.
"There's been a lot of learning and mistakes through the years. . . but now I know this is my job, this is what I do," he says of his renewed psyche. "I have a song for every emotion. Hopefully people can look to my catalog and find something to get them through whatever they're going through. I wish I'd known that years ago. But I can't complain. I wouldn't trade anything in this journey; it's been fun. . . weird, but fun."