For 25 years, AJ McLean has been performing across the globe with the Backstreet Boys and now the singer wants fans to get to know his country side. The pop star released his debut country single, “Back Porch Bottle Service,” earlier this week and celebrated in style at his Backyard Party in Nashville on June 5. During his sold-out CMA Fest kickoff event he invited fans to hear his new songs, many of which he performed for the first time that night.
Ahead of his 30-minute set, McLean sat down with Sounds Like Nashville to discuss his transition into the country world. The singer says the success of “God, Your Mama and Me,” the Backstreet Boys’ 2017 chart-topping collaboration with Florida Georgia Line, was the catalyst that sparked his decision to pursue country music.
“Once I started making this record, everything happened organically,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville, settling into a couch upstairs at White Avenue Studio before his performance. “Nothing was forced and it just fell into place and feels right.”
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McLean has cut over 100 songs in the past 10 years, amassing at least three albums worth of music. His first country record will likely come out later this year as he’s three-quarters done with the project. He says the album has allowed him to be himself and introduce the world to who he is outside of the multi-platinum selling boy band.
“If you’re going to be yourself and tell stories and be honest and allow yourself to be relatable, then country is the perfect place for you. I’ve got stories, boy I’ve got plenty of stories to tell,” he admits. “What I love about country music is country music tells stories. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of rock or hip-hop, it gives everybody that same feeling that is very relatable. I want to tell my story. I want to tell people about me and let my walls down and be vulnerable and talk about my kids and my wife and my awesome life that I’ve been blessed for 25 years in this business.”
McLean will be sharing his vulnerability through several songs that pay tribute to his wife and two daughters. The most honest song on the album includes a powerful ballad called “Rare,” which songwriter Clint Lagerberg (Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color”) sent him.
The singer explains that he told Lagerberg he wanted his country album to include songs about his family and his wife. When the songwriter sent him “Rare,” the song immediately spoke to him and his relationship with his wife. One of the song’s lyrics that stood out upon first listen include: “Big ups to the man upstairs / She is rare.”
“[It says] hats off, thank you for giving me the most amazing woman I could ever ask for. My wife should get every award known to man for putting up with me daily for almost 10 years. If it is ever a single, I want my wife’s baby picture to be the actual single artwork,” McLean says with a smile. “Lyrically, melodically, it’s a powerhouse record. It’s different for country as far as I’m using a talk box effect. The guy’s name is Mr. TalkBox. He’s done a lot of stuff with Bruno Mars on 24K Magic so it kind of takes you back to that Zapp and Roger sound but implementing that in a country pop record so it’s pretty awesome.”
McLean performed “Rare” at his fan party and told Sounds Like Nashville afterwards that while singing the track he found himself tearing up behind his sunglasses. Another emotional song, “Fire Breathing Dragons,” he wrote about his two daughters. He thinks it will also be a tough song to sing live if his kids are in attendance as he’ll likely be fighting back tears.
“Back Porch Bottle Service” is McLean’s debut country single and he says he wanted to have a feel-good summer record on the album. The song blends country, pop and urban elements and was well received by fans at McLean’s backyard event who let out ear-piercing screams when his band began to play the song. The infectious track has AJ leaving the club behind and instead suggesting a night in with his wife. In fact, this is how the singer likes to spend most of his Friday nights.
“I got out of the whole going out to the club phase. The bottle service where it’s $5,000 a bottle to sit and do nothing. To me, it’s more intimate to have that same environment in your back porch. Just kicking it with your lady and it’s just you and her and it’s simple,” McLean admits. “For me and my wife, it’s playing Mario Kart. That’s what we do. That’s our Friday night. That and watching Friends. I can put any episode on mute and probably do line for line. I had never seen Friends until about five years ago. I was a little bit deprived from TV traveling the world. Once my wife introduced me to Friends, it’s all downhill from there. It’s my favorite. It never gets old.”
McLean further explains that his new single sets up his full-length album sonically as it samples from the urban, country and pop genres. McLean’s friend, Jordan Omley, is featured as a rapper on the song, and the singer calls “Back Porch Bottle Service” a jam that he hopes lasts all summer. Well received on iTunes, the single was in the top 20 on the iTunes country chart the day it was released, something McLean can’t quite believe.
“I’m so happy. I’m kind of floating today, a little bit. [I’m] all over the place right now. I’m antsy, I’m relaxed. Once I hit that stage tonight then I’ll be calm,” he admits.
McLean even received a welcomed congratulations from Darius Rucker, who can understand the singer’s nerves at the decision to jump into country music after years of performing in rock band Hootie & the Blowfish. The two shared the stage earlier this week as part of Rucker’s annual Darius and Friends charity concert for St. Jude Children’s Hospital at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
“He was so open,” McLean shares. “He said, ‘Dude, I’m proud of you. Welcome to the family.’ Whew. There’s no pressure now. Big words from him.”
McLean is now juggling his budding country career and his time in the Backstreet Boys, who recently released their first single in five years with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” The group performed the song at the 2018 CMT Music Awards Wednesday evening, further showcasing their friendship with the country genre. So, we had to ask McLean if there was one Backstreet Boys song that might have crossover appeal within the country genre.
“‘Drowning,'” McLean says without missing a beat. “‘Drowning’ actually always sounded country to us. We had a song called ‘Helpless When She Smiles’ too, which could definitely go country. ‘Drowning,’ if it was ever an actual single and if we were in the country world or knew anybody, had we known FGL back then — maybe. That song for sure could easily, right now as it is, be played all over country radio.”
He pauses for a moment, contemplating adding it to his own country record and reasons, “Maybe I’ll do a cover of my own song.”
McLean’s debut country single “Back Porch Bottle Service” is out now.