With a new album, Jay Warren proves Utah can be a place to make R&B music

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jay Warren, R&B singer from Salt Lake City, whose debut album "Give Love" recently charted on iTunes, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Jay Warren had a goal: Be the first Utahn to land an album on the iTunes R&B chart.

On the surface, the idea seems quixotic — both because there aren’t that many R&B artists in Utah, and because the music industry today is driven more by streaming singles than selling albums.

Warren, a 29-year-old singer and songwriter living in Salt Lake City, was up for the challenge. He and his team started a pre-order campaign to encourage fans to buy “Give Love,” which was released Sept. 25.

The goal, Warren said in a phone interview, “was [to] first try to activate the fan base. It’s so much easier for a fan to casually stream a song on Spotify, or listen to it on YouTube. But we were like, ‘Let’s see if we can actually get the fans to buy an album,’ which people don’t really do any more.”

The plan worked. On the first day of release, “Give Love” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ R&B chart, and 25th on iTunes’ U.S. album chart, which covers all genres.

“It felt so good that the people supporting me for the last few years really are there,” Warren said, “and are real people with real checking accounts and whatnot.”

“Give Love” is the result of three years of hard work as a full-time musician, and Warren’s musical passion goes all the way back to childhood.

“I’ve been singing since I was tiny,” Warren said.

He sang in church choirs and school choirs across the country, as his father, a Marine, moved the family from New Jersey and New York to St. Louis and ultimately San Diego, where Warren went to high school. As a senior in high school, he taught himself piano and started writing his own songs.

Warren moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University, where he studied marketing. He also started building a resume as a musician, sharing the stage with such acts as T-Pain, 2 Chainz and Gladys Knight.

In October 2017, Warren released his first single, “Closer.” Since then, he’s released other singles, building up his fan base and waiting for the right time to release an album.

“We weren’t going to put out an album until we felt like we had the fan base to do something significant,” Warren said.

The eight songs on “Give Love” are a catchy mix of dance-ready tracks and romantic slow jams. With one exception, Warren wrote or co-wrote the songs, a process he compares to writing a movie script.

“I basically create a short film in my head about each song,” Warren said. “The song is either meant to be the soundtrack to that little story that I’ve come up with, or it’s just meant to tell the story.”

As for the ideas for his songs, he said, “sometimes it’s inspiration from my own life, or sometimes it is me sitting down somewhere and people-watching, making up a story about someone that I see. Or you can take a line from really any reality-television show, because they’re just so dramatic, and just create an entire story based on some quote from ‘The Bachelor.’”

The opening track, “Go Slow,” is a propulsive dance-floor song with lyrics that say something different: not to rush a new relationship.

“Lyrically, the idea was [to] do something opposite to what you would normally do in a dance setting, and say ‘go slow’ in an uptempo song,” Warren said, adding that the aim is to “give people something other than what they’re expecting.”

The music for “Go Slow,” Warren said, “was really a mistake.” He was finishing one song, and “I was trying to come up with a different chord progression. I was doing it faster, trying to figure out what the chords were. And I thought, ‘I really liked how that sounds.’”

The song Warren was finishing when he made his lucky mistake was a slow ballad, “As I Am,” which he said was inspired by someone he saw while performing at a wedding a year ago.

“I saw this woman, just sitting at a table,” Warren said. “We were at this joyous occasion of a wedding, people bringing their lives together, and she just seemed like she didn’t want to be there. And it was almost as if no one around her could see that. It was just like she had a mask on. I went with the idea of, ‘What if someone saw her as she really is? Saw her for whatever was going on inside?’ I went with that, and made a little short story in my head.”

When it was suggested that “As I Am” could work as a love song or as a hymn — whether one reads the song as a profession of love to another person or to God — Warren, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he never considered it, but likes the interpretation.

“This is what I love about music,” Warren said. “I can write one thing and once it’s out, it has an infinite number of meanings to whoever is listening to it.”

On the album’s title track, “Give Love,” Warren collaborated with OMNI, a 20-year-old rapper from Salt Lake City. The two knew each other from church; Warren and his wife, Annie, were the rapper’s Sunday school teachers when he was 16.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to get him on a song,” Warren said. As he was working on “Give Love,” Warren said that “I kind of got everything out that I wanted to say in the first verse. Then I was like, here’s the time. … I sent it over to him, and I was like, ‘Dude, write something. I’m not going to tell you what the song means to me or anything, but it’s kind of make it your own.’ He did a fantastic job.”

The one song on the album that Warren didn’t write is a cover of the 1982 song “Truly,” which was Lionel Richie’s first solo single after leaving The Commodores. (It’s not the first time Warren has recorded a cover; in past singles, he’s done Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” and “Tennessee Whiskey,” famously covered by Chris Stapleton.)

When Warren was performing as a soloist on Gladys Knight’s Saints Unified Voices Choir, he sang Richie’s “Jesus Is Love.” That set Warren to dig into Richie’s other songs, and finding “Truly,” which “I decided back then that I’m going to cover someday.”

Working with his guitarist Nate Waite, who was executive producer on the album, Warren created an arrangement that would allow him to use “Truly” to showcase his vocal talent — particularly a soaring falsetto on the chorus.

“I knew that for our live show — whenever shows open up again — it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Warren said. “I play with a full band. The thing we really wanted to do is create something that the band is going to enjoy.”

Warren hopes he’ll be able to perform live again, when there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. Until then, he will keep recording. He has a Christmas EP coming in late November, and is compiling songs for another album, likely to be released in the first half of 2021. He and Annie will also continue to raise their sons, Winston, who’s 3 years old, and Ford, who’s 8 months old.

One of Warren’s goals is to show that “Utah” and “R&B” aren’t mutually exclusive words.

“A lot of hip-hop and R&B artists in Utah tend to move to other places,” Warren said. “There are so many talented people here. Because of the internet and because there’s Wi-Fi everywhere, I can be here and do just as amazing things.”