The end of an era has come and gone as American Idol had it’s final curtain call on April 7, 2016. Acting as the vehicle to stardom for so many talented singers who have risen above and beyond their dreams, we have witnessed transformations and inspiring stories from beginning to end. A singer/songwriter and guitarist from Santa Cruz, CA, James Durbin reached the top four in season 10 and clearly became a force to be reckoned with as he consistently came out week after week exerting powerhouse vocals with an out of this world range. How many other contestants can say they performed on the Idol stage with Judas Priest and Zakk Wylde? Starting with his impressive audition where he sang Aerosmith’s Dream On, even judge Steven Tyler himself was blown away with this young man’s talent. It didn’t just stop there. Durbin has since performed with everyone from Steel Panther to Evanescence and Drowning Pool.
Screamer Magazine was able to sit down with Durbin after the final episode of American Idol to discuss his journey, his newly released single called Smackdown and his upcoming 3rd studio album that is being funded through crowdsourcing. An avid wrestling fan, Durbin describes his journey on American Idol as “something real”. He says “a lot of those reality TV shows are pre-determined, planned out and rehearsed. But a lot of what happened last week on the Idol finale was real. It was organic and it was very special. It was the perfect way to end everything on the show.” Performing in a singing contest, every move is choreographed and you are typically forced to choose songs from a list that the producers have approved and even singing genres outside of your own create quite a challenge for many contestants, but not for Durbin. “I think once you decide what your style is and that you are comfortable in it, it’s easy” Durbin advises. “With a show like Idol, it’s not a genre based show and you know what you’re getting yourself into. I did my best to maintain one genre and I know when to go all in and when to pull back. I knew when to bring the guitars out. Rock n’ roll isn’t just about the sounds or how heavy it is. You can make it heavier in the lyrics or the distortions, there is always a way, but performing on TV is a lot different because you have to know where you have to go, where you need to stand, when the song starts. There are specific markers you have to hit where the cameras are going to be and that isn’t something that I necessarily love but it was still enjoyable. Once you realize your own genre though, it’s a lot different when it’s your own show and your own crowd” Durbin says. “When you’re playing your own show, you’re making your own rules and you’re playing organically, on your own terms. You go where your heart takes you and where the song takes you but when you are performing on a big stage for TV, the plus side is that the producers have a big budget. “While I questioned some of the song choices, including the one they had us do in the finale, I knew I had to trust Nigel Lythgoe. He knows what he is doing and it unfolded in a way that worked and it was a really touching moment” Durbin concludes.
Durbin has always lived and breathed music and while it is safe to say he would have had a career in music regardless of his American Idol appearances, it also sped up the process in many ways for him. One can ask what Durbin would be doing if it hadn’t been for the show and he claims he would still be delivering pizzas and be a struggling musician with few gigs. “I don’t really like to think about that because I grabbed the bull by the horns when it was there. I stepped out on fate and really took a chance” Durbin reveals. “A lot of people take a chance when they audition for Idol and everyone in the room has a contract in their hands that are the equivalent of two phone books. You look around and think about how you are about to sign your life away. It’s not like we had the chance to go talk to an attorney. It just comes down to whether or not you want it bad enough and you have nothing to lose. And I had nothing to lose, but I had everything to gain.” Durbin goes on to say that he was in a position where he was in the mindset of just knowing he had to know and trust what he was getting himself into and luckily it paid off.
As his new single Smackdown has been released with positive reception, fans are growing more and more excited about his third studio album which has yet to be given a title. Since the release of his first album Memories Of A Beautiful Disaster released in 2011 and Celebrate released in 2014, Durbin has grown a lot personally and musically. He has high hopes for the new record which is being funded via crowdsourcing. “My first album was recorded in two and a half weeks so that in itself was pretty crazy. I had a lot of time to work on my second record but a lot of things were changed and I had to make the best of the situation, I took the album under my wing and tried to write as many songs as possible. I love the songs on the album, I just don’t enjoy playing them live. They’re great songs, but from a songwriting standpoint, they just come from a different place, a different meaning” Durbin admits. “With the third record, I have been able to really take my time with it and there are few songs that have I finished years ago and even one I wrote when I was 19. It’s really cool that I can put that one on there. So it’s been a lot nicer being able to have more creative control and decide the direction as well as writing the songs” Durbin verbalizes. “There’s no A&R person, I am the A&R Person, I am the label. I did a crowdfunding campaign through Pledge Music and raised the funds to make the record. It has been tremendous so far. I have been extremely budget friendly and keeping the sound quality and using my band along with doing everything locally here in Santa Cruz. I feel like I have done good for my community and therefore my community is helping me to continue to do good things. I believe in this music so it is amazing to know other people believe in it as well. Plus, it gives them a chance to help pick the artwork and receive the music a bit sooner” Durbin graciously admits.
As a young child, Durbin started to incorporate music into his life. “There was a point where I did a lot of musical theatre. Once I was in middle school, I became a fan of rock music. I was home alone a lot and went onto YouTube where I found a guy named Drew Sarich” Durbin tells us. “He is this amazing theatrical rock singer who was in several productions like Jesus Christ Superstar and I would spend hours trying to match his notes. I did that with Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury’s voices as well. Just matching power and prowess and style. I was able to find a way to stretch my vocal range and my vocal chords and to have more control of my voice.” Even though Durbin was diagnosed with both Asperger and Tourette’s Syndromes shortly after his father passed away, he has never let it stop him when it comes to going after his dreams and he possesses one of the most versatile vocals ranges in American Idol history. “I am always setting goals for myself and try to accomplish them. Everyday is a day to day battle with your own mind. We are our own worst critic. It’s about being conscious of that and not letting it control your mind” Durbin says. “There was a point in my life where I had people telling me I wouldn’t amount to anything, but I just love to play music. My goal wasn’t to be an inspiration or be anybody’s hero. It was just about feeling good and to make people feel my music. Along the way, through Idol is when the inspiration part came about. The things I have gone through have helped people and things have changed.
Durbin not only hopes to design his own guitar line one day and to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists, but his main focus and excitement is directly in conjunction with his own music. “Being able to take control of everything on this new album rather than having someone else telling me what they want me to do. I wake up and I know I have a lot to do and it’s motivating to be your own boss. In being your own boss though, you are also your own employee and if you aren’t a good employee, well then you won’t get anything done.”
Durbin has oozed rock n’ roll since before he set foot on the American Idol stage and as his career has gone on, his star only becomes brighter. James Durbin is living proof that no matter what limits you have, you can always live out your dream if you put your mind to it.