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 versatile album.
GROSSO: You collaborated on this album with many artists. Can you describe the experience of getting to work with some of these great artists?
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 music?
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, ugh.
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 kids?
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.
Links to more information about James Durbin:
Links to more information on Aspergers, Autism & Tourettes Syndromes:
Autism Society http://www.autism-society.org/
Tourette Syndrome Association http://www.tsa-usa.org/