We’re halfway through profiling all of the USA WEEKEND Breakthrough Video of the Year nominees at next week’s CMT Music Awards, and today’s is arguably the most charismatic of the bunch: Jerrod Niemann, the native of Liberal, Kan., honored for the video for Lover, Lover — a cut off his 2010 album Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury. Not only does he impressively sing in nine-part harmony with himself, but the video is swell, too. It’s directed by Potsy Poncirol and chronicles what happens when a dude’s relationship goes awry. Niemann’s made lots of touring friends in Nashville — including pal and fellow Breakthrough nominee Lee Brice — and is about to make some more when he joins up with Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton for a summer tour soon. “I’m probably going to learn what to do from Brad and what to not do from Blake,” Niemann quips. We talked recently about his nomination, his video and his favorite country videos, so read below for our conversation. Also, check out the video for Lover, Lover and if you dig it, or any of the other nominees, be sure to vote at CMT.com.
Photos courtesy of Sony Nashville
In doing the Lover, Lover video, did you work with Potsy on the story that you wanted to portray?
I know it sounds kind of bizarre, but I was picturing some sort of inner-city thing. Some songs call for being out in the country on a four-wheeler, ramping over a bonfire into a pyramid of beer cans. [Laughs] But with this particular song, I wanted to do something different. It’s so repetitive that it’s a sad song but the story really never changes after the first verse and chorus, so you have to come up with a different angle. I was kind of picturing Rocky — I don’t know if people will think that’s cool or not. We made it our own thing and used classic cars, although we ended up getting a new Camaro, but I wanted to have an old-school ’70s vibe to it.
Did you film it down in Nashville?
Yeah, I never even met the people whose house it was. I never went in the house. It was also at 7 in the morning. They have these enormous, 18-inch speakers set up outside blaring the song full blast, so you really feel like you’re into doing the video. I thought, “I’m sure these neighbors are extremely excited about this video.”
I’m amazed by the nine different vocal parts you recorded for Lover, Lover. Did you learn by doing that song that you had a better voice than you thought you had?
Theoretically, absolutely. When we went into record Lover, Lover, I really did not have even an intention to sing two parts. It’s such a difficult song to sing the lead vocal — it’s challenging for me at least — that I certainly didn’t think I was going to be doing the other parts. Logistically, there was no way I was going to be able to use all the buddies I wanted, like Lee and some other friends to come in. I didn’t have a record deal, and their labels aren’t going to let anybody just come sing on my stuff and me go sell it. I thought, “Well, hell, I don’t have any money and I don’t have any resources, so maybe I should try to figure out this [stuff] myself.” It had to be the grace of God, because I sang those eight parts the first night and then couldn’t hit the bass notes, so I got drunk as hell, woke up the next morning and they worked like a charm.
That is officially the first time I’ve heard somebody pull off a hangover recording.
Well, I’m sure all vocal instructors throughout the world would be scowling at my tactic, but it definitely works. [Laughs] Vocal exercises would be the other option, and that didn’t sound very fun.
Your album is filled with a heap of different-sounding tracks. Did you feel you wanted something really varied with this one?
When you first move to Nashville, you really do want to just be like your heroes: “Man, if I could just be like Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash or Keith Whitley or Merle Haggard…” You try to write songs like them, you try to sound like them, you try to look like them, and then real life happens. You get things happen in your life that hurt and you start losing focus. I gained 60 pounds, pretty much was partying every single night, and was just wild and out of control. Jamey Johnson, a buddy of mine, pulled me aside and was like, “Dude, you’re on a downhill spiral. You have too much potential for this and you need to get your butt in the studio.” I took his advice, went and recorded that album, and I thought, as human beings and people, we’re all many different dimensions. Why does an album have to sound like everybody else? We didn’t use any studio musicians — it was strictly our band that played on the album, which I’m very proud to say because we’ve all traveled in a 12-passenger van for five or six years. For them to play on the album and then for it to have two gold singles in a row is such a dream come true on a level I didn’t realize. In the machine Nashville has, you really don’t get that opportunity to produce your records — A&R and others issue the sequence of the songs. So I got to do all this because I didn’t have a record deal. When I finished it and Brad Paisley heard it, he took it to Sony and I was so jaded from being through a couple other deals, I was like, “Look, I appreciate that, but I’m just telling you, that album is mine.” I was happy during the process of it, I was happy with it completely. I found happiness, so I said, “I’m not going to change the album one note, one mix, one song, because it’s the closest thing I have to a child.” So they said, “You know what, we respect that.” They let us put it out completely as is, and if I hadn’t gone through all the [stuff] in my life previous to that, I would have never gotten the opportunity to make it.
What has this last year been like, releasing your album as well as getting your first video out?
The same with Lee, we both really got our foot in the door as songwriters with the support of the Nashville songwriting community. It’s sort of like the trenches: You have the songwriters and you have the musicians who play in the honky tonks for nothing but tips for years, so it’s like a brotherhood. You just lean on each other because nobody has any money or really much to smile about except for the fact that, even if you’re struggling, you’re still getting to do what you love for a living. Me and Lee have had such a parallel career: Our first No. 1 hits were both for Garth Brooks, we’re a month apart in our age, there are girls who’ve mistaken him for me and vice versa. I’ve been slapped, he’s been slapped. It’s just really weird to see that. And also, Lee is just so dang talented. I’m so glad he’s nominated, too. I actually know everybody who’s nominated and we all came out last year — hence the Breakthrough Video of the Year. [Laughs] But I see all those people at these shows and they’re working their butts off, so I’m excited for everybody. They’re good people. I’ve already lost everything I’ve ever been nominated for, so I’m just happy to be part of the community and moving up and being recognized for having a foot in the door.
Watching award shows such as the Grammys and the Oscars, when people lose they’re usually smiling but you wonder if they’re a little peeved inside. But especially at country awards shows, it seems like a total mutual admiration society, win or lose.
It is true, I think you’re correct. It is slightly humiliating losing on national television over and over. [Laughs] I mean, I lose all the time, but to do it in front of your mom, dad and millions of people is a whole other level of losing. But the thing is, at the end of the day, it is really cool. It’s so new to me and I’m so excited about the nomination that it doesn’t hurt my feelings to lose because I never had it. If you have that trophy on your shelf and then all of a sudden one day it’s gone and someone changes the past, it may hurt your feelings. I’ve seen some pretty damn good-looking girls in some videos in my life that I think definitely should win some awards. [Laughs] So if we don’t win, I’m definitely going to just put more chicks in my next video. Until we win, I will double the chicks every video.
Do you have an all-time country music video?
That’s a good question. I remember there’s a couple Shania Twain videos I can’t complain about from back in the day. [Laughs, and then asks his band for suggestions] Stay? I can’t really probably vouch for Sugarland to have street cred at this moment. Chattahoochee was pretty good back in the day. I remember the first time I saw Alan Jackson on those water skis, with his cowboy hat and boots on skiing behind a boat, and then a pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight — that pops to my mind as a music video that made you want to be there, where you’re like, “Hell yeah.” Our video, at the very end, that’s Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser picking me up. The reason I called Jamey, it was full circle to get to do this video after he was the one who gave me the advice to cut the record. I said, “And plus, if I really was getting out of a relationship, you and Randy would be picking me up to take me to get her off my mind.” [Laughs] Those videos are bizarre. You always wonder growing up what it would be like to make one. It’s easy in that the people who are talented are doing all the work — that’s the director and the camera crew and the editors.
When you were a kid, was there a country artist you watched and aspired to be?
Here’s what so sad: I definitely did see a few concerts I really enjoyed. I guess the closest thing to that pivotal moment was when Tracy Lawrence came to our hometown. I grew up in one of those small communities where football literally is life, and we had a game the day after the concert. Our coach said, “If anybody goes to that concert tonight, they’re not playing tomorrow. Fact. You’ve gotta concentrate on the game.” So I was like, “That’s crap. We get concerts once a year for our fair if — IF — they outvote the demolition derby.” So it’s been a demolition derby, of course, and a concert. Somehow it got outvoted, and Tracy Lawrence came to town. My mom said, “They’re giving away an autographed guitar. If I win it, then you have to learn how to play guitar.” I said, “Oh, eh, yeah, alright,” because I always wrote songs and played piano and stuff. Sure enough, she somehow wins this damn autographed guitar. I was like, “You bought it and had him sign it or something,” and then there’s pictures of her on stage receiving it. It was probably a $150 guitar, it was HORRIBLE, but that’s what I learned to play on and I rubbed the damn signature clear off over the years playing it. [Laughs] My mom went to a show and had him re-sign it, so there’s this real faint signature and then another new signature. Now they have that hanging on their wall in Texas. Tracy Lawrence is an amazing artist, but most of the guys who made me move to Nashville unfortunately are no longer with us. There definitely are some, but it wasn’t until I really moved to Texas where I got to see Gary Stewart and David Allan Coe and some of these guys who I thought, “Damn. They don’t give a [crap] when they’re on stage. They just let it all hang out. “At the end of the day, when you go through all of the stuff I mentioned earlier about life and then your influences and realizing artistry exists much more than just writing songs, you do have to be somebody at the end of the day, so why not be yourself? That was the clicking, defining moment in my life. No matter what anybody says, just go with your beer gut. [Laughs]