James Otto -- one of country music's most distinctive voices -- is back at radio with "Somewhere Tonight," his first single since 2010 (watch the lyric video below). The singer tells Billboard he's elated to have new music to share with his fans.
"I've had the song in my pocket for about a year. It all came down to choosing the right direction and sound. What I really wanted was to find something that was really new and different for me. I think we did that."
The Washington native -- known for his wide array of vocal styles -- says his ability to mix things up musically can be a blessing and a curse. "That's always been one of the issues with me making music. I love all different kinds of music. Narrowing it down to one kind of sound has always been difficult. This time around, I knew the sound that I wanted to go for. It was less bluesy and soulful, and more of a modern approach. This song was more of a perfect blend of that. I've said that while 'Just Got Started Lovin' You' was tremendously successful for us, in some ways it was a cage," he says, referring to his No. 1 hit from 2008. "Everyone wants you to be the same thing over and over. That's not what I wanted. I wanted to make music that is fun and unique every time, and something that keeps people coming back. That's what we're after."
Though his voice has been absent from the airwaves, Otto's music has been very much in place. "My writing is what has really kept me busy. I've still been touring and doing a lot of shows, but writing songs has always been real good to me. It's what I've always done. I'm able to have the blessing of making that my living. Over the past few years, we've had 'In Color' and 'No Hurry,' and I've got a song on the new Darius Rucker record. I've also got a song called 'Try Harder Than That' with Meghan Linsey, which was out on SiriusXM a little while back. So having that outlet is a wonderful thing. I kind of went back to doing that instead of writing songs for me; I was just writing songs. That was freeing to me. It opened up an opportunity of 'What else can we do?' and that's where 'Somewhere Tonight' came from."
Otto feels that his new music will sound a little different lyrically as well as sonically. Some of that change he attributes to the birth of daughter Ava in 2010. "I think I put in a little bit of urgency, for sure. You've got to put food on the table and have a 'baby needs a new pair of shoes' mentality. It's 'wake up every morning and write.' When I'm home, I start every day out the same way. I have coffee, and I go into my studio, and I start building the track -- whatever I'm feeling that morning. It's been kind of a revelation to me as a writer, and it's been fun."
The single is his first released on his own Ottopilot label. "It's mine, which means a lot of responsibility," he says. "Nothing happens unless I'm out there making it happen. Luckily, I've got a couple of great guys in Steve Schweidel, my manager, and a couple of other guys who keep the ball rolling. Independent music is where we're at, and I think that with where we're at in the music business, it allows us to be much more nimble than the old traditional record label system, and hopefully, that's to our advantage. There's not a committee picking out your songs, or how you're going to look or what you're going to say. That can be good or bad -- you can stick your foot in the mouth or run off in the wrong direction, but in the end, you're self-determining that, and that's something I'm OK with."
Another change for Otto? His trademark hair. "That hair had to go," he jokes. "It was time. People expect you to look a certain way, and I had the long hair for a long time. It was bittersweet in some ways. I think that some fans didn't want me to cut it, but I had to. A man should not spend twenty minutes a day doing his hair. This is so much easier to manage."