Over his nearly 10 year career as a country artist, Jake Owen has made a name for himself by writing catchy tunes about the good life, whether it’s lazing by the shore (2013’s “Beachin'”) or getting caught up in a Southern summer (2011’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”). But on his new single, “Real Life,” which hit radio today, he ignores the old “if it ain’t broke…” adage and heads in a different direction: the tune is a grooving ode to growing up in a small town, sipping on RC Cola because Coke isn’t available, and late night stops at Waffle House.
“I want to put out different,” he tells EW. “I’m at the point in my career where I really want to just kind of grow upon the foundation that I’ve put together.”
With the country crooner out on the road with Kenny Chesney this summer, EW caught up with the 33-year-old to talk about the inspiration for his new song, what’s in store for his upcoming album, and why you should stop asking about that haircut.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “Real Life,” is pretty different from what we’ve heard on your last couple of albums. What attracted you to the song?
Jake Owen: The fact that it’s about being real. Some of my songs have been big hits but like “Beachin'” for instance is not really real for somebody who lives in Springfield, Missouri. It was fun for me this time around to sing a song about like, “Look, what we have may not be perfect all the time but it’s pretty good for us. And that’s what’s real life to us.” I think no matter who hears this song, wherever they are, they’re going to be like, “You know what I get it,” without being too literal about a certain place in particular. I love the feel of the song, I love what it says…I love how exciting it feels.
You had a pretty enthusiastic response to your Instagram post teasing the single.
Yeah! Did you see that? It was so cool to just say “Hey, what’s real to you?” And I saw everything from people saying “Hanging out with my friends and living life is what’s real to me,” to, “Watching my daughter grow up is what’s real to me.” I think that’s what’s going to be great about this song—what’s real to people is obviously not the same to everyone. So I’m excited about where this song goes.
This is a pretty quick turnaround for new material. Days Of Gold came out at the very end of 2013.
Well, I had a pretty shitty result with that record outside of “Beachin’” and “What We Ain’t Got.” Essentially, it didn’t sell as many records as we probably wished we would have and I don’t know, I started finding new songs. In a day of instantaneous gratification—people wanting stuff now, now, now—it’s kind of nice you’re able to give it to them now and they look forward to that.
Should we expect as much of a change in the rest of the new material coming this year?
It definitely has more of a funkier feel to it—it’s nice to give people a little diversity and I think right now in our format there’s so many different things that people have a lot of opportunity to find other things they want. I wanted to change it up a little bit, you know? I think we have enough of what people are used to.
Country music artists feel like they’re diversified their sound alot recently.
I love it because I think it’s opening up the door for a lot of people. People ask me, “Do you know so-and-so?” and I’m like, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “I don’t like that, that’s not country.” I always tell them it’s interesting because there’s Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson—I’ve worn those records out, I love those guys—and they have so many fans that love what they do. And then on the polar opposite, but in the same genre you have Taylor Swift or Sam Hunt—something that sounds completely different. And they’ve got millions of fans as well, you know? It’s a great time for country music in the variety that people have to choose from.
And speaking of change, could you believe the reaction to your haircut?
No, I could not believe that at all, it’s so weird. I still think it’s weird, like people asking me questions about it—I cut it over a month and a half ago and everybody still asks me about it, it cracks me up. My brother said, “You don’t need a publicist, you just needed a haircut.”
When you’re looking for songs for your new album, do you believe you have to have personally experienced what you’re singing about?
I think there’s artists that are very, very good at writing what they’re living and delivering it in a way that not only is very artistic and beautiful but really resonates and connects with their audience, and I think you have artists that are able to tell stories through music and it might be a fantasy but yet it’s in a way that the listener can believe in and recognize. There’s a beautiful art to both of those things. I’m attracted to all of those types of songs. And when I’m writing, I’ll sometimes have an idea that I’ve lived that I feel like I need to say that’s easy to write. And then it’s challenging sometimes to have something that I’ve thought about—it might have been a dream or some sort of thing that popped into my head that I want to write about but I haven’t lived it yet. Those are the hardest songs to write.
It’s like being a kid in the class you had in school called creative writing, I remember the teacher being like, “You have a notebook and a pencil and for the next 45 minutes or hour you guys write a story and you’re going to turn it in at the end of class.” It was opening up our creative minds and I think I’m still the same guy today that I was then—I just get excited about those types of things.
You’re out on the road with Kenny Chesney this summer, what have you learned watching his live sets?
I love what I do, and I get pulled in a million different directions and I really get worn out and tired. I can’t imagine being Kenny Chesney with as many different things as he’s got goin’ on—and for so long. And to watch him every night on a stage, no matter if I notice during the day that he might have been tired or whatever—it’s like he goes from Clark Kent to Superman. He puts on that outfit, he goes out there and he is fully committed to giving his fans the best experience they could possibly have. I admire him so much for that and admire the fact that he works so hard and keeps people smiling and their energy up. It really is an amazing example of what all artists should strive to do and the passion they should have for what they do.
Do you feel that way when you get on stage? No matter what kind of day you’ve had?
It’s my favorite part about it, I think. It doesn’t matter what kind of day you had for both sides of the fence. Like, the audience, when they come to my shows, I don’t know what kind of day they had at work, getting their kids dropped off for a babysitter and then sitting in traffic not wanting to be late for the concert. There’s a lot of factors that can make people finally get to the show and be like, “Dang, I just want to have a good time and have a frickin’ beer.” For me, a lot of it’s been that way too, you know? I’ve been stressed out with a bunch of things—trying to make a record, and doing millions of interviews—sometimes for me to just plug a guitar in and sing songs and also have a beer, and do what I love and entertain people lifts me up just as much as it lifts them up out there. In a way, it’s kind of infectious.