Graciously recognizing and embracing your unique talents, as well as your ability to relatably connect those abilities with the people who admire those efforts, is a powerful and gratifying experience. But the process of truly understanding and associating with people with similar interests, and incorporating those ideals in enthralling professional and personal endeavors, can often be an even more noteworthy one. Singer-songwriter Jacob Underwood, who first gained attention in 2000 when he appeared on the popular ABC reality show, ‘Making the Band,’ and was later chosen to be a part of the series’ boy band, O-Town, has always infused the group’s songs with his own eclectic musical tastes. After the band later separated in 2003, following the release of its second record, ‘O2,’ its members took a decade-long hiatus to focus on their own musical and other business and personal endeavors.
But Underwood and three of O-Town’s other members, including Dan Miller, Erik-Michael Estrada and Trevor Penick, decided to reunite in 2013, as other popular boy bands from the 1990s and early 2000s also decided to regroup. Last year O-Town released its third album, ‘Lines & Circles,’ as well as such singles as ‘Skydive’ and ‘Chasin’ After You,’ which are now available on the band’s iTunes page, and also went back on tour together. The four musicians proved that while they embraced their solo aspirations, they still cherish their collaborations together, as well as what their music still means to their fans.
Underwood generously took the time recently to talk about reuniting with Miller, Estrada and Penick, after their 10 year hiatus from O-Town, to record ‘Lines & Circles.’ Among other things, the singer-songwriter discussed how they decided to record their third studio album together, after they collaborated on its first single, ‘Skydive,’ and realized how natural it was for them to write and sing together again; how recording their latest album independently, and outside of a major label, afforded them such creative freedom as deciding what kind of songs they could write, which tracks they would include on the record and what kind of venues they would play in, so that they could truly connect with their fans; and how the band hopes to continue touring across the U.S. and the world throughout 2015, and how he plans on continuing his solo music in between his commitments to the band.
ShockYa (SY): Why did you decide to reunite after 10 years to work on your new album, ‘Lines & Circles?’ What was the process like of coming back together after you released your second album, ‘O2,’ a decade ago?
Jacob Underwood (JU): This time, the process was unique, because it worked out for everyone’s schedule. When other boy bands started reuniting about four or five years ago, we were getting calls, but nothing seemed right for us at the time. We were all in different places; I was living in Nashville, and Dan was starting a family. So at that point, it just didn’t work out.
But this last time, when an offer came in, we decided to do another single and go out on tour for fun, and that was it. We found a great deal through our agent, and they wanted to release the single. do yhat’s when we recorded ‘Skydive.’ That process offered us the opportunity to record another album, so we went straight into the studio. So it was just a quick process this time. (laughs)
But I think that’s why we’re comfortable doing it-we didn’t have to force it, and the team came together naturally, and everyone was hands on. So we have a complete ownership over it, and it’s the most fun we’ve ever had. The past year we’ve been building this, which has helped us on the road.
SY: How did your time apart, and your overall life experiences since you first worked together in the early 2000s, influence the way you write and record your new songs?
JU: I think that was the biggest part of our reunion. But obviously the first four years we spent together helped us build our camaraderie and love for each other. Also, the experience of working under Clive Davis, as well as with ABC on our TV show, helped our connection and working relationships.
But over the past 10 years, everyone split up and had separate lives. That experience, in a musical sense, helped us feel as though we were collaborating as solo artists, because we are so different. So it was fun to come back together, and show what we have learned separately.
Since I was in Nashville, I was performing more Southern Blues and Rock, as well as editing and producing. So I was able to edit and produce ‘Skydive’ at my house. I did all the vocals for ‘Chasin’ After You’ in my bedroom, and engineered it for myself. These are things we couldn’t have done the first time, when we were just doing pop music. So reuniting with these guys, and writing songs that spoke for all of us, was a lot of fun and refreshing. When we were doing pop, I was longing to do something else, but now I couldn’t be happier than doing pop again.
SY: Speaking of ‘Skydive’ and ‘Chasin’ After You,’ what was the overall collaboration process like while you were writing and recording them, as well as all of the songs on ‘Lines & Circles?’
JU: Each song was different. With ‘Skydive,’ we were trying to find a single that would speak for all of us, and show what we all sound like, 10 years later. When we recorded that song, we weren’t planning on recording the album. We did the production on that one with a buddy of mine in San Diego. I then went in and produced it, and everyone came on.
Then after that, everything was different. Erik wrote ‘Lines & Circles’ with one of his friends, and we wrote ‘Right Kind Of Wrong’ together. I also wrote ‘Chasin’ After You’ with the same buddy, who produced half the album.
SY: How did recording ‘Lines & Circles’ independently compare and contrast to making your first two albums with Clive Davis’ label, J Records? Did recording it independently allow you more creative freedom in your songs?
JU: We had 100 percent creative freedom on this album. We were the ones who decided which songs we wanted sing that we didn’t write for the album. ‘Buried Alive’ is one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever done, and we’ve never done an acoustic track before. When we came across it, we thought it could be our song. It’s a great song, and I’m glad we got it. I’m happy we got to choose the rest of the songs.
One of the things that made it easy was that we decided to split all of our royalties evenly. So it didn’t matter who wrote the songs; we were able to pick the best songs for the project, and leave egos out of the process. That’s how we were able to record the album in three months. We were really just looking for the best songs for he album.
SY: With your diverse experiences in the music industry over the past decade-and-a-half, as well as your personal musical preferences, are there particular genres of music, or other musicians, that you’re interested in experimenting with in the future?
JU: Definitely-I really respect the way Bruno Mars put his album together. He didn’t pick just one genre for the entire album; he picked a doo-wop and reggae sound, and also included a club song and ballad. I like that he included a little bit of everything, but it’s still pop music. There are a lot of great songs with catchy harmonies and great production value. He was able to break the album down to include just the piano on certain tracks, while also featuring acoustic ballads. We also like to switch things up.
SY: What was the experience of touring together again last summer and fall, and reconnecting with fans during your performances? Does the fact that your fans are maturing with you influence the way you write your new songs?
JU: It felt like a dream, to be honest. We started the tour in the U.K. and Germany. When we arrived at the airport, we had a group of fans who were waiting for us, who also waited during our last tours, 12-15 years ago. They were showing us pictures from those earlier tours, when they were about 13-years-old, and now they’re grown up, so they wanted to redo the pictures. They also showed up at the venues and were singing all the old songs, just like they did before.
None of us thought we’d ever do that again. Even at the eight-year mark during our hiatus, when we were getting offers to reunite, but nothing worked out, so I started to lose faith. So it’s great to be up there on stage, singing ‘All Or Nothing’ again, and hearing that same reaction, after it was a single 14 years ago.
Now we feel like a real band. Back in the day, we had an entourage of 20 people, and we’d go straight to the dressing rooms, and everything was set up. Now we’re lining up our schedules, controlling the merchandise and setting up our gear during the soundcheck. Even on a much smaller level, it’s much more rewarding. The first time, there was so much going on around us that we weren’t directly involved in, so we didn’t know what it took to put it all in production.
SY: What does it mean to you that audiences who were fans of your music when the band’s first two albums were released over a decade ago are still embracing your music, and attending your concerts now?
JU: I keep thinking I’m going to wake up from this dream, to be honest. (laughs) With everything we’ve seen and experienced in this industry, I think success for us now, and I can only speak for myself on this, is making a living making music. We didn’t realize the kinds of fans, support and love we still have, or otherwise we would have kept doing it. It’s so much fun to go out there and sing songs that people love, and that make them happy.
We go out now and party with fans now. (laughs) We don’t get much sleep on the road, because we’re enjoying it so much. At all of the venues, we close down the bars, because all of our fans are now old enough to drink. So we all share stories after the shows. So this feels like a dream, as we never thought this was going to happen again with each other.
SY: You formed O-Town on ‘Making the Band,’ which ran for three seasons between 2000 and 2002. How did your experiences on the show influence your music and careers, both when it originally aired and now?
JU: Everything is different now, as we didn’t know what we were doing then. When we go back and watch the show, we see how much we were fighting for control over our music. We were passionate about where we wanted our music and careers to go. But looking back on it, you realize it’s a juvenile passion, as we didn’t have any experience.
You’d be crazy if you honestly think that someone like Clive Davis would hand over all this money and just say to go make a record; of course he’s going to control it. Looking back on that process, I’m thankful that he didn’t let us control it, because we had our success after he found those songs for us. We learned from that experience, and can realize that we now make music for a living.
I think it’s the greatest job in the world. In each city we visit, we’re grateful that we get to do another concert. We’re no longer caught up in everything else, like sales and what people are saying. We’re having fun, and paying our bills this way.
SY: As you were growing up, before you appeared on the show and formed O-Town, did you always have aspirations to pursue music as a living? What convinced you to audition for the band?
JU: Well, I always aspired to be a musician. I can’t speak for everyone else in the band, but some of them fell into the industry like I did. I was submitting EPs with a band, and they sent in my audition tape to the show. My mom got a call back, and we didn’t really know what it was.
So I just went to the audition, because I got a day off of work. (laughs) I brought an EP that I had just recorded, and was trying to get into someone’s hand. I got up there, and they asked for my name, and I got up to the front of the line. So the show was an accident for me.
I didn’t have any intentions of being on TV. I didn’t know what ‘The Real World’ was, because we didn’t have MTV in my house. So they were trying to explain it to me, and I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So I asked them if the audition was for a record deal for a band, and they said yes. That was all I was interested in.
So the show made it more interesting, because we didn’t know what TV would do for us. I think people walk into reality television as the character they’re cast as, or they act extravagant, just so that they can be a character. But we were chasing a real dream in music, and the show was capturing it. We didn’t care if the cameras were there or not; most of the time, we actually wished they wold go away, so that we could instead focus on our music. So to make a long story short, I did always want to be a musician. (laughs)
SY: Since the show’s over now, and the band’s primarily focusing on promoting the new record and singles without the cameras, how has the marketing aspect for the group and your music changes since O-Town was first created?
JU: Well, when we were on the show, we were hired artists for Clive Davis. But when we decided to reunite, we didn’t have a major deal, and no one had asked us to get back together as a band. We decided to get back together. With our music experience, and Dan going back to school to get his graphic design degree, we had a better overall knowledge of the business. He creates all of the artwork for our merchandise, the album and our website. I was eight months away from getting my MBA business degree, so I took on the management side.
So now we don’t need to do anything at the level that we did then, like sell 10,000 tickets, and take 20 people as part of our entourage on the road. We cut it down to a lean operation, and now we’re more accessible, which the fans love. The venues that we pick now make sense, and we’re trying to be smart about the entire process. We’re not trying to live like celebrities; we’re just trying to make a living in music.
SY: During the decade-long hiatus that O-Town took between ‘O2’ and ‘Lines & Circles,’ did you and the other members stay involved in music?
JU: Yes, I was still involved in music, and working in Nashville. I had an album with another band, which had a fusion of pop, hip-hop and country. This was in 2007, so everyone said I had to bring that music out to Nashville. So I went out there with the intention of spending a year there, and I ended up staying for five years, as I ended up loving it.
But every label told me that my kind of music on that album wouldn’t make it there, because country music doesn’t have hip-hop beats. I say that sarcastically, because a lot of country songs now have those beats. (laughs) But in 2007, no one wanted to hear it.
So I was focusing on that project, as well as solo songs, as I really wanted to stay in the business. I thought, now I know how to really do this, not just on the music side, but also on the business side, where I could pull people together and make a living doing this. So I definitely stayed in music.
SY: What are some of your future musical plans now that you have reunited and recently finished the tour?
JU: Now that we’ve done the recent tour, and saw how awesome our fans still are, we’re definitely going to stay on the road. Dan has a family, so we schedule our shows for about two weeks at a time, in different regions. So we’ll spend the majority of 2015 scattered around the U.S., and hopefully get back overseas again. The label has been impressed with our work ethic on what we’ve been doing, and is already starting to talk about our next record. So it’s definitely a possibility that we’ll continue.
SY: Have your new experiences and reunion with your bandmates influenced the way you approach writing music?
JU: Well, I haven’t yet taken the reunion that much into consideration as I work on my writing, but I do have five songs going at all time. Some of the songs are more autobiographical, so they wouldn’t land on an O-Town album. But every time something important happens, I would hold that experience close, and set it aside for another song. We’re continuously writing, because we love that process. But not every song we write would make a good O-Town song.
SY: What types of music and plans are you interested in pursuing in the future, both as part of O-Town, and as a solo artist?
JU: Well, we have limited time with O-Town, because Dan has a family now. But I don’t have a family yet, so I focus on the music full-time. So during the breaks O-Town is taking, I’ll be continuing to work on my solo music. After O-Town goes through, and decides, which of the songs we want to release, I’ll choose the music I want to record as a solo artist. I’ll also being staying on the road a lot more, because this is what I love to do.
Written by: Karen Benardello