Jerrod Niemann is no stranger to country music fans, but when it comes to new music, it’s been a while: The 38-year-old country hitmaker’s last album came three and a half years ago (2014’s High Noon). But fortunately for Niemann’s fans, the wait is over: His fourth major-label album, This Ride, arrives Oct. 6. (Billboard has a stream of the album one day early, which you can listen to below.)
While three years isn’t a super long time for an artist to wait between releases, it is the longest period without a release that Niemann’s had since his major-label debut in 2010 with Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury. And although his previous LP spawned his biggest hit to date, “Drink to That All Night,” it was time for him to part ways from Sony/Arista Nashville.
“I was kind of stuck,” Niemann admits to Billboard. “I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to say.”
After a little bit of soul searching as well as song searching, Niemann found a common ground with the people at Curb Records, signing a deal with the company in March 2016. And as his next record came together, suddenly that period of being uninspired turned into an album almost entirely penned by other writers — something rather unusual for Niemann, as he’s been the co-writer on every song on his prior albums.
But the new label home and outside writing contributions have treated Niemann well, resulting in This Ride, a 13-song collection that shows a deeper side of the typically party-starting singer, both lyrically and melodically. There’s still some rowdy signature Niemann tracks (“The Regulars,” “Zero to Crazy”), but there’s also hopeless romantic ballads (“God Made a Woman,” “This Ride”), and some simply feel-good tunes (“I Got This”).
It’s an album Niemann says he’s insanely proud of, and in celebration of his latest release, Niemann chatted with Billboard about the process of transitioning from Arista to Curb, and figuring out what it was he wanted to say on his first album since 2014. Check out our conversation below, as well as a first listen of the album here.
This is the longest you’ve ever gone between albums since Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury in 2010 — what made you feel like it was finally the right time to release another album?
We left Sony, and I wasn’t writing a whole lot — kind of just re-energizing the creative bone. I started looking for songs, and I was hearing these fantastic songs from some of the veterans in town, but also the newer talent that’s kind of moved to Nashville. It was very inspiring. After the transition to Curb, I just thought, “Man, these songs.” It’s kind of like, when you go to get a birthday card for your mom, or a Mother’s Day card, and you look for that card that says exactly what you wanted it to say. You’ll hear a song and get goosebumps or find yourself listening to it four, five times in a row going, “Man, this is awesome.”
Luckily, I get to co-produce on records. So I put my stamp on it that way. It was just fun to kind of puree all the albums we’ve done in the past together — but when it comes to the fundamental of the lyrics and that approach, I feel like there’s another layer to the onion, and it’s a little deeper than some of the older stuff.
Well it’s funny that you say this is digging a little deeper than your past albums, because it is the one that you co-wrote the least. How were you able to connect to the songs so much when you didn’t write them?
They said it the way I wish I could’ve. It’s sort of a bizarre oxymoron, so to speak. I’ve always wanted to take people on vacation for 30 or 40 minutes with an album — and if they’re going through something rough in their life, you know, hopefully this will give them a break. But in reality, going from one label to the other, there’s obviously not all positive feelings sometimes. Instead of trying to cover up those feelings, you need to face them.
So on this record, obviously there’s party songs and stuff because I do still want to have a fun, uptempo show and give something someone can tap their foot to, but I also wanted to show an element of if someone wanted to face what they’re going through, or just enjoy the moment with the ones they love. I found myself recording more from the heart, less from the liver. Usually it’s the other way around.
Through the creation of this album and hearing these other songwriters bring these songs to you, how did you figure out what you wanted to say, at least on This Ride? And what do you feel like you are saying with the album?
I guess they kind of put words in my mouth. But also people will come up to me — and I never thought I’d hear this nor believe it — I’d have someone come up and say, ‘Man! It’s so funny to run into you. A few days ago, I was writing with a buddy, and he said, “Doesn’t that sound like a Jerrod Niemann song?” Then I hear it and I’m like, “Wow, they really did kind of get in my head…” They jumpstarted that all back up for me, and it kind of reminded me of what people like to hear from me.
I’ve just spent the last year and a half or two getting back in my own lane and being around people — surrounding myself with people who have a similar vision and also the same amount of excitement that I feel can be lackluster at times. Yeah, my big mug is on the cover [Laughs], but at the end of the day, I’m just proud to represent so many talented people here in Nashville.
Is that kind of where the This Ride came from? Alluding to the ride that you’ve been on to get to this point?
Exactly. When people listen to this album, I don’t necessarily ask them to read too deep into the meaning, but the honest truth is yes — if you’re really going to zoom in right to the point, I loved calling it This Ride because of the peaks and the valleys. Without the bad times, you can’t really appreciate the good times. That’s why I’m just really excited about this music, and I hope people will give it a chance because we did really spend time on every single note. There’s not just my heart and soul in there, there’s a lot of people that put everything they’ve got into it.
Last time you talked with Billboard, you mentioned that you loved that Curb wanted to know your vision. But what was the vision that you brought to them?
Basically, what I said is I want the songs to have room to breathe and then when they said, ‘What do you mean?’ I just said, ‘Half the instruments, twice the sound.’ On this album, I sang most of the harmonies and just really wanted to, since these weren’t songs I’d written, I really wanted to just do my very, very, very best performing the song in the studio. I really concentrated more on being a singer than a producer.
I tried to make it a headphones record. So if you’re on a plane or something, this album has so many cool little sounds that are — I guess on some systems, you may not hear them, but we just put so much time in them I just want everybody to hear all the little nuances.
Was that the vision you had, and was that what kind of wasn’t working at Arista?
I’ll just tell you this: What wasn’t working at Arista is the amount of turnover. Every three to six months, there was somebody new on our promotion team. Maybe it was all my fault, but when you’re having high turnover in an industry that’s all about connections and friendships and relationships, you never can really tell the whole story, at least your side of the story, because it’s inappropriate.
Were you kind of nervous going into making this next album under a new label?
At my house, I have a red room — not the 50 Shades of Grey red room [Laughs], but where it’s like a red shag carpet, red walls, red ceiling, red literally everything because I always heard that that’s such a creative color. I wanted to be able to step out of our plane of existence into my own world where none of that matters, and you just get to make the music that’s in your heart.
What’s great about Curb is they’ve continued to want to pour gasoline on the passion that was reignited for me going over there, because you just get to have so many great conversations about where everything’s going. In fact, I’ve already started writing again. I’ve got songs, starting to get songs I’m pumped up about for the future. It’s just been a cool thing for my body, mind and spirit. So, I wasn’t nervous — it was exciting and inspiring. Like Ray Charles said, “It’s gonna do what it do, baby.”
Would you say you’re the most comfortable with who you are as an artist and did that maybe have an effect on the album?
Absolutely. I’m 100 percent comfortable. Any time you take musical chances, there’s clearly going to be people who aren’t in favor of that and since I’ve kind of taken, for years, I feel like if I just put out run-of-the-mill album that it would actually stop some people in their tracks. Although they, in the past, may have been expecting something a little more run-of-the-mill, now I feel like everybody kind of expects the unexpected so that makes it easier when you’re going in to take those chances because the people who are going to get mad have already been mad.
So in turn, do you feel like this is the best album you’ve made to date?
Definitely. I always want to try to outdo what you’ve done in the past and also, I’m more experience in the studio, more experienced singing, playing and recording. You hone your craft over time, but also just with life hitting you, knocking you down, you get back up several times. You want to get it done and get it done right. For me, there is a lot of personal emotion in the record that is deep down to the core, but also the true fundaments of being in the studio. So it’s really just a 360 of why I feel like it’s the best record.