Over his first decade, Jesse McCartney evolved from teen-pop hits like the classic “Beautiful Soul” and the bouncy pop radio hit “Leavin’” to a more mature, adult pop sound with 2014’s R&B-influenced album In Technicolor. But come 2015, McCartney realized that while he growing musically, he was feeling rather burnt out.
“I was beat – that record just took so much out of me,” he tells Billboard. “You do anything long enough, it can drive you mad. And I’m a perfectionist and very particular about things, so I just needed some perspective, a little balance. I knew I wanted to take some time off. I didn’t know how much, and it wasn’t until a few weeks in that I was like, ‘Oh wow. I still haven’t decompressed, I need a lot of time off.’ So I did.”
He spent the next two years mastering the art of grilling (“I’m pretty badass behind the grill now,” he quips), traveling to places he’d previously only seen through hotel rooms, and just about anything that didn’t have to do with music – as he puts it, “absorbing life for the first time in probably 15 years.”
Come the start of 2017, McCartney still wasn’t super eager to jump back into making music. He used his time off to explore his acting chops further with appearances on shows like AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and then-ABC Family’s Young & Hungry, and without a label to pressure him, the now-30-year-old was content with how things were going. Then, McCartney’s friend Shane Stevens — who co-wrote In Technicolor single “Superbad” — extended an invite to a songwriting camp in Nashville.
Though he had never really explored country music, McCartney saw it as an opportunity to try something completely new musically for the first time in his career. As it turns out, writing country songs every day for two weeks reminded him of his pop past.
“I kind of got bitten by the bug,” McCartney suggests. “The country thing was a swift kick in the ass. It was like, ‘I remember this feeling of being stoked to wake in the morning and get in the studio and come up with something … [I thought], ‘Maybe I should be doing this still.’”
Upon his return to L.A., McCartney capitalized on his newfound creative spark and hopped in the studio with some friends. Before he knew it, he had a full EP’s worth of content, and suddenly the return of JMac had begun.
McCartney officially released his new single, “Better With You,” on March 23, which seems like a throwback to Jesse’s earlier days of sugary love songs when reading its sweet lyrics. Though McCartney has a leading lady that the track could certainly be directed towards — he has been dating actress Katie Peterson since 2012 — he and his cowriters on the song (Brandyn Burnette and Molly Moore) had the goal of providing some much-needed good vibes.
“It has this sense of hope at a time where everything seems pretty turbulent both politically and socially, and everyone seems like they’re just really at each other’s throats,” McCartney says of the song. “We wanted to write something that made people feel good.”
Those who dug the bubblegum pop that McCartney created during the “Beautiful Soul” era will be the ones feeling the best upon listening to “Better With You,” as the single is reminiscent of his cheesier days. But while there is a sense of nostalgia in the song’s bouncy beat and cutesy lyrics, “Better With You” features an airy beat drop that fits into today’s collection of dance-tinged hits – which, despite his pop history, wasn’t necessarily what McCartney had planned at first.
“It’s funny, because usually when I sing in the shower or I’m singing around my house parading in my underwear, it’s usually like an R&B song that I’m singing,” McCartney explains with a laugh. “But for this record, lyrically — and now that I’m thinking about it, maybe that was due to the country thing — I wanted to write real, raw material that had simple production.”
Regardless of his intention, McCartney’s move back to pop is a smart one, something that’s been reflected as he’s seen fans react to “Better With You.” Even just three days after the song was officially released, McCartney was beaming about the immediate response, especially for his first song in four years.
“There’s just a good energy behind it — I think more so than even the last record,” he gushes. “In the first week I can feel that difference … Never before have I seen a song like this take hold with [fans]. There’s something very real about this time, this go around.”
Frankly, McCartney’s biggest concerns about his first release in years weren’t so much the music itself as it was the fan engagement. As he acknowledges, McCartney got his start in a time when Instagram and Facebook wasn’t even around, which resulted in him putting a bit of a guard up when it came to social media — and making a comeback seemed more challenging than ever.
“I thought it was going to be a lot harder to get their attention,” he says of the fans. “To me that was the biggest fear. It’s been enough time where I don’t know how this is going to go and if they are attached, or even care, anymore.”
McCartney also confesses that for a while he felt a disconnect with fans, which he asserts was “partly because I grew up pretty quickly.” But as he became more and more comfortable with sharing his personal life online, suddenly that gap began to shrink.
“They’re like peers now, almost,” he says with a smile. “I’m on these socials everyday now, talking to them, and I know fans by name.”
While he’s still pumped to share personal tidbits of his life, whether it’s his love for cooking or adventures with his girlfriend, McCartney is mostly excited about this next chapter of music. There’s a feeling of hope to the songs he’s created so far — that he’s intending to eventually turn into a full album — which is helping the positive reaction, but also flashing McCartney back to his beginnings and making things feel very “full-circle.”
And even though he’s only given fans “Better With You” to digest so far, McCartney is finding that perhaps that four-year break was the best thing for him — and almost more so, his career.
“The way it looks, as long as I keep making music, they’re going to be there. As long as you have a group of people who are willing to listen, that’s all you can ask for.”