Call James Otto a country performer and he’s okay with that. The veteran of Nashville’s MuzikMafia has a passion for all kinds of music and often describes himself as a “country soul singer.”
Although pegged as a country artist, Otto can rock with the best of them. His 2008 album, Sunset Man, included a track Otto wrote with John Rich and Big Kenny of Big & Rich and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx. Fire up his latest album, Shake What God Gave Ya, and the first track, “Are You With Me,” blasts out of the stereo like the arena rocker it was meant to be. Otto may be identified as a country artist, but the man sure loves his decibels.
Otto also enjoys his online performances, and has been doing informal gigs under the title “Thirsty Thursday” via StageIt.com. On the day Pollstar spoke with Otto he was preparing for a “Thirsty Thursday” online benefit concert to raise money for residents of Minot, N.D., stricken by floodwaters. The son of a military man, Otto and his family lived in several towns while he was growing up including Minot.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Otto would step up to help out his former neighbors. The man comes across just as friendly as his public persona suggests – a down-home individual who’s just as likely to shoot the breeze about which car he’s currently restoring or challenge his Twitter followers to name which celebs are No. 1 on the “slapability” scale.
You’ve been doing the Thirsty Thursday online concerts from your studio. Are these performances influencing your onstage presentation?
In some ways, yes. I find that with StageIt.com it’s a way you can talk to your fans. There’s a little online forum right next to your picture and you can see what everybody is asking for. I’m finding that they want to hear a more diverse section of my music spread throughout my albums than I generally play live. In that way, it’s definitely influencing my set list.
What about the casual aspect of the online shows? Is that leaking into your onstage performances?
The casual aspect, I think, is neat for me and for them. It’s the way they can see me more relaxed in my natural habitat, being in my bedroom or my studio, kind of hanging out. They can see me when I’m not as “on.” I’m more into a scenario where I’m chillin’ and playing songs. I can play new stuff, songs I haven’t worked up with the band and not feel scared about playing a new song. It’s more like an open forum – What do you think of this song? It’s a new way to do things.
You’ve been active with online media for quite some time – Twitter, Facebook. It’s not like you’re Johnny-Come-Lately to this stuff.
There’s been streaming for some time but there’s never been a place set up like [StageIt.com] where you go online in this fashion. It can definitely influence your fans and change how you interact with them. This is a good thing, especially these days where people expect more intimate time with you. I think it’s neat for artists on all levels to be able to go out there and be compensated for it. You’re giving a piece of your time and yourself and people are more than willing to pay for that time, which I thought was interesting. It wasn’t the driving force for me, but with music becoming harder and harder to sell, it’s a way for young artists to still continue to make money and develop their craft and their fanbase. That’s a very valuable thing these days.
Let’s reverse it. As a music fan yourself, who would you like to see perform in a similar online setting as you’ve been doing with Thirsty Thursdays?
Oh, man. There are so many artists. I would want to see someone like Ray LaMontagne. I’d love to see Bruce Springsteen do something like that. I don’t know if that level of artist ever would, but it’s certainly a viable option. It’s something that they maybe hadn’t done before. It’s kind of cool and you get to see what your fans like and don’t like. I watched John Oates the other night and it was absolutely worth the money spent. It was better than watching TV. It was an intimate conversation and concert with the guy who hasn’t been on the road like he used to be, and it was a chance to hear what he’s been working on.
You just mentioned three artists – LaMontagne, Springsteen and Oates – that represent different areas of the music spectrum. You’re considered to be a country artist, but you sound like a person who’s been influenced by several genres.
I’m all over the board with my music. People say, “You’re show doesn’t sound like classic country.” It may not, but I can sit down and have a conversation about all of the great classic country artists. I could break into songs by those artists and it wouldn’t be a problem for me. I know them all, I’ve studied and learned them all. But I’ll be 38 years old this summer and my tastes over my lifetime have certainly changed. What’s great about music is that it is vast. It’s a creative playground. If you listen to one thing your entire life and you’re satisfied, I think that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s so much out there to draw from, it definitely has influenced my art and what I listen to. I guess that’s why my music sounds not quite like anybody else’s. And I’m okay with that.
I love classic soul music, classic country music and great rock & roll. I grew up on all of it. Both my father and his dad – my grandfather – were musicians. My grandfather wanted to be Hank Snow and my dad was into Led Zeppelin and all that stuff. So I listened to all that, and I listened to what was on the radio and what my friends were listening to. I experienced music in so many different ways and found it to be rewarding all the way through.
These days, with the iPod generation it’s even more so for me. I have such a varied iPod, that if you grabbed it you’d be like, “Really? You listen to all this stuff? That’s just crazy.” It’s a good thing. Experimentation with music is fun.
Is there a resistance within the music industry to mix artists with other genres?
Yes. They want to be able to put you in a box, explain you in a small blurb. I’ve tried to do that myself, calling myself a “country soul singer.” That encompasses a lot of what I do. My last record, Shake What God Gave You, is a country soul album, but if you look at past albums there’s been elements of rock & roll, old western music and everything else.
“What’s great about music is that it is vast. It’s a creative playground.”
Your daughter’s almost a year old. Has being a father influenced your songwriting?
I haven’t seen it change much. I have some ideas brewing that definitely include her. But going back to the StageIt.com part of things, one of the ideas that was so appealing to me is that I’m not on the road this year as much as I’ve been in the past. That was by design because I wanted to be home with my daughter. [StageIt.com] still gave me an opportunity to be out there playing songs and connecting to my fans. The first couple of years are pretty important and I wanted to be part of her life during this time so when I do go back to work, she knows who I am when I come home.
If you daughter ever comes up to you and says she wants to be a musician “just like Dad,” what would you say to her?
I’d probably give her the same advice as most parents would say to their kids – get a good job and do music as a side project. Music is one of those things I love dearly, but I wouldn’t push it on my child. I think that’s a mistake. I know a lot of dads who are sports dads or music dads and they want their kids to do what they do in the fashion they do it. I think that’s a mistake. That’s not the way I want to raise my child. Far be it for me to tell someone else how to do it (parenting). Obviously, I’m pretty new to it [but] I want her to make her own decisions.
If she wants to play music, she’s going to have to be passionate about it because I’m not going to push it on her. She’s going to have to want to learn it like I wanted to learn it. I was really passionate and pushed my parents about it. It was really all my decision. There’s definitely easier roads out there she could take with her life, but if that’s what she wants to do, I won’t stop her.
What kind of “solid jobs” did you hold down while you were working on your craft?
I had so many jobs you wouldn’t believe it. I went from job to job like many musicians do, looking for whatever would pay me just enough to let me get by so I could play music at night.
When I moved to Nashville, both my dad and I talked it through and he said, “Look. You can work anywhere you want to while you’re pursuing your career. You can have a crappy job anywhere. You have a crappy job at home so go get a job in Nashville and work at your craft.
And that’s what I did. I did just about everything. When I first moved to town I got a job at Opryland driving a bus. That went to driving an oil truck for a while. Whatever kept me busy during the day and paid my bills and then got me to the songwriters’ clubs at night. That’s how I lived my first couple of years in Nashville until I got my writing gig.
Did working those kinds of jobs help keep you grounded? That is, does your history of working non-music jobs help you relate to fans?
I guess. I’m definitely an everyday guy. I’m the guy that did all those jobs. My military service and what I’ve been through definitely shapes me. They’re out there driving an oil truck or they’re in the military and laying their lives down. I know those experiences. I’m the son of a drill sergeant and everybody in my family has been blue collar. No one had any money. I definitely come from that place.
ACM Lifting Lives USO show, Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nev.
April 17, 2010
What comes first when you’re writing songs, lyrics or melody?
I’ve done it both ways. I’ve written the lyrics first and then found a melody. These days, and it’s kind of my M.O. for writing songs, melody and guitar part generally come first and the lyrics stem from there. Whatever the music is that I’m playing will stir something in me and set the tone to whatever it is I’m trying to write.
Some days I’ll methodically think about something I want to write about. But generally, it’s something that’s been brewing subconsciously. I guess I strike the right chord that day and it just starts to come out. It always starts with me playing guitar and thinking what that melody feels like to me. Your melody fits the tone for your song. If you’re painting a picture, it’s the colors you’re painting with. You know what I mean? The mood of the setting. The lyrics come after that for me.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with a melody in your head and hum it into a recorder?
It’s always right before I go to bed. I keep a recorder beside my bed and I can hear the song in my head completely written right before I go to bed. You can only get so much on a recorder. I sit there right before I go to bed to drain that so I can go to sleep. Go to the well and get it out real quick, try to sleep and finish it in the morning.
Many songwriters have mentioned drawing influences from what they’ve read or from films they’ve seen. Have books and movies influenced your writings?
I used to read a lot … when I was a kid, about a couple of books a week. Sadly, I would have to say I don’t read much anymore. Time doesn’t seem to permit it. I’m online or doing things with my family or friends. I’m being a dad or working on one of my vehicles, which has kind of been my main hobby – my cars.
[But] movies influence me a lot. I’ve written songs from situations I’ve seen in movies or politics or things that are going on around me. You write stories of what you know and it’s definitely influenced by the people around me, there’s no question about it. People and the movies I watch, the occasional book that gets read these days. Sadly, it’s not very often.
Have you ever had an inspiration come on so strongly that you left the theatre or, if you’re watching at home, stopped the movie so you could work on it?
It doesn’t generally happen like that. What does happen if I’m watching a movie – if someone says something, something that’s a hook – that definitely stops me in my tracks. I wrote a song with my wife a long time ago called “Last First Kiss.” It was a line in a movie we were watching. Things like that can grab you. The right sequence of words … that hook, can stop you in your tracks and make you write it down.
But you’ve never run out of a theater during a movie going, “Where’s my guitar?”
I have at the end of a movie, for sure. I’ve walked out going, “Man, I got to write that down” and then go home and write it. Art influencing art. That’s what’s great about movies. It’s visual, it pleases your ears with music and involves almost every sense you have. I find that movies can be inspiring. There’s no doubt about it.
Did you enjoy playing in Nashville’s MuzikMafia?
We haven’t done it in so long. I used to love it, it was a great thing. It’s not as much an influence because it really doesn’t exist anymore. What I loved about it was that the mix of music was as diverse as my iPod. One minute you could be playing a country song and the next minute it could be deep soul kind of thing then the next minute it might be psychedelic rock & roll. And the camaraderie was obviously great. Some of my best friends were the people that started the MuzikMafia. We all started out together and it grew into this big thing none of us could have foreseen. It was just a way to get our music out.
It was a new way of doing things in Nashville. I definitely see its effect on Nashville and music. It’s opened up and become more diverse. John Rich has influenced quite a few people with the heavy guitars and four-on-the-floors. It certainly became engrained in the mentality of Nashville, for sure. A lot of the younger artists have grabbed onto that.
One of the goals of the MuzikMafia always seemed to be to play just for the fun of playing, and to give the audience the most fun they could have at a concert.
That was absolutely a goal. The moment it became anything more than that was the beginning of the end. We all loved it so much and wanted everyone else to experience that, it all showed on stage. That’s how we got into it – we loved music and enjoyed playing it. It’s fun to connect to people that way. I think whenever music stops being [fun] is when I stop doing it. Right now I’m still having a lot of fun playing my shows and doing my thing. And when people come to my shows, hopefully they get that same sense that we’re really enjoying ourselves. It’s contagious and the audience catches that.
You mentioned your passion for working on cars. What are you working on these days?
I’m a car geek, for sure. I’ve got an old, 1960 Cadillac that was a gift from MuzikMafia when I got married. It’s a constant project. I have a 1979 Chevrolet K5 Blazer. It’s the third one I’ve had. It’s basically a big convertible truck that’s a lot of fun in the summertime. It’s been my project for about four or five years. When I moved to Nashville, I know my bio says I had a Chevelle, and I did have a couple of those, too. I sold my old Blazer so I could move to Nashville. If I ever got to the point where I had some success, I was going to buy another one. And I did a couple of years ago and ever since it’s been a gigantic money pit. It’s the bane of my wife’s existence, but I love it.
So you have what, four or five cars you’re working on?
We’re down to four. And a motorcycle.
“I’m the son of a drill sergeant and everybody in my family has been blue collar. No one had any money.”
On show days, do you and/or the band have any rituals or traditions you go through before hitting the stage?
I’ve kind of given up on those. I’m not very superstitious. In fact, not at all as far as we have to do this or the show won’t go well. We all like to hangout in the green room or on the bus wherever we’re at, have a couple of drinks and get loose together, joking around and be boys so when we get on stage we feel … that camaraderie is there. That’s what’s fun about it. Touring with a bunch of guys for a long period of time, you develop that camaraderie [and] develop a chemistry on stage. It’s like putting on a pair of old cowboy boots you’ve worn for about 10 years. Every time you put them on it feels like its made to fit. You step on stage with a band you’ve been playing with for a long time, it feels the same way. It makes it easy to go do your job.
You’ve played with so many people throughout the years. Is there someone you’d like to play with but it just hasn’t happened?
There’s probably quite a few. Bob Seger is one of those guys I’ve wanted to play with. He’s such a big influence on me. Ray Charles is someone I’d loved to have played with. I got to play with Ronnie Milsap last Thanksgiving on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” with The Roots. We got to do the song “Good Thing Gone Bad” from Shake What God Gave Ya. I’ve always loved him and he was one of my dad’s favorite country artists. My dad never really liked country music. He was someone who set that country soul sound in people’s mind. So he was a big influence with me. To get to play with him was one of those moments, for sure.
How was it to play with The Roots?
It was great. They’ve got all the soul you could ever want. I love playing with those guys. Frank Knuckles, the guy who plays all the percussion, has become an online buddy of mine. Just a cool guy and super-talented.
Looking at your Twitter feed brings to mind one last question: Who’s No. 1 on your “slapability” scale?
I intentionally didn’t put my choice down. I was just asking questions. There’s definitely some people who need slapping, but I’m smart enough not to put it out there.
“I experienced music in so many different ways and found it to be rewarding all the way through.”
James Otto has a string of California appearances coming up beginning with a show in San Bernardino at the Brandin Iron July 19; Fresno at Fulton 55 July 20 and Folsom at Powerhouse Pub July 21. Other upcoming engagements include performing at the Linn County Fair in Albany, Ore., July 22 and appearing in Lapeer, Mich., for the town’s “Lapper Days Festival” Aug. 19. For more information, visit JamesOtto.net.