The easy approach in a soundbite culture is to succinctly label the persona and the project, but which to choose: The kid from the Pacific Northwest who bleeds classic rock? The backwoods Alabama teen whose voice channels Southern Rock and high volume country? The romantic balladeer whose passion for soul draws on Otis and Conway? The successful and contemplative songwriter?
Truth is, James Otto is all of these, and probably a few more. Fortunately, the circumstances leading to his Warner Bros./Raybaw Records debut album -- an earlier ill-fated major label deal, touring with superstars like Big & Rich and Shania Twain, a seven-year immersion in the craft of songwriting -- have enabled him to incorporate and distinctly express all the hues of his musical talent. And thus, Sunset Man.
“As long as I can possibly remember I have been obsessed with music,” Otto says. “Listening to it on the radio, getting into my mom’s record collection -- my tastes have changed, but music has been there my whole life.”
Born into a military family and raised in Washington State, Otto didn’t just listen to music, he made it. A guitar found scrapped in a neighbor’s trash was an early tool, with more formal training on violin and in a boys choir commencing in grade school. “I got a record player with a mic on it when I was three or four, and I’ve been singing ever since,” he says. “But the choir is really the only formal training I’ve had.”
Vocals were never his focus, however. “Hearing Van Halen’s 1984, and seeing Prince -- I wanted to be a guitar player.” Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger, Bryan Adams, just about anything heard on the radio became a new challenge. “I was just soaking it up,” he adds. “Country was something my grandparents listened to -- old timey, gospel sounding stuff.”
Junior high was a turning point. “I moved to Alabama with my mom, a place called Sand Mountain,” he explains. “It was really backwoods, country, and all the kids were listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Jr., Alabama and Charlie Daniels. That stuff hit me really hard. It took me out of a pop-rock world and moved me into absorbing everything from Willie Nelson to John Anderson.”
Music remained his focus, even through a post high school stint in the military. “Really, I signed up to pay off debts so I could move to Nashville,” Otto says. “I’ve been moving around most of my life, just living to make music.”
Nashville offered up a songwriting contract and, eventually, a deal with Mercury Records. “I had three different A&R chiefs during the making of my first album,” Otto recalls. “The original vision became diluted. I started out with all the creative control in the world and by the end of the process it was, ‘Go cut these songs and do them this way.’”
The marketing process was almost as frustrating as recording. “I was signed with six other male acts, all good folks, and put out on a radio tour where it was basically like, ‘Pick one. Which one will you play?’”
Adding insult to injury, one of the songs from that first album went on to become a number one hit for another artist. “I was really turned off and angry about the situation for a long time,” he admits. “I wrote some angry music.”
The saving grace during this difficult period became Otto’s association with the MuzikMafia, the loose, music-first association of creators that built a local and eventually national following. Otto became one of the group’s most respected musicians and performers, leading to several co-writes for the album and Mafia godfather John Rich co-producing several sides.
Playing live with the MuzikMafia every week let Otto purge some of the frustration and zero in on the music that had always been his muse. “I had a lot of time to think about what I did and didn’t want on my next album, and I really came to a zen about all of it. I had a time to write a lot and really center myself to create, hopefully, a good body of work.”
Otto’s creative zen did not go unnoticed. Minutes after his contract with Mercury was up, his manager’s cell phone started ringing. Within the hour, James was sitting in Paul Worley’s office, chief creative officer at Warner Bros. Records. Otto signed with the label shortly thereafter, and thus began a two year creative journey that also enlisted his brother-in-law Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts as a co-producer.
The recording process was informed by Otto’s experiences on tour with some of country’s biggest stars. “When you’re out with Big & Rich, Shania Twain, Hank Jr., you see different crowds and what they react to,” he says. “Making an album is lot like putting together a good live show, pacing the set and navigating all the ups and downs on that rollercoaster of emotion.”
Those lessons quickly find application on Sunset Man. The muscular riff of “Ain’t Gonna Stop” opens the album, carrying a chorus that could be a mantra not just for the rest of the record, but perhaps for the rest of Otto’s career. “Just Got Started Loving You” reveals Otto’s fondness for soul, and its passionate plea carries over to the album closer, “Man That I Am.”
The other side of that pure intimacy is the clouded pain expressed in the wrenching “For You,” the searing vocals of “Damn Right” and plain-spoken country truth of the title track. Between those extremes are the relationship struggles of “You Don’t Act Like My Woman” and “When A Woman’s Not Watching.” The good times of “Good Ol’ Days” get a little too good with “Drink And Dial.” Finally, “Where Angels Hang Around” finds Otto visiting the emotions a parent prays never to experience in a heart-in-the-throat tribute to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis.
Making a second album, and having so much time in which to record, taught him a few things about his craft. “Don’t second guess yourself,” he says. “Rely on your gut. Get it down and walk away.
“We recorded 24 songs and it’s amazing the range of stuff we cut,” he continues. “I really just want it to be a round body of work that’s representative of me as a person -- all sides of who I am. Now that it’s done, I feel really good about it. I never wanted to make a record that’s one dimensional, and I don’t think this album could ever be accused of that.”