The platinum seller's third album reflects a new phase of less worry, more gratitude and other changes that include giving up a 12-pack-a-day Mountain Dew habit

By Nancy Kruh
October 18, 2019 12:43 PM
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For years, Chris Janson’s electric stage performances have been famously stoked by the caffeinating force of a hard-core Mountain Dew habit. But in a shocking development, Janson has recently stopped doing the Dew, which means only one thing: All that energy that his audiences are now witnessing is Chris Janson on an alternative power source.

So where’s he getting his boost — both onstage and off? Give some credit to a little song called “Good Vibes.”

“It’s really fueled my spirit,” Janson tells PEOPLE about his latest No. 1 song. “Once we picked it as a single, I was like, okay, I’ve got to tighten up on a few things. I’ve got to make sure that I’m walking it like I’m talking it because if you’re going to be the ‘Good Vibes’ guy, you better damn sure be in a good mood as much as you can and not being fake with it. Truly, it’s just about living it — I mean, really living it. And it’s been a great reminder to me.”

But the 33-year-old artist says the song’s impact has been only a part of an ongoing transformation. In just the past couple of years, he feels he’s entered a new life phase. He’s worrying less and praying more. He’s enjoying a new sense of confidence and gratitude. And then there’s the bitter end to that sweet 12-pack-a-day Dew habit, a moment one morning a few months ago when he simply lost his taste for it and has been virtually caffeine-free ever since.

In sum, he says: “I just feel better in my life.”

And now he’s poured all that good stuff into Real Friends, his brand-new album, released Friday, that he considers his “best one.”

Wait. Aren’t you supposed to say that about every new album?

“Yeah,” he allows, “but I had a lot more fun making this album.”

That’s because, just as the title indicates, he created it with some of his closest friends — songwriters, musicians and producer Tommy Cecil. And most of it was made in Janson’s favorite space in his home, what he calls “the Man Room.” Lushly decorated with his hunting and fishing gear, leather couches, vintage photographs and dark hardwoods, the room just gave the album “more heart,” Janson says.

Not only did Janson co-write all 13 songs, but also, for the first time, he co-produced the entire album. “For real,” he says, “not just in and out every now and again and taking co-production credit, which I’ve never done. If I’m going to put my name on it, I’ve done it.”

The album sticks with themes that his fans have come to expect: hard work, good times and the redneck life, all chased with a frosty beer. He shows his softer side with “Hawaii On Me,” a tender ballad that tells the story of a deathbed wish. His wife, Kelly, found the idea on a social-media post, and the two co-wrote it with songwriter Will Nance.

Another standout is the title song, which features Warner Music label-mate Blake Shelton. Janson has toured with the superstar, and as Opry members, they’ve enjoyed Opry hunting trips together. During the writing session, Janson says, he couldn’t help but imagine Shelton’s voice on the song, so he asked label intermediaries to reach out.

“It’s awkward sometimes to ask your friend to do something,” he explains, “because if they didn’t want to do it by chance, then it will be hard to say no.” But Shelton’s “yes” was immediate, and he recorded his part at his own home studio.

“Being a co-producer,” Janson says, “I got to go through all the files and hear all the stuff that he recorded on it and kind of pick what I wanted to use. He took a bunch of takes on it, which was remarkable. He totally cared.”

Two more cuts on the album, “Check” and “Say About Me,” reflect the new sense of self-assurance that Janson is embracing. Both songs celebrate his rags-to-riches life and career, or as “Say About Me” proclaims: “When you start out on the bottom, you scream when you’re on top.”

Janson likes that his swagger is showing.

“I’ve always had that side of me,” he says. “There’s a fine line between being confident and cocky, and I’m not a cocky person whatsoever. But I’m a very confident person and have no qualms about telling anybody that I am. But with songs like ‘Say About Me,’ they’re really just ‘dream big, win big’ songs. Same with ‘Check.’”

He, Kelly and their youngsters, 8-year-old daughter, Georgia, and 5-year-old son, Jesse, “don’t live a flashy, flamboyant life,” he adds. “But I do like cool cars and I don’t mind talking about them, and I do like cool watches, and I smoke cigars a lot. I’m just in a place in my life where humbly I like to celebrate it because my hope would be that maybe it inspires some young kid out there to know that you can come from a trailer park and you can totally make it. That’s what I did.”

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Still, Janson is quick to say he’s not looking at the bling when he counts his blessings. “I have a great wife, and I have a great home life, and my kids are healthy and everything is going our way there,” he says. “That why I smile. I’m just so thankful to be alive.”