This week’s release of Rascal Flatts’ third studio album, Feels Like Today, is the latest musical chapter in a career that already includes a platinum-selling debut album and the double-platinum follow-up, Melt. In this second portion of a two-part interview with CMT.com, lead vocalist Gary LeVox, bassist Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney talk about their new music and explain why the demands were higher while recording the new album.
As your record sales have grown, have you found that songwriters are pitching you stronger material?
DeMarcus: I think any artist with success gets better material as time goes on. Definitely, in our case, people are writing for us now — instead of us getting hand-me-downs, so to speak, on the first record.
Is that a problem, though, when someone tries to write strictly for you. Are you getting pitched a lot of things people think is a Rascal Flatts song?
DeMarcus: It can be good and bad. It’s hit or miss. Sometimes people try to guess where you’re going — and it’s something you’ve already done before, and you don’t really necessarily want to backtrack and do that kind of thing again. And then it can be really good. Somebody will write something that sounds really, really different until we hear it done like we would do it.
Most of the new album is so optimistic, and then you get to the song, “Holes.”
Rooney: We wanted that little bump in the road for you. That’s one of those songs that was an acoustic demo from this guy, John …
LeVox: Yeah, John Mayer?
Rooney: It was John White, actually. I know him well. He co-wrote this song [with Gregory Becker]. … He sat at his house and did this acoustic, droning thing in an open guitar tuning and just had this vibe to it that was so unique. I think sometimes we’d rather take the things that are completely unique … that we wouldn’t have necessarily ever have thought of ourselves. I think that’s a good thing. We can take it and make it our own piece.
What’s the most unlikely song you’ve had pitched to you?
LeVox: We’ve had a couple. On our very first album, “Long Slow Beautiful Dance” was actually a rap thing that we sang the melody lines to. It was a weird kind of thing how we turned that around. And then the other one was another one we had cut, tracked and put on the album, but at the last minute it didn’t make it. It was a song called “Hollywood Cowboy” written by Craig Wiseman and Marcel. It was something definitely left field.
If “Holes” was a bump in the road, the bonus track on the new album is one that’s going to stop people in their tracks. [Hidden at the end of the CD, the song’s lyrics depict a high school student’s emotions about being treated for cancer.]
Rooney: “Skin” is a song Mark Bright, one of our producers, found. It got played for him, and he just said, “Guys, I’ve got one here you need to listen to.” He played it for us the first day we went in to record.
Who wrote it?
DeMarcus: The guy who wrote “Three Wooden Crosses.” [Doug Johnson co-wrote the song with Joe Henry.]
Why was it hidden as the extra track?
LeVox: It was such a long process for this album, going back in and cutting this, going back in and tracking this. You can think things to a fault, sometimes. I think that’s what we were kind of doing. We’d already recorded “Skin,” so it was already there. By the end, we had 14 or 15 songs — and we can only put 11 on there. We just wanted to make sure it was on there.
DeMarcus: It was hard to find a place where that song fit in the course of the record, itself. It was such an optimistic record, throwing that song in there that was so emotional — and at times kind of depressing in some places — it was hard to find a place it fit within the body of work. I shouldn’t say “depressing.” I should say “difficult subject matter,” for sure. But we liked the song so much, we still wanted it to be a part of the record in some way. So that’s where it ended up.
Rooney: Also, the song was just special, and it needed a place of its own somehow. And the only way we could really think of it to have its own place was a hidden track. It’s a sad subject matter, but love is the key to everything — and that’s basically what the answer is in that song.
With success and personal events pulling you in different directions, was it harder to get focused in recording the new album?
DeMarcus: This album was definitely the hardest one we’ve done yet. It was hard to get it finished, simply because we had some really life-changing events during the process. Gary had another baby. I was getting married, and we all sort of scattered a little bit. So it was really tough to reel it in after being on the road for so long. But at the end of the day, I feel like we had as good — if not better — material on this record than we’ve ever had. It was a labor of love. It took a long time to finish it. It’s a natural thing to do with having the success we’ve had on the past two records, so we spent a lot of time making sure we had the right kind of material. We really spent a lot of time and thought and a lot of blood, sweat and tears making sure we had the right kind of stuff we needed.
As your personal standards get higher, do you think that makes it more difficult to record albums?
LeVox: I think it does. Your passion level grows so much when you’re in there with the three of us, the managers and producers — and everybody’s passionate about it. You have differences of opinions just working it out. Everybody wants the best thing, but it’s a fun process because you can look back and go, “We really put 180 percent into this thing.”
DeMarcus: Or, “We worried about that for nothing.”
LeVox: I think we all agree that it’s as good — if not better — musically and lyrically than the last one.
In closing, I have to ask if you keep getting questions about the “I Melt” video. Or has that story completely died down?
Rooney: It’s died down quite a bit, of course. I mean, it was what it was. It was a video piece we did for “I Melt” to kind of capture the essence of the song. It was a sexy song. But we’ve moved on past that now. As Jay said one time, “I think the butt is behind us.”