When he started working on his third studio album, Real Friends, Chris Janson was riding a wave of success. “Drunk Girl,” his 2017 meditation on sexual consent and respect, earned him critical acclaim and a spot at the forefront of the group of artists shaping the future of the country genre. He’d recently become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Now, the singer found himself in a little bit of a success paradox: To make the kind of album he wanted to make, he simultaneously needed to care more and care less than he ever had before.
“Rolling Stone called me the most open-minded redneck on the block,” the singer spits in the fiery first verse of album track, “Say About Me,” a come-up anthem packed with Mountain Dew-fueled bravado. The song is a bold claim — and not just because of lyrics like “I’ve got the hottest woman that this world has ever seen.” It leans comfortably back on Janson’s hard-rocking country roots, but its rags-to-riches narrative and rap-singing style have common DNA with hip hop, so much so that it wasn’t jarring when he released a digital remix of the song with rapper Offset.
Janson says he’d love to perform that duet version live someday. “I think it would make a great television performance. Probably shock a lot of people, open a lot of eyes. But it was a lot of fun,” he tells Country Now. “When I sent the song to him, the first question I got back — and I thought this was totally respectful, by the way — was, ‘Any direction?’ And I was like, ‘Nope. Really, wherever you wanna lead it.’”
Janson didn’t do the collaboration in order to chase out-of-genre recognition. If anything, Real Friends finds him more deeply ensconced in his country roots than ever before. The title track is a collaboration with genre stalwart Blake Shelton, and Janson proudly name-checks his recent Opry induction in the lyrics of “Say About Me.” He says the duet makes sense because the song tells a story that’s true for both himself and for Offset — and that, ultimately, is the countriest reason there is.
“It’s a dream big, win big song. I wrote that about starting with nothing and building it into something..and Offset comes from that, too. It wasn’t just sticking two random dudes on a track together. It made good sense, you know?” he adds.
The momentum that led Janson into Real Friends gave him the confidence to approach the project on his own terms. He made the record at his house. He co-produced it. He wrote its tracks with real-life friends, including his wife and manager, Kelly. The project is full of booming redneck swagger, and it’s also full of tender moments of devotion to his wife and children.
Enter “Done,” Real Friends’ follow-up single to the chart-topping “Good Vibes,” and Janson’s favorite song he’s ever written. A straight-ahead, simple mid-tempo ballad, the song tells Janson’s true story of seeing his wife and instantly knowing he wanted to marry her. Similarly, he says, as soon as he wrote it, “Done” stood out as a hit. Once he started mixing it into his live set, fan response confirmed that instinct.
“‘Done’ is one of those songs that hasn’t taken any time to get used to, for whatever great reason. I think [listeners] gravitate toward it because they just feel comfortable with it,” he muses. “But the song is a hit. You get those gut feelings sometimes, and you just sort of know. It’s a lot like when I saw my wife for the first time, how I wrote the song. I just knew what I knew.”
For all the hard work that went into creating Real Friends, there are moments on the album that Janson says simply fell out of the sky. “Hawaii on Me” is one instance of that. “Sometimes, as a songwriter, I can just gravitate towards ideas and just go with them, and that was one of those rare moments,” he explains. The song tells the story of a husband and father who asks his family not to spend all their money on a funeral after he dies, but instead to take a first-class trip to Hawaii and enjoy the life they created together.
That song is particularly special to Janson because he co-wrote it with his wife. “That was Kelly’s idea all the way. I can’t take credit for that one,” he reveals. “She had heard that story. It’s a true story about someone. I don’t know who they are or where they’re from, but it’s a true story about a celebration of life and a father’s last wishes.
“And songs never happen like that. I don’t care who you are or how good you are, it just never happens like that. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that song wrote itself, to be honest,” he adds.
For all its A-List collaborators and big-name co-writers, perhaps the biggest paradox of Real Friends is that, in order to continue to build on the momentum of his growing career, Janson had to dial back into the energy he felt when he released his breakout hit, 2015’s “Buy Me a Boat.”
“Not the Buy Me a Boat record, but the ‘Buy Me a Boat’ song — how Kelly and I released that independently, before I signed to Warner,” he relates. “We didn’t care, at the time. We were just being ourselves. I was just writing songs that I wanted to write — I didn’t care what anybody thought. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody. Frankly, I wasn’t trying to get a record deal at that time, or any of that stuff. It just organically happened like that.”
In other words, he let go of any worries or insecurities that would keep him from making the kind of music he wanted to make. “I just quit caring. Really, that’s what I did,” Janson reflects. “I don’t mean like I don’t care about anything and I’m aloof all the time. I’m not at all. I’m a very business-oriented person. I think what I mean is I just let my inhibitions go, relaxed and didn’t try to rush anything. I had no expectations for myself, or anyone else, for that matter. And the coolest, most organic music and creative process came out of that.”