Napster, James Brown Featured In Josh Kelley's 'Amazing' Story

After passing up childhood stardom, singer found fame via file-sharing.

It's safe to assume Josh Kelley has a different outlook on Napster than his music industry contemporaries, like, say, Metallica or Dr. Dre.

The file-sharing network was a pain in the ass to most in the business, but to the then Ole Miss student, it was the means to what he calls a "marketing scheme."

"In any situation you have to make yourself seem bigger than you are," Kelley explained recently, calling from various cell phones as his tour bus traveled across "the middle of nowhere." "I would produce my songs and compress them into MP3s and drive over to the library where there was a T3 connection and get on Napster and find artists who sounded like me. I would click on the user's name and say, 'If you like James Taylor, I just found this kid Josh Kelley. He's awesome.' One day this guy came back and said, 'Well, I work for Sony Records.' "

That guy eventually signed Kelley to Hollywood Records and "Amazing," one of the songs he once dispersed around Napster, is currently a top-40 hit.

And as remarkable as that story is, Kelley has another one equally amazing.

Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, he took to music at a young age. "I started when I was 10 on the drums and piano and worked my way through guitar, bass, harmonica, dobro, banjo and mandolin," Kelley said. In high school, he formed a band called Inside Blue with his brother Charles and cut an EP at a local studio where James Brown also recorded.

"The producer sent him our stuff and he freaked out," Kelley recalled. "This was before Hanson. [Brown's company] wanted to sign us and my dad didn't sign the papers. And I thank him every day for that. I wouldn't have grown and learned as much on my own as I have."

A couple of years later, Kelley discovered he had a knack for another instrument, his voice. "I've always written poetry, but I never started writing lyrics until my senior year of high school," he recalled. "I was realizing I could sing around that time and I started writing obsessively all through college."

Kelley attended University of Mississsippi on a golf scholarship (and could have gone pro if not for Napster). There, he discovered a couple of blues and bluegrass clubs. "I'd go home and try to find out how they got those sounds," he said. "My palette changed in a major way."

One afternoon his sophomore year, while fiddling with a guitar on his bed, he played a few chords he calls "the dream progression."

"And the first words out of my mouth were, 'Baby, you're amazing,' not even thinking about a song, it just seemed to work as far as the enunciation," Kelley said. "I was just finishing up with a long relationship and getting into a new one and the song is sort of about both ends, both feelings, how everything women do is amazing, even if it's positive or negative."

Kelley paused as if he were putting himself back in that room. "Even when they piss me off, it's awesome," he said, busting out in laughter.

The singer/songwriter eventually recorded "Amazing" and two other songs, "Everybody Wants You" and "Travelin'," with a producer friend, John Alagía, who has worked with John Mayer, the Dave Matthews Band and Jason Mraz.

"It started last August as a three-song demo to get a record deal, but we wanted to do it in record quality," he said. "We just had this feeling."

The demo helped Kelley get signed and the songs became the first three on his major-label debut, For the Ride Home, which he made in a month and released in May.

"I'm pretty much a producer and engineer myself and I had recorded these songs a thousand times, so it's kind of like going into a test and knowing all the answers, you're not going to be in there that long," he said.

For the Ride Home has since sold more than 100,000 copies, thanks to tours with O.A.R., Train and Jewel. "Amazing," which Kelley performed on an episode of "Smallville" airing November 12, is still taking off at radio and the video is just being finished.

Sam Jones, director of the Wilco documentary, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," recently shot the black-and-white clip in Los Angeles.

"He's one of my idols. It was unbelievable," Kelley said. "We wanted it to be like an old French silent film. We hired six actors to be three couples and my lyrics would be their dialogue, yet it would look like they are speaking in a foreign language with my lyrics coming on the screen as [subtitles]. It's so artistic. It's exactly what I was looking for. The last thing anyone needs to see is some cheesy dude sitting on a bed with some chick with his head cocked 45 degrees to the right. I was just going to throw up if we had to do something like that."

Next for Kelley is a November tour with Third Eye Blind and an appearance at the end of the month as '60s folk singer Barry Maguire on the NBC drama "American Dreams."

"I'm singing 'Eve of Destruction,' " Kelley said. "It'll be fun."