Jake Owen Gets Real Creative on New Single 'Real Life': The Story Behind the Song

Sara Kauss
Jake Owen

When Jake Owen began working for the first time with producers Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman on his new album, he started feeding them lists of songs and artists that he liked. One of those acts is '90s rock band Sublime, which invariably used crisp guitar chording as a centerpiece for songs with weird sounds and quirky lyrics.

That's a good description of Owen's new single, "Real Life," with its relentless acoustic rhythm, its strange gang vocals and a series of odd-but-familiar images from small-town America: prom queens in plastic crowns, amateurish bar bands and rude Waffle House waitresses.

Eric Church, Jake Owen, Sam Hunt & Zac Brown Band to Perform at CMT Music Awards

The first listen or two is jarring and that's exactly the reaction Owen hoped to get.

"I'm at a point in my life where I could play it safe and put out songs down the middle," he reasons, "but it's important for me to kind of chase a little bit of extra artistry and push the limit a little bit."

Pushing the limit also meant pushing away from the sand-and-waves escapism that has become part of his public identity, thanks to the seaside images of his songs "Beachin'" and "The One That Got Away," as well as his Vero Beach, Fla., heritage.

"Every song getting pitched to me was like margarita-something or beach bum," he says. "I've done that. If I do that again, will it work? Yes, but why do I want to do the same thing again?"

One way to counter the fantasy of the beach is to sing about real-world issues and that's the assignment that Owen, perhaps unwittingly, handed his producers around February.

"I don't think he knew that we were going to go design a song and a sound," says McAnally, "but he was certainly giving us all the hints."

McAnally (Kenny Chesney's "American Kids," Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow") put those hints to work in a two-hour afternoon songwriting session with Ashley Gorley (Luke Bryan's "Kick the Dust Up," Carrie Underwood's "Good Girl") and Josh Osborne (Sam Hunt's "Take Your Time," Blake Shelton's "Sangria"). Copperman (A Thousand Horses' "Smoke," Brett Eldredge's "Beat of the Music") had a writing cancelation that day and the group agreed to go to his house and see if they could craft something quickly.

Jake Owen Gets Ready for Summer With Boats, a New 'Do & New Music

"We don't usually like doing four-ways -- it's usually too many cooks in the kitchen," says Gorley. "But we got there and there was just magic in the room with all four of us equally trading lines and parts and melodies, all singing around the microphone."

As they talked about the real-life motif Owen wanted, Copperman sifted through a set of musical tracks he had worked up. One funky beat stood out.

"That track sort of led us," says McAnally. "It started with the verse chords and that very simple pattern -- it goes to the one chord and then the three. It's a quirky progression and it sort of led us to that speaking, rapid-fire verse and then blowing up into that chorus."

McAnally applied one of the first images, inspired by a scene from Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan cracks her plastic prom-queen crown and throws the pieces to other students at the dance.

"Even being prom queen doesn't make you better," he surmises.

A line in the chorus -- "We ain't talkin' to no models / We got real girls" -- was something of a breakthrough, though no one remembers who introduced it. And the Waffle House waitress who gets tips in spite of slinging attitude becomes a metaphor for small-town etiquette.

"You tip her anyway, because you know she's struggling," says Copperman. In a big city, hurried customers would be less apt to ask her about herself -- thus less apt to understand the 'tude and less willing to part with a decent tip. "That's the difference," he enthuses.

The writers threaded some edgy parts into the narrative, too. A hazily edited curse word -- "There wasn't shit to do" -- inhabits the first verse and raised nary an eyebrow. But there was significant debate over another original line: "We get real drunk / We get real high." McAnally insisted on the "high" line, which everyone saw as a potential problem. Gorley suggested that if they changed the "drunk" part, it would leave the meaning open to interpretation, so they switched the line to "We get real low / We get real high." 

"It is like small-town life," says Osborne. "You get real down, but on the weekends you feel great. That was sort of the thought of it. It became the thing where the listener makes it whatever they want to make it."

Most listeners will probably interpret the overall song lightly, though there's a surprising amount of depth to it. The bridge finds someone bargaining with God in prayer -- "I guess it just got real," the singer concludes -- before heading back to the upbeat chorus.

And "Real Life" is almost subversive in its approach to modern culture. Marketing and advertising are so pervasive and typically so misleading, that people often can't discern the truth. "Life is so fake now," notes Gorley. "It's so videoed and set up -- reality shows aren't even real. So many things just seem scripted."

Jake Owen Is More Than the 'Barefoot Blue Jean Night' Guy -- Not That He's Complaining

Even the models they ain't talkin' to are enhanced by Photoshop. "You think about how things are written and then glossed over, made to sound so great," says Osborne. "We were just sort of trying to write the antithesis."

Once the "Real Life" title was clear, they went back and found places to add the word "real" and create a better through-line. And as McAnally sang the lead for the demo, the rest of the group chimed in with an odd "nah-nah" chorus, singing through their noses so much that it sounds like kazoos.

Owen was sold on it from the first listen and they assembled a group of musicians at Nashville's Blackbird Studios to play along to the demo. Even steel guitarist Russ Pahl, who would be overdubbed under normal circumstances, played live with the ensemble. "We wanted dry, country-cornbread steel to kind of counteract the craziness in choice spots," says Copperman.

Owen's vocals were likewise captured during the tracking date, adding to the real-life theme of the recording.

"I went in there and sang while the band tracked like I do when I'm onstage," says Owen. "I never went back in again after the day we tracked and sang. Ever. I just left it the way it was and that's what's so cool, because there are little imperfections in it, but the imperfection of the song is to me what makes it perfect."

The whole team felt the song challenged Owen's audience -- "After the first time you hear it, you're like, ‘What the hell just happened to me?'" says Mc-Anally -- but "Real Life" is off to a real big start. RCA released it to radio via Play MPE on May 26 and it debuted at No. 29 on Country Airplay, marking the highest first-week performance of his career. It sets the listener up for the next album, which presumably favors reality over escapism.

"This song," says Owen, "was the perfect way to kick off what the rest of the record is getting ready to tell people."