James Durbin is known for giving metal a chance on Season 10 of “American Idol” and pushing to keep rock alive on his 2011 debut, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster. But take a deeper look inside Durbin’s musical soul and for every Judas Priest song he loved, there was one by the Beatles. For every Sammy Hagar, there was a Michael Jackson. For every ounce of metal that soared through his veins, there were equal amounts of pop hooks, catchy melodies, and sing-along lyrics pumping through his musical heart. It’s this musical juxtaposition of rock and pop that Durbin offers up on his eagerly awaited sophomore album, CELEBRATE.
At first listen of his second Wind-up Records release, it might seem that Durbin is taking one big courageous step out of the box. But, for him, it’s really just a natural progression of who he is as an artist, based in the music of his formative years. “I was having an identity crisis!” explains Durbin, “worrying if it would be too heavy or too poppy. I was over thinking it, trying to blend the two just right. I had to take a step back and say, you know what? I’m just going to write like crazy and see what happens. It took a while – almost a year – but the music on CELEBRATE is the end result. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. But it sounds like me. It’s who I am now and where I am at as an artist, as a person, as a husband and father walking through life.”
So, where did all of this come from? Who was the pre-“American Idol” Durbin when music began to shape him? The Santa Cruz, California-born and bred vocal powerhouse was raised by a single mother hooked on oldies and two older sisters hyped on New Kids on the Block. “I grew up with Motown and boy bands,” Durbin laughs. “I had Space Jam, Spice Girls, and *NSync CDs. I was super into Michael Jackson, too, and even sang ‘Rock With You’ for my sixth grade talent show. I had the glove, the jacket, and could moonwalk. It wasn’t until high school that I got more into rock and metal,” he explains.
Post “Idol,” Durbin had just a few weeks to record his debut, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart and debuted Top 40 on The Billboard 200. While Memories cemented Durbin’s rock status (with Revolver even naming him one of the 100 Greatest Living Rock Stars), Durbin never felt that the album was a true representation of his artistry. He didn’t get to let all of his talents fully shine. On CELEBRATE, though, Durbin took creative control over writing and production, resulting in a true mix of his musical influences.
The result? “This is the record I’ve always wanted to make. This is who I am. It’s definitely more pop than most people would expect – it’s even more pop than I thought it would be. All of that came out of writing the record, building it from the ground up. I listened to a lot of different music in between sessions, especially alternative radio. I really like what’s going on there right now with bands like the Neighbourhood, New Politics, and Smallpools. These are great rock bands with a punk vibe that know how to craft an incredible hook. And that’s really close to where I wound up in the end,” says Durbin, who also cites Lennon & McCartney, Bruno Mars, and Pink among his many influences.
CELEBRATE is truly a return to love of music and early pop musings he grew up on. On the first single, the upbeat and infectious “Parachute,” co-written by Durbin & Scott Stevens, for instance, he isn’t afraid to declare it’s “kind of a song P!nk could sing,” full of attitude. With the aforementioned Scott “The Ninja” Stevens in the producer’s chair, plus to co-writing five of the album’s tracks with him, Durbin knew he couldn’t go wrong. “The first song we wrote together was ‘Forget It’. From that session on, my mind was blown! Scott is full of so many different tones and styles that you never know what’s coming next – and that’s definitely a quality I wanted in my second album. Every song we’ve written together is unique in its own way. ‘Parachute’ is one of those songs. The moment we recorded it, everyone we played it for knew we had something special.”
Another co-writer that pushed Durbin’s musical boundaries during their writing sessions was Ted Bruner, who co-wrote three of the album’s standout tracks, “Children Under the Sun,” “Celebrate,” and “Real Love.” “When it was first suggested that I try out a session with Ted and I saw that he had written songs for Selena Gomez and Katy Perry, I was like, ‘Okay this is the challenge I’ve been looking for musically. Let’s really go for it.’” That pop influence stands out on songs like ‘Children Under the Sun,’ which features the power hook of a Katy Perry and the jangly guitar of a U2, and ‘Celebrate,’ best described as an alt rock power jam that allows Durbin to channel his inner-Justin Timberlake.
“It was my first day working with Ted and right off the bat we had these ‘visual inspirations’,” says Durbin of his time working with Bruner. I told him about the inspiration for the lyrics to ‘Children,’ which is about a time in my adolescence at The Boardwalk in Santa Cruz when I was getting into some mischief. He put up a photo of The Giant Dipper rollercoaster from The Boardwalk and we used that photo to base the sound of the song around. He’d be like, ‘Okay, look at this picture when you’re writing and singing. This image is what the song should sound like!’” he explains.
“’Children’ really helped set the tone for the record. Ted and I were going for some big songs with big choruses and ‘Children’ really does that. After months and months of writing and writing, it was ‘Children Under The Sun’ that was the big game-changer. That was the song! As soon as everyone – my manager, the label, my A&R – heard it, they really got where I was going and got behind me 110%,” he says.
Lyrically, the record is more personal than his previous album, giving Durbin the opportunity to explore his more introspective and sensitive side. “Celebrate,” for instance, is a fun, sexy, mid-tempo party song, which serves as a love letter to his wife Heidi. “Real Love,” an acoustic ballad in a post-Wings Paul McCartney way, is also about his one true love. Even the power ballad “Issues” delves into the complexities of a relationship, with the most challenging of partners, himself: ” This song, ‘Issues’, to me feels like my final declaration to the world, for anyone who’s been the victim or the outcast, that we’re all the same. We’ve all hit our own ‘rock bottom’. But now, this is our time to truly be who we are, ‘perfectly flawed’. We’ve all got ‘Issues’,” he laughs.
Thematically, if Memories of a Beautiful Disaster was – as Durbin once said, built on “frustration, anxiety, and excitement” – then CELEBRATE was built from a stress-free place of gratitude, celebration, and positivity… and LOVE. “This record is more about a celebration of life and music because right now in my life I’m not worried about standing up for metal, or rock, or whatever anyone else has labeled me with,” he says. “I’m just stoked to be able to sing songs that I created, that I wrote. I don’t have to yell them. I don’t have to scream them. Because they’re already me.”
Making CELEBRATE his own necessitated over a year in writing sessions, resulting in Durbin co-writing 10 of the 11 tracks over a series of prolific writing sessions in Nashville, Venice, Malibu, Hollywood, and New York. Among Durbin’s co-writers were the aforementioned Bruner and Dave Bassett (Meat Loaf, Orianthi, Josh Groban), as well as writers Steve Aiello (30 Seconds to Mars) and Griffin Boice (Black Eyed Peas, Frankie J, Wiz Khalifa) and his producer Stevens (formerly of The Exies).
“We’d really dive into each song until it was right. One of my favorite writing sessions was with Griffin Boice and Steve Aiello in Hollywood working on ‘Louder Than a Loaded Gun.’ Griffin’s studio was such a great creative space. We were all just playing around with ideas until we got it. We pulled an all-nighter, drinking wine, eating bar-b-q, and listening to the song over and over to figure out the hook. I lucked out with super awesome people to work with who inspired me a lot and really reinvigorated my excitement about music,” he says.
Reflecting on what the past two years have brought him – from placing fourth on “American Idol” in 2011 to seeing the release of his debut record the same year – Durbin also has his eye on another prize. “I want to play real music for people and inspire them to succeed in ways that would have been meaningful for me as a kid. That’s why one of the greatest things through all of this has been to have a platform to perform for causes that mean something to me, like autism and Tourette’s events or being a WWE ‘Be A STAR’ spokesperson for their anti-bullying campaign. This is where wanting to be an artist began for me – feeling that complete enjoyment when you play for someone who’s truly affected by it,” says Durbin, who had suffered from the hands of childhood bullies for having Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette’s Syndrome.
Whether it’s facing the bullies of his childhood or fighting for what he believes in for his music career, Durbin has not only never backed down from a challenge, but has also grown from each and every experience. “There’s always a little fear releasing a new record, but I have never and will never stand down a challenge. People grow and change and as an artist you have to keep evolving. Personally, I can’t do the same thing over and over. If I didn’t try something new and push my own boundaries, then what would I really accomplish? I’ve never been scared to challenge myself.”
The world was treated to one piece of the James Durbin musical puzzle on “American Idol” and Memories of a Beautiful Disaster. Now, on CELEBRATE, the rest of the puzzle comes together.