James Otto has been one pretty busy guy the last two years. He took some time out of the spotlight to raise his new daughter Ava Katherine Otto. He’ll be back in a big way in 2012, which is already starting off big for the singer-songwriter: his friends in the Zac Brown Band are releasing one of his co-writes as their new single.
We spoke to James over the phone last week about his plans for the year, on sharing war stories about raising kids with Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, touring with Reba, his latest songwriting sessions, and how recording for his brand new album is going. Don’t worry James fans: he’ll be heading out to a city near you this summer!
Read our exclusive interview with James below and let us know if you’re planning on catching him on one of his tour dates this year.
One of the songs you wrote with Zac Brown is their new single “No Hurry”. That must be pretty exciting for you.
Unbelievably excited about it, it’s an incredible thing for sure. It’s a blessing for my family and I’m just truly proud to have this one out.
Is there a special story behind writing it?
There is, actually. It was the first time I’ve ever written with Wyatt Durrette, who is Zac Brown’s main co-writer. I think he’s been on every single Zac’s written and I think they were room mates in college. I can’t 100 per cent verify that but I think that’s it.
Wyatt came to my father-in-law’s apartment one day, which I was staying at the time. We sat down to write and brought in this idea which was the first verse for “No Hurry.” I loved it. He was like, ‘man, do you wanna write that? I just got this thing started.’
I thought it was great. We sat for the afternoon and sat and talked about all of it, and what all of it means. We thought we had a really great song and brought it to Zac to see what Zac thought. I was like, ‘I love that man, that would be killer to let Zac see it.’ Zac looked at it and re-wrote a lot of what we had done to suit what he wanted to say. The idea was all pretty much the same, but he said it the way he wanted to say it. You know, that’s what a collaboration is. That’s what I really love about co-writing. Everybody has similar experiences but we all want to say it our own way. I’m really, truly proud to be a part of that album and Zac is one of those artists that I really, truly do admire. It’s a cool thing.
You’re back in the studio working on some new music, right? How’s that going so far?
Oh man it’s going really well. I’m so excited about the music I’m working on right now. I’m feeling extremely creative, and with something like this – to have a single coming out – gives you a real boost of energy and confidence. It really helps songwriting wise and believing in what you’re doing. That’s what we’ve been doing; plowing along and writing songs for this record. We’re getting it finished up and I’ve been spending a lot of time here at the house which has been fantastic. I’m working on getting my studio together and writing and recording. I think this is going to pay big dividends on this next record.
You joined Steel Magnolia to fill in on Reba’s tour last year. What was it like working with Reba and how did that opportunity come around?
Oh man, working with Reba is an incredible thing. She’s one of country music’s true greats; a living legend. She’s one of the coolest, most down-to-earth people period. I’ve met a lot of folks out there, a lot of famous people, and I can honestly say not one of them was more down-to-earth than Reba is. She was kind to everybody on the tour. She was also incredible every night and performed amazingly every night. She’s a true professional.
The way it worked out was Josh, from Steel Magnolia, Megan’s partner and fiance at the time, went into rehab and they wanted to continue the tour. I wasn’t super busy and her manager and Scott Borchetta came and asked me if I would go out on the tour and sing a couple of my songs then a couple with Meg. I said that I’d love to and that she was a friend of mine. She has an amazing voice and is a great young talent. It was a great fit and a lot of fun. I spent almost eight weeks out on the road with them and had a blast.
You just got a new tattoo for your daughter. How is she doing?
You know, these last two years; she’s seventeen months now; I’ve spent a lot of time at home. That was by design and I wanted to have that time to bond, to be there with my daughter. I’m never going to regret having spent this time with her – to see her first steps. To get to spend some real time with her when she’s young, really impressionable, and growing. To help my wife when she needs it because it’s a hard time. It’s been real good to have spent these last years at home and be Dad and get that experience. I’ll never regret it.
Your fans are pretty excited that you’ll be heading out on a tour this summer. Are there still more dates coming?
Oh yeah. There’s going to be a lot more dates coming in. We’re still kind of putting a few things together. I’m not doing a whole lot this spring, I’m working on this record and writing songs. In fact, I have a writing session here in 30 minutes. You know, right now the most important thing to me is to get this record done and write songs, and get the right songs put together for the record. This summer get ready to roll and hit the road and go play some country music for the world.
And you’ve done a lot of shows in the past for troops overseas. Is it something you’d love to do again in the future?
Yeah, it’s a great experience to be able to give back to those men and women that sacrifice so much for us here. They are us. When you talk about the military they’re men and women just like all of us, except they’ve chosen to sacrifice on our behalf to go do the jobs that others won’t do. I think it’s an amazing thing and to be going and playing for them is a heartening feeling. My Dad was military, my Grandfather was military, and I joined the service when I was 19. I can definitely identify with what they’re going through and they’re always very thankful to enjoy what we do. I don’t think anybody enjoys it as much as I do to get to go over there and do these things. I definitely plan on doing as many USO tours and playing for those men and women as I can.
I saw on Twitter last week that you wrote a ballad with Trent Tomlinson.
I did! I wrote a new ballad with Trent the other day that I’m really excited about, I think it’s a really good song. It’s the first time that we ever sat down together to write. You never know if somebody’s writing style will suit how you write songs, but I was pleasantly surprised when we sat down to write a song within 15 minutes of him being in the house. We knocked one out in about an hour and a half, and it was really good and powerful. He’s a fantastic songwriter.
Is it for your album?
I don’t know yet if it will end up on my record or if it will go to somebody else, or his, or what. At this point it’s definitely in the stack of songs that I’m looking at for myself so we’ll have to see!
Do you have a guess when you’re album might be out at all or is it too early?
It’s too early to say. Hopefully in the next year or so.
You’ve been one of the most active artists on Stage It.
I think it’s an opportunity when I’m not out on the road for my fans to come and see what I’ve been doing. It’s also really cool for me because I do a lot of new songs on Stage It. I’ll do a lot of old songs too and fans can request whatever they want. What I like about Stage It is that they can ask you questions and you can interact and have a dialogue with your fans. Like I was saying, I play a lot of new songs on Stage It and I get to see how my fans like my songs and my writing. It helps me see which songs are shining and which ones don’t necessarily move the dial that much. It’s an invaluable tool for me to get to give my fans exactly what they want. That’s exactly what I want to do – to make music that I love that they love too. It’s a really great symbiotic relationship in that way with Stage It.
You do a lot of songwriting, but is there one song out right now that you wish you wrote?
There’s a lot of songs out there right now that I wish I had written. This last year I think my favorite song was “The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert. It was just an amazing, great song and Miranda did a great job of covering it. It was an amazing piece of work and I think that’s just one of those songs that everybody wish they had written and been a part of.
There’s songs every year that I wish I had my name on. Luckily, here and there, my name gets on something that gets heard by the public and I’m really proud of that.
This last one is from a fan on Twitter. You’re going to be an uncle again, and have you and Jay [DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts] been giving each other tips on raising your daughters?
No, I think we just exchange war stories. Diaper stories and surviving crying babies. We don’t really exchange that kind of stuff, but we definitely tell stories and joke about stuff like that.