I Interviewed Jesse McCartney, My (Literal) Teen Idol Next Door

Jesse McCartney was the teen idol who hung out in the local Starbucks parking lot.

Jul 22 2014, 5:10pm

Photo by Meeno Peluce

It was the opening night of a community production of “Crazy for You,” but, in a cozy theater beside the Hudson River, my eighth grade pals and I were not focusing on the play that had brought us there. Instead, we were crazy for the boy with a shock of blond hair who was sitting three rows behind us. To the rest of the world—even to the rest of Westchester County—Jesse McCartney was just a former child star living in the suburbs. His young legacy was, at best, having a hit song on Nickelodeon as part of the aptly named boy band Dream Street. At worst, he was a castoff of a dying industry—someone who, if he had been born five years earlier, might have had a basement lined with platinum records and MTV Moon Men.

But to a small circle of nerdy former boy band devotees, Jesse was a blue-eyed totem of a bygone era. We didn’t worship the music. We craved the crush, the craze. Jesse wasn't just the charming, slightly older boy next door character on TV, he was literally the charming, slightly older boy the next town over. There wasn't any prospect of actually pursuing him. There was no discussion of anyone realistically dating him. We liked orbiting his existence together. We collected secondhand information for no larger purpose. He was a boy band crush walking the same earth as us. The sheer possibility of running into him at the bagel store was enough to impassion us. One time, we looked up his number in the phone book, by his dad’s name, and just stared at it.

The author's middle school diary, with Jesse in the moon

So my perception of Jesse McCartney is unforgivably skewed. But for the record, he did escape his aforementioned legacy and became someone who was, if not exactly a familiar face, at least a bit of a household name. In 2008, he co-wrote Leona Lewis’s pulsating ballad “Bleeding Love” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. He collaborated with rappers Ludacris (“How Do You Sleep”) and T-Pain (“Body Language”) on chart-topping crossover remixes. He’s even about to star in a Lifetime movie about a countrified Amish girl (AJ Michalka) who finds love (Jesse McCartney, obviously) in Los Angeles.

He's also putting out a new album, In Technicolor, on his own label, EightOEight. It's packaged like an entrance exam into the Justin Timberlake suit-and-tie school of music. But, in the spirit of discussing yesteryear, McCartney has made the 70s pop throwback record I could have used in eighth grade. It offers a flight of dance tracks ripe for the funky soul: “Superbad,” “Back Together,” and especially “Young Love,” which pairs the crushing backbeat of a song like Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the bombast of, say, Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior.”

The new musical direction is as calculated as his previous work, but it’s undeniably catchier. Best of all, for McCartney’s younger fans, the music provides an easy entry point into the collections of artists like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Prince.

Before the interview, I had one last middle school-esque fantasy to confess my big, old crush, to maybe, just for old time’s sake, ask whether he indeed dated a girl on the swim team. Could I tell him that I drove past his house once? Would he hang up on me? I decided to play it cool and ask about Prince. Even after all this time had passed, I still couldn’t bear to be crushed.

I love the “Bad Mama Jama” vibe on “Superbad.” But I’ve got to ask: Did you have any reservations about aligning yourself with the likes of James Brown, Wonder, and Michael Jackson?
No, because it was just the music I listened to growing up—Michael, Prince. I just listened more closely to the guitar tone, what guitars they used, and researched how the album was actually made. I must have listened to Innervisions 10 million times in my car. I listened to the albums that I knew I wanted to have an impact on this album.

What’s your favorite Prince song?
“When Doves Cry” is probably my favorite because of its simplicity. That was sort of how “Superbad” came about. To make a song with nothing—very little instrumentation—and have it connect with people to me was the biggest challenge. “Superbad” is one of the least pretty songs on the album, but the melody just cuts through. As a producer, you call it ‘reducing.’ It’s easy to throw a bunch of stuff on a song, but when you can have just a bass guitar, a simple drumbeat, and one guitar on top, that’s a real craft.

While you were mining the classics, did you come across anything you hadn’t heard?
Actually, I wasn’t familiar with Stevie Ray Vaughan. The producers who worked on the album, a group of Berklee College of Music grads called The Elev3n [who have produced for Cher Lloyd and Sean Kingston], made me listen to [Vaughan’s] guitar playing. “Young Love” was really a hybrid of a Michael Jackson groove and Vaughan’s guitar sound.

The songwriting centers on your relationships with women. For the most part, you sing from the perspective of a pretty lonesome guy. How do you write a romantic song?
You start with honesty. I’ve experienced some interesting relationships in the last five years, especially. I’m a young guy. I’m 27. I like to have a good time, but I’m definitely at a point now where I understand what a relationship is, what it’s like to be in love and what it’s like to have your heart sort of broken.

So when you’re trying to set the mood, what records do you pull out?
[Laughs] God, Marvin Gaye, probably? I know that sounds cliché, but he was the king of romance!

Anything contemporary?
Well, one of my favorite records—he did it before he was even signed, and it is still one of my favorite records to this day—is Robin Thicke’s A Beautiful World. The cover of the album is a picture of his wife, Paula. Talk about honesty—you can hear he’s so in love with that woman. I can hear Marvin’s influence on that whole album. Thicke is like a modern day Frank Sinatra. Bruno Mars is also in that category. And women love to hear that guy [laughs].

Since we’re talking romance, let’s talk falsetto. You use it consistently on this album, which I thought sounded like Justin Timberlake. Am I exaggerating his influence on you? Both musically and visually, The 20/20 Experience seems to have had a major impact on In Technicolor.
I wouldn’t say that Justin himself—I’ve never set out to be a Justin Timberlake. The comparison alone is a huge compliment. But I think a lot of his influences are also mine. This is the strongest I’ve ever been vocally, so that’s why I wanted to use as much falsetto as I could. Justin has an amazing falsetto too, so I get the comparison. But there are also just not a lot of blue-eyed soul guys singing R&B music [laughs].

Speaking of growing up, I know you’re from Ardsley, New York. I’m actually from Dobbs Ferry and went to your rival high school.
No kidding! I had a couple friends from Dobbs Ferry. I was on the varsity baseball team. We played you guys in sports!

When I was in middle school, everyone knew you were in Dream Street. At least, my friends and I certainly did. I’m going to bet you were pretty popular in school.
It was hard to peg me in high school. I didn’t have a group. I wasn’t in the jock group or even with the drama kids. I did my thing outside of school. Everyone knew I was kind of a music guy, but no one knew how into it I was until after “Beautiful Soul” hit. People were like ‘No way! Is that what you’ve been doing all this time?’

What did you do for fun?
I had a great group of friends. As you know, it was a very small town. We’d drive to the local coffee shop—which at that time, Starbucks had just gotten into town. We’d hang out in the parking lot on Saturday nights [laughs].

That place was a game changer! I went on my first date at that Starbucks.
That’s so funny. Every time I go back there, it’s like nothing has changed. My family sold the house two years ago, but I still make the drive up the Saw Mill [laughs]. It’s like frozen in time.

What did life look like for you at age 16? Were you considering college?
I was missing a lot of school. Let’s see, when I was 16, I went out to LA and booked a pilot for my first year out. I shot it, and then at the end of the school year, they actually picked up the show [Summerland]. And all of a sudden I was getting paid substantially and had to make a choice. My parents kind of got it. They were both theater rats in the 70s in Manhattan. I imagine if I grew up in a household of nine-to-fivers, it would have been harder. I was scared. I just thought, 'if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to be 20 years old without a degree.' Not going to college was a really tough decision. I was very fortunate it all worked out.

Sarah Grant transcribed this interview in her Trapper Keeper. She's on Twitter - @SarahGrant


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