2019 American Music Awards

How '10,000 Hours' Co-Writer Jessie Jo Dillon Overcame Her Songwriting Fears

Kate York
Jessie Jo Dillon

It was a conversation about the 2008 Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers that sparked one of 2019's biggest crossover hits. "We were all talking about how it takes 10,000 hours to master something," remembers songwriter Jessie Jo Dillon of her fruitful session with country duo Dan + Shay, along with fellow writer Jordan Reynolds. "We were relating it to how we're all just hoping to learn to love to the best of our ability. I think we were lucky that we were all in love too." The more Dillon thought about the concept, another artist added extra inspiration. "It's weird, but I also kept on thinking about Billy Joel. I read that he wrote (his 1977 ballad) 'Just the Way You Are' from the perspective of what he wished someone would say to him. I feel like we captured that feeling pretty well that day. We just wanted to write a great love song that felt purely from the heart."

The resulting genre-mashup (written by Dan + Shay, Bieber, Jessie Jo Dillon, Jordan Reynolds and Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd) debuted at No. 4 on the Hot 100 and subsequently earned the distinction of becoming the highest-charting non-holiday country song on Billboard's Streaming Songs chart. Along with the song's romantic subject matter, its success was bolstered by the combination of star power of both Dan + Shay and the recruitment of Justin Bieber. The star positioned it as a proclamation of love to his new bride Hailey, even dubbing it "wedding music."

"If someone had put a gun to my head and said, 'Guess who'll be featured on this song?' I never in a million years would have guessed Justin Bieber, who is one of the biggest stars in the world," says Dillon, who describes the addition as "other-worldly for a little country girl. It's just wild."

Based in Nashville and known for writing an array of heartfelt country hits (including Cole Swindell's "Break Up in the End" and Maren Morris' "Rich"), Dillon always figured a Bieber cut was outside the realm of possibility, but then again, she felt the same way about her career as a songwriter. Despite growing up the daughter of Dean Dillon, a noted country songwriter in his own right and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, it's a profession Dillon had to be convinced to pursue.

"I've been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember," Dillon says, noting that her family would habitually reference songwriters in lieu of artists when it came to citing their favorite tracks. "My dad would listen to people Hank Cochran, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard," she says of three of the genre's titans. "I also have a very vivid memory when I was young in the backseat of my car the first time I heard 'Desperado' by the Eagles. Even being that little, I just remember feeling overcome with emotions that Don Henley and the guys had in that song. I was lucky that I was listening to what I still believe is the best music ever made and was introduced to it all as a kid." Regardless of a bubbling passion, Dillon thought hard about if songwriting was too obvious a career path; not to mention a complicated one to grapple with in the face of her father's impressive success. "I was always writing poems and stories that my parents would say were lyrical, but I felt like I spent a lot of time trying to not wanting to do what I knew I wanted to do. I was very in awe of my dad, but it was such a huge shadow to be in. He's so talented and has had such an incredible career where he's had hits and is also very respected. I'm sitting there thinking, 'There's no way you can ever measure up to that.'"

Leaving behind the cocoon of Nashville, it wasn't until a year-long foray in Los Angeles in an effort to try to stumble upon a viable career outside of songwriting, whether in journalism or another field, that her reservations soothed. "Out of the blue, someone from Sony/ATV just stopped me and said, 'You need to go home.' It hurt my feelings really bad the first second, because I was like, 'Dang, that's not very nice.' But she said I needed to go back to Nashville to write music and really get over this fear I had while I still have all of these things to say." It was the exact pep talk Dillon needed. With that, she packed up to make a go of it in the country music mecca. "Even those small 10 minutes of her kind of lecturing me lit a fire under my ass. Like, I just had to stop being a chicken and get over it."

Despite being hesitant to even announce to her father she was going to try to get a publishing deal, Dillon soon faced her fears and wound up having a full circle moment in short order. "My mom knew, but I was very secretive about it with my dad. I really wanted him to think I was good. But one of the first songs we ever wrote together was 'The Breath You Take.'" Recorded by George Strait and released in 2010, the emotional ballad wound up scoring a Grammy nomination for best country song in 2011. "It's really sweet, because sometimes people will send me videos my dad playing in another city. He'll always talk on stage about me and how proud he is. That means more to me than anything." But when it comes to her commercial success, Dillon is frank. "There's this pixie dust in all of it," she notes. "You can formulate, plot and think all of your ducks are in a row. But if a pixie-dust, stars-aligning moment doesn't happen, it won't happen."

If that's the case, it stands to reason that a multitude of pixie dust was at play with "10,000 Hours," which has given Dillon the biggest cut of her career so far, Dan + Shay's highest-charting track on the Hot 100 and Justin Bieber's grand debut on the Billboard Country Charts. "Sometimes you think, 'Am I ever gonna write a great song again?' But you still keep swinging to write the next 'Desperado,'" says Dillon of her overarching goal. "I feel like I do my best work when I'm writing something from my heart or I'm trying to help an artist say what's on their own heart. My dad told me a long while ago, 'If you don't give a damn about the song you're writing, why would anybody else?'"

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