When Jake Owen stepped onstage during his record label’s Country Radio Seminar showcase earlier this year and began singing a new warm-weather fantasy about disappearing south of the border, it sounded as if the Florida native was rummaging through a reliable bag of tricks. With lyrics about white sand and rolling tides, the song seemed to be at odds with what Owen had told Rolling Stone Country back in September — that he didn’t want to just be known as “the ‘Beachin'” guy.”
“In a way, it was contradicting what I was saying, and then it didn’t feel right,” Owen admits now. “It was really hard, because I played that song in front of a bunch of radio people. Of course, they’re thinking, ‘Is this what’s next?'”
Turns out, it wasn’t. And Owen still isn’t sure if he’ll record that particular track — about as close to a surefire hit as they come, written by six-time Number One songwriter Jaren Johnston — for his upcoming fifth album. Instead, he’s found himself ruminating not about escapist getaways but the daily grind. After sharing his thoughts with Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman, who are producing his new album, the two celebrated writers enlisted Ashley Gorley and Josh Osborne and wrote a song especially for Owen. Its title: “Real Life.” (Listen to the song below).
Released this week, the rambunctious anthem echoes some of the sentiments of Owen’s recent single, the risky piano ballad “What We Ain’t Got,” written by Travis Meadows. The final single from Owen’s 2013 Days of Gold, it topped out at Number 14, but became a career song for the singer, proving he’s able to compete with the genre’s top vocalists.
“In a world of materialistic things, everybody is constantly looking for what they don’t have, as opposed to looking for what’s real and what you have right in front of you. That’s what ‘What We Ain’t Got’ touched on,” says Owen. “‘Real Life’ is about what we’ve got and what’s real to us.”
With a “na-na-na” chorus and shimmering steel guitar — “I wanted it to be weird,” Owen says — “Real Life” calls to mind the same bright sounds of Nineties acts Sugar Ray and Sublime. That was intentional according to Owen, who provided his producers with a list of bands he admired. In the end, they landed on a fresh way to further the summertime vibe that has become his forte without going back to the beach.
“I’m not shying away from my heritage and being from Florida, but I think I played that card a lot on the last couple records, and I didn’t want to come out this summer with another beach song. But I did want to come out with a song with that anthemic chorus,” Owen says of “Real Life.”
Throughout his career, Owen learned it’s tough being a country singer from Florida, a state not usually associated with the Nashville sound (early on, he even tried to downplay his roots). One of Owen’s heroes, “Seminole Wind” singer John Anderson, can relate, but says his fellow Sunshine Stater has done an exemplary job of standing out.
“I love Jake. I met him when he first moved to town and he’s been doing good,” Anderson says. “It’s not easy. Everybody finds that out, the higher up the ladder they climb. But to see kids like him doing well is a good thing in my eyes. I know how hard it is.”
Accepting such hardships as a part of living, regardless of your occupation, is the underlying theme of “Real Life,” Owen says. He cites the song’s lyrics about friends suffering through a rude waitress at Waffle House but tipping her well because, hey, everybody’s got problems.
“This record is a shift for me toward getting away from the fairytale. This is real life, these are real songs, real-life scenarios. There is a lot of music right now that is fictional — and I’ve made some of it,” he says, eager to return some grit to the genre.
To that end, Owen took a more organic approach in the studio, using quick-take vocals instead of the meticulously manipulated technique he and producer Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Nickelback) employed on his 2011 breakout album Barefoot Blue Jean Night and Days of Gold.
“All the singing I did live. I didn’t re-sing any of it,” he says of recording with McAnally and Copperman. “I was listening to the vocals and I was like, ‘Guys, when are we going to go back and sing it?’ They said, ‘We’re not, you’re done.'”
The result is a sound more in line with Owen’s freewheeling, high-energy live show. This summer, he’s playing stadiums around the country as part of Kenny Chesney’s Big Revival Tour, while finishing up the album. Talking to Owen, it’s clear he’s never been this excited about new music.
“I just want to sing songs about real things, real feelings and songs that are happy,” he enthuses, flashing his trademark smile. “Songs about loving people and living life.”