Interview with Gone West: Modern Country with an Old School Sound

Gone West © Gregory Keith Metcalf
With a warm, whole-hearted sound that’s fueled by an over a decade-long friendship, Gone West tells stories of love and loss through lyrics with a heart-positive embrace of life that deeply resonates during these difficult times.

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Nashville-based quartet Gone West features Colbie Caillat, Jason Reeves, Justin Kawika Young, and Nelly Joy. Friends and collaborators for years, the four artists come from diverse musical careers and relate to the world of country music differently.

Canyons – Gone West

Multiple-Grammy-winning artist Caillat got her start writing her debut album Coco, co-written by Reeves, featuring pop hits like “Bubbly” and “Realize.” Young began his career in Hawaii (11 #1 Hawaiian songs) and is heavily influenced by traditional steel guitar which originated in Hawaii and brought into the country music scene in the first half of the 20th century. Joy got her start as a part of the JaneDear girls and has been writing, like her husband Reeves, for country music artists for over a decade.

Gone West’s melding of diverse influences to create a quintessentially country sound embodies what modern country looks like today in a world where people are beginning to expand their perception of the genre. Caillat shared with Atwood, “[my album] Coco would completely fit in the country genre if we had released it today.” With a warm, whole-hearted sound that’s fueled by an over a decade-long friendship, Gone West tells stories of love and loss through lyrics with a heart-positive embrace of life that deeply resonates during these difficult times.

Life and love, they don’t age like fine wine
There’s no time to waste to taste the sweetest vine

In 2019, Gone West was named a part of CMT’s “Listen Up Class,” and on June 12th they will release their debut album Canyons. “The album is about all the things we go through, whether that’s heartbreak, losing someone, falling in love, or going through hardship. We wrote about things that we were going through collectively or individually.” Caillat tells Atwood Magazine, “We named the album ‘Canyons’ because erosion causes a Canyon to have two high points and one low point but despite the erosion, you get this very beautiful thing.”

Produced and co-produced by the band, Canyons is an extension of their 2019 EP Tides and will feature eight new songs. Tracks like “This Time,” and current single, “What Could’ve Been,” feature four-part harmonies that shine through sparse, acoustic instrumentation and indicate that Canyons is sure to be both a lyrically intimate and commanding collection of music.

Atwood Magazine recently chatted with Gone West, learning about the band’s influences outside of music, the process of writing and recording Canyons, how life’s been treating them in Nashville these days, and their quarantine playlists, offering us a peek inside not just the music, but the friendship, that is Gone West.

Listen: Gone West


Atwood Magazine: How are you all doing and where have you been quarantining?

Nelly: We’ve been doing pretty well all things considered. I think everyone is experiencing some highs and some lows. Honestly, we’ve been trying to take this time and enjoy being together. We’ve been cooking a lot which has been awesome. Because we usually don’t have time to cook when we are on the road. Doing lots of hikes, writing lots of music. Just trying to stay inspired.

Colbie: We’ve been doing the same stuff. We all live here in Nashville. The weather has been perfect the past six weeks. Getting a lot of outside time, cooking, dog snuggles, being creative and we’ve been having to do lots of live streams and we’ve all been recording some stuff too so that’s been fun. To fully be here and be present in those moments.

Can you talk about collaborating as a band during quarantine? Have you found a way to make it work? Have you performed via livestream yet and does it feel natural?

Nelly: Well it would be a lot more fun if we were all together. But you know I feel like we are making the best of what we have. So far, through zoom, we’ve been able to do split-screen performances on Facebook which is kind of cool. We tag-team taking turns singing songs and the songs sound a little different when it’s just two of us vs. four of us but we’ve been blessed. We take some questions from fans which is really fun and just try to interact with them and get to know them. Definitely it’s different than playing a real show but we are so lucky to have the technology.

Gone West © Gregory Keith Metcalf

Are you guys still putting the finishing touches on the album? Have the creative juices been flowing for you guys during this time?

Jason: We’ve been done with the album for a bit of time now so we’ve all been impatiently waiting for it to come out. We can’t wait for people to finally hear it. But we’ve been working on alternate versions of songs and we’ve been doing these semi-live recordings of us singing it two at a time. So we’ve still been kinda busy recording stuff but the record is done and the vinyl is pressed.

Before you started writing your Tides EP, did you all have a sense that one day you’d all be in a band together? What do you think makes working and creating with your significant other and close friends such a special and creatively rewarding experience?

Justin: We didn’t predict it. It kinda just happened naturally. It was a really organic progression from doing a tour together supporting Colbie’s album. Once Colbie and I moved to Nashville, Nelly reminded us that we had talked about doing a performance as a band. So we put one on the books. We loved the first song that we wrote and that first song is going to be on our debut album. And that song led to the next one and the next one and it kind of progressed and before you knew it we were a band. It is really special making music people that you’re friends with. I think it’s an intimate experience being creative. And being able to be open and vulnerable is a very important part of being creative so I think that’s something that’s really special about this band.

Can you guys talk a little bit about how you each relate to country differently and how that ends up affecting your sound?

Colbie: It’s pretty interesting for me. My first album Coco, that Jason and I wrote together, we believe that that album would completely fit in the Country genre if we had released it today. I always felt surprised and grateful that I was considered a pop artist but I always felt like it fell more in Country music. I’ve been lucky to collaborate with a bunch of Country artists over the last 10 years. Justin grew up in Hawaii and what’s so fascinating is they have the steel guitar in traditional Hawaiian music. It started in Hawaii but then it got brought over into Country music. So we all have our own ties and connections to Country that helped us come together to make this sound.

Nelly: You should check out Justin’s older solo Hawaiian music because it really, in my opinion, fits in with old school country in a really good way. Jason’s been in Nashville for 15 years, I’ve been here for 10. We’ve been really passionate about writing music with Country artists. I got my start in Country music with a band called The JaneDear Girls. So for me, Country music is where I started and I’m back to where I was 15 years ago and I’m excited to be back.

Watch: “Slow Down” – Gone West

Who are your musical influences? And do you all have any outside influences? Away from music even?

Jason: I have way too many musical influences to list so I’ll just say that the main artists that inspire me to want to start making music were Bob Dylan and James Taylor and then Pink Floyd and it just keeps going from there forever. But I am also really inspired by all sorts of other people like novelists and filmmakers. I really like Haruki Murakami and Wes Anderson.

Nelly: On the musical side, the Beatles were my first inspiration. I got into Country music because I fell in love with Keith Urban, sorry Jas. I really look up to Lena Dunham. I think she’s a badass female who’s just a brilliant writer and actor. Also, Rita Wilson has taught me that age is just a number. You can chase your dreams at any point in your life and the only thing that’s stopping you is yourself.

Colbie: I started out listening to Classic Rock because of my parents⏤you know Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles⏤and then my sister got me into Bob Marley and then my friends got me more into R&B like Lauryn Hill. Once I got into my later teenage year,s I loved John Mayer and Jason Mraz. I feel like I wanted to incorporate all those styles of music whether it was in production or instrumentation or vocally (I wanted to be Lauryn Hill basically). Jessica Alba has founded an incredible company that’s doing so well that’s conscious in all realms: environmentally, healthy for your body. I just think it’s amazing to be an entrepreneur like that and I love that she had a career in entertainment and then went into that. It’s something I want to do so she’s an inspiration for sure.

Justin: The music that made me want to do this for a living are 90s R&B and Stevie Wonder.

I’ve found listening to “This Time” has been really comforting recently. What makes this song resonate right now and what does this song mean to you all?

Jason: That song is really important to us because it was one of the first songs we wrote as this band⏤ it might have been the second song we wrote and we wrote it with Tom Douglas who’s one of the most inspiring and brilliant people I’ve ever met. It was a really heavy time after the Vegas shooting and Tom Petty passed away, we had this session booked and we didn’t know what we were possibly going to write about with such heavy emotion weighing on all of us.

I think we were really lucky to be in the room with Tom at that moment and he encouraged us to do this and be in this band and continue doing what we are doing. The song is about appreciating the moment because you don’t know how long it’s going to last and you don’t know if you’ll have what you have now ever again. The song becomes more applicable now because we don’t know how we are going to resume and we aren’t sure how life will look when we get out of this.

You’ve talked about how the tracks on Tides represent the ebbs and flows of life and love, can you share any insight into the significance of titling your debut album Canyons?

Colbie: Canyons is really an extension of Tides. The songs from Tides are also on Canyons and there will be 7 new songs. It’s about all the things we go through, whether that’s heartbreak, losing someone, falling in love, or going through hardship. There’s a song called “Knew You” that we actually posted a snippet of last week. We wrote about things that we were going through collectively or individually. We named the album Canyons because erosion causes a Canyon to have two high points and one low point but despite the erosion, you get this very beautiful thing. Our album cover, the picture, is on a road where Jason and Nellie live in Malibu. The canyons just literally fall into the ocean on the West Coast and it’s just beautiful. We honestly didn’t even relate the title and the album cover, it just worked out to be a coincidence.

Watch: “What Could’ve Been” – Gone West

Walk me through what a typical day looked like while you were writing and producing Canyons?

Nelly: There wasn’t necessarily a schedule which was what was so cool about it. At the time, Justin and Colbie only lived about ten minutes away from us at most. So we made a lot of this album hopping back and forth, staying in our pajamas, going from house to house. Also, part of it was made with Jamie Kenney at his studios, also Nathan Chapman and Eric Arjes, so we did collaborate with other producers which was fun but the majority of the work was really just in our PJs, with our dogs, at home, at any given hour when we got inspired.

It could be in the morning, it could be in the evening. The songwriting was a little more structured. “Gone West” was started by Justin. He just did a cool voice memo and then we all wrote our verses individually about the other person and that was a really unique way to write a song and that wasn’t really set up co-writes by any means. I just love how spontaneous it was. We followed the creative flow wherever it took us.

You have had one single from the album drop so far, “Slow Down.” What qualities of that track serve as a teaser for what we can expect on Canyons?

Colbie: It’s the last song we wrote for the album and it’s something that really gives people an idea what the rest of the album sounds like. It’s my favorite song on the album.

Gone West © Gregory Keith Metcalf

What songs or albums have you all been using as an escape during this time?

Colbie: I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley, to be honest. I mean I do normally, but I just feel like it’s the easiest thing to put on. It makes me feel like I’m back home, like it’s summer, like there’s no worries.

Nelly: I would say Chelsea Cutler put out a new album. I love the album and she actually just put out a new one that came out a year ago with Jason Zucher. It’s super beautiful, acoustic, and honest. It makes you feel good. But also Bob Marley too… I mean who isn’t.

Thanks for chatting, guys. Anything else you’d like to add?

Nelly: We are thinking about the fans and we are all together at this moment and we send a lot of love and positive vibrations. We need to be checking on each other and making sure everyone is ok right now. We need to be together even though we are not together.

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