Women in Music 2016

Makin' Tracks: 'Confession' Likely Good For 
Florida Georgia Line's Soul

Austin Hargrave
Florida Georgia Line photographed on Sept. 18 at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Co.

Cruising into Thanksgiving, Florida Georgia Line picked up a couple pieces of hardware during ABC’s Nov. 22 telecast of the American Music Awards, including favorite country album for Anything Goes.

The project connected with the public well enough that by the time the album earned that recognition, it had already yielded single No. 5. Republic Nashville released “Confession” to radio on Nov. 3 through Play MPE.

“To release a fifth single — man, it doesn’t really happen that much anymore,” says the duo’s Brian Kelley. “We knew it was going to touch a lot of people, and that’s what we’re most concerned with. I think it’s going to have a huge impact.”

One desired impact the act hopes “Confession” will make is to change a few perceptions about the breadth of FGL. The duo, of course, established its brand on the back of numerous good-time titles, including “Cruise,” “This Is How We Roll” and “Sun Daze.” But “Confession” — like the first single from Anything Goes, “Dirt” — casts the twosome in a more serious light, a vital step as it works on album No. 3.

“You can only do the party thing for so long,” says producer Joey Moi (Jake OwenChris Lane).

Kelley and his vocal partner, Tyler Hubbard, are definitely of a mind to stretch their creative wings.

“That’s the beauty of being an artist,” says Hubbard. “You can kind of put yourself into different positions and different places—mentally, spiritually and emotionally. If every song was the same, it’d get boring.”

As serious as “Confession” is, the original intent was a party spirit. Songwriter Matt Jenkins (“Cop Car,” “Where It’s At”) arrived at the Music Row office of songwriter Ross Copperman (“Beat of the Music,” “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”) with a larger title, “Confessions of a Country Boy,” which he envisioned as a rambunctious song that might fit Blake Shelton. When third writer Rodney Clawson (“American Kids,” “Burnin’ It Down”) arrived, they married the title to an instrumental track that Copperman had brought in, but the concept quickly morphed into something else.

Florida Georgia Line's New Album Coming 'Probably Spring' 2016: AMAs Backstage Interview

“The track had so much emotion to it, it felt like there was already a song or a story in the track,” says Jenkins. “Rodney, at that point, had the idea to just simple it down and call it ‘Confession,’ and then you just start going through the scenarios you can write this idea about.”

The most obvious tack would be to make a confession of infidelity. But artists haven’t recorded a lot of cheatin’ songs in the recent past.

“They totally would in the 1970s, but in this day and age, I’m not banking on anyone wanting to cut that,” says Clawson. “So we kept playing with the idea until we got it to where it’s just a guy [who] drives outside of town and parks somewhere and drinks a beer and looks at where his life is. To me, that seems like there may be more than one person that would want to cut that.”

They also considered rummaging through the problems that brought the guy to a crossroads. But that approach had limitations.

“It’s more powerful to not list all this stuff that you have done in detail,” says Jenkins. “There’s like this inner-turmoil wrestling with the confession stuff, but you never really unpack all these detailed things.”

Instead, they filled it with artsy images and phrases that conveyed his isolation, beginning with “rusty barbed wire” and “jet trails cuttin’ cross the sky,” and reaching a peak on the chorus as the guy sees his own face in the windshield, only to recognize “a crack in the reflection.”

Florida Georgia Line Performs 'Confession' at the 2015 CMA Awards

They thought it had the potential to be a special song. But it was also a “grinder,” says Copperman. They worked a good eight hours on it one day and invested another three or four hours in a second writing session before they nailed it down.

“It was such a tricky song,” he explains. “It was one of those songs where you’re saying a lot without saying a lot.”

Plus, the first lines were so literate and specific that it set a difficult standard for the rest of the song’s lyrics.

“Every line had to be this crazy-good image of this guy just reflecting on his life,” adds Copperman. “Rodney’s the king of those real-life moments.”

Clawson, in fact, hammered out the biggest sticking point: the lines leading up to the word “confession” in the chorus. The imagery was dark enough that he wanted to find something a little lighter without destroying the introspective nature of the piece. He solved it with the phrase “right hand on a cold-one confession.” But even that alcoholic reference hints at another weighty subject.

“You put your right hand on the Bible when you take that oath in court,” says Clawson. “This is a right hand on a cold-one confession. That lightened it up just enough.”

Copperman built the demo with a bit of an indie-rock feel, and they all agreed that Jason Aldean was the best target for “Confession.” But he never got a chance to hear it. Big Loud Shirt, Clawson’s publishing company, is also the management company for Florida Georgia Line. Partner Seth England thought “Confession” was ideal for Anything Goes, which was about two-thirds completed. The duo had been besieged with party songs from outside writers, and this one was something deeper. He emailed it to the band and to Moi.

“We were immediately drawn to the title,” says Kelley, who felt that an attitude that’s conveyed in a title like Anything Goes naturally leads to a confession. “I think it’s a spiritual song. It’s coming of age for both Tyler and I. I think it really does bookend the album well after starting it off with ‘Dirt.’ ” 

Moi kept much of the original intent of the demo, although he brightened it up a bit, particularly with 16th notes played by electric guitarist Adam Shoenfeld to provide a little extra movement. Charlie Judge also got a glassy tone from a church organ to play up the spiritual content, and Moi jacked the chorus up in intensity.

“The fundamentals and the foundation of the track were all there,” says Moi. “The demo was just a little softer, so I just kind of put the FGL wrapping paper on it, but didn’t lose any of the demo’s charm.”

As is typical in Moi’s vocal sessions, Hubbard and Kelley sang the song over and over in the studio until the words — and the meaning behind them — were second nature.

“There’s a lot of range, and we probably did 75-100 takes before we had the one we wanted,” says Hubbard. “There’s one thing in knowing the melody and lyrics to a song. There’s another level of confidence that comes with being able to believe it when you sing it.”

FGL sang it during the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 4, the day after its release to radio. It’s at No. 31 in its fifth week on Hot Country Songs and No. 28 on Country Airplay, perhaps helping the duo change its public perception.

“I think for what we got coming, this really opens the door,” says Kelley. “Maybe it’s time we take credit for throwing the biggest parties in the bro-country, or whatever you want to call it. And I also think we’re the leaders in the next step. If we take credit for that, then it’s up to us to lead the way with something fresh.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.