First Published October 2017
CAPTURING EMOTIONS FROM THE HEAD DOWN TO THE HEART
The very first time I heard their song Love Is War (Billy Montana, Kylie Sackley, and Jonathan Singleton) I became a fan of AMERICAN YOUNG. All it took was those few minutes. In fact, as is always the case with the best songs, it really only took a few seconds. As beautiful songs go, this one is well within the realm of perfection for me. You just want to play it again, and again, and again.
Then I heard Be Here , actually written by American Young’s Kristy Osmunson and Jon Stone (together with Jennifer Denmark and Tiffany Goss), and it was the same feeling all over again. Just leave me in a room with those two songs on repeat and I’ll be happy for a long time.
I had a vague idea who American Young were for some time, because I knew that Kristy had previously been a member of Bomshel, as well as writing one of my favourite Joey & Rory songs, Cheater, Cheater. And I’d seen Jon’s name pop up every now and then as a songwriter on tracks like Me And My Gang from Rascal Flatts, Seven Days by Kenny Chesney, and Lee Brice’s A Woman Like You.
But let me tell you, finally getting my hands on American Young’s AY album proved that there was definitely far more to this duo than just two great songs. Try an album’s worth. If you listen to God Sends A Train, to Point Of View, or Eighteen (with Lee Brice), or Soldier’s Wife (Don’t Want You To Go), and come back to me with a report that’s anything less than along the lines of “Wow!”,”Stunning”, or “Man, that did my heart good!”, then we can’t be friends! I already know AY will be a go-to album for me for all kinds of good days and bad days for a long time to come.
And after finally having the chance to catch up with Kristy for a chat, I also know that I can’t wait for the next American Young album, and the one after that, too. In other words, the songs on AY had already made me a fan of American Young, but Kristy’s passion, energy, and sense of fun, made me a fan for life. Charisma, I think some would call it. And others would say it’s a good soul that has that kind of effect. All I know is that Kristy most certainly has the former, and in my opinion, is certainly the latter, too.
The first question I had was something that I’d been wondering about for a while: where did the name American Young actually come from?
“So, it’s kind of funny actually, cos’ I was born in Canada, but I grew up in Idaho, and Jon came from Eugene, Oregon, so we like being in the woods a lot and exploring our country, ya know, being out camping, and hiking, and horseback riding. When we first started writing we were basically just talking about where we’d come from, that was how we started the conversation, about being from the Pacific North-West, because the parks out there are so beautiful. Anyways, I think it was on our first or second co-write, I was just playing some music, a song I’d written with a friend from Australia actually, and it was called ‘Young In America.’ It was an observational song about how fun our summers are, travelling around the U.S. And Jon goes, ‘Hey, American Young, that would be a dope name for a band!’ I was sitting there with my laptop in my lap so I Googled americanyoung.com and it was available! And I was like, ‘Wait! We need a band named American Young, that’s like the greatest band name I’ve ever heard!’ [Laughs] So yeah, that’s basically how it came about [laughs].”
Kristy and Jon are passionate in the extreme about what they do, and who they are as performers, musicians, and songwriters. In fact, they’ve often referred to American Young and their fans as being more akin to a movement than anything else. So, I asked Kristy, if we were to actually think of American Young as a movement, how would she describe what it stands for and represents?
“I think, the younger generation today, we communicate faster. We have social media, it’s a digital age. Jon and I really, when we’re not playing music, we’re just talking about the greatest things on the planet that mankind is doing, ya know. Like Tesla, right! And going to Mars, and the Invictus Games in Toronto yesterday [the day before we spoke]. Those kind of things that are happening on a global level. But also, we just talk about great ideas, like cool new hospitals that our friends are building, with amazing new treatments that are available. So I think, yeah, that’s the movement, just focusing on what’s good.”
From everything I’d seen and read about Kristy and Jon, there seems to be a very special, and real, connection between them. It feels like something exists in American Young that neither had experienced in their careers before, although both had been very successful, nonetheless. What character traits did Kristy think she and Jon possessed as individual artists that made them click together so well as a duo?
“Well, I’m usually living in a land of melody and love, ya know, everybody loves each other and everything is good [laughs]. But I really believe in the goodness of people, and the beauty that’s in the music that surrounds us all the time and is constantly flowing. And Jon is a natural editor, he’s a very critical thinker. So I’ll be saying a million ideas and he’s there narrowing it all down, focusing content, which for me is good. Because I write all day long, like, every day [laughs], ya know. He kinda thinks totally opposite to how I do. He’s very critical, and very logical, so that’s good.”
When it comes to her songwriting, does Kristy have a routine that she tends to follow? Or is she more likely to be led by the moment?
“When I wake up – and this is the only part of my work-out, right, it’s meditation – I really try to spend some time in quiet for a while. Some people call it meditation, some people call it prayer. But I think it’s a good idea to get open to the spirit every day. But then, you know, it’s like melodies are everywhere! O.k, like this weekend…I was working with something called Operation Song, and basically what we do is we write with soldiers who have come back from service. They write about their experience, and we put it to music. And this was the first time we’d done it with a soldier’s child, the kids of people who have died while serving their country. So I had four kids to write with, and what we do is just tell their story. One girl, she could remember her dad, everything about how he was up until she was seven, and we put that in a song, and her and her sister sang it. Another girl, she wrote a letter to her dad, about what she wanted to say to him now, and we put that in a song. And to watch that transformation happen with these young girls, it’s so powerful and empowering to have someone tell their stories to music, and find the healing that comes in that. And getting the emotions that come from the head down to the heart, ya know? And that’s what music does.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to have ever caught Kristy and Jon performing ‘live’, then you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say Kristy, in particular, has a sense of energy on stage that seems never-ending! If you’ve never seen American Young ‘live’, in person, just check out some of their ‘live’ videos. That same sense of energy will explode out of the screen towards you at times. But I wondered what was the difference between the sense of satisfaction Kristy gets from performing, and as a songwriter, the sense of satisfaction that comes from writing?
“The songwriting is a very selfish point for me, unless I’m telling someone else’s story, because it’s usually very personal and I’m talking about myself. So it’s….yeah, very selfish [laughs]. But I feel this massive catharsis having put some sort of nonsensical feeling and emotion into some sort of sense [laughs]. And then the performance aspect, well that’s where it [the songwriting] lives. So I was telling one of my kids yesterday, as he was listening to his friend play a song, I said ‘This is like that old idea of if a tree falls in a forest, but there’s no-one there to hear it fall, does the tree really fall?’, and he was just like, ‘Whhaaaat?!?!’ [laughs] But that’s the thing; if a song is sung and there’s nobody there to hear it, there’s no gift, because there’s no-one there to receive the gift. So that’s a constant communication interchange and exchange at concerts, when the performance is happening. There’s the speaker and there’s the listener, and you can’t really have one without the other. I think they’re inextricably linked. I also think, that from when you make it ‘live’ in a performance, when it comes alive, it has a moment to speak to other people who will have gone through their own experiences. For us, and this is how I’ve always been, if we’re having a show, a performance, then after we’re done I sit and talk to everybody! And people tell me their stories. And it’s really an incredible moment of community to have happen.”
I love American Young’s song, God Sends A Train, both because the lyric is so astonishingly raw and on-point, and because the song is a representation of such a key part of Kristy’s own life. The first time I heard the chorus, I literally felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I’m sure Kristy’s been asked countless times if God Sends A Train is a tough song to sing, given how deeply personal it is. But what intrigued me was the thought of how tough it possibly was to write, travelling through all of those memories, bringing those emotions back to the surface in the present, and at the same time, trying to keep in mind the craft of writing a song….
“Well, you know that’s why God sends us angels! Bob Regan, he was our N.S.A.I. (Nashville Songwriters’ Association International) President for years, and he has been such an unbelievable resource, and co-writer, for this community that is Nashville songwriters. I wrote ‘Fight Like A Girl’ with him, I wrote my whole first Bomshel record with him, almost all of it with him. I’ve written so many songs with him, probably a hundred! I was in my thirties, I think, when that day finally came [to write the song]. I mean, I’d known I needed to write it, but I had no idea how to put it into music. We had written together for maybe ten years, Bob and I, when this day came and I said, ‘Bob, have I ever told you this is kinda my life story?’, cos’ I was always walking in in the drama of the moment usually! [laughs]. This day, I think I was finally ready to go back there, and I must have spent an hour, at least, telling him this story. Maybe two! [laughs]. It was from the time my parents had gotten divorced, to having that juxtaposition of having a step-parent come into your life, it interrupts the flow of childhood, ya know. The adolescent part of me was very offended [laughs], but at the same time, the child part of me was very afraid. So I was sitting there going through all of these emotions telling Bob this story. And then as well, I had gotten to a point where I hadn’t spoken to my mom in a long time and I just kind of froze a bit on that emotional level, I think. So, we wrote this song, ‘God Sends A Train’, and I literally thought it was my ‘burn-letter.’ I felt like, o.k, I’ve written down the lyrics, now I’m gonna have a good cry about it, there ya go. It’s just another story in my life. But I played it for my mom and it was hands-down the most healing thing that’s ever happened. And she, in her amazing wisdom, was just so accepting. She was like, ‘You know what, it’s your story. It’s your childhood story, your adolescent story.’ And that’s the way that it felt. It was scary, but it was also o.k for it to be that. And since I’ve been playing it, so many people have told me the ‘train-moments’ from their life, whatever those might have been. Something that makes you stand up and go, ‘Oh my goodness, life is precious, and it’s a gift every day.’ [It makes you ask yourself] am I one-hundred per-cent honest in my relationships? Am I responsible in my relationships? And for myself? And am I having fun, ya know? [laughs]. We’ve got to stop and ask these questions and make sure we’re present and conscious in the moment, it’s so important.”
I saw a brilliant quote from Kristy where she remarked that, “Playing music has given me rocking-chair stories that no money could ever buy.” Looking back on those experiences today, are there any particular pieces of advice or wisdom that Kristy’s picked up along the way which she feels would be important to share with others in the business, not just as performers, but as songwriters, too?
“Ammm….well, I guess you’re not supposed to say ammm, that’s probably number one! [laughs]. Be honest. I mean, there are no secrets [to success]. The world is a small town, so I think it’s the most important thing, and it never hurts, to just be honest. I mean, sometimes it does hurt! [laughs]. But at the end of the day, love wins, so honesty is always the best thing. And write every day. Every. Day. Even if it’s just getting a pen or a pencil – or your phone or whatever – but writing it down by hand, I find, is a bit more cathartic, but write every day. That’s just so important. And write fearlessly every day, that’s a good idea. And always assume, at least for me this is what I have to do when I walk into a co-write, I have to establish and assume safety and trust. Because we’re getting ready to bare the most vulnerable parts of our souls to each other. So, in that moment there has to be an agreed upon trust, a confidentiality. Cos’ in a co-write, man, it’s like an exorcism! You go through the whole thing! [laughs].”
Kristy said once that she saw American Young as taking “….country music into the future.” I asked her if she could expand a little on what she meant when she said that?
“We [country music right now] are commercial country, I mean, we’re capitalists, right. Everything that I’ve seen since I moved to Nashville, on so many levels, has to do with the commercial side of things. Which is awesome, because you see this pop/rock country explosion! And we’ve sold so much Bud Lite! [laughs] We’ve sold soooo much beer! [tongue firmly in cheek here, I feel!] But I hail back to the days of the nineties country, and prior, and Blake Shelton and Miranda stayed doing it, they were telling honest stories. And to me, I just really cling to the honesty, and the truth, and the storytelling. That’s really the heritage and the landmark legacy of country music. And I think that’s where country music needs to go again, that’s kind of what I was getting at. Cos’ we tell, and we sell, the truth, ya know. Did that answer any of your question? I’m sorry [laughs].”
Speaking of the country music industry as a whole, if it was all under Kristy’s control, and if the power was in her hands to make a change that she feels would be a positive one for artists and songwriters, effective immediately….what would that change be? (By the way, this is clearly something Kristy feels strongly about, and rightly so – and I agree with her one hundred per-cent – because once she knew what direction the question was going in, she began her answer before I’d even finished the question! Passion. It’s irreplaceable!)
“Play more women. I would play more women. Most of our [country music] audience is women. And right now in the Top Twenty in the charts there’s like only two girls, I think. And I think that’s alienating a huge, huge part of our audience. At our shows, or country festivals, I see like seventy per-cent women out there. And then the guys are there for the girls! I got dropped one time from a record label, and they said country radio is gonna spend ten years not playing women! And I said that’s just craziness, it doesn’t even make sense. And he said to me, but women don’t buy women! And I was like, that’s not real!! Just look at my iPod! And I am, indeed, a woman! [laughs]. And I buy women. So yeah, if I had my say, that would be it. I believe in equal opportunity and representation. And I’m also going to add one more thing I think we need to do: expand our cultural representation! I mean, Charlie Pride is not the only black country music singer out there! There’s so many! And there’s many Hispanics, too. It’s [country music] a global conversation. And Nashville is a global tourist location, so I think well, why can’t we represent different countries, and languages, and races, and religions, and sexes? To me, that’s what I would do.”
My first chat with Kristy will definitely live in the memory, and for all the right reasons. If I wasn’t already a fan beforehand, I definitely would have been by the end of our conversation. From first question to last, Kristy’s company was a pleasure, and I look forward to when we get to do it again sometime. So, to finish, a nice, easy, question…like, what might Kristy’s all-time favourite country song be???
A few moments of silence followed, as Kristy contemplated her response….
“‘The Dance’, by Garth Brooks. Because I get emotional even when I just think about it, ya know? I think the first time it really hit me was when I was at my cousin’s graduation in Denver, Colorado, and they played it. And I remember just crying, and watching everybody else crying, because they were all embarking on this transition in life. And life, and the song, is all about the risks that we take.”