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Jake Owen Transcends Personal Trauma on ‘American Love’

In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses his positive outlook, his road trip, and working with Chris Stapleton.

By Brian Ives  

Jake Owen easily could have gotten a bit negative on his latest album, American LoveAs most of his fans know, it comes in the aftermath of his divorce, but as he tells Radio.com, “There’s not really too much on my record that speaks of the personal things that I went through, but there’s references to how I’d like to live my life going forward.” Which is a good mantra for anyone who’s been through a personal trauma. In this wide-ranging interview, he spoke about his upbeat philosophy, the road trip that inspired his album and working with Chris Stapleton. But first, there was the matter of a specific tattoo to discuss.

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I like your Waylon Jennings logo tattoo. 

A lot of people sometimes think it’s a Wonder Woman logo.

That’s a shame; but I guess the logos are a bit similar. Talk about why you love Waylon, though.

Yeah, I just have always loved Waylon Jennings and his whole character and being of who he was and what he did for country music. I’ve just always been a fan.

Tell me about your first single from the album, “American Country Love Song.”

It was just really the first lead-off single for the record that I felt like was gonna really help promote this album. I think it represents everything else that’s on the album. As far as the way it feels, there’s a lot of young love on the record, there’s a lot of freedom, and it just seemed like a very fitting song to release for the first track.

Watching the video and watching you drive across the country in that VW, I was wondering how that trip informed the rest of your album. I’m guessing you needed to clear your head.

Yeah, I did. I really needed to clear my head for personal reasons and also just because I think sometimes every now and then people just need to take a trip, slow down, not be in a hurry. And it seems my life’s always going, going, going, going; there’s always somewhere to be, and we’ve gotta be there at a certain time. If we’re not there at a certain time, I’m held accountable for that.

First off, the Volkswagen van itself only goes 55 miles an hour, so you’re only gonna get somewhere so fast. And it was nice to just slow down for a little bit and not have a plan and just see where the day takes you and the people that you meet along the way.

I really wanted to showcase that through the video compounded with the actual song, because I think not only does it pertain to the song itself, “American Country Love Song,” but it pertains to the rest of the album and the way it feels. There’s other songs on the record that have that same feeling; there’s a song called “Everybody Dies Young,” which has lines in it like, “You only get one life, you have to live it/You only get one heart, so you gotta give it.”

And at this point in my life, I really try to focus on that in my music, just making sure that I’m able to do things that make people think positively and smile.

Related: Jake Owen Owes ‘VW’ Trip to Up-And-Coming Songwriter

You could have gone negative on this album, but you didn’t.

Yeah. I’m not a negative person, really. I get frustrated from time to time. I’m a competitor, so as a competitor I wanna win all the time, and if I’m not, someone’s beating me in some way or another, I tend to get frustrated. But I try to find ways to sneak up on ’em, so…but yeah, I try to always stay happy.

So, on this trip, how many people were with you? Obviously someone was filming you.

I had a few friends that just rode just to ride, and then the videographer, the director, he just brought one camera, and we just shot it inside the van, outside the van. It was really cool.

We didn’t have a plan. That was the greatest part about it. Every time you shoot videos, it’s like, “All right, we’re gonna do this; we’re gonna do this; we’re gonna do that.” And I just said, “Look, man, we’re not gonna have a plan. I just want you to capture what happens, and let’s turn it into something great.” And that’s kind of what we did.

What do you get out of the experience of hanging out with fans in that way? In the video, it looks like you’re just hanging out, it’s not rushed like a scheduled meet-and-greet.

I love people. I’m a person just like anyone else. I don’t ever tend to think of myself as above anyone, which is why I really always try to make sure people know that no matter where I am I try to be with [air quotes] “the real people.” I just think that helps me stay grounded. I think it helps me connect on a more personal level with my fans, and I think over the years I’ve seen how much they appreciate that.

And I just think after years and years of making music, whether or not they remember certain songs or titles of songs, it’s hard to forget when you’re really nice to someone or you do something for them that they’ll remember forever. And sometimes those obviously last a whole lot longer than the memory of the lyric of a song.

Some artists don’t feel comfortable meeting fans face to face.

I’ve never been scared of anybody. I just enjoy making someone’s day and doing something nice for them.

So, the woman at the beginning of the video is the woman who you bought the van from?

Yeah, she was in North Carolina, and that’s how I found her van, actually, online. When we called her and told her what we were gonna do and buy it and take it on a trip, she was so excited. So I wanted to start the video with her saying, “Jake, take care of my van.” I thought it’d be great for the people out there to see the lady that originally owned it.
And maybe at some point I’ll have to do something for her for everything that she’s not only done for me, but for everybody else out there that’s had a chance at not only seeing the bus, the van, but signing it and seeing it be on the cover of the record. I’m gonna have to send her a big plague or something.

And you actually ran out of gas, per the video?

Yeah. Yeah, there’s nothing about this video that was bulls—. Everything that happened, happened, and my gas tank gage doesn’t work, still doesn’t work on my van. But it’s only a 10-gallon tank — I thought it was 20 — so I was trying to get a little bit more. It gets about a hundred miles I guess to the tank, and I was nearing Jacksonville and it conked out on me, so we had to send someone to go get some gas. But that’s what happens on trips.

So what did you learn about yourself on this trip?

I listened to a lot of music, I made some phone calls, but more than anything I think I learned to just slow down a little bit, take some time to realize that when you slow down it’s okay. I think sometimes in my life I feel like when I’m slowing down somebody else is passing me by. And that’s, once again, part of being a competitor.

It’s like, when I was a kid when I played golf. If it was raining outside, I’d go hit golf balls in the rain, because part of me always believed that there was nobody else hitting golf balls in the rain, so why don’t I go? So that way if I was ever by circumstance in a golf tournament and it started raining, well, I’m good at hitting balls in the rain, you know what I mean? So I was always trying to get the edge on people.

And I think that’s maybe one of the reasons, too, why I do things social media-wise, because I know that I’m really comfortable doing it, and I know there’s a lot of people out there that aren’t. And so I try to use the things that I’m good at and the attributes that I’ve been given to use to my benefit and also use to help make people smile.

You recorded “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” which Chris Stapleton wrote. I always wonder why he doesn’t keep these songs?

I know, right? Yeah, you should’ve heard him singing the demo on that song.

How different was it from the version on your album?

There’s very few people in the history of music that are revered by everybody in all genres of music, that are revered in a way that people are like, “Man, that guy’s just got something that none of us have.” And that’s Chris. What Chris has that no one else has is an unbelievable voice that can sing anything from bluegrass to rock ’n’ roll to soul, R&B music, and then he can play guitar just as good as anyone.

But most importantly, what I love about Chris is that he’s such a humble guy, and he knows his success, he knows that people know he’s great. Let’s be honest, if there’s anybody that’s been touted more than anyone over the last year or two, it’s been Chris Stapleton. And he’s never let that go to his head.

I asked if he’d sing on this song, he did, and he didn’t have to do that. And I’m just very thankful for that, and I’m thankful that he thought enough of me to lend his talents to my record.

So he’s a great guy, his wife Morgane is a wonderful woman, and I think not only myself, but I think everybody in Nashville pulls for that guy so much, because outside of the fact of how talented he is, he’s a genuinely amazing person. He’s a great guy.

Talk about the song “LAX.”

I wrote “LAX” about a year ago with some buddies of mine, but then after some time of thinking about all the qualities of Los Angeles and all the times I used to love going out there and still do, and I used Los Angeles almost as a metaphor for this imaginary woman that I made up.

The song itself kinda takes the ride of, unlike a lot of other country songs right now, where the woman takes the wheel and she says, “You come with me. I’m gonna show you around. I’m gonna show you this; I’m gonna do that.” And I think that’s really appealing and attractive sometimes, not only for a woman to take the reins and go, but the song, I think it’s really appealing for people to hear that difference of a storyline.

You mention marijuana in “LAX”; it seems like country music is much more comfortable with talking about pot than it used to be.

On “LAX” it says “Nag Champa and marijuana, close my eyes, I can smell it on her.” I don’t condone it. I’m not gonna be somebody that’s condoning the use of any sort of illegal drugs, but I think it’s okay to reference things that are true to whoever that artist is that’s singing. That’s what music is; say what’s the truth. Say what’s on your heart.

Your grandfather is a vet, and you played our Stars and Strings concert last year. Talk about the importance of supporting our veterans.

Well, they give the ultimate sacrifice for us. They put their lives on the line. They put their families at risk of losing a loved one. And they give me the ability to go out on Friday nights and sing for people that aren’t even scared to stand in a crowd of people and drink beers and have a great time.

I know I’m very thankful for that, as are a lot of artists in country music. I think they make it aware and well-known that we’re very thankful. People take trips overseas, USO tours. I have yet to do that. I’d love to at some point. I don’t take freedom for granted, and I’m very thankful for the veterans out there that have given their life and given time in their life to us, to a guy like me that they don’t even know, or a guy like yourself, and I think that’s pretty selfless, and I couldn’t commend them more for that.

You were working on a record, and then you started over. Tell me about the process of having a bunch of songs finished, and then you decided that they aren’t speaking to you anymore, and starting over.

I think every artist, whether they’re a musical artist or whether they are a visual artist, you have an idea, you got a blank sheet of paper, and it’s up to you as to what you’re gonna do with it. You have a blank tape, and you can put any sort of thing on it. And I think each individual artist has their own individual idea of how they want that painting or picture to be perceived by the masses that are going to see it or hear it.

And for me, I went into this record knowing the kind of person I am, which is a guy from Florida that grew up in the sunshine and enjoys that kind of lifestyle, and the songs that go along with portraying that sort of lifestyle are the kinds that are really appealing to me. And so those were the types of songs that I wanted to put on the record, although at the time, going through a divorce and going through some hard things personally, it’s hard to be creative and be happy when you’ve got that going on.

But at the end of the day, I know my responsibility to not only my fans, but myself as an artist and all the years and work that I’ve put into it, that even though sometimes you can go through something personally, it’s not always necessary to be very literal on albums. So there’s not really too much on my record that speaks of the personal things that I went through, but there’s references to how I’d like to live my life going forward.

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