10 Questions with ... James Otto
April 26, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
James Otto was born on an Army base in Washington state and traveled the country as a child before his family put down roots in the small town of Benton City, Washington. Otto took up singing at an early age, and before graduating high school had learned to play multiple instruments. Before moving to Nashville, Otto served in the Navy for two years. The son of an Army drill sergeant, he was stationed in Guam while serving on the U.S.S. White Plains and the U.S.S. Haleakala, and traveled the world seeing over 20 countries. Otto moved to Nashville and signed a deal with Mercury Records that introduced him to country radio and a national audience. However, it was when he signed with Warner Bros. and released the album "Sunset Man" that his career shifted into high gear. Otto became a part of the renegade outfit The MuzikMafia, and developed a reputation as a riveting live performer. His breakthrough hit, "Just Got Started Lovin' You," topped the Country charts in 2008. Otto's bluesy, muscular voice and dynamic stage presence earned him the respect of industry gatekeepers and the adoration of legions of country music fans.
He co-wrote the Jamey Johnson hit "In Color," which was nominated for a Grammy and won both the Country Music Academy's "Song of the Year" and the Academy of Country Music's "Song of the Year" awards in 2008. Otto has also penned songs for John Anderson, Trace Adkins, Randy Owen and many others including the Zac Brown Band hit "No Hurry."
In recent years, Otto stepped away from the spotlight in a self-imposed hiatus to focus on family and pour his life into a new season of songwriting. Now he's returned to recording with an infectious new single, "Somewhere Tonight," that reveals a renewed commitment to creating his own unique brand of country music. The single has gained fans and followers and had success on SiriusXM "The Highway"'s Top 45 countdown. "Somewhere Tonight" is the perfect single to re-launch Otto on Country radio heading into the rocking Summer music season.
1. Thank you for taking time to speak with All Access today, James! Your new single, "Somewhere Tonight," is available for digital download currently. The song brings an up-tempo party feel without leaning "Bro-Country." There's a lot of great, classic instrumentation on this cut. Can you tell us a bit about why this song is special and what makes it different?
For me, I wanted this song to be something you absolutely could not ignore when it came on the radio. I think that this song grabs your attention immediately. When we wrote it, we wrote to the beat and a guitar is actually in the track that you hear at the beginning of the song. I started playing the banjo lick over the top of it, and that is actually how the song began. It just kind of delivered an energy that you just couldn't ignore, and I really dig that. By the time we got done with the song, it felt super catchy to me. And I thought, well, it feels kind of like a hit song. But I didn't really write it for me, we just kind of wrote it as another song, but I just kept gravitating towards it. The song was something that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. I eventually was like, "Corey - Corey Crowder was one of the guys I wrote this song with and also is a co-producer with me on this record - I said, this song really feels like me, and I think I want to cut this thing and put it out." And he said, "I hadn't thought of this for you, but let's give it a shot." I'm really thrilled with the result.
2. We know you're working on new music in the studio. You've worked with a host of great producers and songwriters in the past, so can you tell us a bit about who you're working with currently and what we can expect from the new project?
The guys that I'm writing with regularly are Patrick Davis, Corey Crowder, James Slater; three of those guys are on "Somewhere Tonight." I've been working with a lot of different people over the last couple of years writing, producing, and working on a lot of different things. But with this, I'm doing it on a song-by-song basis. With the state of the industry the way it is now, it does not make sense for an independent act such as myself to make full albums anymore. The cost involved, the likelihood of it being recouped is pretty low. So for me, I think I'm going to go and do single by single, and maybe release an EP after a couple of singles. I think business-wise, as an independent act, that's what makes sense for me at this moment. And that's kind of where my aim is. Corey and I have produced two songs together so far, and the second one will likely be the second single, but you never know. There's a lot of songs written between then and there.
3. Speaking of new music, you are a highly decorated songwriter, James! You've written for not only yourself, but for and with Jamey Johnson, Zac Brown Band, and many others. How do you distinguish what song ideas you want to keep for yourself and what song ideas you think might be best for another artist? Has there ever been a song you've worked on that someone else had cut, and you thought, "Man, I wish I had that one for myself."
Obviously, "In Color" was one of those songs where you go, "Oh, hey, it would've been great if I could have cut that song!" But there's - first off, my album was done when that song was written, and it was getting ready to go out to stores, and it was too late to add it to the album - so, you can second guess yourself as many times as you want to. But who knows what would have happened with the song, so the way I look at it is that it's incredible what that song did with Jamey Johnson. I'm not sure we would have had that kind of success with it, had it been me, and who knows what would have happened. I'm really just thankful when somebody loves one of my songs and wants to cut it, and I'm usually pretty excited about that prospect. Second guessing it after the fact, you can definitely do that, but it just kind of leads to some misery.
4. If you could sit down in a room and write with anyone - dead or alive - who would it be, and what type of song do you think the collaboration would produce?
Wow. That's a great question. You think about some of those big writers, people you'd love to work with, but then you think about how intimidating it could be. Ya know? I don't think you really know what kind of song would come out of something like that. I can say I'd love to sit down with John Lennon - and in theory that sounds amazing - but you think about what a big thing that is, and you just don't know what that would produce. It's almost like wondering what you'd say if you could talk to Jesus!
5. You've run with and written with the MuzikMafia for many years. How did those relationships influence your earlier albums? Do you still write with anyone from the Mafia?
All of those experiences were positive. John [Rich] is just full of ideas and energy. And he's an excellent producer. But it can be a breath of fresh air to change it up and get a new vibe. And I like to get new energy from new creative people. That's what keeps everything fresh. That's why we're calling my new label Auto Pilot Records.
6. A lot has changed in your personal life since your last album. You have a four year old daughter, Ava, now! How has being a father changed your music and specifically your songwriting?
I think what my daughter has done for my music is really giving me purpose and a new focus. There's a sense of passion and desire to do it again. I needed the first couple years of her life to bond with her, and that's one of the main reasons I disappeared for a while. I wanted to lay low, because I wanted to develop that relationship with her. And now she's four years old, and she knows who I am. She knows me very well, and she sees me every day. So when I leave for a couple of days to go play shows, she's not worried about it. If I had been gone like I were in those early days - like when "Just Got Started Lovin' You" took off - my child wouldn't know me at all. So my writing comes with a renewed sense of purpose, and I really appreciate that.
7. Besides your music, what else has changed about your life since becoming a father and raising Ava?
My life has changed drastically. In the earlier days of MuzikMafia and my early days in Nashville, I lived a pretty carefree, easy, selfish lifestyle. Everything I did was for me, and to move my career ahead. And I don't mean I would step on people to get where I needed to go. It was more just about not worrying. My daily routine was mine, and I could make it whatever I needed to. But now these days, I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is make breakfast for my daughter and make her school lunch. I take her to school. And honestly, that's a very good, grounding spot to be. It puts me on a schedule, and I think that was deeply necessary at this point in my life. I wake up every morning with a purpose, and I get on that. I have my coffee, and once I drop her off at school, I walk in to my studio. I start the day the same way every day, and I think that's a good place to be. It has created a lot of songs, and it has made me a more driven individual.
8. You were recently on an acoustic tour with Trace Adkins. Can you tell us a bit about the tour and the show that fans had the chance to experience on one of the stops?
These acoustic shows came after a conversation I had with Travis Tritt. He asked me to come be involved in a live DVD shoot he did at the Franklin Theater. It was his acoustic show, just him and a guitar, telling stories and playing songs. And I came up doing that in Nashville - that's how I got my start here, playing songwriters' nights at places like The Broken Spoke or The Bluebird. That's something I'm very comfortable with, so when it came time to tour and get ready for this new record, I thought about that. I've done the traditional record label way of going out and going at it with full band like a rock star from the beginning, when you have no right to be doing any of that. This time, I wanted to go out and sit on the stool and tell stories and put on a show. I think what people get out of it is a much deeper connection with you by the end of the day. There's no putting yourself up on a big pedestal - you're really laying yourself out there as a real human being. People learn a lot more about you, and they have the opportunity to make requests and talk to you. It was a whole lot of fun, and I really enjoyed doing those shows and connecting with fans on another level. Even though we did an acoustic show, you could expect high-energy. It was fun, we had a good time, and people were dancing in the aisles and having a good time!
9. You've also landed in the producer's chair recently. As both a singer and a songwriter, what do you think you bring to the table as a producer that sets you apart? Can you share with us any of the artists you've worked with to date?
Over the last eighteen years, I've produced demos from the beginning. I've learned so much, and I think bringing that experience to the table of having produced hundreds of demos and having had the opportunity to work with excellent producers like Paul Worley, John Rich, and Mark Wright over the years, I've had an amazing seat to learn from. Now, I'm able to bring those experiences to the table, along with everything I've learned while being an artist over the years, to help bring that to newer artists and younger artists coming up. When I came to town and sat in the studio, I had no clue how records were made. I thought I did, and I would always pipe up and give my opinion, whether I knew what I was talking about or not. But I feel like now, when I have something to say, it's based on learning something from someone who has been doing it a lot longer than me. As far as people I've been producing, one of the artists I've been working with that I'm very excited about is Rebecca Powell. Monty Powell is an incredible songwriter who has had hits in multiple decades in Nashville, and Rebecca is his daughter. He actually asked me to write with her a couple years back, and I was skeptical at the beginning, just like anyone would be. I thought, 'Oh, sure, you want me to write with your kid.' But what I found out was that she is incredibly talented! She has the same gift her father does for songwriting, and I get an opportunity to write with this young budding artist and songwriter. I get a chance to really get a whole new look at the music business, because she's coming at it from a much different point that I am. It has really been refreshing and fun, and we're coming up with some great stuff.
10. What advice would you give to the current and next generation of young, up-and-coming artists who are looking for a way to balance writing, performing, and personal or family time?
It's tough. My advice is to take it day by day and put as much energy as you can in to your work. But know that it is just work at the end of the day. Yes, your livelihood will revolve around the work you're doing on some level, but there are a lot of other aspects that are wonderful that make life worth living - other than work. Music is a wonderful thing, but find that balance, and you'll be a much happier person.
1. You moved multiple times growing up, and after high school, you joined the Navy. Thank you for your service. In all the travels you've done personally and professionally, is there anywhere left that you'd still like to travel? A "bucket list" destination, if you will?
You know what the funny thing is, I've always wanted to travel Europe, and that's one of the places I have not had the opportunity to go to. I've been all over Asia and the Middle East when I was in the military. But I actually got the chance to go to Italy this winter - in December-to play a show. And it looks like I might do a series of shows, which is something I'm absolutely thrilled about. I've always wanted to go to Italy, and I've always wanted to see it and to get a chance to go over there and play music and also be a tourist for a little while is something I'm absolutely thrilled about.
2. We understand Ava has an affinity for hair bows. Be honest. Have you ever let her style your hair and sported a bow?
Absolutely I have! There are probably pictures somewhere at the house - that I'm not going to share! They look like I'm absolutely wrapped up in hair bows, and she's applied makeup, and it's just impressing stuff. Just fun stuff. But that's what is fun about being a Dad and being able to have fun with your kid and watch them laugh and make fun of you a little bit. It's a blast!