By Kurt Wolff
Released this past Tuesday (Dec. 3), Days of Gold is the Vero Beach, Florida native’s fourth studio album, coming after 2011’s massively successful Barefoot Blue Jean Night. That album produced four No. 1 songs in a row, perhaps most notably the grinning title track, which has turned into something of a signature song for Owen.
But as he explained in an interview with Radio.com this week, Owen may have grown up in Florida, where a good time means friends hanging on the beach, but there’s a lot more to him musically than just “Barefoot Blue Jean Night. Yhat’s where Days of Gold comes in. Songs like the easygoing “Beachin'” and the pumped-up title track may echo the good-time vibes of previous hits, but at the same time he deliberately chose to exhibit a wide range of styles, songs and moods this time around. “I want people to see all sides of me and not just be a one trick pony,” he said.
So for every “Days of Gold,” there’s also a “Ghost Town” or “What We Ain’t Got.” The latter is a slow, introspective song that is easily among the album’s highlights — and was a surprising hit during Owen’s live shows this summer, even though it was still months away from release. On the album, “What We Ain’t Got” is stripped down and bare, just Owen with a piano and a steel guitar. He admits that puts it at quite a distance both musically and emotionally from what he calls “the rocking chaos” of the album’s title track, but as he explained, “I think those are two songs that complement each other in a weird way” — the yin and yang that make Days of Gold, as a whole, a compelling listen.
After touring stadiums in past years opening for Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean, Owen will be hitting the road in 2014 as a headliner (update: see Jake Owen’s 2014 tour dates and cities). And he’s determined to create a live show that stands out. “I’ve progressed over the years and learned about myself,” he explains, which includes having an increased “comfort level” on stage. Sure, he’ll bring the hits — and he may just have a few more big ones under his belt by then — but as he puts it, it’s perhaps most important to create a genuine experience and “make people feel that you care about them.”
Radio.com: Tell us about the title track, “Days of Gold.” Was it a song that grabbed you immediately when you first heard it?
Jake Owen: It did. It was on a friend of mine’s album, the Cadillac Three — their first album [watch a live version]. Nothing ever happened [for them] with that song, and I was always a fan of it. I used to ride around in my truck listening to that song, going, ‘Man! I’d love to sing this.’ So when I asked [them] if it was OK if I recorded it, [they were] gracious enough to say ‘yeah.’ And I put my own little spin on it.
Growing up in Florida and being someone who was used to always living in the sunshine…I thought it was really important to have a song that personified that. [And] just with the melodic structure and the tempo of that song, it seemed very conducive for the kind of atmosphere I want to have at my concerts that we’re headlining next year.
Is there one song on the record that represents where you are musically right now?
I wish I could give you one song, but I really, truly believe the whole record does. I think that’s the point of records, to show people where you are musically and creatively. If you listen to the album, there’s songs like ‘What We Ain’t Got’ [that is] a long way from ‘Days of Gold’ in terms of melodic structure and even lyrics. I feel like, even in the most golden days, you can dream of more and want more. And as great as things are going right now for me, I still find myself wanting to be better. So I find that I’m always pushing myself to want more than what’s right in front of me. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a selfish thing, it’s just being a competitor, and wanting to be better.
[The song ‘What We Ain’t Got’] is definitely a musical statement, just me and a piano and a steel guitar, which is a long way from the rocking chaos in the song ‘Days of Gold.’ So I think those are two songs that complement each other in a weird way, because they are so far apart from one another.
It’s interesting to hear you put such positive, personal spin on “What We Ain’t Got.”
The song itself — and honestly too, the songs “Life of the Party” and “Ghost Town” — a lot of these songs have the sentiment of, the girl or the significant other is gone, and you wish you had them back. But for me, I don’t think songs have to be literal in order for [listeners] to truly relate to them. I’ve definitely been there before, where I’ve let someone go that I shouldn’t have. And looking back I could probably have been a better person. But where I am in my life right now, I have everything I need. I have a wife that I love, and a beautiful girl [his 1-year-old daughter Pearl]. But I kinda also want to be better dad, I want to be a better husband. And I think that’s that same sentiment of wanting more than what you have right now.
Since you brought up “Ghost Town,” can you talk about what first struck you about it?
That was actually the first song I recorded for the album. It was just because when I heard it, it’s infectious. The way that the verse runs into the chorus, and then the chorus runs into this post-chorus. It’s kinda like it never stops. Making an album, it’s important to have songs that melodically make people not forget them, but also [inspire you] to sing along.
A lot of the sentiments in these songs are places I’ve been and feelings I’ve felt. I think if you know where you’ve been in your life, and you know where you want to go in your life, and you know where you are in your life, all at the same time, then you can feel pretty grounded. Whereas there’s been many times in my life where I didn’t really know where I was, much less where I was headed. And to finally have all three of those things put together in my life, it made it a lot easier to go, ‘OK I’ve felt this emotion before, I want to sing about it.’
Considering that [on this record] I recorded all outside songs, as opposed to the first couple where I wrote everything, it really freed me up to be able to sing about those emotions without necessarily feeling the pressure to re-create them [through songwriting].
It’s interesting, then, that a song you didn’t write can still feel so personal.
Think back to a song like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which is one of the greatest songs in history. When George Jones sang that song, you believed that it was his friend who passed away. But he didn’t write that song. My brother always said, ‘Johnny Cash didn’t shoot a man in Reno [referring to a famous lyric from Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”], but his song makes you feel like he did.’ When an artist can take a song and make it believable, then I feel like that’s when an artist has come into his own.
Ahead of the album’s you released not one but three music videos, collected together as a trilogy. What was the strategy behind that?
It was an idea I had that I didn’t think my label would go for at all, because these days everything’s so budgeted. But I figured, look, we budget out to make videos for each song, so why not do it ahead of time and get people involved in what the feeling of the record will be.
And you deliberately included “Ghost Town” as part of that trilogy, along with more upbeat songs “Days of Gold” and “Beachin’.”
I think it’s important for me to not just be the “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” guy. That song was so big and influential in my career, and is really what brought a lot of fans to my world. But I’m not a one-sided kind of artist, I truly love all kinds of music. I want people to see all sides of me and not just be a one trick pony. Because it’s really easy for critics to sit back and say, ‘Oh this is what he does.’ So if I’m able to show all sides of my career with different songs, and also show it visually in one long-form video like that, in today’s world of social media and instant gratification and the Internet, I’m crazy not to utilize those tools in order to help promote my career.
During your live shows, you interact directly with fans nearly the entire time. Is that something you’ve always done?
It’s my moment I have there. Luckily on this Jason Aldean tour I had an hour a night [Owen shared the bill on the Night Train Tour this year with Aldean and Thomas Rhett]. My wife really brought this to my attention when she first came out and watched me when we got married. She went, ‘Babe, you don’t realize that when you’re on that microphone and you’re talking, you have an arena full of people who are listening. And it’s up to you to dictate how that night goes. You could go out there and just dial it in and just do your show, and people will enjoy it. Or you could go out there and really make them feel something.’ I felt like I’ve always done that, but after she made a point of telling me, I started really emphasizing that in my shows, and letting them know I’m there for them. I’m not just there so they can see me — you know what I mean? I’m there so they can feel me, and I can feel them as well.
I noticed that with a lot of the greatest performers I’ve ever been out with. Kenny Chesney’s great about that. He made an entire football stadium full of people feel like he was there for them. He was like, ‘Welcome to my party.’ As opposed to, ‘You’re lucky to be here.’
Is this direct connection to audiences new for you? Compared to when you first started out.
Not necessarily. I just think I’ve progressed over the years and learned about myself. I know things that work and don’t work. But the one thing, if you came out and watched ten of my shows in a row, you’d never see the same thing twice. I get really frustrated with artists I’ve been out with on tour, they say the same thing at the same time every single night, and it’s just like they’re dialing it in. I don’t care that there are new fans there every night, I care about those fans that drove from the show last night to see the next show. I don’t want them leaving going, ‘I saw him say that last night.’ I want them to always feel like, no matter what show they come to, they never know what they’re going to get.