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'American Idol' Alum James Durbin Ready to 'Celebrate' With Sophomore Release

The Season 10 rocker explores his softer side and a new, grown-up outlook, he tells THR.

James Durbin PR Image - P 2014
LeAnn Mueller
James Durbin

Season 10 alum James Durbin’s second album blasts onto four Billboard charts this week, but the American Idol finalist started thinking about his sophomore set quite a while ago. Celebrate is a new entry on The Billboard 200 at No. 83, and also bows on Top Rock Albums at No. 14, Top Internet Albums at No. 21 and Top Current Albums at No. 78.

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Two months into his first tour, the season 10 alum knew it was time to start working on the follow-up to his debut album, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster. “I was bored playing the same songs over and over and wanted to throw some new ones into the mix,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When you do a show where every song is at a 10, there’s no room to take your audience on a ride. I was singing every song at full force because that’s what the first album was. Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen do three or four-hour concerts and they take you from these big, fun rock songs to ballads to pop songs and folk and country songs and everything in between. I wanted to make a record that showed how I’ve evolved and that I’m still finding myself as an artist and a songwriter.”

Durbin wrote his very first song right after he met the woman who would become his wife. “Heidi’s middle name is Air, so I wrote a song called ‘Air.’ She played Jack Johnson for me and I had never heard him before. I thought I could write like him, very mellow with a couple of chords. Heidi was in Texas and I missed her terribly and she missed me. We couldn’t stop calling each other. I wrote her that song, bought her flowers and showed up at her house. I waited for her for four hours, petting her cats. I had to keep hosing off the flowers in her backyard. Finally she arrived home. She had a couple of guitars so I played the song for her and I still play it from time to time.”

Durbin has a writing credit on 10 of the 11 songs on his new album, including the first single, “Parachute.” Work on Celebrate began with a few writing sessions in Los Angeles. “One of the first songs I wrote was ‘You’re Not Alone’ with David Bassett and it ended up on the record.” From L.A., Durbin traveled to Nashville. “I was still unsure of what record I was making. I got to write with one of my heroes, James Michael [co-founder with Nikki Sixx of the band Sixx:AM]. Hanging out at his home every day and hearing him sing and getting tips from him about producing was a dream. While I was at his house I wrote close to 30 songs and none of them made the cut for Celebrate. They weren’t right, sonically.”

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Durbin took those new songs to New York and met with execs from his label, Wind-Up. “We had a real conversation because I’m someone who likes to be involved. It happened when I was on Idol. I didn’t want someone else picking my songs or positioning me on the stage and telling me where to look.”

After the Nashville sessions and the meeting in New York at his label, Durbin went to Venice, Calif., to work with producer Ted Bruner (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Chad Kroeger). “We walked around Venice and put our sunglasses on and went in and out of hat shops. We listened and opened our minds. If we eavesdropped on someone who said a word like ‘boom,’ we’d write it down. And then we’d sit on the beach and talk about existence and the universe, all without any limitations or anyone telling us ‘no.’ Then we’d go back to his studio and start creating.”

Durbin found himself getting different results on different days. “Sometimes you think it’s going to be a great day and you don’t get anything done. It’s a waste of a day. Other times you feel like you’re tired and spent and you end up writing for 24 hours nonstop, eating BBQ and drinking wine, having fun and it’s a great experience. That’s how a song like ‘Louder Than a Loaded Gun’ came about. It was very indie and alternative sounding and then it turned into this big alternative rock-pop anthemic song. A day that I thought was going to be lackluster turned into an all-night session. I arrived at 3 p.m. and was up all night, writing. I left the studio the next morning at 11 a.m.”

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THR asked the Idol finalist how James Durbin 2014 is different from the James Durbin that we saw on the Fox series in 2011. “I’m older and growing hair in really weird places,” he laughed. “On Idol, for some reason I felt I wasn’t manly enough if I didn’t have facial hair. Paul McDonald was gone, Casey Abrams was gone, Stefano Langone with that nasty little scruff on his chin was gone. I needed to keep some form of a beard [on the show] and that was a huge mistake. The beard lasted until the end of the summer tour. I had this handlebar-thin mustache. Heidi said she was walking if I didn’t shave it off. She started packing her bag and I was crying and shaving.

“I was very selfish and egotistical then, and I’m trying to be more selfless and be happy in the moment. Now if I exude confidence, it’s because I’m having so much fun and I’m so grateful for each and every opportunity. Just sitting here doing an interview at a nice restaurant in Hollywood is something to be grateful for. There are six and a half billion people in the world and every one has a dream. I get to live my dream. When I was on Idol, I took that for granted. I went from being a small-town boy to being one of 12 faces on a TV show -- and then it was gone. I took it the wrong way. I’m still learning how to get back to the way I was [before Idol], but I’m getting closer to being myself again.”

Durbin is very happy to have a second album on the Wind-up imprint. “I’m glad my record label believes in me enough to give me a second chance -- really, a third chance after Memories and then being in Nashville, writing those 30 songs. Celebrate is really a third chance because they saw growth and improvement in me from my first record. I’m eternally grateful to be given this opportunity because even making one record is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Twitter: @FredBronson