When we last saw Josh Kelley, he was touring with the likes of Dave Matthews and Goo Goo Dolls in support of breakthrough debut For The Ride Home, an album that showcased his no-nonsense expressiveness and disarmingly genuine delivery. These qualities were exemplified in the top ten smash “Amazing,” a thoroughly modern love song that was equal parts devotion and ’tude, and follow-up hit “Everybody Wants You,” with its timeless jangle—redolent of R.E.M. circa Murmur—and arching refrain. The acoustic demo version of “Amazing” contained on that album’s bonus disc reveals just how developed the song and arrangement were when this studio neophyte began his first serious recording project, which took just two weeks to complete, as Kelley nailed all 13 lead vocals in one day. “I did ’em all while sitting on the control room couch,” he says. “I had a mic in my hand and was downing whiskey and honey because I had an allergy infection.” Whiskey and honey—now there’s an excellent metaphor for his singing voice.
Tall and sufficiently fit to pass for the college jock he was not so long ago, the 25-year-old Kelley moves through life with an athlete’s self-confidence. But under the strapping surface is a sensitive soul who ponders life’s mysteries and his place in the scheme of things; a restless spirit driven to keep pushing at the edge of his aesthetic envelope. It was the combination of these distinct aspects of his character that led to the creation of Almost Honest , a second album that digs deep and aims high, vividly capturing the dramatic growth of a young artist with a singular voice.
Kelley, who grew up in Augusta, Ga., started singing and playing acoustic guitar at parties (his specialty was singing Snoop Dogg rhymes over Dave Matthews progressions) while attending the University of Mississippi on a golf scholarship. “One day I just had this voice,” he says, admitting that he began performing as a way of “meeting really cool girls.” “But at the same time,” he says, “it was a new outlet for my emotions. And my voice just kept getting better. So I bought a four-track and started writing and recording my own songs.” He then posted his demos on the internet from a computer in the Ole Miss library, a gambit that eventually led to his being signed by Hollywood Records.
Clearly, Kelley had prepared himself well for his big moment when it arrived. At the same time, his talent comes quite naturally—so much so that he was determined to challenge himself on the follow-up. And that required putting himself in a new environment. In early 2004, he left Oxford, Miss. for Los Angeles. Kelley headed west more as a form of musical graduate study than out of any desire to hang out with supermodels at Bar Marmont; indeed, having written and recorded the new album in L.A., he’s in the process of returning to the South, this time to Nashville. But the year and a half he’s spent in SoCal has been a productive one, as he interacted with fellow songwriters and players, further refining his skills while determining where he wanted to take his music next. It all culminated with the sessions for Almost Honest, recorded in the same room at Sound City where Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers did some of their most memorable work, and where Nirvana cut Nevermind.
Co-producing with Kelley was Matt Wallace, a versatile studio artisan whose lengthy discography includes Maroon 5 and John Hiatt, and surrounding him was a group of players with the skills to go anywhere Kelley chose to lead them. They include drummers Michael Bland (Prince) and Donald Barrett (whom Kelley discovered playing in a jazz club and immediately tapped for his band), along with three members of his touring unit: lead guitarist/lap steel player Ben Peeler, keyboardist Dave Yeden and bassist Darwin Johnson.
Along with its deep grooves, one of the new album’s most rewarding aspects is its rich, earthy, gospel-based melodies. Kelley grew up next to a black church, and he recalls being roused by a gospel choir while playing in his backyard. Those sounds left a lasting impression—that’s readily apparent on “Heartache,” which deftly employs traditional gospel changes—and later on, so did the singing of soul heavyweights Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, all of whom Kelly cites as influences. The title song of Almost Honest, one of several Kelley composed on piano, sports a vocal Hathaway himself would surely approve of, while “Lover” bears the mix of buoyancy and ardor that was Bill Withers’ stock in trade.
But co-existing with this deep-rooted soulfulness is a progressive impulse inspired by Jeff Buckley. This modern element asserts itself in the work of Peeler. “Ben makes these ethereal and percussive sounds, all this heady stuff that I love,” Josh enthuses. “That’s what took these songs to another level.”
These stylistic vectors converge in gratifying fashion on the new album’s first single, “Only You,” the lone track not co-produced by Wallace. The song, a timeless, hook-laden soul/pop gem with hammering power chords came to fruition last August with writing/production team the Matrix.
“When I was in Australia last summer, I came up with this killer chorus and a catchy bridge,” Kelley says about the origin of “Only You.” “When I got back, I was offered the opportunity to work with the Matrix and said, ‘Hell, yeah, man—I’d love to.’ So we got together, and when they played me their idea, I thought, ‘I’ve got the perfect thing for that.’ It came together really fast. It’s all one big hook—as soon as it comes on, there’s no mistaking it, and I think that’s what makes a great song. As far as my cosmic connection to the Matrix, they are some of the most artistic people I’ve ever met. Lauren [Holly] and I wrote all the lyrics together, Graham [Edwards] comes up with some slammin’ guitar parts and their production is ridiculous—they know their stuff.”
Cult hero Robert Randolph adds his gospel-rooted, wildly inventive pedal steel lines to “Heartache,” “Hard Times Happen” and “Twenty Miles to Georgia,” providing “the last bit of spice we wanted on those tracks,” Kelley explains. “Robert’s full-on-out—if he’s gonna be on a song, he’s not gonna lay back.” Additionally, Josh’s kid brother Charles, his former partner in the high school band Inside Blue (there’s some rock trivia for you) joins in for some blood harmonies on several tracks, further enriching the brew.
Kelley decided to title the album Almost Honest because, he says, “a lot of these songs are about what people don’t say to each other.” The chorus of the captivating title song goes to the bruised heart of the matter, culminating in the lines, “In the evenings raise a glass and tell some lies / Make a pass, impress another girl, she’s easy on the eyes / She was easy, and so was I.” Josh elaborates: “So it’s basically this guy—could be me—who’s living a lifestyle where he gets lonely, and he lives to impress women. So you tell lies, and most of the time you’re almost honest, sometimes to get what you want and sometimes to not hurt somebody’s feelings. You temper the truth a bit because sometimes things are better left unsaid. But I’m not gonna hold a filter in front of my mouth for the rest of my life. You can’t do that—you’ll drive yourself mad. I’m just gettin’ back to the gospel; gettin’ back to the truth…or maybe it’s almost the truth.”