Brett James has had the kind of songwriting success that the thousands of dreamers who pour into Nashville each year aspire to have: He’s penned 25 No. 1 hits, including Carrie Underwood’s massive breakthrough single, “Jesus Take The Wheel,” which earned James a Grammy for Best Country Song in 2007. He’s twice been named ASCAP’s Country Songwriter of the Year. In 2006, he earned two CMA Triple Play Awards, followed by a third CMA Triple Play Award in 2016.
At 51, James has had more than 500 of his songs recorded by artists such as Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Nick Jonas, Backstreet Boys, Luke Bryan, Martina McBride, The Fray, Taylor Swift, Paulina Rubio and more. He wrote the opening theme for the broadcast of Super Bowl LII.
But back in 1995, he was another aspiring country artist—“cowboy hat and all,” he recalls with a chuckle—signed to now-defunct Arista Nashville sister label Career Records, and hoping to spin the radio singles from his debut self-titled album into a viable long-term career. Two singles from that album, “If I Could See Love” and “Worth The Fall,” failed to crack the Top 40 on the country charts, and eventually the deal fell apart. In the early 2000s, James re-joined Arista, releasing the singles “Chasin’ Amy” and “After All.” Again, neither single gained adequate traction with radio programmers. With two attempts at an artist career behind him, James began to shift his focus to songwriting, a move that would bring him an arsenal of hits—though they were hits recorded by other artists.
“I never made a record that was really me at all,” James says. “The first one was a country album I made when I was 25. Then I became a songwriter and have been for so many years. The day after I turned 50 I thought, ‘It’s time to do this.’”
Now, James is taking all those years spent crafting lyrics that put words to the stirring of an artist’s soul, and melodies that bring out the emotional best in an artist’s voice—and he’s applying that talent once again to his own voice, his own perspectives.
Today, James is sharing his true voice on “True Believer,” the first single from his upcoming five-song EP I Am Now. The EP will release March 27 via Songs of Brett/Label Logic/Ingrooves.
The project began in James’ living room, a few days after his 50th birthday, where he sat down with a guitar, determined to pen music that he alone would perform. The songs came pouring out.
“I just had more fun writing than I think I ever had in my life,” he recalls. “As you get a little older you come to the point in life, and the career I’m in now, where the last thing you want to do is be someone you’re not. So that was the rule for this, to really be my authentic self, in lyric writing, what I want to say and how I want to say it.”
James self-produced the project, with Paul Moak mixing it. He recorded the album over two days at Moak’s Nashville studio The Smoakstack.
“I called some of my studio musician buddies when it was time to record. I think we cut 10 or 11 tracks in two days. But Nashville musicians, they are so good and we just kind of partied for a few days making it. I did quite a few overdubs with Andrew DeRoberts, he did a lot of electric guitar work afterwards and I did a lot of vocals at my house.”
The songs that resulted were what James calls a “Nashville soul record,” evidenced by James’ surprisingly passionate voice, which flows from velvety to gritty on a whim and could easily draw comparisons to the sandpapery tones of Chris Stapleton and occasionally the smooth phrasings of Darius Rucker.
“My kids have never really heard me sing until they heard this album,” he muses. “They’ve heard me sing on cuts and demos but they’ve never really heard me be me. My kids were like, ‘Dad, we didn’t know you could do that!’ But I didn’t put any parameters on this album, any genres on it.”
The horn-drenched “I Am Now” determines to share feelings of love that have been long been hidden, while patient, longing musings of “Wait” pulsate with soulful grooves, supple guitar work and smoky, soaring choir backings.
The album’s first release, “True Believer,” is a tribute to James’ 19-year-old daughter Clare.
“I didn’t set out to write it for her, but I started writing it and just lyrically as it fell out, I literally texted my daughter about halfway through writing it and said ‘I’m writing you a song today.’ I don’t typically do that. Over my career as a pro songwriter, most of the time you are not writing incredibly personal things. Most of the time we are making up something we think will work or be a hit. But that first verse and chorus fell out and I just knew it was about my daughter. It’s about all my kids, but my daughter is the one that would admit she would like that—my three boys wouldn’t admit they like a song written about them,” he says.
“It was the last song I wrote in that first batch of tracks. It’s just me playing acoustic guitar—it doesn’t match the record at all, which is this warm, kind of soul sisters feel to it. I was going to make [“True Believer”] a bonus track, but it was one of those songs people were drawn to every time they heard it.”
Many of James’ most signature hits as a songwriter—songs like Underwood’s “Something In The Water,” Martina McBride’s “Blessed,” Chris Young’s “The Man I Want To Be” and Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On”—deal in themes of spirituality, positivity, hope and determination.
Those themes are the centerpiece of I Am Now.
“It ended up being all about love, which is kind of where I am in life. Lyrically, that was the inspiration for this record. When you get older, nothing else matters except how much you love people and how well you are loved.”
“I Am Now,” is the sole co-write on the album, which James penned alongside JT Harding and Chris Stevens. With his new collaboration with Ingrooves and Label Logic, James says they plan to send the track to Triple-A radio in March.
“The game’s changed a little bit. It’s easier to make music and put it out than it was, even 10 years ago. I think those of us who have that spark in us to do both—I love my day job and getting to write for other artists, it’s the greatest thing ever—but I think none of us come to town wanting to sit in rooms and write a song with another person and never sing it again, forget about it and hope someone records it. That’s not what music is about as a writer. The idea is to write something you can experience with other listeners. That never left me. I love to play live music for people. I’ve gotten to do that a lot over the years with songwriters shows and things, but it’s a whole different animal when it’s my music. Just finding my voice has been such fun.”
He hopes I Am Now is just the start of more music to come.
“Literally, today I wrote two songs for the next project. It’s never too late to try something new, or try something again,” he says.
‘I Am Now’ Tracklist:
- I Am Now
- Still On My Mind
- Lonely Ain’t So Lonely
- True Believer
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