Caleb Johnson was the winner of Season 13 of "American Idol." Jena Irene came in second place. But Johnson's victory included some controversy over his use of the word "retarded" when describing some of his fans and their song suggestions. He made public apologies for his insensitive remark, but some backlash against him still lingers.
And winning "American Idol" is no longer a guarantee of success. Still, Johnson won many fans with his big voice and performing style that are heavily influenced by classic rock. Only time will tell if Johnson will become a star with staying power or if he will fade back into obscurity. Here is what Johnson said in a telephone conference call interview with journalists the day after the show's Season 13 finale.
The National Memorial Day people in Washington, D.C., said that you’re going to sing the national anthem. And then Jena said that you’re going to be at her prom. So are both those true? And you’re going to be on the plane back and forth a lot, or how are you going to do it?
Yes, I think I’m just going to be up in the air, you know, for a couple of days, just going back and forth, but it’s going to be so much fun, and I’m incredibly honored to be able to attend both events. So it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Jena has called you her best friend, which is interesting because you’re a lot of years apart and from different parts of the country. What is it about Jena that makes her one of your best friends?
She’s absolutely amazing. First of all, is she’s a phenomenal singer and performer, and not only that, but she’s just got a huge, huge heart, and she’s so sweet and funny and kind, and we just, for some reason, just have this really weird, amazing connection where we just have so much fun together, and it’s just so much fun. She’s incredible.
You must be really excited, now you have an opportunity to record an album. Have you begun talking about the kind of music that will be on it?
Yes, absolutely. The record itself is going to be a really heavy, soulful, convicted, powerful, rock and roll record, with a lot of depth and again, a lot of soul. I really want this to be an incredible and amazing experience, because I’m a big album fan, so I love full albums, so I don’t want this to be a singles, pop-based record.
Just because it is “American Idol” doesn’t mean I’m going to be a pop singer, or a pop-rock singer. Like, this is going to be a legitimate rock and roll, “all killer no filler” record I really want it to make a really incredible impact in the music industry. I’m really, really looking forward to recording and writing, and working with other writers, and just getting my band together and formed, and ready to go out there and just hit the ground running.
Do you plan on fronting a band, like “American Idol” alum Chris Daughtry?
Yes, absolutely. Yes, to have the band, to form a band and have those be my band of brothers, where we’re going to be in it to win it until the end, and just write, and jam, and just have a good time.
Do you have any collaborations planned?
At this point, I don’t know yet. It’s all going to come really quickly, but I’m going to sit down with the people at the label soon, and just work it out, and make sure that they’re on the same page as me, and we all communicate and work together, and just make it happen, and make this a really incredible and amazing experience.
Do you think that the “rocker” description that they gave you on “American Idol” really fits you as an artist? Would you describe yourself any differently?
I think my time on the show really was amazing in that I think every song that I did really portrayed me as the singer and performer and artist that I am. And it was also really great, too, to do songs that aren’t necessarily rock songs, like Adele’s “Skyfall” or Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” or Lady Gaga, because it kind of showcased more of so that, whatever song I do, I can put my own stamp on it.
I am a rock singer, and the records that I’m going to make are rock/soul records that have a lot of conviction and a lot of depth to them. They’re just going to be heavy, because I just love heavy, bluesy rock and roll.
Your vocal health was an issue. Do you have any concerns about the tour, in terms of how you’re going to handle the demands on your voice, which shows every night?
Yes, absolutely. I now have to just take it a different approach to not go 100 miles an hour, because this whole process has really kind of prepared me for what’s to come. I just have to take it very gently, and not overdo it, and conserve my energy and my voice and strength, because this is the big leagues now, so I have to take care of my instrument.
So that really was a great learning experience for me. I’m taking that to heed, and know that I’m human and that under all the amount of stress and stuff, I have to be able to handle it well, and cope with it. That way, I will have a strong voice for every show that I do from now on.
What’s your reaction to being the first really hard rocker to win on “American Idol”?
You know what? I am just thrilled to death, because I was kind of unsure, because “Idol” is really a pop-based show with pop music and pop culture. So it was really cool that I was really well received by the judges and the audiences, and even the other contestants.
They really enjoyed it, and it was so cool, because I sang stuff like Rush and Led Zeppelin and all kinds of these rock bands, and then I did, like, Adele and Aretha Franklin and stuff like that. So it was just a really amazing and surreal moment that when I won, I was like, “Wow. I cannot believe that I won American Idol.” It’s just so surreal and it’s an honor and it’s amazing.
After so many weeks of being judged yourself, how would you judge Ryan Seacrest’s singing in the season finale?
You know what? Actually, I really enjoyed it. He actually did a really good job. I loved that end note that he ended on, and I thought he did pretty well.
After auditioning for “American Idol” in the past, what made you come back and keep trying?
The first two times I really was kind of unsure about the whole experience. I kind of went into it without any experience, and just not a lot of time spent under my belt writing and performing and jamming with my band and stuff. The first two times, again, it was just a lack of experience.
So what I did was I took time off and just wrote and worked with my band and toured and did shows. And then when the time came this year, I felt like I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to give it one more shot, let’s see what happens, and let’s just go all out, guns blazing, and see what happens.” The crazy thing is that I now just took the title home, and it’s just so incredible, and it’s an honor, and it’s insane. It’s absolutely crazy.
Your performance with Kiss was really incredible. What did you feel like, performing with one of your biggest musical inspirations?
You know, it was just really humbling, and such an honor to get to play with [Kiss, who are]. Literally, they are icons in rock. I think they just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and I grew up listening and loving their music so much.
I’m, telling you, they were some of the nicest, funniest people I’ve ever met. So nice, they were really kind, and they had such great compliments of me. And it was just such a fun and incredible moment that it’s something that I’ll never forget, until the day I die. It was just so much fun.
You had mentioned a little bit ago about having to take it easy now with your health. Are you pretty much back to normal?
Not fully back, but I just have to conserve my energy, and I’ve got to get some more rest and stuff. But yes, my voice hasn’t completely healed 100 percent. There’s still a minor hemorrhage, but with good rest and just giving my voice a rest for a couple days, the doctor said that it should be fine. But there is a risk that it can get worse if I over-use it.
In the season finale, you did your first single, “As Long As You Love Me.” What do you think of your single, and do you think it fits you well?
This is what’s really interesting about the “Idol” experience, is that it goes really quickly. That song was given to me by the people from 19 [Entertainment, which manages several “American Idol” alumni]. And what was really cool was it was written by Justin Hawkins from the band The Darkness, and it was a really interesting song.
It was kind of a challenge, because we didn’t really have a lot of time to go through it that much. We got the song, and then we had to go record it like two days later, and it was a really fast process. But it was just a fun song, and I had a blast singing it on the show.
It’s just a fun rock and roll anthem kind of a song, but the record itself is going to be really, really heavy and convicted, and it’s going to have a lot of soul and a lot of depth. It’s just going to be a big powerhouse monster record that I cannot wait to let people hear.
What did you do after the season finale when you were named the winner?
I just went back to the hotel and just hung out with my family, and then went to bed. That was basically what the whole night entailed. I was just really pooped out.
Do you have a celebration in the works? A party?
Yes, hopefully when I get a chance to go back home, I’m going to definitely do something with my family and friends, and just hang out, and enjoy the time that I’ll have back home, right before I do the tour, which I’m really excited about.
What advice would you have for anyone wanting to audition for “American Idol”?
Just believe in yourself 100 percent and just keep yourself grounded and stay focused. Make sure that your artistry and your vision comes through when you sing and when you perform, and it will make a connection with people.
You have widespread of support from around the country. How important is that as you’re going through the whole American Idol experience?
You know, it’s just an honor, and it’s extremely, extremely humbling to get the love and support from everyone. I wouldn’t have made it this far on the show without the support from my fans, and friends and family all across the nation. It’s just been so overwhelming in the best possible way. It’s incredible.It’s amazing.
What real single thing helped you the most when you came back to audition for “American Idol” this time?
Just to be driven, and to be focused, and stay on the path and the vision that you have, and just basically to not give up. You only live one life, and whatever you believe strongly in, and whatever passion you have, you should max it out to the fullest, and just give it your all.
Do you have any regrets or anything that you wish you had done differently while you were on “American Idol”?
Absolutely not. I have had so much fun. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It’s been absolutely incredible, and I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever. It’s been such a joy and a pleasure and honor getting to sing on such a grand stage, and it was so much fun.
What are you most looking forward to when you do the “American Idol” tour with some of your fellow contestants?
Just getting to go to the different cities, and to perform for all the different audiences, and just have a blast. Just get to go out on the road, and get that music out there on the road, and just put on some great shows for everybody.
Fans finally got to see the footage of Jena asking you to her prom. So did you go to your own prom? And how do you think it’ll feel to go back to high school?
You know what? It’s going to be really funny, and it’s going to be maybe a little bit awkward, but we’re going to have a blast, and it’s definitely going to be a night that I’m not going to forget, and she’s not going to forget.
Now that you’ve won and people all over the country know you, how do you think it will impact your dating life?
I don’t know. Right now, to be honest with you, I’m not going to have time at all to worry about dating or starting any kind of long-term relationship right now, because everything is going by so quickly, that once the record’s out and the tour is over with, and then the tour starts for the record that’s coming out August 12, hopefully I’ll get a chance to actually like take a second to relax and go out and have fun. But right now. it’s all business and all about getting the best possible music out there to people.
Did you at any point think early in the competition that you could win?
I didn’t know for sure, but I knew that after the first live show, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can do this, I can buckle down, I can pull it together, and just give the best possible performances that I possibly can, week after week.”
Do you think there’s anything in particular that you learned about yourself as an artist through the experience?
Yes, what’s so cool is that you learn so much — especially on this show — about yourself, but it’s in such a short amount of time, and really it just helps you just really kind of get really in tune with who you are as a person, and as a singer, as a performer. And then I think it really shows when you perform, how natural and how incredible that your soul can just come out when you sing for people, and it’s really a powerful thing.
First of all, to put this in a little perspective, what were you doing a year ago today?
A year ago today, I was out playing shows with my band, about three or four times a week doing gigs and stuff, out there hustling and writing and playing out.
And you already had plans to do audition again for “American Idol”?
Not necessarily. I was really kind of focused about the band stuff. But yes, I really was just driven and determined to make it in the music business.
You’re doing a concert in San Diego with “American Idol” Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery and “The Voice” Season 4 winner Danielle Bradbury. Do you watch “The Voice,” and would you ever consider going on the same stage with Josh Kaufman, the winner of “The Voice” Season 6?
Is he country? Is he a country singer?
No, sort of soulful pop.
Yes, I guess. I would be down to share any stage with anybody. I love music, and I love just performing, and whoever I get to share the stage with, I’m down for anything. So I think that would be a lot of fun.
Were you tempted to go on stage in full-on Kiss makeup, and were you a little bit envious of your brother Houston that he did?
You know, what was so funny was the producers, they asked me jokingly, and I said, “You know what? I don’t think I could pull it off.” It was funny, the members of Kiss are so tall, like, I literally looked like a hobbit compared to them onstage, because they’re these massive guys.
And yes, Houston is a huge, huge Kiss fan. And so when I found out that I was singing with them, I had to bring him on stage and let him see that, because I knew he would just be thrilled to death. So I’m really glad that he got to experience that and meet them, and they were so nice, and humble and generous and hilarious. I think it’s something that we’ll both never forget.
You and Jena Malone were each given a 2014 Ford Fusion as part of your “American Idol” prizes. Was there a discussion between you and Jena Irene about which car you would get, or was it obvious?
Well, we get to pick any car or any color or whatever kind of car we want, so that was really crazy that when we saw the cars, and then they said, “Well, it’s your choice, so you can pick whichever one, any color, or whatever.” So we’re going to sit down and figure out which one we want.
You still haven’t decided?
No, not yet.
Southerners seem to win on “American Idol” quite a bit. After you finish this tour, do you have any idea where you’re going to live? Are you going to be a nomad?
You know, that might be the case. I don’t know for sure, but I really would love to come back to the East Coast and stay and live, because that’s where my roots are, and that’s where I grew up. It’s just insane. I would really love to come to stay in Nashville and even Atlanta or Asheville. I don’t really know where I would live would be is in the South on the East Coast.
Have you thought about what songs you’re going to sing for the “American Idol” tour?
We haven’t gotten to that point yet, so it’s kind of crazy, but I think for the actual tour it’s going to be highlights from the show. Whatever the biggest moments I had on the show, I’ll be doing those songs.
You and Jena have become really close and very good friends. Do you think you’ll ever work together or do a duet on either of your albums?
You know what? We talked about it. We both love the idea. We would love to do that. I think it would be great.
Can you give us a little insight on your “American Idol” auditions? What would you say to people who want to audition?
You know, just to rest and get sleep and be prepared and have a couple songs in your back pocket, because they’ll make you sing up between one to four songs. Just be prepared and be ready and just go out there and have no nerves and kill it.
Your guitarist mentor Elijah Hooker, who’s in your band, once told you, “Hey, you’re a really good singer. You ought to do this seriously.” How old were you when he said that to you? Where did he hear you at the time? And what happened then?
I think I was 17 years old. He had a band in high school, and there was a talent show that was coming up. I think, from a mutual friend, somebody had told him that they heard me singing somewhere. He just came up to me and said, “Hey, man. Would you be interested coming to my house and jamming” and sing on some songs that he had written.
So I said, “Yes, sure.” So what happened was I went to his basement, and it was like a four-piece band that he had, and so we just kind of started jamming out. I started singing a couple lines, and so he just literally lost it, and he called his parents down. He said, “You guys have got to hear this guy sing. It’s incredible.” And they were freaking out and ecstatic.
So then the night of the talent show, we were playing to a packed house, and I just got up on stage and sang the first line of the song. And like the crowd just erupted. Right there in that moment I was like, “Wow, this is what I want to do. I think this is my calling.” And from then on out it’s just been work, work, work and just honing in on my craft and my performing abilities and vocals, and just honing it in.
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