How Jesse McCartney Began Creating New Music & Reconnecting With Fans After 4-Year Hiatus (Exclusive)

Jesse McCartney
Jesse McCartney

The 31-year-old 'Better With You' crooner talks to ET about creating new music, his decades-spanning career and more.

It’s a chilly Chicago day, minus 20 degrees to be exact, with Jesse McCartney on his way to Wisconsin to continue his Resolution Tour. It’s been a busy time for the 31-year-old musician who, as he says, had no intention of getting “back in the gauntlet,” creating new music and now working on an album.

“This last year has been pretty unbelievable for me. It had been four years since I had put out any new music. I put out the song ‘Better With You’ and it really seemed to connect with my core audience and then some," McCartney tells ET over the phone. "That sort of triggered the demand for an essentially sold-out summer tour, and all of a sudden I was back in the gauntlet. I have been putting out new music, but I had no intention of making a whole album. I just wanted to make a collection of new songs that maybe people would like, with no sort of expectations or an end plan, and it seems like I am working towards a new album now.”

With hopes of "finishing a record by this year," the "Beautiful Soul" crooner says "it’s been a whirlwind being able to reconnect with my audience and do it independently" now that he isn't attached to a major record company. "It has been equally as rewarding.”

McCartney's career spans two decades, and that includes his teen heartthrob stage after leaving boy band Dream Street and continuing as a solo act. He's also an Emmy-nominated actor, taken on a variety of roles in TV and film, been nominated for a GRAMMY for his work on the Leona Lewis-sung “Bleeding Love,” and accomplished plenty more. All in all, you could say he's successfully transitioned from a child star to an established artist.

“The early fame thing shook my system. I got thrown into it and I wasn’t expecting it. I think I handled it relatively well,” he says with a laugh. “I owe that to the amazing team around me. That’s the thing, I’ve always had a solid group of people both in the industry and just family members and friends around me being my guardrails and keep me on the road. As I get older I do understand and realize what the important things are in life because trying to juggle a personal and professional life can be complicated. You do your best. This is the life I have and the life that I have been given. It’s a really great life. I am very grateful for all the things that I’ve been given, have, and the idea of being able to sing for a living is just unbelievable.”

That musical talent and knowledge for what makes a hit is what keeps JM coming back for more. He writes songs as a consumer and thinks about what everyone else wants to hear too. His sound essentially stays the same -- mix of pop/rock and R&B -- and matures along with his fan base.

“For me, the style hasn’t changed in that music strikes me in completely arbitrary places. Like, I will be in the back of a car, I’ll wake up out of a dream and I’ll think of something kinda cool and write it down. It’s the same process, I go into the studio to do the work and expand on an idea,” he details. “Production-wise, my sound has changed and it’s taken left and right turns. In the beginning, it was straight pop with ‘Beautiful Soul’ and early singer-songwriter pop sound in the early 2000s. Then I took a little detour in the middle, [added some R&B], and now I’m full circle. I think this ‘Better With You’ project definitely has this nostalgic sound to it and reminds people of the earlier stuff. I’m never afraid to take left and right turns and I do love contemporary sounds. At the heart of it, I think you can hear my personality in the stuff that I write.”

McCartney’s last album, In Technicolor, released in 2014, received positive reviews from critics -- with comparisons to Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars --  and cemented him as a solid pop singer and musician outside of the teen heartthrob scene.

“I’m never afraid to take risks,” he emphasizes. “I think right now, for me at 31, I have never been more comfortable in my own skin. I think what audiences are getting now is the real, authentic me. I believe that when you’re 16 and 17 and putting out music, you don’t know yourself yet. You might be a good singer, but you don’t really feel that comfortability. You haven't lived long enough, traveled, you haven’t met enough people, you haven’t been in enough relationships.”

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

As far as the music industry goes, McCartney acknowledges that “it’s changed dramatically and as an independent artist now, I think that you can do a lot more than as an indie artist could five or 10 years ago.” While he might have the new freedom that comes with being on his own, there's also the pressures of social media and connecting on another, perhaps vulnerable, level with your fans.

“People more than ever want to know their artists. They want to know what they are about, they don’t just want to listen to 12 tracks. They need to dive in a little bit more,” McCartney explains. “And for some artists, it’s hard to unveil that. Losing a little bit of that mystique can be complicated, especially as a guy who grew up in a time where it was all about staying behind the curtain and never revealing too much of yourself. That shift has been very different for me and something that I am still getting used to.”

His 536,000-plus Instagram followers, however, would disagree. A day in the life of McCartney includes updates on his life, tour, date nights with longtime girlfriend Katie Peterson (who also stars in his “Wasted” music video), silly videos with "Hanzel" [his German alter ego], and plenty more.

“Right now people are getting to see [a different side of me], like my sense of humor," McCartney says about revealing his true self. "I have a bit of a funny bone that I’ve always had and never really revealed that in my music or in the content that I use to support my music."

Another thing he’s also getting used to is the singe-to-single release format that most artists have been adopting instead of dropping a whole LP. When asked how he feels about how new music is released these days, he candidly says, “I’m not sure yet to be totally honest. I think so, but like I said before, I just wanted to create some stuff and throw it out there. There’s no rules anymore, it seems like. I don't have a record company jumping down my neck telling me, ‘Hey, where’s the project?’ It’s kind of on me and it’s a stress-free environment, which is super important when you’re making music.”

Luckily for his fans, they’ve been hearing new tunes while on his last couple of tours. Currently, he’s testing out new songs “Selfless,” “Soul” and “What Happens Next” -- and he's definitely taking fans’ reactions into consideration.

“Fans love some stuff and I think there is some stuff that they are lukewarm about, and unveiling a new song live on stage you get a genuine reaction on their faces,” he explains. “I watch them, I look at them and see what they’re into and what they’re not. I’ve pumped the breaks on releasing something just because I felt that it wasn’t really connecting, or it wasn’t working and I wanted to change the production."

"And then I have been pleasantly surprised and been like, ‘Wow, this song is way better on stage,’ and I need to add stuff to the track to make it sound like this live version," he continues. "I think that was the case with my last single, ‘Wasted.’ I think it’s a great way to try out new stuff.”

That raw fan energy is what keeps him going and working in a new and exciting way. He’s listening more to his fans' likes and dislikes and learning that sometimes what he thinks isn't going to work, actually does -- which is admirable for someone who has been writing music for years.

“‘Selfless’ to me was the song that I thought was cool but it didn’t strike me as a breakout or a single," he recalls. "And everybody that comes to the show seems to be singing along to it. So I guess they do their homework, they go on YouTube and watch to see the new songs. You can totally feel the energy shift when you play that song verses when you play another song from the catalog. ‘Selfless’ was really an example of a song that the reaction took me by surprise.”

As he trickles new songs out -- which he will continue to do until his Resolution Tour ends on Feb. 13 in Seattle -- he still has a booked schedule, with another college tour being scheduled for this spring. But the blonde-haired, blue-eyed singer is determined to deliver fresh material.

“I am going to try and get into the studio and start writing in between shows, but [sometimes] it’s exhausting. You can only do so much,” he admits, promising, “I am going to try and complete a full project by the end of this year. But at the very least, people will have new music. It will just be me coming out in a different format, like one or two at a time instead of 12 at a time.”

And that's all you can ask for.

For more on McCartney, watch the video below.