Hit songwriter J.T. Harding is just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit—just like is says in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a band that comes up later in our hour-long conversation at Nashville’s Crema coffee shop. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, a little more about J.T.’s city-boy mentality, which is a big reason you won’t necessarily hear about dirt roads or Mason jars in the country songs he pens. J.T. writes what he knows, and since moving to Music City from L.A. about four years ago, it’s proven quite successful.
J.T. has co-written hits for Keith Urban (“Somewhere In My Car”), Kenny Chesney (“Somewhere With You”), Blake Shelton (“Sangria”), Jake Owen (“Alone With You”) and more. Fresh off of scoring his fifth No. 1 tune as a songwriter, Dierks Bentley’s “Different for Girls,” J.T. sat down with Nash Country Daily over a cup of java to talk about 5 Songs He Wishes He Had Penned.
“Thinking about this topic, I just realized there’s kind of a link between the songs I like: a lot of them are sad songs,” says J.T. “I’m a very happy-go-lucky guy, which begs the question ‘Do I like sad songs because I’m lonely sometimes?’ or ‘Am I a little lonely sometimes because I like sad songs?’ That’s the questions [laughing]. I’ve been totally overthinking this, but here are my Top 5 today, because I’m sure it varies depending on the day.”
1. “Teenage Dream”
Writers: Katy Perry, Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Benjamin Levin, Bonnie McKee
Artist: Katy Perry
The first time I heard this song, I was driving on the pacific coast in Los Angeles. The album was not released yet, but they played this song and I felt like I could drive my car into the ocean and get on the roof and surf around Malibu. That’s how invincible the song made me feel. It was like a teenage dream. The lyrics and imagery are great. I love super catchy pop music. A song that you can hear one time and sing back forever. The bridge is so catchy—the skin-tight jeans part—that they do it again at the end. I had never heard a song do that before. I copied that idea—not the music—in some of my own songs that I had written, and it finally stuck in the song “Sangria” that I wrote with Josh [Osborne] and Trevor [Rosen]. I just think “Teenage Dream” is the perfect pop single.
2. “The House That Built Me”
Writers: Tom Douglas, Allen Shamblin
Artist: Miranda Lambert
I’m very nostalgic and I drive by my house in Grosse Pointe [Michigan]—where I grew up—every time I’m back there. My mom used to read Home & Garden magazine and it reminds me of how much my parents loved each other. I had an incredibly happy childhood, and I guess I miss it now, and that’s where the magic of the song comes in. When I first moved to Los Angeles, sometimes I would feel a little lost and overwhelmed and just like the song says I would come back home. I’ve seen both of the song’s writers, Tom and Allen, sing that at the Bluebird Café and I truly believe each version could stop an army in its tracks. That’s how great it is.
3. “Purple Rain”
I would have loved to have written any song on that Purple Rain album. That album was released when I first started going to junior high dances and it just—no pun intended—it colored my world. It went from black and white to technicolored. It was first when I started moving out of my ’80s hair-metal phase. I still love those bands, by the way. The music combined with the movie and the image and the album cover, it was just overwhelming. My buddy, Rich Waller, and I, we weren’t old enough yet, but we snuck into the Esquire Theatre to see the movie, and we watched Prince’s hands on the guitar. We ran home to my house after, grabbed my old beat-up guitar and figured out how to play the song. It’s one of the only cover songs I’ve ever learned how to play. I just felt like we unlocked some kind of secret. On that beat-up guitar and an old drum set with no amplifier, we played that song over and over all weekend. The guitar solo at the end is unreal. It’s unacceptable that Prince has passed away. A lot of people don’t know this, after Price wrote it, he called the keyboard player from Journey, Jonathan Cain, and said something like “I wrote a song and I’m afraid it sounds too much life ‘Faithfully.’” Can I play it for you?” Jonathan listened to it and said something like “I think you’re fine. I think it’s great.” Speaking of, I wish I had written “Faithfully” as well. For all you music buffs out there, listen to “Faithfully” and you’ll hear the seeds of “Purple Rain.”
4. “Born in the U.S.A.”
Writer: Bruce Springsteen
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Once again, I wish I had written any song on the Born in the U.S.A. album. “Born in the U.S.A.” is an 80,000-people, beer-cups-in-the-air anthem, and yet, if you look at the lyrics, there’s a sadness and a disillusionment in there. The song is only two chords, which most people don’t realize, and yet the recording is this blistering assault of drums and keyboards and screaming. It’s just fantastic. Springsteen’s imagery is the best in the business. You can read the lyrics to his songs like a book. There’s a lyric in there: Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery. I’ve passed a million factories in a million small towns, but I would never think to describe it like that. He just knocks it out of the park. “Born in the U.S.A.” is just fantastic. Sitting on the table next to me is Born to Run, the autobiography of Bruce Springsteen, which is incredible. He’s very honest in it. He says that he read a movie script that gave him the song idea for “Born in the U.S.A.”
5. “Happy Birthday”
Writers: Patty Hill, Mildred J. Hill
I’m calling an audible, I wish I had written “Happy Birthday,” and not because it’s made so much money. Imagine writing a song that children all over the world sing when they are eating cake and ice cream [laughing]. People of all ages, surrounded by their friends. Computers and technology are re-invented every year. They’ll be new cars, new everything. But “Happy Birthday” will live forever. I tried to do that when I wrote “Smile” with Uncle Cracker. I was shooting for the moon, and it’s certainly no “Happy Birthday,” but I was trying to write a song that kids and moms and everyone in between would like. Like I said, it’s no “Happy Birthday,” but they say “aim for a bird and you’ll hit a tree, aim for the moon and you’ll hit a star.” Maybe we hit a star with that one.
Here are a few honorable mentions off the top of my head.
“Boys of Summer”
Writers: Don Henley, Mike Campbell
Artist: Don Henley
“Every Breath You Take”
Artist: The Police
Writers: Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth
Artist: Van Halen
YouTube Playlist: 5 Songs Hit Songwriter JT Harding Wishes He Had Penned
photos by Jason Simanek