Country songwriter Justin Wilson started out as a touring musician in the southern United States. He worked doggedly in his youth to try to make it big, touring about 100-150 dates a year while still in high school. Wilson’s grandparents knew they were raising a star, and their ongoing support turned to stubbornness when he finally decided to walk away from the stage. But when he shifted to songwriting, the bills were getting paid, which meant that the dedicated musician never had to leave the music world entirely.
After his first Number One on the charts, “Kiss You in the Morning,” no one could deny that this was where his greater success lay. Wilson’s opportunities in songwriting have steadily increased, with nearly 100 recorded songs since, encouraging him to keep with the shift: from touring himself to writing hits for big-name musicians. This adds to Wilson’s advice for younger musicians and songwriters today: to stay true to their talents.
ED Magazine spoke with Justin Wilson, courtesy of Bob Chiappardi and StripJointsMusic.com, about what inspires him, who his influences are, why songwriting was right for him, and — in anticipation of an EP he’ll be putting out of his own this summer — how songwriting for yourself and for other musicians has been a beneficial, self-referential creative process. (Note: The interview was conducted by Ilan Fong, Danny Meyers and Bob Chiappardi, with questions courtesy of ED Publications.)
And, later in the interview, don’t miss — Justin Wilson’s earliest experiences in Tennessee strip clubs!
ED: You’ve written music for some of country’s biggest stars: How much satisfaction is there to see a song you wrote become a hit?
JW: Well, it was a big risk to stop being an artist and start being a songwriter — as far as paying taxes and getting a paycheck, and so on, so young — so, to finally hear something hit the radio and be recorded by somebody that the mass audience cares about was very…validating, I guess would be the word. It kind of brings a tear to an eye. It has been a hard life, just trying to appease everyone around me and my grandparents, in my case, that raised me. They hated me for giving up being an artist, my granddad especially. He was so pissed off about that. And most people don’t know what a songwriter is. It’s a weird little sector of industry, so when you tell people you’re a songwriter, they’re like, “Well, what do you do to pay the bills?”
“They hated me for giving up being an artist, my granddad especially. He was so pissed off about that. And most people don’t know what a songwriter is. It’s a weird little sector of industry, so when you tell people you’re a songwriter, they’re like, ‘Well, what do you do to pay the bills?'” – Justin Wilson
So to hear someone record something that I wrote, it gives me a sense of achievement, and it’s motivating, too — because if it’s a hit, that means millions of people like what I created, and I got to sit here and eat cheeseburgers and get fat and not have to be on the radio tour.
ED: What drew you to songwriting in the first place? What are the traits that ‘define’ you as a country music songwriter?
JW: I was touring about 100-150 dates a year for the last two years of my high school up and down the east coast, from Tallahassee to Niagara Falls, really. And that felt like checkers to me. When I got introduced to songwriting, songwriting felt like chess. And I was like, “Man, I want to do that,” you know, I’d been doing the artist’s thing for so long, growing up and through high school, that I knew how to entertain. But the writing side was psychology, and I thought it was so cool. So that’s what drew me to it, plus, you know, I’m kind of a fucked up person and I had a fucked up past and it’s just a community of misfits really: it felt like family in a town where I had none.
ED: Who were the artists/musicians/bands that you heard growing up that you feel have influenced you most as a songwriter?
JW: Man, first and foremost, Boys to Men. Then, ACDC was the first CD that I ever bought on my own.
ED: Which one was it? Bon Scott or Brian Johnson?
JW: Here’s the funny thing. I thought it was AC/DC. I went to FYE in Charlotte, North Carolina and got the “Greatest Hits of AC/DC”. But it was actually some no-name band singing AC/DC songs, and I didn’t realize.
ED: Oh, a tribute record? That’s funny.
JW: I mean I was 12-years-old at the time, jamming, and I was like, “Oh man, this is like that groove, like ‘pour some sugar on me.’”
And then I grew into liking, on the country side of things, Garth Brooks, storytelling and some of the classics like Clay Walker and John Michael Montgomery, things like that. But then I love Dru Hill and Boys II Men. I loved 50 Cent, and when the early 2000s Hip Hop came out, it was all very hooky and it had kind of a backbeat thing I liked, being from right outside of Atlanta. So it had that Atlanta thing. You know, “Shake it, shake it like a salt shaker.”
ED: Yeah, Ying Yang (Twins), baby.
JW: I was really obsessed with that, and then I kind of started getting into Green Day and kind of the grunge thing. To be honest, I’ve always been an absolute avid fan of pretty much every genre except megadeath and jazz. I’m not smart enough for jazz. And megadeath you know, death metal or whatever, I just can’t understand the lyrics. But that’s kind of that’s kind of my background as far as what’s been influential on me. It really comes from the R&B side for me. and then the storytelling comes from just the the honesty of grunge, mixed with a country sound.
ED: After your Number One hit, “Kiss You in the Morning,” you’ve been scoring cuts and singles, one after another. How many recorded songs have you written so far? And how has the success been treating you?
JW: How many recorded songs have I had since “Kiss You in the Morning”? Man, somewhere around 80. Some of them have hit radios, some haven’t.
ED: They still had to buy them.
JW: Yeah. I’ve been fortunate in that way. As far as success, I would say, don’t get divorced, because that can take a lot of that success away from you. And I mean no disrespect to anyone that listens, just to make that clear.
ED: Still in court, huh? C.Y.A.
JW: Yeah. It’s, shit. The success is short-lived if you’re not smart.
ED: Yes, very true. You are going to start recording your own EP this summer; what excites you most about recording your own material? Will you be singing and playing guitar on this EP, as well? And how does songwriting for other musicians differ from writing songs for yourself to perform?
JW: I’ve been asked to record my own music for quite some time, and I’ve finally decided to pull the trigger. The thing about writing something for my own project, versus trying to shoot for who’s cutting the next album is, at least for me, personally, I’ve found that when I start writing for myself, there’s no box I’m writing into. I can say whatever the fuck I want to say. And when that box goes away, I find that — more times than not — say, I write 10 songs, maybe a couple really fit perfectly for something that I would think about doing. But those other eight wind up being better than what I’m intending for an artist that’s cutting. So, writing for myself has actually taught me how to be a better writer for others — to get rid of those boxes means that the work is so much more authentic and unique, and, eventually somebody’s gonna go, ‘Man, I ain’t never heard that before. Let’s do that.’ So I would say the two processes actually feed one another.
ED: And you’ll be singing and playing guitar on the album?
JW: I will definitely be singing. I can guarantee that on at least one of the songs I will play guitar. My guitar skills are not that great, but they’re good enough for emotion. And that’s what I actually try to tell a lot of the younger singer/songwriters that come to town. I tell them, “Don’t worry about how great you are at guitar if your goal is this. Because a lot of times, you can try to get better at, say, guitar, and by trying to get better, you’re taking time away from the craft of writing a song, and you’re also limiting your mind.”
Like, I feel like the best guitar players play it up here, in their minds. Obviously, the ones that can shred, like the Joe Walshes of the world, are just incredible. But if they put the guitar down, they’re going to hear insane notes in their head that they’ve got to go figure out. And that’s kind of the same mentality that I have. I know that I’m not great at guitar, but I know how to be emotional with it when necessary. And I also know that there are amazing musicians all over this freaking planet, dude, and if I can at least not box myself in and then ask them to bring it to life, they can do that. But they won’t be able to do it the way I would do it — with my seven chords and tiny hands.
“I was touring about 100-150 dates a year for the last two years of my high school up and down the east coast, from Tallahassee to Niagara Falls, really. And that felt like checkers to me. When I got introduced to songwriting, songwriting felt like chess.” – Justin Wilson
ED: Speaking of your advice for the younger ones — you were one of the mentor songwriters on the AXS TV show BANDED with Bob, Mr. Executive producer over here. The music competition just aired on May 13. That show is based on a radical concept of banding young musicians that have never met each other, and having them write songs together to then perform them each week in front of celebrity judges. What were your initial feelings about the task you were signing up for? And did your feelings change by the end of taping the first season?
JW: It was amazing, I love you Bob. One of the things I love most about Bob is how much he cares about the quality of music. And so he hit me up and he said, “Hey, man, I’m doing this show, and it’s kind of last minute, but they’re going to need songs. Would you be willing to jump on?” And initially, I was like, ‘“Hell yes. That sounds awesome.” He’s a good friend of mine, I trust him, and I mean, who doesn’t want to do something like that to help people, too? I got helped when I first got to town, and I always try to pay that forward. So I was initially really excited, and then when I got there, I was still excited, but I did then say to Bob, “Man, what kind of music is this gonna be?”
ED: Good music…
JW: And I said, “Damn it, Bob. If I walk in there and everybody’s in a black T shirt and black jeans and black converse, I’m gonna know exactly what I’m getting into.” And sure as shit it was.
But throughout that process, I learned how much goes in to a major production, behind the scenes. I also learned that maybe being a band manager is probably not in my future. But to watch the incredible talent of five kids getting together in a band with people they’ve never met, from all over the United States, and just come together that fast was pretty incredible. At least for me, I tend to think that that can only happen in Nashville, in New York, in LA, you know what I mean? And these kids, they were troopers. And I feel like it gave me meaning at a time when I really needed it to, to shed some knowledge and care about these kids. Sometimes we had to get rough and sometimes we just had to laugh it out. But I really left that experience and went, “You know what, as much of a pain in the ass it was sometimes, it was more of a good feeling in my heart, doing that.” I really enjoyed it.
ED: Making a difference, man. Alright, the last question for Exotic Dancer Magazine. Have you ever heard one of your songs played in a strip club? And if you did, tell us about that first experience?
JW: I have never heard one of mine played in a strip club, yet.
JW: Yet. But I will share a but of my strip club experiences: My senior year of college, me and a good friend of mine — Wing, that’s his nickname, so I’ll just leave it at that — we decided that because we were done with all of our credits, we were going to use our last semester to go to every strip club in Nashville. And we damn sure did, man, and it was awesome.