Teen idol Jesse McCartney grows up
If you haven’t heard Jesse McCartney since he was the idol of the Radio Disney demographic a few years ago, you’re in for a bit of a shock.
The pop singer has grown up, in life and in his music.
During a recent telephone interview, McCartney was on his tour bus “somewhere between Pittsburgh and Buffalo” (he's currently touring with sixth-season “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks).
“It’s been great, man. Jordin and I have been having a really good time, and the shows have been going really well — the fans are really hyped up. It’s just been a lot of fun,” McCartney said.
Lately they’ve been jamming to the retro sound of Cameo.
“Crazy-funky — like funk — I have the whole band just getting down in the front lounge,” he said before launching into a chorus and horn riff: “Talkin’ out the side of your neck, da-na-na na-naaa daaa, da-na-na na-na.”
With “Departure,” McCartney’s third album, released earlier this year, he said he was looking for a new direction.
“Musically, it is a bit of a departure from the previous albums. This record in particular was about two years in the making, and at the very beginning of the process, my biggest hurdle was establishing a new sound, which was my goal,” McCartney said.
“I felt like, after the second album, I had been traveling so much and moving around that I sort of lost touch with what I grew up listening to as a kid — like what sort of music really influenced me to start singing. And that was soul music; that was R&B music. I grew up with my parents’ 45 collection, lost in everything Elvis, everything Aretha (Franklin), everything James Brown.”
After his previous albums, “Beautiful Soul” (2004) and “Right Where You Want Me” (2006), McCartney wanted to make an album that reflected the listening habits of his youth. That, he says, is why he turned to producers and songwriters like J.R. Rotem and Sean Garrett, as well as Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Terius “The-Dream” Nash, two of the men behind Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella.”
The new sound didn’t begin to crystallize until he recorded his first cut, “My Baby.”
“It has these big — like big — synth sounds that were prevalent in the ’80s,” McCartney said. When he heard the finished song, which he co-wrote with Rotem, he knew he had found the sound that would define the album.
“That was the biggest reason for the ‘Departure,’ if you will. That’s why it all happened,” McCartney said.
Recording on the Walt Disney Co.-owned Hollywood Records, McCartney surprised a lot of people with “Leavin’,” the first video from his album. He is seen sitting in a chair across from a young woman wearing only a T-shirt and panties. Before long, they’re on a bed together; the video closes with a brief shot of the couple making out in a car.
“The reaction was exactly what I expected, which was complete shock,” McCartney said. “I think at first, people didn’t know what to do with it. There is a lot of shock value there, and again, visually I wanted to present something with this album that was cohesive to the song and to the record without taking away from the song. That was a very clean, modern look — it’s definitely a bit sexier, a bit more sensual.”
He said that fans initially were “a little thrown,” but they eventually got on board.
“A lot of these fans have grown up with me over the last few years, so I think they’re ready for this,” McCartney said.
Some reviewers have likened the sound of “Departure” to that of Justin Timberlake, but McCartney has someone else’s career in mind when he thinks about where he’d like to go from here.
“Somebody like Will Smith inspires me. Even as a kid, that was one of the first records I bought: ‘Big Willie Style.’” McCartney was not yet a year old when Smith, then performing as the Fresh Prince, hit it big with “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” in 1988.
“He sat in front of me at the Teen Choice Awards three weeks ago — a few rows in front of me — and I was still kind of freaked out,” McCartney said. “It was pretty cool seeing him and just watching him now as the biggest movie star in the world. I feel like I watched him grow as an artist and someone who has made amazing business decisions and artistic decisions.”
On that note, McCartney said he “absolutely” wants to get back to acting. He got his start in show business as an actor in stage productions and had a recurring role on the soap opera “All My Children” from 1998-2001.
“I grew up on and off Broadway when I was a kid. I never really had any formal acting training, but I learned in the theater. And I do miss it,” McCartney said.
There are no movie plans in the works now, other than the sequel to 2007’s live-action/animation “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” for which McCartney said he agreed to reprise his voicing of Theodore.
Wherever his career takes him, McCartney said, he wants to continue to evolve as an artist.
“You’re always going to get the pessimists and you’re always going to get the people who are iffy or have their doubts, but I mean, even I do — we all do,” McCartney said.
“You just have to learn and grow — those are the two important things, and getting older now I see that. And I just have to go for it. I love what I do, and as I get older, we all mature as artists and as people, and I think that will come across in the art, and I think the fans are now starting to recognize that.”
Brian Mackey can be reached email@example.com.