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Nov 23, 2011
James Durbin makes the most of his 'Beautiful Disaster'

By Brian Mansfield, USA TODAY

Performing's great. It's interviews that make James Durbin nervous.

"I've been under a lot of stress lately, so much different stuff going on," James says. After all, he's been getting ready for the release for his Memories of a Beautiful Disaster album (which came out this week). "I'm really just trying to find a medium, a common ground, some time in the day where I can relax."

But when you're putting a band together, shooting videos, doing interviews, there's not much down time.

For American Idol's resident metalhead this past season, the title Memories of a Beautiful Disaster refers directly to his life -- a life where he lost his father at age 9. Then, at 10, was diagnosed with Tourette and Asperger syndromes, two conditions that made social situations awkward.

"The album title is me looking back on moments in my life that, at the time, maybe I wished had never happened," says the 22-year-old singer. "But now, knowing what I've done and knowing where I am and who I am today, I can never change those things, because they made me who I am. So I look at those memories, once disasters, now as beauty."

James co-wrote five of the songs on Beautiful Disaster, more writing credits than Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, last season's two top Idol finishers, had combined on their debuts. Hearing that, James downplays his writing contributions.

"A lot of the co-writes, we'd get a song or we'd get a half-finished song, and then I would finish it in the studio and add my parts and arrange it myself -- write it in that sense," he says. "So a lot of it wasn't directly sitting in the room with the guys. The only one for that was Outcast. Hardcore Superstar, my favorite band from Sweden, sent over what they had, then(Mötley Crüe guitarist) Mick Mars and I figured out the rest ourselves.

"And one of the bonus tracks, called Crawling Home, is a co-write I did with DJ Ashba."

Most singers with a new album won't cop to having favorite songs on it, but James does. One he helped write (Right Behind You, with Prince Villiam) and one he didn't (Deeper). "I love the whole record, or else I wouldn't be putting it out," he says. "But those two songs, they have such a cool quality about them. You can sit back and let those songs engulf you. Those songs will take over your body."

Working with producer Howard Benson, who also produced Daughtry's new Break the Spell, helped bring out "a different kind of scream" in James, he says. "I think he helped bring out my anger. On some of those songs that deal with bullies, such as Screaming and Outcast, it just really helped me get anger and frustrations out. We really got them out on the songs, and what's hopefully going to carry this record is the real, raw emotion and passion in these songs that Howard was able to capture."

James' voice, which harks back to the metal bands of the '80s, made him an instant favorite on Idol. He says he first realized his voice was something special when he started listening to Led Zeppelin records as a teenager and tried to sing along with Robert Plant. "I realized that I could hit those same notes," he says. "Then I wanted to try to go higher than that."

Seeing the 2001 Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star introduced James to the voice of Miljenko Matijevic, the singer for Steelheart who also provided vocals for the film.

"I just listened to a lot of Steelheart, songs like I'll Never Let You Go, She's Gone and Sticky Side Up," James says. "Just these songs that not a lot of people know of or have even heard of. But they just have this absolutely unbelievable vocals on them. That's definitely a very under-rated singer. And definitely helped me to figure out how high my voice can go."

James Durbin and Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars in the studio together.
CAPTIONBy Courtesy of Wind-up RecordsFor the Beautiful Disaster song Outcast, James got help from another glam-metal favorite, Mötley Crüe guitarist Mick Mars.

"It was absolutely unbelievable," James says. "I get to the studio, and in walks Mick Mars. He's got his hat pulled down over his eyes, and he's walking how only Mick Mars walks. Before he even says hi to me, he says hi to my son, Hunter. And that was like, yeah! It's even better! He's a good guy all around, you know?

"That means a lot to me, that someone reaches out to my son and is nice to him. He's just a little baby. Mick was playing pseudo-grandpa to him all day. Hunter would run into the room and say, 'Mick Mars! Mick Mars!' Mick just embraced it, and that was so cool."

On the phone, James fills his answers with pauses, like he's carefully considering his words or, perhaps, battling the symptoms of his Tourette's.

"My nerves get me when I try and talk," he says. "I get, like, this breathing tic -- it's happened a lot in just this interview -- it really drives me crazy." He takes magnesium and GABA supplements to help him relax. LEGO models also help.

"I bought a 1,300-piece Lego set," he says. "Just being able to sit there and focus on that really takes my mind off of everything. It's a VW bus model. I'm pretty much just a big kid at heart whenever I have a free moment."

James has been called "a hero to the Asperger's and Tourette's communities," and it's a designation he doesn't take lightly.

"It's definitely not uncomfortable, but it's not something I'll gallivant around, wearing a banner and a tiara, saying, 'I'm the leader of the pack, I'm the leader of the pack,' he says. "I appreciate all the support I've gotten from Asperger's awareness and the Tourette Syndrome Association. I'm happy to do my part for them, as well. As soon as things, maybe, slow down a bit, I can get more into the charity aspect of things. That's something I definitely plan on doing."