When figuring out how to fully appreciate Jerrod Niemann’s new album, Free the Music, it’s best to take a cue from lyrics from the title track: “You gotta free your mind/It’s party time.”
Niemann’s second studio album, released last week, takes listeners on a wild and quite enjoyable ride featuring unpredictable musical twists and turns.
Co-producing the project with friend Dave Brainard, Niemann pays homage to country’s roots with everything from acoustic guitars and fiddles to horns. Some of the 12 tracks are traditional country, while others embrace rock, reggae and even Dixieland jazz influences.
Describing the album as a “hybrid of old school and new school,” Niemann and Brainard used CLASP technology during the recording process. The aptly-named equipment “allows you to record analog and digital at the same time simultaneously — it’s like a hybrid,” Niemann explains.
With the help of this innovative tool, the sound of Free the Music is much more robust and unfiltered compared to many current country albums. The music serves as a complimenting sidekick to Niemann’s vocal prowess.
The artist’s unique approach to recording Free the Music began two years ago.
“I’ve already studied country songwriting and the artists as a kid, clear back to the ’20s, but never really thought about some of the textures and tones that everybody was using,” he explains. “I never really had a reason.”
Niemann’s newfound knowledge led to him traveling with a three-piece horn section and performing more than 400 shows during the last two years. He even used his live band on the album instead of studio musicians.
“I thought if I get that analog sound, then maybe we could borrow some of those instruments from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s — but record them on songs that we’ve written now that are maybe even pushing the envelope a little more than normal.”
“The first album that we put out was definitely a concept record and unconventional, and the country music fans and radio and other media outlets were kind enough to embrace it,” he says. “And it showed us that we were able to be different.”
And so with the backing of his label, Sea Gayle Records/Arista Nashville, Niemann began working on Free the Music.
Asked if his label was hesitant about his distinctive plans for the project, Niemann recalls, “They said, ’You know what? Why don’t you just do what you do?’ And obviously that was the only pressure I had because I wanted them to believe in it.
“There’s a lot of music lovers in that building,” he continues, “and that definitely means a lot to me, especially when you’re going in and taking chances.”
On the new album, Niemann’s attention to detail is obvious. The first and last tracks even feature the same horn arrangement — creating a seamless experience for fans listening to the album on repeat.
Though it includes a wide array of styles, each song on Free the Music seems to effortlessly flow into the next. A task that was no doubt consciously considered.
“When you’re writing a song, you just know in your stomach when something’s right,” he says. “I usually know bits and pieces on where songs should land, but as the album’s getting closer to the end, if we’re missing a song or two, I’ll actually write in the direction of what I think we’re missing on the album and sometimes even in the certain key of a song to match what we’re looking for.”
“It wasn’t because I thought, ’Oh, I’m the songwriter that must write it all,’ he explains. “I mean after all, “Lover, Lover,” was a cover.”
Instead, Niemann chose to work closely on the songs because of the specific vision of the album.
“I knew that if I was going to at least pull it off content-wise, that I had to really, really, really dig in,” he says.
Niemann’s current single, “Shinin’ on Me,” serves as the first release from the album and is among the singer’s favorite tracks to perform live.
Though it has a summertime feel to it, Niemann emphasizes the tune is much more than a seasonal jam.
“The song is a metaphor basically saying, ’Hey, the world isn’t always going to go in the direction that you want it to go, and sometimes it’s OK to hit pause and enjoy the moment with the people that you’re around.'”
One of the album’s standout tracks is “Only God Could Love You More,” written by Niemann, Brice and Jon Stone. Using Niemann’s original tracking vocal and void of harmonies, he says when performing it live “it’s challenging to sing. The crowd seems to dig it.”
He also joined forces with Colbie Caillat on “I’m All About You,” a tender ballad with a jazz feel.
“I was sort of in fantasyland, and I thought that Colbie would sing with me,” Niemann says. “But she was sweet enough to do it. She was actually on the road and set up some sort of ProTools rig in her hotel and sang her part in the hotel room. So that just shows you why she’s a Grammy award-winning artist. She can pull that off.”
Tracks including “Get on Up,” “I’ll Have to Kill the Pain” and “It Won’t Matter Anymore” serve as entertaining tunes about escaping life’s stresses. On the other hand, “Guessing Game” tells the story of a jilted lover determined to get the last laugh.
Niemann adds track “Honky Tonk Fever” to his list of favorites to play before an audience because “we get to kind of roll out some of the Dixieland horns,” which he says helps make shows more interesting.
“I always approach performing as a fan because I’ve been to many concerts, and I love music and love watching all my heroes play,” he says. “So what you just realize is that there’s always something to learn.”
Having previously toured alongside country staples including Shelton, Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, he says with a laugh, “I learned basically what to do onstage from Brad Paisley and what not to do backstage from Blake Shelton.”