Five years ago, Asheville, North Carolina native Caleb Johnson won season 13 of American Idol. His first album was recorded in three weeks and issued on Interscope. Looking back on that first set now, Johnson says, “Unfortunately I didn’t really have enough time to delve deeply into what songs I wanted. It was a very rushed process. To me, that first album was more like a product. It was not really a piece of art.”
Johnson has taken an entirely different approach to his new album, Born from Southern Ground, recorded with the Ramblin Saints and set for release on June 14. Billboard caught up with Johnson to talk about his latest project, his work with famed rock artists ranging from Meat Loaf to KISS to Cheap Trick, and what it means to be from southern ground. Check out the premiere of his new video, “Solid Gold,” below.
When did you start work on this new album?
This record initially started the year I won Idol. I went to Nashville in the fall of 2014 and started doing some writing sessions, getting songs together for a potential album. The writing process took about two years and then in the winter of ’15, I cut the first tracks at Zac Brown’s studio, Southern Ground Nashville, and that was the initial kick-starter for the record. I cut about four tracks at the top of 2016 and then went on tour with KISS in the summer of ’16 and later did some shows with Cheap Trick and Sammy Hagar and Joan Jett. I did a two-month tour with Black Stone Cherry and then in the late summer of that year, I cut the rest of the record. It was a process and I took my time with it. I wanted to get the best songs possible. It was such a blast and a huge difference from the experience I had making the other record. I feel like Born from Southern Ground is my first album. This is the album that I really truly and honestly wanted to make after the show. I had complete control over everything. I started my own label and completely funded this entire record. I had some of the best players in the world and we cut all the songs live on the floor. The songs that you hear on the record are basically live performances, with not a whole lot of cut-and-paste. That first album was very cut-and-paste and I think there’s some Auto-Tune on it. It’s just not a natural album. And I was such a big fan of the old school ways and the old school records like classic rock and soul music and this album really captures that essence. I think the fans who voted for me and supported me on Idol will be very excited and happy with this product, because this record truly represents me as the artist that I represented on the show and moving forward as an actual recording artist on down the road. I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears and my heart and money into this thing and I’m very happy with the way it came out.
You’re from Asheville but you recorded this album in Nashville. What do you think of Music City and who did you work with at Southern Ground?
It’s great to have the support from the rock community and also the music community and the people in Nashville. Nashville has been such an amazing town to me. I feel like Nashville gets behind real stuff and so I’m incredibly honored to have written and recorded in Nashville and I hope that I will get to make records in Nashville for many years to come. My cousin, Bryan Sutton, co-produced the record with me. It was just a really cool combo, because Bryan is a world-class Grammy-winning bluegrass guitar player and he’s one of Nashville’s elite session players. He’s like the first-call guitar guy and he helped assemble the band for the record. It was like casting for a movie. You’re casting these musicians and they come in and you get that right chemistry and there’s magic and that’s what we caught on record because a lot of it is just pure raw emotion. It’s very visceral and emotional and this record is very much Southern rock gospel, drenched in grit and grease and hard-edged soul and all that good stuff. I feel like that’s what I was on the show.
What has it been like to tour with some of rock’s leading artists, and be the front man on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell tour?
Working with bands like KISS and Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Cheap Trick and Black Stone Cherry has been an absolute honor. It’s so inspiring to witness and also be around people and artists that you look up to because they were at one point in the same spot as you were, and they had a dream, they had a vision, and they persevered and made that dream happen and here they are, 20 years, 15 years later, still kicking ass.
Recently I’ve been doing the Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell shows where I’m fronting Meat Loaf’s band, the Neverland Express, and we’re doing Bat Out Of Hell live in its entirety and Meat Loaf has endorsed it and I’m carrying on his legacy. I remember getting Bat in middle school and the cover first drew me in. It has “Meat Loaf” in gothic letters over a graveyard with a motorcycle coming out of the grave with a bat on the tombstone. You’re a 14-year-old child and you think this is so cool. And so you listen to this larger-than-life record, and then you look on the back cover and it’s a 300-pound dude with long stringy hair sweating, clutching a microphone, screaming into a microphone and you’re thinking, “What is this?” That record was one of those albums that blew my mind.
What is it like taking on the responsibility of performing that album live?
It’s an incredibly daunting task. I’m very honored that they asked me to do it. I don’t think Meat Loaf ever got the credit that he deserves as a singer. He’s one of the most incredible rock singers I’ve ever heard, and if you listen to Bat Out Of Hell or Bat Out Of Hell II, his voice is spectacular. One of the biggest things I learned from listening to him sing is the amount of emotion that he put into his songs. I mean, he took those Jim Steinman songs to a whole other level. It’s just crazy, and I think that a lot of that goes unnoticed. He is in the top five bracket of my favorite singers of all time, so I think that for them to reach out to me, it’s a massive honor because those songs are not easy to sing at all. They’re very exhausting, and after you get done with the show, you just want to take a nap. Again, it’s a “pinch me” moment because I was a huge fan of that record. I still am today. I listen to it all the time.
Tell me about your new single, “Solid Gold.”
“Solid Gold” was sent to me by a writer buddy of mine out of Nashville, Blair Daly, who I co-wrote the majority of this record with. He co-wrote “Solid Gold” with Jay Buchanan, who’s the lead singer of Rival Sons, which I’m a massive fan of. And oddly enough, I sang a Rival Sons song on Idol [“Pressure and Time”], so it was a great full-circle moment to be presented this opportunity to sing a song that was written by the singer of the band. I have such a huge respect for both Jay and Blair as musicians and as people. So when they sent me the demo, I thought, “This is like Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ meets Queen ‘I Want It All’ mixed with the swampy stomp of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” so I thought it was perfect. And I knew I would love to cut it. The song is very much an anthem and the message is to fight for your dreams. It’s got that kind of resilient perseverance like “We Are the Champions.” The lyric says, ‘Live your dream like a fire that never gets cold.’ That really resonated with me because for the past couple of years, I have been keeping the faith and busting my butt to continue living out my dreams. It’s the only track on the record that I didn’t write.
What does the title of the album mean to you?
Born from Southern Ground came from Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio. The title of the record defines the sound, in the sense that it goes back to the roots of where I was raised and then it refers to the roots of the music that I love, the roots of classic rock and the roots of soul and blues and hard rock and heavy metal. This record was born from those influences where I was raised. Asheville is such an eclectic musical city. You get all that mojo from where you’re from and you take that from your influences and that’s where your style comes from. What I’m saying with Born from Southern Ground, it comes from the earth or where you were brought up. When I was a kid, I listened to the Rolling Stones and Queen and Black Sabbath. And then being from the South is in your blood. It’s a very homegrown vibe. So that title is a tribute to where I’m from and where I was raised. It’s a love letter to Asheville and also to the music, to the bands and everything that was my upbringing as a child and also the musical genesis of where I started to become a musician and a singer.
At what point in the process of making the album did you know what the title would be?
In the middle. We were working in the studio and I saw the name and that was when the light bulb went off. I knew this record needs to honor where I’m from and how I got to this point. It was another full-circle moment, where here I am in Nashville, recording a rock n’ roll record. It just all seemed to click very naturally, so I rolled with my gut instinct.
As you shaped the album, did your vision of what you wanted it to be change?
I didn’t just write 12 or 15 songs. I wrote 30 to 40 songs in total. And so we had a lot to choose from. In the beginning, I was testing the waters to see what would work and what wouldn’t. In the late fall of 2014 I wrote a song called “Hanging with the Band,” and I thought, “This is the sound of this record.” Then we completely crafted the record tapping into the vein of that sound, so that’s where the Black Crowes meets Bob Seger idea came from. I really wanted to go in the soulful rock n’ roll bluesy gospel sound. It was different in the beginning and then we really honed in on it in the middle of the process. There definitely was a shift about halfway through, but we used some of the songs that I started with and then rounded it out to a really kick-ass record. It’s something I’m very excited for people to hear.
How difficult was it to choose the final lineup of songs from the original 30 to 40?
It was fairly easy. You know when you have a good song, because you’ll know instantly when you’re writing it that this is a keeper. And then you have kind of throwaway songs or whatever that don’t resonate. If you wrote a good song, it’ll always be nagging you in the back of your mind and you’ll always revisit the tracks. So I knew instantaneously when we were writing it, “Oh, that’s going to be on the record.”
How is Caleb Johnson 2019 different from the Caleb Johnson we first met on American Idol?
I don’t think I’ve really changed that much from five years ago. I’m very much more well-educated now in how bad the music business sucks and that you don’t really need it. That record label spiel is really a façade and you can do whatever record you want to and give it to the fans. The record label for me has honestly hindered me from getting the music out to my fans. In 2018 we were in negotiations with a label that was going to release this record. We didn’t see eye to eye with the label and they dragged it out. We lost a whole year of releasing the record. The record should have come out last year and now I’ve finally come to terms that I don’t need that and my fans don’t need that and I want to get the music out to the fans as quickly as possible with no issues. It’s going to be up to the fans because they have to support it and buy the record, but I just want to do it this way and make the records on my own and then directly give it to the fans. It’s definitely been a learning experience.