The past year has been nothing short of life changing for up-and-coming music superstar James Durbin. Music fans will recognize this powerhouse performer from his run on the last season of “American Idol,” where he brought heavy metal to the the masses by performing Queen and Muse songs and then by singing onstage with metal legends Judas Priest. With his unbridled emotion, his undeniable swagger, his powerhouse voice and five octave range, it didn’t take long for him to garner legions of dedicated fans. With his ‘American Idol’ fading into his rearview, Durbin was quick to take on his biggest challenge to date — his first studio album. For his debut album, he was able to work with some of music’s greatest talents, a process that has elevated his already impressive game to an entirely new level. The results of his countless hours of hard work, dedication and perseverance is the critically acclaimed ‘Memories of a Beautiful Disaster’. The album not only harnesses the powerful energy of his live performances but also showcases his talents as a songwriter with songs that capture the minds and heart of the listener. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with James Durbin to discuss his newfound fame, the making of “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster,” how he has managed to stay grounded along the way and the future holds for this rock star on the rise!
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us, James!
Many music fans discovered you through your time on “American idol.” How did music first come into your life?
My sisters were both in music programs when they were in middle school and high school and my father was a musician. Although my dad wasn’t around too much, it still had a big effect on our family, in the music aspect of things. It really sparked the fire inside of me. My sister was in musical theater and she had the lead in a play called “Damn Yankees.” I got to go every night and see every show, so I became the unofficial mascot of the show. I would be there every night dressed up in a little baseball uniform. It was the very last night of the show and the director let me go up on stage and perform with the play, the high school kids. They didn’t just keep me in the back! They actually pushed me out to the front for a song called “The Game.” I knew all of the words! It was really cool and it was my first experience on stage in front of a packed house! It was really cool! [laughs]
Who were some of your early inspirations who helped to shape the artist we see today?
Oh man, there are so many! I’d have to say artists like Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Edgar Winter, Steve Marriott from Humble Pie, Miljenko Matijevic from Steelheart, Jared Leto from 30 Seconds To Mars, Ronnie James Dio, Jeff Fabb formerly of In This Moment and who is currently in my band, Mark Tremonti, Myles Kennedy, Axl Rose and Chad Kroeger of Nickelback.
It has been a whirlwind year for you. How are you adjusting to life in the spotlight?
It has been really fun, ya know? I like to keep quiet and out of the spotlight. My wife, my son and I live in Santa Cruz, California and there is no paparazzi or anything like that. It is a great area because we get to go around and just be ourselves. It is kinda like “Cheers” where everybody knows my name! [laughs] I will be walking down the street to pick up some breakfast and someone will say, “Oh, hey James! How’s it going!” It is really great and I have no complaints!
How excited are you to finally have “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster” out there for the music fans to enjoy?
It feels great! It is really cool to do that because not everyone has that opportunity. I was really lucky to come off of “American Idol,” put a CD out and the fans really love it. Now we are on tour and we get another opportunity to make new fans. The fans are like your friends and family, ya know? As long as you are good to them, you will always have them on your side. I am really grateful for that and I give them my all when I am performing. I leave my heart on the stage, they can see that and they take it!
That’s a great way to look at things, James. Let’s talk a little bit about the album. What was it about “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster” that made you select that as the title for the album?
It is about looking back on moments in my life I thought were disasters but now I can really see the beauty in them and how they made me the person I am today. They are moments that I would never want to change. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes in our lives but we learn from them and they make us who we are. That is what it means to me.
What can you tell us about your typical songwriting process? I know you worked with some very talented people on this album.
You go into a writing session with an idea and if you don’t have an idea, you go into it with an open mind. If you do that, you will be really surprised with what you come out with! That is exactly what happened with the first track on the record. It is a song that I co-wrote with Marti Frederiksen and James Michael. It was really cool. We went in without a specific idea but started tossing ideas around and it really worked out well.
What did you learn most from your time working with them?
Really, it was “Practice, practice, practice.” Ya know, I asked them what the secret to songwriting was and that is what they told me. I thought that I was going to get this big secret that is locked deep within your mind, the sixth sense! But really, it is just all about practice! I practice as much as I can and anytime I have a thought for a song, I write it down or record it on my iPod because you never know where that idea will take you. Inspiration is all around us!
Was it difficult for you to find the right mix of songs to bring the album you were envisioning to life?
It wasn’t too difficult. I went in with a very open mind. I wanted it to be very creative and something that showed who I was at that point in time. I think we really captured that and I am very proud of it. Now that we have been playing it live and I have been singing it, I am finding new inspirations and new things I want to do. The best thing about writing as an artist and finding yourself as a musician or a songwriter is that you don’t have to label yourself. I don’t like to put myself into one genre. Personally, I like all types of music from country to bluegrass to indie to folk to rock to glam to metal, the list goes on and on.
From start to finish, what was the biggest challenge in putting this project together?
The biggest challenge was staying sane the entire time! [laughs] I just had to remember to stay focused and not to get upset if something wasn’t happening, if something was bothering me or if I couldn’t find the right word or the right way to finish a line. I just had to push through and keep moving toward the finish line.
Howard Benson produced the album. What do you feel he brought to the table on this project?
This record is Howard Benson, just as much as it is James Durbin. He put his signature sound on the album. It is his signature production, it is Howard Benson. There is no other way to put it.
The album is pretty new at this point. You mentioned looking to the future and growing as an artist but have you already started focusing on new material for a follow-up?
Oh yeah, I am always writing. We are already talking about another record. I don’t want to be the guy who puts out a CD every couple of years. I always want to keep generating music and keep putting new stuff out. I always want to give my fans new stuff that is fresh and exciting!
You are hitting the road with Buckcherry. What are you doing to prepare for that wild ride?
Well, it’s not that wild! They are really in it for the music, ya know? They aren’t in it for the high. I am sure that I will learn how to play Wiffle Ball and learn how to throw and go! [laughs] It’s going to be a lot of fun and we are really looking forward to this tour. It is a great opportunity to tour with a band that has been around as long as they have. They know every which way about their style and exactly what they can and can’t do. It will be cool to draw inspiration from that experience. I am really looking forward to learning from them as they are veterans of the road. I am really looking forward to hearing their stories and how they have learned from their mistakes. It will definitely be a learning experience!
Your live performances speak for themselves and you are amazing on stage. What do you want people to come away with after catching one of your performances?
I really hope they get a better sense of me. What I want is a challenge. I love a challenge! I like singing for a group of people who don’t know who I am and winning them over. I like it when I sing for people who might say, “Oh, that is just some a-hole from American Idol. He probably thinks he is some big head honcho, rock star.” When I am on stage and I am singing, I am genuine, I talk to the people in the audience. I let them know who I am, why I am there and how I consider each and every one of them a fan. Whether they like me or not, they are still standing there, listening to my music and giving me a chance. Just having them standing there, listening to what I have to bring and having them be in the moment really inspires me.
People have definitely been taking notice! You received a Best Lead Vocalist Nomination from the Golden Gods Awards. Actually, an even greater compliment is they named you as one of the “100 Greatest Living Rock Stars” alongside other rock icons, including Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons and Dave Grohl. How big of a surprise was that and how has that impacted you?
Oh, yeah! It was a huge surprise! I got on the phone for an interview with the guys and said, “OK! Let’s do it! Let’s talk about all of the great rock stars and what made them great! I’d love to give you my opinion!” They said, “Uh, no. What are you talking about? We are naming you one of the 100 greatest living rock stars.” Yeah, it was a BIG shocker! The nomination as well! I didn’t win but I didn’t lose, ya know? I was there! I was there on the black carpet with all of these guys and talking to them! Hearing them say, “It was really awesome what you did for us and what you did for this community, this genre.” Not everyone would go do something like that. Not everyone would have thought to go on “American Idol,” one of the biggest TV shows out there and bringing something as different and far out as metal to the masses who are tuned in. For someone who doesn’t watch the show, they might think it is all pop music. Then comes this dude singing Judas Priest, Zakk Wylde or Sammy Hagar and brings an edge to it with pyro and theatrics, it excited people. I still get that. I have people come up to me after every single show who say, “I never watched that show before you were on there and I haven’t watched it since you were voted off,” just because they are into the style I brought. You know, it’s funny — People are strange! Especially when you are a stranger!” [laughs]
Well said! [laughs] What are your thoughts on the current state of rock music? You are definitely out doing your part to spread the word and up the game!
Wow, thank you! I guess rock music is in limbo right now. It will come back around though. Like you said, I feel like we are doing our part. That is all we can do is play the type of music that inspired us in the first place and play it for a whole new generation of kids. It really gives me hope that I will be on the radio in the years to come and hear some truly amazing stuff!
You are also using your rockstar powers for good as a spokesperson for the STAR Alliance anti-bullying campaign. How did you get involved and how has it impacted you?
I was bullied all through elementary school, middle school and high school. It really affected me as a person and who I am today. If that stuff hadn’t happened to me, I couldn’t tell you where I would be today. I guess I would probably be an accountant or something! [laughs] I have always been a big fan of the WWE and professional wrestling. Being bullied and picked on as a kid, I was really looking for an outlet. I was flipping through channels on the TV one day, when I was around 10 years old, and stumbled across the world of professional wrestling. I saw these guys who were superheroes or Norse Gods going at it, duking it out, one on one. I knew in my heart that these guys were probably just like me at some point, getting bullied and picked on as awkward kids. Seeing what they had become and the level that they were performing on gave me hope for my future. WWE really inspired me. Now, with WWE and The Creative Coalition working hand in hand for “be a STAR” (www.beastaralliance.org), it is great because I get to go to schools and tell my story. Growing up, I was beaten up, had bottles thrown at the back of my head and I was assaulted twice. I never fought back. I always did the right thing and told someone. The word “snitch” doesn’t mean a thing to me. I am proud that I did the right thing. I went and told someone and the kid ended up getting moved to a different school. There came a point where my favorite teacher retired and that was the only thing keeping me at my school. There was so much bullying, I ended up switching districts and schools. I went to the new school and guess who is there? The kid that threw the bottle at my head! He came up to me, nose to nose and apologized. He got in big trouble for the original incident. From there on out, I never had problems with him. We would nod as we passed each other in the halls, that was it. So, this is a project that I am really passionate about. These days, with the rise of social media, YouTube, Facebook and everything else, kids today are exposed to much more than we were. The reality is that kids are killing themselves because some kid at school is harassing them and calling them names. It is horrible. It’s really awful and people have been in denial about it for so many years, it is unbelieveable. It is great that someone is finally stepping up and we have a president that is bringing attention to it. It is strange that it has taken this long but it is exciting to see people are becoming more aware of the issue.
It’s great seeing you lending your voice to something you are so passionate about.
Thank you! It is my pleasure!
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you in regards to your career?
Steven Tyler gave me the best piece of advice. He said it on the show, flat out and for me it went a long way. He said, “Don’t get too poppy on me! Remember who you are.” It was after I sang Bon Jovi. I guess ol’ Bon Jovi got a little too poppy for ol’ Steven! [laughs] But I am trying to stick to my guns and stick with who I am. If one person doesn’t like it, I will go somewhere else and find someone who does believe in me!
In your opinion, what does the future hold for James Durbin musically?
To be able to keep doing what I am doing now is my dream. Being a working musician who is able to support myself and my family, doing what I love to do and making new friends is all you could ask for. One of my good friends, Myles Kennedy, has been in a lot of great bands and knows a lot about who he is and where he can go as a vocalist who has a five octave range. That is where I learned about that, is by studying him and his vocal style. I found out how he does it and now I have a five octave range as well! He was in The Mayfield Four, Alterbridge and now he is performing with Slash! Actually, he just performed with the guys from Guns N’ Roses at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction because Axl Rose is a piece of work! But Myles is a great example of what you can do with a dream when you aren’t afraid to follow it! Right now, I am 23 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me to figure this all out! That is the cool thing about having the opportunity to be in the limelight at this age — I am making memories in people’s heads about who I am, people in the industry. If one thing doesn’t work out, there will always be something else further down the line. It is an exciting time to say the least!
Is there anything you want to tell your fans before I let you go?
I’d like to tell my fans, every chance I get, that we can’t do this without them! They are the driving force behind our careers. They buy the albums and come out to the shows – they do everything. The fans are it! We do it for them! I know our fans will always support us and be right behind us. We will be right behind them as well!
Thank you for your time today, James! We look forward to spreading the word now and in the future!
Awesome! Thank you so much! See you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.