James Durbin is not one to be pinned down. After a run to the Americal Idol Final Four as the show’s resident rocker and a whipped-together debut album, the family man and classic rock enthusiast took some time to find himself as an artist before recording his second album, Celebrate. The artist he discovered is much more positive than the messy haired, grungy one portrayed on the cover of his debut. With Celebrate, Durbin pulled from popular influences both current and classic to come into his own as a full-blown entertainer that can be loved by a young legion of fans and their parents alike. James took some time to speak to the Q&A about his goals as a performer, some of his favorite things, and the importance of stressing to his fans that what makes you different makes you special.
JD: Album 1 is five words, and album 2 is one word (laughs). Album 1 is a little morbid, and album 2 focuses on the brighter side of things. Album 1 took two and a half weeks, album 2 took a year and a half. Album 2 I got to focus on writing. I got to figure out my own type of things, and it’s been nice to get to know my side of songwriting.
GGM: You have a concert coming up called Destroy the Night where you’re covering The Doors and Led Zeppelin. What made you want to do this type of show?
JD: I’m doing it with a guy that was my music teacher growing up, Dale Aukerman. In Santa Cruz he does a show called The White Album Ensemble, where they perform Beatles songs from after they stopped touring and when they couldn’t play their songs with just the four members. In the White Album Ensemble there are over ten members. What I wanted to do with The Doors and Zeppelin was something kind of like that. I’m doing it with Dale and a bunch of the other students he taught, and it’s been really great because we’re all grown up and so advanced compared to how we started. It’s cool for us and the community as well because it’s The Doors, and Zeppelin, two amazing, iconic bands that never toured together. It’s a way for me to bridge the gap locally between my older fans and their kids. Instead of parents dusting off old records to convince their kids how cool these bands are, maybe I can be that person who they’re both familiar with that can help show off the music the parents are familiar with.
GGM: Will your performance feature more straight covers or reinterpretations? What can audiences expect from this show?
JD: It’s pretty much just about staying true to The Doors and Zeppelin. I’ll have my own spin, obviously, because it’s me singing and not Jim Morrison or Robert Plant, but I’ve been wanting to branch out and do something classic.
GGM: Before you became the resident rocker of American Idol, you were really into pop stuff. Motown, boy bands, Michael Jackson. What’s one album or song you can point to from your childhood and say “I see how the kid who listened to that turned into James Durbin?”
JD: I was raised by my Mom and my two older sisters, so I was heavily influenced by what they listened to. By the time I was three, they had me singing “Ohhhh, the right stuff,” and all these New Kids on the Block songs. My Mom listened to oldies stations, so Motown Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five, that kind of stuff. I love Michael Jackson. I still do. His dancing, his performance. He was literally the greatest entertainer. He could get on a stage and shuffle his feet, and people faint! I don’t know what it is about him. His confidence! He knows that whatever he does, he can make people shriek and faint and applaud. It’s like, “If you’re not gonna watch the best, and you’re not gonna want to be the best, then what are you gonna wanna be?” You have to aim for the highest, whatever that is. It doesn’t have to be taking over the entire world, but if that’s what you’re aiming for and you do it in your own way, then that’s perfect. No one wants a copy of somebody else. You gotta be your own interpretation of everything that influences you.
GGM: It’s funny you bring up Michael Jackson’s performance style. When I was watching your performances, I was thinking “Man, I bet this guy watched a lot of Michael Jackson,” and sure enough, you did! You broke through on American Idol doing the classic rock, so I have to ask: What’s your favorite classic rock album?
JD: I love Motley Crue. I love Kiss. Girls Girls Girls was a phenomenal record. Dr. Feelgood. Anything Queen. Bon Jovi- Slippery When Wet... That’s a tough one. Too many to name. The crème de la crème would have to be The White Album.
GGM: What are some modern songs or albums you’re jamming today?
JD: I really am into the Arctic Monkeys’ new record, AM. It’s destroying my mind. Imagine Dragons- Nightvision is phenomenal, especially the way they interpret it on tour. I love finding music that makes me want to aim higher. Hearing that, it’s just like “what’s the point if you can’t aim higher?”
GGM: Than Imagine Dragons?
JD: Yeah, or Arctic Monkeys, or Muse, or 30 Seconds to Mars, or My Chemical Romance. Bands like that that are still going and they can make such phenomenal, beautiful records they can tour on for years without having to put anything else out. It speaks so much. It’s the highest quality of music. Maybe it’s almost getting close to a peak. I don’t think I’ve hit mine yet, which is good because I still have something to work for.
GGM: When you get downtime, what do you like to do?
JD: I have a family, a wife and son, and we’re pregnant with our second child.
GGM: Oh! Congratulations!
JD: Thank you! We’re really excited. But lately we’ve been sitting around watching movies, playing with our dogs.
GGM: What’s a good movie you’ve seen recently?
JD: We love The Great Gatsby. That’s a phenomenal movie. And I just saw The Matrix. That movie’s really messing up my head. I don’t know why it was the first time. I’d seen it in the past but now that I’m old enough to comprehend, I’m really into it.
GGM: Do you like to read?
JD: I do like to read! It was actually a book that got me inspired to do this Doors/Zeppelin show. I was playing a USO show in Kyrgyzstan in the city of Bishkek. I took a book along with me, one of the many biographies of Jim Morrison. It took fifteen years to write. I was reading a chapter that went into exactly how Jim would stand in every one of his performances, how his legs, arms, hands, fingers were positioned. It really hit me how beautiful that was. I got home from that tour overseas and I had to put that idea to reality.
GGM: So can we expect to see you emulating Jim Morrison’s moves on stage?
JD: It’ll definitely be in the back of my mind. I’ve noticed in watching some of his videos, I already do a lot of that stuff. I was inspired and didn’t even know it!
GGM: You’ve said you “want to make real music that inspires people to succeed in ways that would’ve been meaningful to you as a kid.” In what way is that?
JD: When I was growing up, it was right at the start of the emo revolution. That’s when bands really started to talk about their feelings—that sounds really cheesy, but they did! I was really inspired by that. Although music has evolved so much since then, in how it speaks to people and how quickly it has to speak to people, I still think of everything with that in mind. I think about things that made me feel like everything was gonna be okay. When Gerard Way was talking about being hurt and feeling something, that aggression with which he got it out in his music and lyrics, it was like “I can do that too. I can make people feel like that too.” I’ll never forget when I saw My Chemical Romance in 2006 and it blew my mind. The performance, the lyrics, how everything spoke to me and moved me. I continue to write songs that make me feel like that. There’s a few songs on Celebrate, “You Can’t Believe,” “Issues,” “Forget It,” “You’re Not Alone,” songs like that that are really a message. Not like “It’s your birthday! Have your cake and eat it too!” More, “Forget all the shit that brings you down. Forget those people. It’s okay you’re abnormal. That you’re different. Because it makes you special and important. If you’re normal, there’s nothing that sets you apart from everybody else. The people that bring you down, they don’t have anything special about them. There’s a reason they’re singling you out, and it’s because you’re different. And it’s important to be different.” There’s something about how society is built that makes it okay for people to put you down for being different. I don’t look like everybody else. I don’t dress like everybody else. I don’t act like everybody else. I don’t think like everybody else. And I like that. I’m never gonna change for anybody else.
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