While it’s becoming increasingly rare, there are still people who have spent most of their lives with the same company or in the same job. That’s a level of continuity most of us will only ever dream about. Still, most of the people who have spent that time period at the same job are well on their way to retirement. That’s not the case for Jesse McCartney. At 31, McCartney has been in the entertainment industry for the majority of his life. Whether it was his acting roles in soap operas as a child, his turn as one of the early-2000s biggest pop stars, or in a variety of voice acting roles spanning cartoons and video games, McCartney has done a lifetime’s worth of work in a relatively short amount of time. He’s not done, either. After a nearly two year break, McCartney has returned to the spotlight, and he’s as driven to share his art as ever.
I talked to McCartney last week after a break. Not the big two year break, but a shorter one in which he took his girlfriend skiing. You can’t blame him for stepping back for a moment to take in the view. His new single, “Better With You,” is an unmitigated success. The song–McCartney’s first since 2014–is approaching 2 million streams on Spotify and the accompanying music video is sitting at 4.1 million views on Youtube. Even McCartney needs to readjust again, saying “[I’m] Trying to process it all and take in this new chapter with the new single. I’ve been on the road quite a bit. It’s been a busy first quarter of the year and I’m looking forward to more exciting stuff this year. It’s been awhile. Excited to be back on the horse, as they say.”
From talking to him, it sounds like his long break was a needed reprieve for McCartney after a lifetime in music. After the release of his 2014 album In Technicolor, McCartney took some time for himself. While he appeared in a few scattered project (more on that a bit later), he says he took the time away from music to focus on hobbies and areas of interest for him personally, a luxury he didn’t have while working almost nonstop. “During that year and a half off I literally watched … 3 hour YouTube videos on how to smoke brisket,” he says with a chuckle, proving that no one in the world is immune from a good YouTube deep dive (he says his brisket is pretty tasty, too). For anyone who has listened to McCartney’s previous music, the starting point for McCartney getting back into music may come as a surprise: he was inspired by country music.
More specifically, a songwriting camp for country music. McCartney explains, “I got a call from a friend of mine whose a country songwriter named Shane Stevens. He and I had worked together on my last album, he had written ‘Superbad’ and a couple of other records with me. He invited me down to Nashville for this country songwriting camp, and I’m like ‘Shane, I’m not a country songwriter, I don’t know why you want me there.’” Nevertheless, McCartney agreed to fly down and take part in the camp. McCartney had not written music since his break and was understandably nervous, but the curiosity that fuels his search for new hobbies also fuels his creative energy, and he ended up loving the camp. “I fell in love with these writers, with the whole experience, the idea we had to go in and write with a new group of writers every day and complete an entire song every single day, that was the goal,” McCartney tells me with evident joy in his voice. From there, he realized that writing for himself was something that he missed, so he went back into the studio. As luck would have it for his fans, he says “Better With You” is one of the first songs to come out of those studio sessions.
While the inspiration and impetus of McCartney’s writing may change, he says that his actual process of songwriting has changed very little from when he first started. “It always starts the same way, which I have a melody idea that pops into my head in the middle of nowhere, on a subway train in Manhattan at 2 in the morning coming home from a bar,” he says. He further elaborates that he might hear something as trivial as a chime on the train that gives him an idea, which he then records for himself in a voice note. He does say his extra 15 years on Earth have helped though, explaining “I think the only major difference is that you just know more, your actual life experience as you get older, you have more to talk about. You have more of a perspective, you have more experience, just in general. I think for songwriters, that’s what they do, they write what they know, and they write what they’ve been through, so I think that’s the real big change.” For any creative person reading this, you can also take comfort that even McCartney doesn’t hit a home run every time he sits down to write. “I write equally as many good and bad songs as I did then,” he says with a laugh, “For every good song there are 110 bad ones. It’s just the way it goes, but it makes that one good one all the more exciting and worthwhile.”
While “Better With You” is by no means a country song, you can hear some country DNA in the twangs of the acoustic guitar and the vulnerability of the track. For McCartney, this was wholly intentional and the genre mashups are something he’s interested in as a creative artist. “I think more and more you’re seeing a lot of crossover and pop-hybrid ideas and artists out there, and while I don’t see myself being a country artist anytime soon, I definitely love how the two genres are colliding in very cool ways,” he says, citing Kenny Chesney’s 2016 song “Setting The World On Fire” that features Pink as an example he enjoyed. Personally, he believes that dabbling in different genres is a great way to improve, saying “certainly from a songwriting perspective having that country experience definitely sharpens yours tools and makes you a better writer.” Going by the success of “Better With You,” he’s clearly right.
When it comes to “Better With You”’s music video, that was also a long process with a lot of different permutations thrown around before arriving at the “what if” scenario of a chance encounter leading into a relationship. McCartney was busy watching videos from various directors to get an idea of what he wanted, while at the same time working with his team on possible concepts, which could have resulted in a very different video. “We thought about doing something a little bit more topical, a little bit more serious in tone, and possibly even political, and then it just kinda got carried away and then we got to a point where people were literally throwing out dog ideas,” he says, to give you an inkling of what the “Better With You” video could have been. Eventually he found director Jo Roy’s work, and instantly knew that was who he wanted to talk to. “She and I sat down and just started rattling off ideas, and she’s like ‘why don’t we get to the heart of the song and just shoot what it says, which is finding somebody who makes you a better version of yourself and brings the best out of you?’” he recalls. McCartney says one of his biggest concerns with the video was going down what he calls “cheeseball lane” into saccharine sappiness, but working with Roy and actress Danielle Campbell soothed his fears. In fact, McCartney says he feels that “Better With You” is his best video to date.
Acting in a music video is helped by having previous acting experience, and McCartney has that in spades, starting his career acting on All My Children in the late 1990s. For McCartney, acting carries a whole different appeal than music does in that it allows him to be someone different for a bit in a fun way. “I recently  did a guest appearance for two episodes on Fear The Walking Dead on AMC, and I played this overweight, gun-toting, bearded pirate, that’s totally outside my initial comfort zone… Just creatively, it’s liberating to play somebody who is not yourself,” he explains. McCartney further explains that it’s a whole different feeling of executing someone else’s creative ideas in a way that’s satisfying to all involved parties, a feeling that is less prevalent in music when the main ideas come from himself.
McCartney also does voice acting, with appearances in the DC superhero cartoon Young Justice as Nightwing and roles in many of the Kingdom Hearts video game entries over the years as characters Roxas and Ventus. All of that work can be taxing on a person’s voice, so McCartney makes sure to take care of his to maintain his ability. While those of us who prefer Netflix over moving might not like to hear this, McCartney says running three to five miles a day has helped improve his voice. “Your cords are a muscle, and you have to keep them strong and work on them. It’s part of the job. It’s like an athlete, like a basketball player is gonna shoot free throws for an hour or two every day, just repetition, and it’s the same thing with vocal exercises,” he says about his routine.
It’s a good thing McCartney’s voice is strong, as “Better With You” is not the only song to come from those studio sessions after he was struck by inspiration. McCartney says that he has four or five more songs from the sessions, all similar to “Better With You” in their pop sound and vulnerability. While he wasn’t able to give a timetable about when any of them might see the light of day, McCartney is clearly excited about the new music, especially after what he says has been overwhelmingly positive feedback from fans about “Better With You.”
Jesse McCartney should be excited about what the future holds for him. He has endured in the entertainment industry for nearly 20 years now, learning valuable lessons and exploring different creative avenues through it all. Most don’t get nearly that much time in the spotlight, and those that do often don’t have their entire lives ahead of them like McCartney does. We all dream of having as many fulfilling opportunities in life and our jobs as we can possibly handle, and McCartney is living his dream to the fullest. I think even McCartney would struggle to tell you exactly what comes next, but whatever it is, he’s going to embrace it to the fullest.