In conversation with Joshua Hedley
If you're in Nashville and happen to visit the city centre on a Monday night, then you might already be familiar with Joshua Hedley. As well as making his name touring and becoming a labelmate with Margo Price on Third Man Records, the Florida born singer earns his corn by taking a regular slot at Robert's Western World, a tourist fave on Broadway. You can usually catch him on a Monday night in the late slot. Right now though he's aiming for global domination with the release of his excellent debut record, Mr. jukebox, and the day after his UK debut show in London we caught up with Joshua, in, of all places, a BBQ joint.
How did the show go last night?
It was great. Yeah. Had a lot of fun. Brought a couple of my bandmates over from States and filled out the rest with local guys. They did a great job. People seemed to enjoy it. So I’m very pleased with how last night went. It was great.
You’ve spent a while being a sideman before you kind of struck out on your own, I guess. Is there much of a difference for you performing live? Does it make much of a difference? Or is it just different?
Yeah, there’s a difference. It’s just sort of, you know, I’m backstage instead of stage right, and I’m singing songs that I wrote, instead of singing harmonies with other peoples’ songs. And I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve been in different bands back home in Nashville. But I don’t get a chance to sing my own material. So it’s been nice to get to share that with everybody. Give people a peek into my weird brain.
You’ve got quite the reputation back in Nashville as Mr. Jukebox and playing a lot of live shows, particularly in Robert’s Western World. Do you choose what you want to play, or do you take requests from people in the bar at that point?
Both. I choose the songs I like to play. I always get to play songs that I want, and, you know, people will request songs too and I’ll play those. That’s kind of where the Mr. Jukebox thing came from. I’ve been doing it since I was ten years old, so I’ve amassed quite a repertoire of songs. So between me and my bass player and my guitar player, we can play a lot of songs. So yep, pretty much requests covered. But it’s fun. I love doing it.
Do you ever get stuck? Do you get many songs that you just don’t know or you have to figure out on the hoof?
Oh yeah. Definitely. Can’t learn them all. But it doesn’t happen very often. Usually it will be one of the newer songs that people ask for. It’ll be a specific song that I just don’t know. And then sometimes they’ll ask for things I do know, but just don’t want to play. [laughter] I just tell a little white lie and I say I don’t know 'Devil Went Down To Georgia' and I don’t know any Johnny Cash. Neither of those things are true.
One of the things I was going to ask is, what’s the one song you can play if you want to but you dread somebody asking for?
It’s an interesting question. Well, with…yeah. Oh, you’ve caught me!
How about a favourite song to play?
Oh man... I’m really into this George Jones song, 'If Drinking Don’t Kill Me Her Memory Will'. I just really like singing that one. And I love playing any Johnny Bush song, really. I’ve been pretty heavily into Johnny Bush lately. So I would sing 'What A Way To Live' any chance I get.
You still play out in Nashville at Robert’s Western World...
Yeah. I love it.
... do you find you get any different crowd now that you’ve got your stuff out there and people are becoming more aware of you as an artist in your own right?
It’s changed a little bit, you know. There’s still ninety percent tourists, but some of the tourists are coming down because they know who I am, and that local following that comes out every Monday. But it still feels the same when I’m up there with the band. Nothing’s changed for me, it’s just changed in the audience.
Have you started to slip some of your own songs in there a bit more now?
No, I do strictly covers at Robert’s. I love playing covers. And I love doing the honky-tonk thing. And I don’t want to be the centre of it. That’s my little oasis where I get to play songs that I love that aren’t mine, and I don’t want to use it to play all myself. I just want people to have a good time and be a soundtrack for people to get drunk and dance and hook up and cheat, whatever they’re doing. I’m a fly on a wall. I don’t want to be an attraction, I just want to be a guy on stage, you know. So I keep my own music out of it and just, you know. I play the songs people want to hear.
I was going to ask you about Nashville as a town. There's a really cool vibe there. And I know East Nashville is getting quite a reputation now as somewhere for musicians to go and learn from other people and see other people play. How has that I guess changed your approach to how you write music, because I know you’re not from Nashville originally.
No, I’m from Florida originally. But it’s a cool scene down there, you know, it’s gotten a little posh lately, but we’re all writers around there, and we’re all friends. It’s just really great to sort of be amongst like-minded people, and people who are all doing the same thing. We’re all in it together, and seems like we’re all starting to come up together too, it’s really nice. So it’s inspiring. I really love it over there.
There are a few venues to play around Nashville, and like you say there are a few artists coming through now as well. Do you get the chance to catch shows now? That make you think about things slightly differently?
Sure, I mean it’s always fun to see a good show, and you get fired up. You might hear a song that might inspire you to write something that’s in the same vein, or maybe makes you think of something in a different way. Everybody has a different style, a different approach to writing. You can see it when you’ve been writing for a little while. You can kind of see how their brain works and how they view different things. And that can be eye-opening. Maybe you didn’t think of it in that way before. But it’s definitely an inspiring place to be, and I never stop learning.
How did you go about writing your record?
It happens kind of the same way every time. Usually I’ll get a line for a hook or something. Some kind of catchy fresh waves in my head, and it’ll just kick around in there for a few days and I’ll kind of start stressing over it, you know, and then I’ll start hearing a melody and add little lines and pretty much sit down with the guitar and write the whole song. And then sometimes I’ll go back and edit, but most of the time the song just comes. It just comes right out.
I don’t like to force it. I never sit down. I don’t really consider myself a songwriter. That’s not an ability that I can confess. I can’t just sit down with a guitar and no ideas and just come up with a song. Usually it’s just like, I’ll hear somebody say something, or I’ll get inspired by another song, and kind of come up with a line and it just turns into a song after a few days.
It's fascinating to talk to people that can write songs. Everybody does seem to do it slightly differently.
I wrote one yesterday, and I was just looking at my phone today, my little voice recorder, and I just laughed. The last song I wrote was in January. So, you know. I don’t write every day and I can only write when it strikes me, when the inspiration hits.
Are the songs on Mr. Jukebox relatively recently written? Or have you had some of those bouncing around for a while?
I mean, this is my first record, so it just kind of happened, I guess. I wrote all the songs together. I had one of the songs written already, 'Weird Thought Thinker'. I got sober, and something sort of died or clicked or something. Pent-up emotion and creativity came out. I used to write two songs a year, and I wrote about twenty songs in two months. Something happened in my brain and shit just started pouring out of me. I wouldn’t say that that’s like my normal process or anything. It’s just I don’t know what my normal process is. I probably won’t know that until about the third record or so. [laughs]
When you go into the studio on this record, did you know how you wanted it all to sound and work out when you went in? Or do you play around with things when you’re in the studio and kind of work with the guys in your band and the producer and stuff like that?
I had a rough idea of how I wanted the record to sound. Then my producers Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson just sort of helped me polish it, maybe changed a couple of chords and solo sections and stuff like that, sort of helped the songs. They helped me articulate, my dumb redneck ass doesn’t know how to articulate what I want. So they were able to kind of see what I was talking about and articulate it in a way that the players could make it happen.
Did it turn out exactly as you thought it would?
It came out perfect. It came out exactly the way I wanted it.
That’s a good feeling, right? Because I guess sometimes things just don’t work out exactly as you think they would?
Yeah, there’s sort of the way I write too, I hear it in my head while I write it. I hear the whole band and everything. I hear the hook and the melody, and I hear the way I want the drums to be and the bass. The type of bass I want, and maybe a steel guitar that I hear in my head. The song happens totally while I’m writing it. So it’s just a matter of communicating that. And I’ll know if it’s right while we’re recording it.
Finally, do you feel any sort of pressure that you're held up as the great hope of traditional country by some people?
I don’t really think about it. These are the only kind of songs that I write. And, you know, if the record tanks and nobody wants to hear it, I’m not going to stop writing. I just want to have a label to put them out! For me, I used to get pretty bent out of shape about pop-country, or they call it bro-country now. I learned pretty quickly that this is about Luke Bryan, I’m not going to make Luke Bryan go away. And it’s not up to me to decide what’s country and what’s not. It’s not a black and white thing. It’s a spectrum, and it’s an umbrella, you know? It’s just the same. I’ve said it before, you know, it’s like, you can listen to Kenny Rogers songs and you can listen to a Ronnie Milsap. And they sound completely different. But they’re both still country music. The same way you can listen to A Tribe Called Quest and then you can turn around and listen to a song by 21 Savage or something. Completely different styles, but they’re still hip hop.
You can’t listen to my record and call it anything other than country. And maybe Luke Bryan and people like that aren’t my ideal vision of what country music is, but it’s not up to me, it’s the people who are buying those records. Who’s buying those records, it’s not country people, you know. And yeah, there’s room for everybody. Real country’s not going to go away because I made an Owen Bradley record, you know? It’s got its own thing, its got its own market, people like it. And nobody’s got a gun to my head forcing me to listen to it. So, you know, they do their thing and I’ll do mine.
Joshua's debut, the wonderful Mr. Jukebox, is out now and available from all streaming services, and to buy from the likes of Amazon. If you want to find out more about Mr. Jukebox (the man not the record), visit his website, follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, or stalk him on Instagram.