As Josh Kelley geared up to record his sophomore LP, Almost Honest, there was one thing the Georgia songster knew he would do differently: This time he would lay off the booze.
"I did all the vocals for my first record in one day, and I did them all sitting on a couch with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a bottle of honey in the other, which I now realize was a bad idea," the 25-year-old recalled of his 2003 breakthrough album, For the Ride Home. "It's not good for your voice, but nobody told me that."
No worries. The record still spawned a chart-topping single with the upbeat love song "Amazing," a feat the singer says he had doubts about being able to repeat under pressure from his record label.
"There were times they were like, 'We need another hit!' and I'm like, 'Oh my God!' but that only lasted in my head for, like, two weeks," Kelley said. "Then I was like, 'Man, screw this. I'm not gonna worry about that crap.' "
So with his creative juices flowing freely, the brazen singer/songwriter churned out close to 150 songs, which had to be whittled down to Almost Honest's final 12. Not an easy task for Kelley's A&R rep, who Kelley said "almost had a heart attack" wading through the material. But the recording process was eased a bit when the label ended up using most of Kelley's demos as the album's final tracks. ("We just couldn't beat them," he said.)
One of the most bare-bones tracks on the album is also the most personal. "Lydia," the LP's closing track, was written for the singer's younger sister, who died of sudden infant death syndrome when he was in middle school. A simple arrangement with only piano, drums and gritty vocals, the track tells the story of his parents' tragic loss from his father's eyes.
"Caught your perfect smile as I watched you sleep/ I saw your beautiful soul when I felt your heart beat/ Your body small, your spirit deep/ What might have been just makes me weep/ Lydia, where have you gone," the singer croons.
Kelley always knew he wanted to write a song for his lost sister but didn't want to do it until he unlocked the right melody. One afternoon, the song practically wrote itself.
"I had a really old 1937 piano at my house, and the song just came out. It was almost like [Lydia] was writing it," he recalled. "It was a really weird situation."
Most of Kelley's other songs were born of more worldly circumstances, like the lead track, the Matrix-produced "Only You," which stemmed from an incident during one of the singer's first headlining tours. "This gorgeous young woman was opening up for me, and she was just playing all kinds of crazy mind games," he said. "I was like, 'Man, it doesn't matter what country you go to. Women will play with guys' heads.' "
That heartbreak eventually receded, making way for a blossoming romance with actress Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy"), who caught the singer's eye after starring alongside him in the single's video last spring.
"At the end of the shoot, I said, 'You're gonna go eat dinner with us, and you can't say no,' so we ate, drank and just started hanging out after that," Kelley said. "So I guess you can't say music doesn't help you out relationship-wise, because it did for us."
Kelley may soon be pulling a Mariah on us if he decides to go with director Marcus Raboy's vision for the clip for his second single, "Almost Honest," which would essentially be a continuation of the first installment. The title track off his latest LP came about when Kelley was nearing the end of a two-and-a-half-year relationship and just didn't have the heart to break up with his girlfriend over the phone.
"I had to be 'almost honest' for two months," he explained. "It was tough to do, but it was one of those situations where you don't tell the whole truth of how you feel because you're so worried about hurting someone's feelings. It was really a weak thing for me to do. You should just be truthful about it."
Matt Wallace (Maroon 5) helped co-produce the album with Kelley, whose earthy, gospel-based tunes are reminiscent of the young Southerner's childhood growing up next to a black church in Augusta, Georgia. It's that spirited sound he's bringing with him on the road for his club tour this fall.
"When gospel guys get together and do rock, you gotta watch out, man," Kelley said. "It gets nasty."
Josh Kelley tour dates, according to his record label:
- 10/17 - Seattle, WA @ Moore Theatre
- 10/18 - Spokane, WA @ Big Easy
- 10/20 - San Francisco, CA @ Bimbo's
- 10/24 - Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
- 10/26 - Lawrence, KS @ Bottleneck
- 10/27 - Columbia, MO @ Blue Note
- 10/29 - St. Louis, MO @ Mississippi Nights
- 10/30 - Chicago, IL @ Park West
- 11/1 - Indianapolis, IN @ The Music
- 11/2 - Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
- 11/3 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
- 11/5 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of the Living Arts
- 11/6 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 11/7 - New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 11/9 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
- 11/10 - Hartford, CT @ Webster Theatre