Conversation with James Durbin: His New Album, Music and Autism
By Kymberly Grosso
Created Dec 5 2011 - 12:29pm
James Durbin, who stood out as an exceptional singer during American
Idol, Season 10, brought fresh sounds and performances to America.
James consistently challenged the status quo with moving rock and
metal tunes. Early in the competition, fans found out that James also
has Tourettes and Aspergers Syndromes. Naturally, parents like me
and kids like my son, who also has Aspergers, cheered for him throughout
the competition. Not only did James shake up the show with his real,
in your face emotional performances, he became an instant role model
to many kids like my son ,who would watch him on TV and say, "He
is like me, and he is amazing!"
With American Idol behind him, James Durbin has once again proved
his tenacity and talent as heard in his new album, Memories Of
A Beautiful Disaster. He has said the album is a reflection of
the struggles in his life and a celebration of his recent success.
Perhaps one of the most moving songs on the album, is Screaming, which
many people can relate to, as it was written about Jame's own experience
with bullying and how he handled it. There are so many powerful songs
on the album, and another one of my favorites is Stand Up,
which is an upbeat, rocking, "get up on your feet" song.
In fact, the NFL added Stand Up to its game day music
line up which is sure to make fans stand and cheer.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview James about his new album,
music, his struggles with bullying and his take on autism. He was
incredibly gracious, well spoken and reminded me again of the incredible
possibilities that are out there for our kids. While I could have
written around the interview and provided bits and pieces, I thought
it would be best to post the interview in its entirety.
There is a reason he is a role model. He experienced adversity yet
he prevails with exceptional music and riveting, live performances.
During the interview, James was open and honest about his experiences
growing up with Autism and Tourettes, bullying, and how these experiences
are reflected in his music. As a parent who loves stories of hope
and success, I am so appreciative that James is significantly contributing
to American music as well as sharing his perspectives about autism.
A Conversation with James Durbin:
KYM GROSSO: I wanted to start off talking about your album, of course,
because it was recently released. How you would describe the music
on your new album, Memories Of A Beautiful Disaster?
JAMES DURBIN: Well, I wanted it accessible to a lot of different people
because American Idol has such a wide variety of different listeners,
so I wanted to make sure that it was accessible and available to everyone
of them so that hopefully all of them would find something in it that
they liked and that they could attach to. I tried to make it a very
GROSSO: You collaborated on this album with many artists. Can you
describe the experience of getting to work with some of these great
DURBIN: I think if I could describe it with three words it would
have to be "dream come true". I mean I got to work with
James Michael and DJ Ashba, from the band Sixx A.M, and Marti Frederiksen,
who has written for Aerosmith. You know he writes one on one with
Steven Tyler, possibly they're best buds. But sharing that experience
was absolutely amazing, the best. First of all your experience and
then to work with Mick Mars from Mötley Crüe. Mötley
Crüe is one of my favorite bands, and I got to work with Mick.
It's going to be right there like...Wow. Mick is history. It was really,
really an amazing, positive experience working with everyone respectively.
GROSSO: What kind of music do you listen to personally? Is it the
same kind of music that you sing or do you listen to lots of different
DURBIN: I listen to lots of different kinds of music. Everything from
Al Green to Led Zeppelin to John Meyer to Mötley Crüe.
GROSSO: When did you first know that you could sing? When did you
first start getting into singing and music?
DURBIN: Well my oldest sister Diana did a lot of musicals and that's
where I discovered my love for being on a stage. My sister was in
high school. I was in elementary, and she had the lead role in Damn
Yankees. And I would go to the show every single night. I would dress
up as a little baseball player. I kind of became the unofficial mascot
for the show. The very last night they let me come up on stage and
sing the songs with them, and I already had my costume.
GROSSO: Who encouraged you to keep singing? Was there someone like
your mom or your sister who encouraged you to keep performing and
to tryout for American Idol?
DURBIN: Well, growing up it was always my mom that encouraged me to
keep singing and was able to get me scholarships to be in a play and
then to sing and do what I love. And then it wasn't until I met my,
soon to be wife, Heidi...She encouraged me to audition for Idol, and
she coached me through it.
GROSSO: Listening to the album I loved the song Stand Up. I understand
this has become an NFL song. Were you very excited to hear that it
was selected for the NFL?
DURBIN: Oh absolutely. Well the point is that the NFL just basically
loved the song. They presented the song to me and wondered if I would
be interested in singing it for them. I heard it and instantly I was
like, yeah, this song's awesome.
?GROSSO: What's your favorite song on the album?
DURBIN: Oh man, that's a tough one. I mean I could pick two. Two of
my top favorites would have to be Right Behind You and Screaming.
GROSSO: I wanted bring up Screaming, because I had read the lyrics
and that the song was about bullying and as you probably know a lot
of the kids with Autism or Asperger's have this issue. Can you tell
me a little bit more about the song?
DURBIN: Yeah. The song is...it talks about my personal life and things
that have happened to me personally and having to deal with being
bullied. There was always one thing that made me feel, I guess, a
little bit better growing up. Actually getting home from school and
screaming. I just wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, so I buried
my face in a pillow and screamed as loud as I could and just kind
of muffled the sound and got it all out. You know, that was kind of
like my way around things before I discovered music.
GROSSO: It was a way to release that frustration from the bullying?
GROSSO: When you were on American Idol, your performances were really
just raw and heart wrenching and it was just amazing to see it. You
were such a great performer. It seemed so natural to you when you
were up there. Does performing in front of large audiences seem to
come naturally to you or is it something you've had to work at?
DURBIN: No. It just came naturally. I mean I never really practiced
performing on stage. I never had any stage fright issues. I guess
that's why I love that. You know it's a freedom of being able to go
on stage and - really be whoever you want to be and not be judged,
I mean, that's how it works for me. You know, this is where I'm comfortable.
This is where I feel most at home is being on stage. And I'm not laughed
at and I'm not made fun of...I'm the center of attention.
GROSSO: When you say get laughed at or made fun of, was there something
about your Autism or was it more your Tourette's that people would
bully you about when you were in school?
DURBIN: I think it was definitely the Tourette's because I would be
making faces that I couldn't control and they'd get mad at me and
yell at me to stop doing that or why are you looking at me like that?
On two occasions, I was at a skate park and I got beat up. I got assaulted
because people thought that I was looking at them funny and making
fun of them and sure enough they came up behind me, and punched me
in the temple...both sides and tried to knock me out. So there will
definitely always be, always the stress.
GROSSO: When it comes to the Asperger's, is there anything about having
Asperger's that you feel has really helped with your career? Does
it affect your music? I know my son says sometimes it increases his
focus and he's also really good at memorization. So I was wondering
if that helps you with lyrics and things like that?
DURBIN: Definitely. I mean one of the things about having Asperger's
is that...I think it's helped me be really involved with what I like.
I see this with a lot of autism cases and kids with autism...what
they like, they're a genius at it. They know everything about it and
I feel like I know everything that my voice can do. More of the other
things I've always been into is pro wrestling, and I can talk about
wrestling for hours and hours and I don't know. Is your son like that?
GROSSO: Yes, he is like that. He can talk about video games for hours.
It definitely increases his focus when it's something he likes.
DURBIN: People with art and drawing and anything with wrestling...I
used to draw wrestlers and make collages of wrestlers and cutout pictures.
What it was like, it was just all wrestling all the time. I would
cut up magazines and paper them and glue them or staple them together,
just to have that artistic expression...everything had to be wrestling
all the time growing up.
GROSSO: Is there anything about the Asperger's that maybe made things
more difficult for you in your career as you've been thrust into the
spotlight and having to talk with people all the time?
DURBIN: Yeah. I definitely think that Asperger's there definitely
was. Sometimes I still have slip-ups because one of the things with
Asperger's -- you could say that I don't really have a filter and
things will come out of my mouth, and I won't think about them before
I say that and I don't think about the consequences of what I say
before I say it.
GROSSO: Are there any sensory issues you've needed to adjust to when
you're on stage or singing, like the lights or the noise?
DURBIN: I've always had a hard time with washing my hair, feeling
like the wetness in my hands, the squeaky sound. I can't stand when
my shoes are wet and I have to walk on like a plastic that makes it
make a squeak sound...or like getting in the car with wet shoes and
having the heaters on...the gas pedal and everything. It's just like,
GROSSO: Sensory issues seems to be different for everybody. Is there
anything when you're on stage that affects you or it it just fine?
The noise doesn't bother you or anything?
DURBIN: What I find when I'm on stage is that -- and that's why I
love it so much, is that nothing bothers me. When I'm on stage I don't
tic. I don't have weird feelings. I don't feel different, you know,
I feel like that's my world and that's where I feel most at home...that's
where I feel like I could do anything. And it's like I don't have
Tourette's and I don't have Asperger's when I'm on stage for some
reason, and I don't know what it is. It's probably just a comfort
level that everything goes away.
GROSSO: Well you can definitely see in your performances that you
look so comfortable out there and it's amazing. A lot of our kids,
like my son, they look at you up on stage, and they're like, wow,
there's somebody, "who is just like me". What advice would
you have for other kids with Asperger's who are interested in music
and do you realize now that you're a role model for some of those
DURBIN: I'm actually extremely honored that I was thought of as a
role model for kids because growing up...I was 10 years old when I
was diagnosed with Tourette's and Asperger's, and there was no one
that I could look up to that had the same thing as me or was going
through the same thing with me, or even anyone that had any idea what
I was going through. I'm actually really inspired by knowing that
I've been an inspiration to people. It keeps me going. I had always
wished that I had had someone like that and now I am able to be that
for kids. You know, that's the magic in all this.
GROSSO: Now that you have your new album out, what are your plans
for the future?
DURBIN: Yeah. We're planning a tour for next year and just kind of
getting everything sorted out. You know, figuring out where we want
to play and who's got the best city and where we're going to be really
received well. And they pretty much have it all figured out. Just
about every state all over this U.S. was great to me on Idol on Tour
this past summer...it was a really good reception there so I'm hoping
that we get to hit up everywhere that we hit up on that tour. I mean
it would be great. It was so much fun. I just love performing. I love
playing good music for people that want to hear it. It doesn't matter
if it's five people or 5,000 people. I just love playing music.
?GROSSO: I really, really appreciate your time. I know that a lot
of people, in the autism community and just a lot of people in general,
want to hear about you.
DURBIN: That's lovely. Thank you for being interested in hearing this.
My mom always talks about being prideful and being proud of who I
am. And I was made this way for a reason. Growing up I never knew
what that reason would be until I got the pleasure of going on American
Idol and sharing with the world who I am and what I have and that
Tourette's and Asperger's don't make me who I am.