She’s talking about her journey back to country music. Arriving in Nashville as a teenager, she had meetings with almost every record label in town but found no takers. It was Mercury Records — a vast New York label with artists from across the musical spectrum — that eventually found a place for her. But it came with a price tag: She was asked to go easy on the country.
After a promising gold-certified start with 2009’s “Wanted,” her next two singles failed to chart. “Boys in the Summer” from 2010 only made it to No. 58 on Billboard‘s hot country songs chart, and all the while James was growing more and more disillusioned with the pop-oriented sound.
Those trials may have been a blessing in disguise, though, because now James is free to focus her energy on country music, where she says her heart has always been. She’s partnered with Toby Keith‘s Show Dog Universal label and recently released “When You Say My Name,” a sweet tune she says is perfect for her goofy personality.
James recently stopped by the CMT offices to talk about the song and, in the process, told her story of feeling like a square peg in a round hole.
CMT: Tell me about your new single, “When You Say My Name.”
James: This is one of the very few I did not write — I’ve been writing since I was 9 — but they say a good song’s a good song. Mark Wright, who produced the record, sent it to me, and I got it on my phone and plugged it into the truck. My dad was driving and I was with my mom, my sister and my brother. So we just started playing it, and everyone was looking at each other saying, “This is awesome.” So I called Mark immediately and said, “This is such a great song, we have to do this.”
Do you always put your songs through the family filter?
Always, especially because my brother and sister are 20 and 17, so they’ll be honest. They don’t have a jaded opinion, so they’ll straight up say “This sucks, Jess” or “This is awesome.”
We’ve got the video playing on CMT now. Does that feel like a victory in itself?
Yeah, everything that happens feels like an accomplishment. Just because I’ve been working so hard my whole life and I’ve been back and forth between here and the pop world. I’ve lived in Nashville for the past five years, so it feels really good to be a part of this community, which I’ve wanted to be since I was 15. It’s meant so much to me that it’s played and knowing it will go on country radio.
Your previous record label wanted you to sound less country. Was it hard to hear that?
They did that to me a lot in the vocal booth. They’d ask me to stop doing that “twang thing,” all the things that made me distinctive as a vocalist. I think they did that because a lot of the stuff that was working at the moment was very commercial and not very distinctive, but it’s different now. It’s amazing how much music changes in a few years. In 2007, when I got signed, they actually wanted me to sound like Britney Spears. I love Britney, but it’s just ridiculous. I just thought, “What has this come to? I want to go back to Nashville.” I mean, I have nothing but amazing things to say about the label, and they were so good to me, but they just wanted different things for me.
Was there ever the point where you wondered if maybe they were right?
A couple of times, I thought I would just do what they wanted, but I would change my mind quickly. It got to the point that I had a little bit of success with “Wanted” — it was a Top 20 song and I had a gold record with it — but then it came time for the second album. We’re in the middle of recording it and had just done a photo shoot and the whole thing. And right in the middle of it, I just told my management that I didn’t want to do it. I told them I didn’t want to be a pop artist and that I was a country singer. We had a big meeting with them and the president of Mercury in New York, and they were like, “We completely understand. You’re a country artist, and you’ve been fighting us this whole time.” (laughs) So we worked out a deal, and here I am.
You seem very comfortable in the video. Does being on camera come naturally to you?
This is the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in a music video. I didn’t feel like I was pretending at all or trying to be too sexy, which is what they always wanted me to do before. I’m really a goofy girl, and that’s what this video is about. It was just me being silly in my PJ’s and waiting for my man to come home. That’s honestly what I do on a daily basis. I definitely felt comfortable and right at home.
Did you have any input on the concept?
That’s actually the same house where Miranda Lambert shot “The House That Built Me.” But, yeah, I talked to the director before the video and said I just wanted to be comfortable and relaxed — not a lot of makeup, hair kind of messy — just to have it be very fun and represent the song. And as soon as she heard that, she said she got it. So she came up with one idea, and I didn’t have to ask to change anything. I just thought, “Oh, my gosh. You nailed it.”