After many adventures in the music industry, Southern singer-songwriter Jeremy Lister is back with The Bed You Made. His most personal album yet, it features guest vocals from bluegrass great Alison Krauss. We talked to the independent artist about moving to Nashville, being briefly signed to Warner Bros., competing on the a capella tournament show The Sing-Off, and the “meat and potatoes” of songwriting. “Sometimes my heart comes straight out of the pen,” says Lister, “and sometimes I have to fight for it.”
Take us through the arc of your career so far.
I moved to Nashville eight years ago from Jackson, Mississippi. Originally I was going to move to NYC. I had quite the common misconception that Nashville was strictly a country music town. I was offered a job tending bar at Amerigo Italian Restaurant and decided to make the move. The plan was to be here for six months to a year, but I fell in love with Nashville and dropped my anchor. From 2003-05 I released two independent EPs (Shooting Star and So Far). They were produced by the brilliant Neilson Hubbard.
In 2006 I signed a record deal with Warner Brothers Records LA. They told me they loved my voice, but I didn’t have the right songs for an album yet. So, I wrote over 200 new songs the first year I was signed. They released a four-song digital EP in late 2007 called Just One Day . I was hoping this was the prelude to a full-length album, but that wasn’t the case, so I went back to writing my ass off.
By the beginning of 2009, I was burned out on writing and dying to get into the studio. I’d been recording great demos with my friends Justin Loucks and Ian Fitchuk for years, and after fighting tooth and nail, WB gave us a small budget to record my first full-length album. We finished it the following Fall, and all of the feedback from WB was really positive. They flew me and a band to LA to play for the higher-ups and the president of the company. Once again, we had an equally positive response to the way the music from the album was conveyed live. I came back home optimistic that I was finally going to be able to release an LP. I’d been patient for far too long.
I called my A&R guy daily asking what the next step was and when the album was going to be released. Months went by and I never got a definitive answer. I was exhausted playing the waiting game, so I asked them if I could get out of my contract and have my album back. Quite surprisingly, they agreed. I was shocked and very thankful. Shortly after that, we tried out for The Sing-Off. The show ended up being a huge success and gave everyone involved a ton of exposure. It was a great launching pad for me to release the album. Though it took years of waiting for the release of The Bed You Made, the timing couldn’t have been any better.
What was being on The Sing-Off like?
The whole experience was unexpected and invigorating. Not having much experience in the a cappella community, I really had no idea what I was getting into. My friend Jon McLemore called me and my brother Richie up last summer asking if we wanted to try out for this reality TV show called The Sing-Off. I went into the auditions not thinking much of it and not thinking we would make it, but much to our surprise, they called us a few weeks later saying the producers loved us. When we got there I was expecting this cut throat competition, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Every night after rehearsals and filming all of the groups would hang out together at the hotel. Richie and I actually converted our room into a cocktail lounge. Room 333 was a big hit and was dubbed ‘Halfway To Hell’. Everyone got along so well, and we hated seeing any of the other groups voted off. In the end it was like going to summer camp with a bunch of fellow music nerds. I had the time of my life.
What’s the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
The last song I wrote was called “Lovely Bubbly”. I wrote it with Justin Loucks. It has this Leon Redbone feel to it. It’s a ton of fun! It’s pretty much about someone who can’t work up the courage to dance unless they have their ‘lovely bubbly’. I want my next album to be the antithesis of The Bed You Made . It’ll likely be a really fun pop album.
What moves you to write a song?
Everything… Heartbreak, headaches, Heart (the band)… ha! Noises inspire me. Anything from the beeping in a car when you don’t have your seatbelt on to the doppler effect from an ice cream truck going by. Melody comes to me very naturally, so that’s normally what I start with. After that I generally go with a stream-of-consciousness method for writing lyrics. I let my subconscious start it off. Sometimes my heart comes straight out of the pen, and sometimes I have to fight for it.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
I would have to say the title track “The Bed You Made”. It really sums up the album. It’s the story of my life over the past few years, from struggling through a longwinded record deal to going through a divorce. It’s ultimately me looking inward at my own demons and not blaming other people for my problems.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
From “Sinking Stone”:
don’t sit on the fence
living past tense
holding on to wishes and and words
folding out a picture we blur
‘cause here in the end
I’m losing a friend
fighting back a tear when it burns
dividing up the pieces that we were
Do you find yourself revising a lot when you write, or do you like to write automatically?
I prefer to get the meat and potatoes of a song done in one sitting. Sometimes I’ll come back to it and realize it may need a few changes.
If you had to pick one song of yours to be remembered by after you were gone, what would it be, and why?
Once again I’ll have to say “The Bed You Made”. As personal as it is to me, I think it’s extremely relatable to others as well. Most everyone deals with regret and most everyone has to face the consequences of own their decisions. At that time in my life I was filled with more pain than I knew what to do with. The moment I started writing the song was one of the most emotional releases I’ve ever had.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
I could name off hundreds of Nashville writers alone that absolutely blow my mind. Daniel Tashian of The Silver Seas is on the top of that list. I adore everything I hear from him and The Silver Seas.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. I’m sure you get that one a bunch, but damn it, I love that tune!