In a farmhouse studio in Franklin, the four guys of Nashville rock group Hot Chelle Rae are listening to new mixes of their songs blasting from a soundboard out of NASA-grade speakers. If they have their way, these songs will soon be pouring out of car stereos, televisions and iPod earbuds across the country.
With their upcoming, major-label debut album, Hot Chelle Rae joins the succession of Nashville rock bands to take a swing at pop stardom — with arguably more emphasis on "pop" than anyone before them. The band signed with Jive Records — home to Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and numerous American Idol winners — last year, and recently wrapped up work on the album, produced in part by Eric Valentine (All-American Rejects, Good Charlotte) and artist/producer Butch Walker.
Hits aren't easy to create
The four-year journey to this point has been a behind-the-scenes blur of label showcases, A&R meetings, demos and — if frontman Ryan-Keith Follese is to be believed — dozens upon dozens of tunes that didn't make the cut. He says the band wrote more than
50 songs for the new album.
"I've been told from an early age that writing a good song is like your batting average," he says. "Barry Bonds gets up there and hits 70 home runs a year, but he doesn't hit a home run every time (he goes up). You've got to write 50, 60 songs if you want to have a record that has material on it. I have tremendous respect for people that can write 11 songs, and that's just their record. But that's not the way I think it works."
When Follese says he's been taught about songwriting "from an early age," you know he's not joking. He and brother/drummer Jamie are the sons of A-list Nashville songwriter Keith Follese, who's written for Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Martina McBride.
In fact all members of Hot Chelle Rae come from successful musical families: Guitarist Nash Overstreet is the son of National Songwriters Association Hall of Famer Paul Overstreet, and bassist Ian Keaggy's dad is Grammy-nominated Christian performer Phil Keaggy.
'I'd like to sell a million records'
That upbringing also may be why the members' eyes have been firmly fixed on major-label success rather than going the independent route. There's an amount of romanticizing with the classic rock 'n' roll dream that's factored into their decision — a dream that's been deflated for many as labels continue to struggle. Follese says he wants his band to be on the radio "before it's gone."
"In this particular day and age, I'd like to sell a million records," he says. "I know that's kind of a high goal, but ever since we got into music, I've always wanted to sell a million records, even back when it was a lot easier to do."
"The songs we write are definitely pop-rock songs," Overstreet says, "and I think where that fits best is in the mass market."
Indeed, even in the preliminary stages, Hot Chelle Rae's recordings are clearly built for Top 40 radio. "Say" is a relentless electronic-rock number, mixing the blistering disco beat of Metro Station's "Shake It" with the guitar crunch and belted vocals of Fall Out Boy. "Never Have I Ever" struts and stomps like a funkier version of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" before unleashing a monster sing-along chorus that could all too easily lodge itself into teenage brains.
Follese and Overstreet had a big test in pop appeal last week, when they worked with Taylor Swift and T-Pain in crafting "Thug Story" — a parody song featured in the opening segment of the CMT Awards. They've followed that surreal thrill with a trip to New York to play showcases for various ad agencies.
Aspiring for sudden, national success while trying to remain a respected local outfit can be a tricky balancing act — and one that can easily lead to backlashes and ire within the local rock scene. Follese says he's comfortable with that.
"As far as being concerned about coming out of left field, I hope we do," he says. "We just want to put out a good record that is worth buying. That's hard to find these days."