James Durbin exploded onto the scene with an incredible run as one of the most beloved contestants on “American Idol.” While on the show, he reached the top four in season 10 and became renowned. Best known for an amazing voice and captivating stage presence, his considerable talents quickly garnered him legions of devoted fans. In the years to follow, he released two studio albums, 2011’s “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster” and 2014’s “Celebrate.” Since their release, rock fans and critics alike wondered where the next leg of his journey would lead. In 2016, Durbin triumphantly returns with his most powerful, authentic and personal album to date — “Riot On Sunset.” With this eclectic new album, he has once again poured his blood, sweat and tears into the creation of an outstanding rock record. The album harnesses the energy of his live performances and showcases his talent as a songwriter with songs capturing the minds and hearts of listeners. The independent release offers a glimpse inside Durbin’s evolution as an artist and his fearless approach to art. Jason Price of Icon vs. Icon recently caught up with James Durbin to discuss the making of “Riot On Sunset,” his inspiration for many of the songs, his growth as a songwriter and much more!
Last time we spoke, we talked a lot about the influences that shaped you as an artist. Here we are a few years older and wiser. Now my question is, what does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?
It is definitely half of me. Music, and rock ‘n’ roll subsequently, is one half of me and my family is the other half. It is pretty much split equally and I would not have one without the other. There is just something about music and family that makes me feel whole. It really completes me, especially when the music that I am creating and putting out is equal to the love I feel for my family. This album really has a lot of those themes and feelings of acceptance, closure and stuff that makes you feel good. Even if it is closure on something sad, it can make you feel good because you have come so far from it. I think music is what should be most important to a lot of people, above politics and everything else. Music is always going to be there and you will always be able to find something you are looking for within music. Even if you don’t know it is there, there is always something in music that has been said that you can find an answer from and help you make up your mind on a situation.
Many people can look to you as an inspiration with all you accomplished as an artist. What went into finding your creative voice early on?
I think it was getting told that I couldn’t do it. I think that is what motivated and inspired me the most — proving people wrong. If I write a song or make an album that no one likes, at least I wrote it! That is one more song that I have written than the person telling me I can’t do it! [laughs] You can’t help everyone but the people who are looking for help, the music is there for them. I am a nerd and I am re-reading one of the Harry Potter books. I am on the fifth book right now, “The Order of The Phoenix.” In the book, there is something called The Room of Requirements. You can pass by this wall a million times but a door doesn’t appear until you need it the most. With music, the vibe and the experience, it only happens when you need it the most. It’s not going to affect you the same way but when you need it and you require it to make it through your day, that music is going to be there and it will open itself to you.
Your latest album is “Riot on Sunset.” Where do you look for inspiration and what went into putting these songs together?
The inspirations for these songs came from many different places. Some of the inspirations have been sitting in the back of my head for a long time. The opening track, which is also the title track, is “Riot on Sunset.” That is a song I wrote when I was 21 years old. I wrote it in my bedroom at my mom’s house. It is something I have wanted to put on an album ever since I wrote it. It was something I wanted to record and release but I never got to up until this point. Every time I tried to put it on an album, the record label or A&R would say, “That’s not good enough. It’s just not good. I don’t like it.” On the other side of things, when I would play the song for some of my heroes or big influences, they would come back and say, “It’s great. It’s a song you only once in your lifetime.” I think that phrase right there says a lot, “It’s great because you wrote it, feel so strongly about it.” If you push that feeling out there, people will respect that and understand it more. I think if you are looking for something that is just going to fill your wallet then you aren’t going to find it. However, if you are looking for something to say he did it regardless of anything anyone said, then you are definitely going to find it on this album.
On this album, I also wrote about my dad. I wrote about begging for forgiveness for fucking up in a relationship. I wrote about a true story of a girl who grew up in her car, a ’69 Ford Mustang, and slept on a pile of clothes on cold nights on the backseat. I wrote about wanting to quit the industry altogether but realizing that change like this happens in important periods in your life where you go through this kind of change and make it out alive, you are going to be twice the person you were before. You will also learn so much and know how to face similar obstacles in the future. I wrote about feeling alone and wondering what it would be like for someone else to feel and experience being as broken and as timid as you are inside. I really wanted people to understand that it is OK to be different and for others to know you are as well but that is OK. We are all different from each other and that’s what makes the world go around, makes ideas happen and provides collisions of creativity. I also wrote about how if I could do music for free then I totally would. Music is what I do to support my family but, if I could, I would do it for nothing more than scratch off lotto tickets and cheap beer! [laughs] There are all sorts of things that have been written about on this album. I did this album independently and I think that it really makes it stand out.
Did you have goals or expectations for this album when you entered into the creative process?
I really wanted to write songs that really stood out and were moving. I also didn’t want to over process them. There are tons of wrong notes on this album. There is timing and nuances that aren’t perfect. There are plenty of imperfections on this album but they are there because they need to be there and that’s what music is. Music isn’t perfect, especially rock ‘n’ roll! It’s the most imperfect thing there is! It needs to be presented as that or it’s not true to itself. If I had a wrong note here or there, it wasn’t worth re-recording the whole thing or chopping it up. That was the way it came out and as a whole it is perfect. It doesn’t bother me to hear wrong notes, flat notes or sharp notes because when you see someone perform live there are plenty of those. Then you listen to the record and there is this inconsistency with that and it is almost like you are getting robbed on what you are paying for in a way.
The personality you brought to this record takes it to the next level. So many records sound overly polished these days and it loses some of the soul. I think you really brought that soul with these songs.
Thank you very much! I appreciate that!
What were some of the biggest challenges along the way with this record?
Through all of this, I have learned lessons every single day. Doing it independently was the biggest thing. My wife has been managing my career, along with me, and she has been the biggest part of all of this. She inspires and encourages me every day to actually get shit done! [laughs] I wrote seven songs for this album that I have 100% writing credit on, so going back and forth with myself in my head was a challenge. I would think, “I can do this better …” Or “Okay, this needs to be longer … ” Or “Alright, now this needs to happen.” I produced this album myself, so I feel like having come to terms with the things I mentioned before with the notes, not overly producing it and making it all a little bit more real was the biggest realization I had through it all. I wanted to make something that stands on its own and where each song can be its own thing but also have it so, when you look at the tracklisting and the names of the songs, you don’t immediately know what you are going to get. That is what I really intended to do and to hear from other people that really comes across is great. I have had people tell me, “I read the song title ‘Riot On Sunset’ and thought I was going to get one thing but I got something totally different!” That has been really, really cool.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process? How have things changed and how have things stayed the same over the years?
When it comes to songwriting, things are pretty dysfunctional! [laughs] Usually, I start off with an idea on guitar. I play that over and over and then record it onto my phone. Then I start to sing something to it using different vowel sounds and come up with something in that way. From there, I will take what I have and put it on the computer and start to break it down. For some reason, a lot of these songs don’t begin to manifest themselves for awhile. They don’t turn into anything right away but then one day it will hit me or I will come up with a line or a title. At that point, I can immediately go back through my database on my phone or in my head and say, “Oh! That would fit perfectly with that song idea.” Then I go back to the song and finish it. There was definitely a lot of that on this album; this dysfunctional writing! It definitely seemed to work! That is for songs that are full compositions of mine. There were two that were written by outside writers, “Smackdown” and “We Are The Unknown.” There were also a few that were co-writes. The co-writes come together a little bit easier and those usually happen in one day through. A six to eight-hour writing session. It’s great when you can bounce your ideas off someone else but I have always loved the challenge, and still do, of writing something myself. I really enjoy competing with myself inside my own head and using my own creativity to produce something that can stand on its own equally amongst the others.
When you look back on this album, along with your previous releases, how have you evolved as an artist?
I think everything is more organic. I feel like, as I get older, the more albums I make and the more songs I write, I want to make something that isn’t necessarily trying to compete with what is trendy. Instead, I am looking to what truly inspires me. I am not trying to make these songs or albums sound like anything else that is out there. I really want to focus on staying true to myself, being my own artist and setting my own trends. If that happens, so be it, it would be great. These are my songs in my style with my vibe. I think that is what is most important. The thing that stands out to me is always remembering I don’t need to stylize myself after the people that influence me. Instead, I keep my influences in the back of my mind, in my subconscious. I may refer back to them but I don’t try to mimic what is already out there.
So much can be said about the climate of today’s music industry. What are some of the positives of being a working artist today?
I think the freedom to create and put things out there is amazing, especially if you are doing it independently. There are so many different outlets and ways to push your music to people. SoundCloud is a great example. If you come up with an idea and want people to hear it, you can put it up there and people will hit it up. They don’t have to pay anything and just have to click to listen. There are also services like Spotify where you can be a recommendation if you are similar to something else and people can discover you in that way. I feel like using all the tools out there is really important. Being independent, I feel it is a really good thing not have to owe people for something you can do yourself. I think that is the greatest part about this day and age in the music industry. You can literally create an entire album on your phone or computer, release it and play shows, all on your own. You can do it all yourself.
I know you lend your voice to many great causes. What can we help shine a light on?
I am always doing different charity events for different autism groups and societies. I am someone who has grown up with autism, a high functioning autistic called Asperger’s Syndrome. Knowing what it is like to face those challenges every day of being different and seemingly being unwanted by society, I love to bring attention, knowledge and awareness to the fact that it is OK that other people are different from you. It is OK that other people don’t think the same way that you do. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with them. It is all about accepting other people’s differences. No one is more or less than anyone else and it is your differences that make you your own unique person and make you stand out. The whole thing with autism awareness is that people with autism, whether it is high functioning or low, should stand out for their own merits and for the people that they are! There are some people who are on the spectrum who are creative minded geniuses. I have met people who are so gifted. They might live in their own world but they are the master and maker of their own world. I think if we can learn as a society to accept people for their differences, people are going to be a lot happier. It is a lot to ask for, it really is, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It might not ever happen but the more people who are aware of autism, the more we will have a better understanding of our differences and that it is completely cool to be different.
That is a great way to look at it, James! We wish you continued success and can’t wait to spread the word on “Riot on Sunset.” Keep up the amazing work!
Thanks, Jason! I will see you out there!
‘Riot on Sunset’ hits the streets on July 15th, 2016. Follow the ongoing adventures of James Durbin on the web and social mediate these locations:
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.