The upstairs bar of Rockit Bar & Grill is packed. There are three women for every man, and they all watch the stage set up by the windows with anticipation. A couple tells friends their first dance at their wedding was to one of the upcoming performer’s songs. Another knows every word to every song of his new CD, which was just released. As it nears 7 o’clock the crowd starts to get antsy, waiting for this up close and intimate show. They applaud and push closer as Billy Dec takes the stage to introduce him. “He’s cool, he’s down to earth, but the best thing about Josh Kelley is he loves Chicago!”
Yes, he does. One of the first things he said when he got to the microphone was “Chicago’s the SH*&!” Most performers compliment the city they’re performing in. It’s smart business practice. But for Josh Kelley it’s more than just lip service.
I talked with him for about four minutes before his show. I was fortunate to get even that amount of time. Besides his success as a musician, his recent marriage to actress Katherine Heigl has ensured his popularity with the press. Reporters and photographers milled around as he sat down with me and spoke with passion and excitement.
He has good reason to be excited. The first week out his new CD “Special Company” reached #2 overall on iTunes. He’s got appearances on Leno, Carson, Regis & Kelly, and Good Morning America. Most importantly, as far as he’s concerned, he’s doing it as an independent.
“Something’s obviously happening in the business and something’s obviously sort of jogging the system a bit, and I’d like to think it’s us,” he said. “I’d like to think that it’sJosh Kelley and Elliott Yamin and Ingrid Michaelson. I’d like to think it’s our little independent powerhouse crew.”
Even when he was a teenager Kelley wanted to call the shots. He turned down a record deal at 15. Although he later signed with Hollywood Records and they produced his first two albums, he left that security to go out independently. Now he has his own label, DNK Records. (Don’t ask what it stands for. Kelley doesn’t even know. “It’s like Do Not Knock, or whatever, we don’t even have a real name for it,” he said.).
I mentioned that most bands have the dream of getting signed by the big labels, and he was quick to point out that so does he. “I still want it,” he said, leaning forward and motioning with his hands, “but what I want is for it to be on my terms.” Ideally DNK will be picked up by a major label as a subsidiary, so he can use their funding to help grow with money other than his own. “I’d like for this label to be a big one; I want to let it grow into a huge label.”
When he talked about his dreams the energy emanated from him. “I’m ready man. I want to do that sh*&. I love playing for as many people as the world will let me play for.”
Kelley’s largest total audience so far was 30,000 while touring with Dave Matthews, but his largest as a headliner was here in Chicago when 8,000 fans came to see him. Last summer he played four outdooor concerts here, and he chose Chicago for his CD release party. He doesn’t know why this is his biggest market. “I’m not from here,” he said. As he leaned across the table to explain more fully, he was interrupted to be taken to another interview.
His reaction gave me an insight into why he appeals to a Midwestern audience. He very politely said “let me just tell her one thing, I’ll just tell her real fast.”
He turned back and told me he thinks the MIX (Radio Station 101.9 FM) has a lot to do with his success, but he also thinks it’s because “Chicago just loves music.”
“I wish that every city in America was like Chicago.”
He may not be from here, but with his drive, his independence, his passion for music and his love of this city, he may as well be.