as interviewed by Matthew Swinnerton
After Santa Cruz native James Durbin made it to the top finalists in the tenth season of America Idol, he scored a record deal and started touring. Now finished with his sophomore album, he’s back a home. He spoke with Event Santa Cruz founder Matthew Swinnerton on March 11.
There is a lot I didn’t know [about the music industry before I was on American Idol]. I was in bands and played shows for a few years but that was really only in and around Santa Cruz. I think the farthest I went with a band was San Francisco. It was mostly very local. Everything about the music industry I learned from being on Idol and because of the opportunity of being on Idol. Everything from photo shoots to interviews, to what to say and what not to say…how to look and where to look, how to stage for a filmed performance, where to stand, the video production part of it.
The music industry is brutal. I think the music industry is really changing a lot, and it’s really changed a lot since what I knew about it 4 or 5 years ago. I thought getting a record deal would be amazing and there’s all this money in it…. There’s really no money in the music industry itself. If you’re gonna be a part of it, you do it because you love it, and you do it because you can see past all the BS.
You get money from touring and merch, and that’s about it. It’s only 7% of an artist’s income that’s from record sales and even then you only get that money if you recoup your costs from recording the record and the money that you borrowed. Prince was doing this freestyle video, acoustic freestyle concert, and he said something like, “Six platinum albums and I’m still not recouped!” That’s brutal.
One of the greatest moments after American Idol….
It was live recording in the studio, the song was “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, the bass player was one of the original Funk Brothers who played bass on a lot of that stuff for Motown, the label – Bob Babbitt. He recently passed away but I actually got to play with him, not only in the studio but also live for my performance of that. To wrap it all up it was being produced by Don Was—he produced Love Shack and stuff for The Scorpions and Poison, more recently John Mayer, and he plays on stage with Jon Mayer… He’s got this thick black hair and beard and dreads. He’s such a cool guy. He just emanates so much good, happy, positive energy. He would fit right in [with Santa Cruz].
Durbin’s new album comes out April 8. He recorded his first record quickly, in 3 weeks. He reflects on how the new album was a much different process.
This one took like a year and half, like recording a real record. It was a beautiful process. I would do it all over again. I like being able to take my time on things because when I’m rushed, I don’t feel like I can perform to my highest. And being given the time – I mean, not every writing session is a platinum song. Maybe the only person who can do that is Max Martin [songwriter and producer for artists like Maroon 5, Britney Spears, and Pink] or Dr. Luke [songwriter and producer of artists like Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Nicki Minaj]. They can have a single writing session and, boom, every song is completely perfect.
During American Idol, Durbin got a reputation as the purely rock musician, purely metal, and he expresses how that wasn’t necessarily his intention.
I think that my stay on Idol has kind of been misinterpreted. I sang Queen, I sang The Beatles, I sang Harry Nillson, I sang Stevie Wonder. Not everything was focused on metal. It wasn’t until, the top 7, half way through, that I was like, “Give metal a chance!” And it was out of like, “Give me a chance, Give give this song a chance.” Because Jimmy Iovine [Idol mentor] was just beatin’ me down that week, and he said that if I sang that I was going to be a carbon copy of Sammy Hagar, it wasn’t going to be original, it wasn’t going to be fun… it was kind of like a “F*** the man!”
If I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail because of my decisions. I don’t want to have anyone to blame. I was like, you know what, I’m here for a reason. I’m here because someone sees something in me. If I’m going to put on a show, whether I’m going to succeed or I’m going to fail, I’m going to do it by my own hand.
I wish I had the rights to showing that whole interview from “Songs From Movies” Week [on Idol], because there was so much more in that [performance]…it gave “Give Metal a Chance” perspective. With the way that they edit things on TV, it became its own creature. It just kind of blew up.
With this record I’m more focused on songwriting. I look at performing, and songwriting and growing, as an artist–it’s been 2 years since I put out a record. I’ve done a lot of changing and a lot of growing up. I look at an artist like Springsteen, or look at The Beatles…in 6 years, they went from basically a boy band to writing rock songs. I look at this record to celebrate just another step in my story. I’m still going to play a bunch of songs from my first record. I love my first record. But I want a little more room to play around. If people interpret it as more poppy or mainstream selling out, or losing my metal edge, that’s B.S. Look at Metallica, they’re popular, and their music infects you.
Sometimes you have to make drastic changes and allow yourself growth. You’ll never learn from your mistakes if you don’t make them. You’ve got to take those big steps and just see what happens. If people call it selling out, then who knows—you might be selling out a stadium.
Durbin’s son plays on his lap as he reflects on the work-life balance.
When I’m home, I’m just home. I’m learning how to handle it better now. I look at my son and when I’m on tour, I don’t get to see him… This last tour was 7 weeks away from home—to not be able to see my wife and my son is just heartbreaking. But I know there’s different steps I’ve got to take as an artist: you’ve got to pay your dues before you can have a bus with your family on it. I know if I keep doing what I feel is necessary then it’ll all happen in good time. I listen to the song “Faithfully” by Journey. I have the lyrics on my arm, tattooed.
Three local Santa Cruz favorites:
Durbin’s favorite burrito joint: Los Gordos in Aptos or Taqueria La Cabana
And pizza?: Pizza my Heart, of course!
Favorite venue to play live: I miss it when The 418 had shows. I remember going to shows there, and punk shows in the basement of the Vets Hall.
Durbin will be having an in-store release and signing of his new record at Streetlight Records in downtown Santa Cruz on Saturday, April 12. Keep your eyes open for a possible art show and small show from Durbin that same day!
Saturday 4/12 – 2:00 PM
Streetlight Records Santa Cruz
Acoustic in-store performance, meet and greet, autograph signing
All CELEBRATE Cds come with an exclusive free James Durbin CELEBRATE lithograph
Fan raffle to be held at the event – one lucky fan will win an autographed photo canvas