It would have been easy to view 2020 as a lost year, and admittedly, Chelsey James did for a time. However, her mindset quickly changed from a year of stagnancy to a year of creation, and in 2021, she’ll be seeing the fruits of her labor; with a new single planned for release nearly every two months.
James’ first offering of the year, “The Men and the Boys,” sees James putting her true artistic identity on display. Marrying huge guitars and a thundering backbeat, James still leaves plenty of room for her powerhouse vocal to shine through. With the success of her debut single, “Hands on the Bible,” a new distribution deal and a clear artistic vision under her belt, it’s safe to say that not only will “The Men and the Boys” break new ground for James, but it has us chomping at the bit for the rest of her busy year.
We chatted with James about the night she realized she wanted to pursue a career in music, what her success has meant to her, her artistic identity, what listeners can expect from her forthcoming releases and more!
Pro Country: Who were some of your early influences that had an impact on your sound?
Chelsey James: I was in sixth grade when Carrie Underwood won American Idol, so from then on, I’ve been obsessed with her. I think I know every single one of her songs. I always say that singing to her songs in the car as a child and teenager taught me how to sing, because they’re quite challenging songs [laughs]. I always strive to have the power in my voice that she has.
As I got a little older, I started getting more into the rock side of things; I’m a big Shinedown fan, and I love Journey. On the male country side of things, I’ve always been a big Jason Aldean fan. I’m also obsessed with 90s country. In all, there’s kind of a trend with big and strong vocals with a rock edge. That’s something I always gravitated towards, and that’s come out in my own sound as well.
PC: You recently posted on social media that it wasn’t until performing with a cover band in college one night that you knew you wanted to pursue a career in music. What was it about that night and performance that sparked that interest?
CJ: It was the first show we booked with that band, and I remember peeking out from backstage hoping that there was nobody in the audience because I was so terrified, and of course, hometowns are going to come out to support, so it was a pretty big crowd. I remember being so terrified and sick to my stomach. I had no idea how words were going to come out of my mouth when I got up there. In public speaking class in college, even giving a three-minute speech terrified me. Getting up on that stage was going to be a big task, and I told myself before I went up that I would never have to do it again after that show. I was literally going to quit after the show ended [laughs]. I got up there and I started singing, and it’s hard to describe, but about 30 seconds into the first song, my natural ability for it took over, a light bulb went off in my head, and it made me realize that that was what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. It almost sounds fake, but during that first song, something just clicked. I’ve never looked back since that day.
PC: What was it like to come to the realization that you were going to be diving head first into music?
CJ: I’m a very Type A person. I need a plan for everything. If I could, I would map out every single day of my life until I was a hundred years old; that would make me feel so happy and relaxed [laughs]. Being that type of person, pursuing a music career is a constant internal struggle. There’s never any guarantees; you can pour your heart and soul into it and there’s no guarantee that you will have a “successful career” in music. I came to the realization that I love it too much to care about any of that because of how happy playing music, singing and writing songs made me and how fulfilled I was. If I could make a decent living doing that for the rest of my life, even if I’m not a huge star like Carrie Underwood, that’s the most important thing to me. I had to let go of control a little bit and enjoy the roller coaster that is the music industry. I’m still learning, but I couldn’t even try to quit. Once you’ve found the thing that fulfills you and makes you the happiest, it’s hard to ignore that, so you just have to learn to adapt.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your single “Hands on the Bible”?
CJ: I didn’t realize how scary it is to release your own songs [laughs]. Releasing your own songs is one of the most vulnerable things you could do. People can be very critical of music, so I was nervous about that. Luckily, there’s been mostly positive feedback about it, and honestly, it’s kind of hard to be negative about that song [laughs]. It was really nerve-wracking putting myself out there. I’m kind of a shy person in general, so putting it out, as well as the music video with all of my family and filmed at my house was me putting my life out there and people having the freedom to say whatever they wanted about it. On the flip side though, it’s one of the most amazing and fulfilling experiences. Release day is like tying the bow on a present. After all of the work that goes into it, you get to sit back, take a breath and watch it work it’s magic. It’s nice to be able to connect with people through something I love.
PC: “Hands on the Bible” has earned well over 100,000 Spotify streams since its release in August of 2020, as well as thousands of views on YouTube. What did the response mean to you? Is it at all validating to have that success out of the gate?
CJ: Even with the success the song has had, because I feel like I’m so new in the industry still, I still have so many insecurities. It’s a strange feeling, because everyday I realize there’s thousands of people all across the world hearing my voice and song. It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around. I never could have imagined being in the position I am now, so any kind of success is a huge blessing. It might be a blessing in disguise that I didn’t imagine doing this as a career earlier in my life, because everything is kind of a surprise now [laughs]. I’ve been blown away by the response to the song. It’s still going up the charts as well. My goal was to get to top 100 on country radio, and we’ve surpassed that and are still climbing. At this point, I don’t even know what my goals should be, because the song is working its magic with everyone [laughs]. Especially after last year and everything being tough in the industry, it’s nice to be able to connect with people through that song.
PC: Why did you feel that your new single, “The Men and the Boys” was the right follow up to “Hands on the Bible”?
CJ: I definitely feel like Chelsey James has two different sides, and I think those two songs show that. Earlier in our conversation, I talked about my rock influences, and “The Men and the Boys” would be me releasing a song that embodies the sound of Chelsey James. You’ll notice some similarities between the two songs vocally, because I was trying to push it to the limit, which will sometimes bite me in the butt when I have to sing live [laughs], but you’ll hear that power vocal that I love to do. “The Men and the Boys” has that Chelsey James sound that you’re going to hear a lot more of going forward. It’s still very country to the core, but the rock sound and the guitars are going to be a little different than “Hands on the Bible.” It’s actually one of the first songs I ever wrote, and it just so happened to fit my sound and style perfectly, so I’m excited to let people hear that side of me!
PC: Can you talk about the inspiration behind “The Men and the Boys”?
CJ: I had a basic track from my producer, and I loved it because I had that rock vibe, so I knew I had to write a song to it. I took the song to a couple friends, and one of them had an idea about knowing the difference between the men in the boys, and as soon as he said it, I knew exactly what it was going to be about. I immediately thought about being in college and going to bars with my girlfriends. There’s one bar in particular back home, and it just seems like there’s a sea of men who I call “catalog cowboys” in the song, because they’re “fake country boys,” the ones who look the part but don’t necessarily act the part. It ended up being perfect because I wanted men and women to be able to listen to the song and relate to it. Women are totally going to know what I’m talking about when I talk about fake cowboys at the bar, and hopefully men will be able to tell the difference as well.
It’s really hard for females in country music to put out stuff that men are actually going to enjoy listening to. It seems like it’s a lot easier for men to put out things that women enjoy listening to, but that was my goal with this song. I wanted something that everybody could sing and dance along to, something really high energy with a good story that goes along with it.
PC: Your bio makes several references to empowering women and redefining stigmas for women in country music. How important is it to be a sort of trailblazer, if you will, for up-and-coming female artists in the genre?
CJ: In any any industry, people can only hope to be a trailblazer. If I ever have that word attached to me, I could die happy [laughs]. For me, it’s more about just being who I am. A lot of times, I think that’s how Industries are changed; people being 100% genuine and authentic. Every person has something special about them, so if you try to mimic someone else, you’re not going to be able to stand out. I truly believe that everyone is meant to be something, and you just have to find it. If you do it your own way and stop listening to everyone’s opinions, that’s how you change things. So I would love to add to the industry. I think a lot of people are missing that “Gunpowder and Lead,” “Before He Cheats” time and country music and those badass females. It seems like things have turned away from that, and not that it’s a bad thing, but I personally miss that sound. I definitely feel like I can bring that to the industry, but put my own spin on it.
PC: You’re working with Kenny Lamb as your producer, who has worked with everyone from N’Sync to Rhett Akins. What are you able to take away from working and collaborating with Kenny?
CJ: The good thing about Kenny is that he’s very meticulous, and he can help put the perfecting touches on a song that maybe I wouldn’t think of. Those little details are very important. I’m thankful that I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with people who have spent years in the industry, and now they’re helping guide me. I usually tell people when I work with them that I have no idea what I’m doing so they’re going to have to help me out [laughs]. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of help and guidance along the way. The thing with Kenny that I’m very thankful for is that I’ve always been allowed to be myself, and that’s a non-negotiable for me. I don’t want to be changed into somebody that I’m not, so I’m thankful for him and all the people that I’ve gotten to work with along the way.
PC: With live performances largely being put on hold, what has the adjustment been like for you? How have you been able to stay busy?
CJ: Live performances are my favorite part about this gig. I’m sure a lot of people say that, but I love nothing more than singing for people, it doesn’t matter if it’s two people or 10,000 people. That’s what makes me the happiest, and being on stage is where I feel the most confident. It was hard, and there were some tears for sure. Being the Type A person that I am, a global pandemic is not the easiest thing to get through, not that it’s easy for anybody, but when I’m sitting here seeing that I have to cancel every plan that I have, it’s a lot to handle. At the very beginning, I felt like I was taking five steps backwards. Once I stopped my little pity party, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to sing live, but I was going to be able to do the things I can control. I got to work on my online presence; I’m not the best at social media, so I really tried to work on that. I also wrote a lot of music. There’s always a silver lining, and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. In 2021, I can come out guns blazing. I’m planning on releasing a single every 60 days this year. I’m thankful that I had the time to write and record that music. There’s definitely some good that came out of it, because I’m ready to put out a bunch of music this year!
PC: What information can you give about the new music on the way? What can listeners expect to hear?
CJ: I’m filming a music video for “The Men and the Boys” just a couple days after the release, so in March, we will have the music video out hopefully, which I’m really excited about! The next single, which is still in production right now, is called “Steady.” It’s a song I wrote about my husband, which will be released probably in late April or early May, and there’s a few others coming after that. “Steady” is more of a big ballad. The people who’ve heard it have told me that it sounds like a modern-day Faith Hill ballad with a rock twist, which was my goal. If anybody compares me to Faith Hill, I’ll be happy [laughs]. I’m really excited about it, and it’s different from anything I’ve done so far. I just got back from Nashville writing more, so I’ve got music to put out all year long!
PC: As someone who is admittedly a planner, of the things you can control, what are your plans for 2021?
CJ: What’s nice is that I feel like I have most of the year planned with all these releases [laughs]. Last year was a creation year, and this year is the releasing year. Like I said, the goal is to release a song every 60 or so days this year. I’ve got a really exciting partnership with a music distribution company called The Orchard, and I think we’re going to do some really big things. I’m going to assume that a lot of people are going to hear “The Men and the Boys” around the world with them behind me.
One thing I am excited about is starting to get some shows booked for late summer. As long as everything can get under control by then, I think live shows will be a go for sure this year, so I’m very excited about that! Every single I release will have a music video, so there’s lots of stuff coming!
*Chelsey’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
**All images courtesy of Chelsey James Facebook page**