“I feel like I’m reinventing myself on this album,” Josh Kelley says of New Lane Road, his first new release in five years and his first for Sugar Hill.
Indeed, listeners who think they know Josh Kelley via such trademark tunes as his pop smash “Amazing” and his country hit “Georgia Clay” may be in for a surprise with New Lane Road. With Kelley handling the songwriting, production and engineering, and playing most of the instruments himself, the TK-song album is a landmark for the artist in more ways than one, breaking new sonic ground while featuring the most revealing, personally-charged lyrics of his dozen-year career.
“This record is the most me of any record I’ve ever made,” Kelley asserts. “It’s the most honest I’ve ever been, and it’s the best subject matter I’ve ever had to write about. When I was first coming up, I was young and inexperienced, and I had to make things up. Now that I’m older and I’ve traveled the world and had kids and have seen more and felt more, I have things to write songs about.”
Indeed, such effortlessly catchy, lyrically engaging new tunes as “Take It On Back,” “You’re My Angel,” “Life’s Too Short,” “It’s Your Move” and “One Foot in the Grave” demonstrate a remarkable balance of emotional insight and melodic craft. New Lane Road also includes Kelley’s distinctively rootsy reworking of the Bruce Hornsby classic “Mandolin Rain,” which sold 100,000 downloads when it was originally released as a digital single in 2014.
Although New Lane Road is Kelley’s first new album since 2011’s Georgia Clay, he’s kept busy with a variety of projects that have allowed him to stretch out and explore new musical challenges. For example, he wrote and performed the theme song for the hit TV sitcom Mike and Molly, scored the feature film Home Sweet Hell, and created the theme song for TV’s Golf Channel.
“I got tied up in some politics with another label, which is why this is my first record in five years,” he explains. “But that’s OK, because if I’d released an album then, it wouldn’t have been as good as this one. I wrote about 500 songs over the last few years, but these are the ones that fit together and felt like the right statement.”
New Lane Road is the product of three years’ worth of writing and recording, much of it in the state-of-the-art studio that Kelley built in the hills of Utah, where he lives with his wife, actress Katherine Heigl, and their two children.
“It was recorded in four different studios, but mainly at my place, which is my mad-scientist laboratory,” he says. “It’s kind of a snapshot of our life in Utah, and how I feel about being a father and a husband. It’s also a snapshot of what I’ve been listening to. I’ve been listening to a ton of Otis Redding and Al Green and Jackson Browne and Tom Petty and Joe Cocker; that organic warmth is what I’m always trying to achieve.
“I’m in the studio every day,” he notes. “Being the producer, the engineer and the artist can get lonely sometimes, but it’s very empowering and very satisfying creatively. For me, there’s no better drug than spending the morning writing a song, spending the afternoon recording and producing it, and then making a copy and listening to it in the car on the way home. It’s so much fun having that instant gratification, of creating something from scratch.
“I tend to get totally immersed in anything I’m creating,” he continues. “I’ve been that way my whole life, whether it’s recording or drawing or painting or whatever. It’s a part of myself that I’ve never really shown to the world. I play 10 or 15 different instruments, and if I need one and don’t have it, I’ll buy one on Craigslist and learn to play it. If it weren’t for my wife, I would probably just be a Sasquatch and stay in my studio all day every day. She saved me from that by forcing me to get out and engage with the world a little more.”
Josh Kelley has been pursuing his own creative path since his childhood. Growing up Augusta, Georgia, in a close-knit family that encouraged his early interests in music, painting and drawing, he absorbed the influence of the R&B and soul that his mom loved, as well as inheriting his dad’s love of vintage country, and his older brother’s affinity for classic rock. During their early teens, Josh and his younger brother Charles (now one-third of Lady Antebellum) formed a band, Inside Blue, whose self-released indie CD gained airplay on local radio and caught the attention of soul legend James Brown, who expressed interest in signing them.
While studying art at the University of Mississippi, Josh recorded his indie solo debut Changing Faces, building an impressive amount of online buzz. His D.I.Y. ingenuity helped him to win a deal with Hollywood Records, which released his 2003 mainstream debut For the Ride Home, which spawned a Top Five single in the anthemic “Amazing.” Kelley’s sophomore effort, Almost Honest, including the Top Ten single “Only You,” followed in 2005.
Despite those early successes, the artist chose to take a more hands-on approach to his career, releasing four independent albums — Just Say the Word, Special Company, the digital release Backwoods and the limited edition To Remember— between 2006 and 2008. Meanwhile, Kelley became a familiar media presence, thanks to high-profile appearances on Ellen, Good Morning America, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Regis & Kelly and Last Call with Carson Daly. Meanwhile, his songs were featured in episodes of such shows as Smallville, Scrubs, Brothers and Sisters and MTV’s The Hills.
Kelley then embraced his deep country roots, signing with MCA Nashville and releasing the steeped-in-tradition album Georgia Clay in 2011. That album’s title track became a substantial country hit, helping to expand his extraordinarily loyal, open-minded fan base, which has continued to embrace his music, even during his recent recording hiatus.
“I just did this acoustic tour, and I was so nervous about what attendance was gonna be like, because I hadn’t been out in so long,” he explains. “But we sold out 80 percent of the shows. And when I got on stage, it would always be a surprise to me, like, ‘Whoa, these people still care!’ My fans are pretty awesome, and I definitely don’t take that stuff for granted.
“It took me a long time to get to the point where I could really appreciate how fortunate I am,” Kelley reflects. “I was very, very green when I got into the business, and I was scared of success. So I sort of crawled into a hole up in the Hollywood Hills for a while, and smoked a bunch of weed and made music and didn’t tour much. I wish I had handled it differently, but that’s life, and I know better now.”
Kelley’s renewed enthusiasm is apparent throughout New Lane Road — not only in the artist’s transcendent songs and performances, but in the album’s packaging, which features several of his paintings, which vividly illustrate his songs’ emotional contents.
“I’ve been painting and drawing since I was a kid, but I’ve never really showed that side of me to the world until now,” says Kelley. “I’ve been recording music since I was 11, and I should have been using all of these things to my advantage. But I never let anybody know, and I never let anybody know that I played all these instruments. My wife pushed me to show that side of myself to the world, and to let people know about my artwork and my paintings. She was like, ‘The world thinks you’re just some glossy singer-songwriter dude.’ So I guess that on some level, people haven’t ever known who I really am, and now they’re about to find out.
“I feel like I actually know what I’m doing now, which was not always the case in the past,” Kelley concludes. “I’m a better player and performer than I’ve ever been, and I’ve found the sweet spot in my voice. I write, record and create every single day, and because of that, I think I’ve gotten better at everything. I’m a better husband, a better dad, and I’m better at my craft. I think of all of the stuff I did before as my apprenticeship for what I’m doing now.”