MORRISTOWN, Tennessee — Josiah Leming wants you to know a few things. He’s not just the kid who sleeps in his car and cries at the drop of a hat. He doesn’t consider himself to be particularly emo, nor does he think he sings with a British accent, as he has been accused of doing. He has no regrets about any of the choices he made on “American Idol,” not even his rather, uh, unique take on Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” that got him booted from the show.
And he’s incredibly aware that the fame all of the above has brought him might not last too much longer.
“There’s a small window of opportunity, and I don’t want to do it too quick or too slow,” he said. “I’ve always been aware of the fact that one day you can be everything, and the next day you can be nothing. Stuff like that has always weighed heavy on my mind. Things are given and taken away so quickly, it’s always sitting in the back of my mind that I could just be another flash in the pan. Everyone wants to be optimistic, but you also want to be realistic.”
So here’s the reality right now: In the driveway of his parents’ home in Morristown, Leming, 18, is sitting on the trunk of his now-famous 1989 Mercury Topaz, the vehicle he drove to “Idol” auditions, and the one the show’s producers decided to build a storyline around (“They wanted to film me in a Ford Sync too, but I was like, ‘I haven’t been living in one of those,’ ” he laughed). On Monday morning, he flew to Los Angeles to tape an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where he performed roughly two minutes of a song he’s recently written, a stunning and somber tune called “One Last Song.” He currently has more than 19,000 friends on MySpace and has sold something in the neighborhood of $15,000 worth of his own music through the site. And he is probably the most famous “Idol” contestant to never make the show’s top 24 , a feat that, in and of itself, is something, given the program’s seven years and hundreds of also-rans.
Then again, none of that is particularly uncommon, given the way he’s led his life. Pretty much everything — from the way he stumbled into music to the fact that he ended up on “Idol” at all — has been a feat in and of itself.
“I discovered music at a young age. Well, my parents got a keyboard for Christmas. … They left it out in the living room, and we all saw it the night before, and I was so unbelievable intrigued by it. So early the next morning I got up because I thought everyone was going to be running to the keyboard to play it, but it was just me,” he said. “I pressed this button to play a song, and I just started playing ‘Joy to the World,’ and it just was completely natural. … It was just the beginning of a love affair with the piano. My family isn’t very musical, and I’ve never really been around it. But after I started playing, my life changed forever. I don’t remember my life before the piano. I don’t know what I did with my days. It was like a kick in the face.
“I tried doing other things. I played football for a while. I tried to follow for a while. And it just didn’t work out for me. I knew from a young age that I wasn’t going to be like everyone else. I was made fun of a lot as a kid. I was kind of overweight, teeth all messed up, I had glasses. I had a very small, high, weak voice,” he continued. “And I never had too many friends, so it forced me into doing music. The thing I love about the piano is that it’ll never let you down, you can always rely on it. It’s not going to make fun of the way you talk or the fact that you can’t catch a ball, and whenever you need it, it’s always going to be there. It was my best friend in the world, really. It’s been more of a friend to me than anything else.”
At 13, he started writing his own songs (“Real melancholy stuff … I was a pretty serious kid,” he said) and slowly began to realize that there was nothing else he’d rather be doing in the world. That raised a bit of a problem, because despite the fact that it’s just a few hours away from Nashville (a quick hop west on I-40), Morrisown is hardly music city. So Leming realized that he had to get out of town if he wanted to pursue his dreams.
“I knew from a young age that I was going to have to get out of here eventually,” he said. “There’s not much musical opportunity. Growing up in a town like this, I was always so bitter about it. I was always like, ‘I hate Morristown. I hate being here. I don’t want to be in this town anymore. It’s the reason I haven’t made it yet.’ But honestly, I have this town to thank for the sense of ambition and pride that I have. If I had grown up around music, I might not have been so driven toward going out and working for it. As much as I want to blame this town, it’s definitely put pride and ambition in me, to get out and see things and do things.”
So he did. Piling into his Topaz, he crisscrossed the U.S., hitting cities like St. Louis and Jacksonville, Florida. He worked odd jobs at restaurants and temp agencies to buy gas and food, and finally, late last year, he decided to head down to Atlanta to audition for “American Idol,” which is where things started to get interesting … and a little annoying.
“I honestly went there on a whim, and I didn’t know what they’d think of me. They did an interview, and I told them about the car thing and about my mother,” he said (Josiah’s mother, Sharon, was diagnosed with ovarian leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in 2000). “I definitely didn’t want to be one of the sob stories on ‘American Idol.’ I wanted to stand on my voice, and my own two feet, but they wanted to know about the story and they wanted to use it. I definitely wasn’t going for the sympathy vote. A lot of people think I got through on the basis of that, but who knows? They tell me I’m a ‘human-interest piece.’ ”
It’ll probably never be known whether it was his talent or his story that got Leming through to the show’s Hollywood Week, but regardless, he made it and was quickly becoming one of the most popular contestants, thanks largely to the jaw-dropping version of Mika’s “Grace Kelly” he performed during auditions. Then came the now-infamous dismissing of the band, his solo take on “Stand by Me” and, ultimately, his dismissal from the show.
Leming claimed that he was just as surprised by his failure to make the top 24 as most of his fanbase was, though he’s eager to let people know that even he knew his take on “Stand” was disastrous. But he still insisted that he had no regrets.
“I actually wanted to do ‘Take Me Out’ by Franz Ferdinand, something a bit cooler and more my style. But for whatever reason, that didn’t work out — they couldn’t get the clearance or whatever — so I was kind of stuck with ‘Stand by Me,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know the song, so I was trying to make it my own, and I focused more on the words than the melody. And that’s why it was kind of all messed up. As it was happening, I definitely knew it was going downhill, but if it’s going to go bad, let it go bad. I’d definitely rather be the person who had a train wreck and crashed but at least tried something different, rather than be the girl who sang ‘Amazing Grace’ three times and made it into the top 24. I want to take chances.”
After his dismissal, he boarded a plane back to Tennessee heartbroken, unsure if any of his performances would even make the show, and battling the creeping suspicion that he’d just wasted a large chunk of his time. There was the very real chance, it seemed, that he’d be packing up the Topaz once again.
“For five months, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do anything. … Everything is so completely absorbed by this ‘American Idol’ monster, and now it spit me out and I didn’t know if anything was going to come of it,” he explained. “So sitting on that plane, all of that is going through my head, and I’m stuffed in between people and tired and can’t sleep. It’s the worst feeling ever.”
Yet, by the time he moved back in with his parents, he started noticing that his auditions (and interviews) were becoming a staple of season seven’s early episodes, more than the footage of some of the contestants who actually made it to the top 24. Almost overnight, he started amassing an army of MySpace followers, and just two weeks after he was dismissed from the show, producers from “Ellen” — and quite a few label reps — began calling him on his cell. You could probably argue that by being eliminated from the show, Leming has actually benefited more than if he had won it.
And though he’ll begrudgingly admit that he would’ve liked to come out on top, he said he has fond memories of his time on the show — he’ll miss fellow contestants like Michael Johns, Jason Yeager and Luke Menard the most — but he doesn’t really see how being crowned “American Idol” would’ve helped further his career anyway. After all, he’s got much loftier ambitions.
“I can think of nothing better than to be known as a respectable recording artist. Someone who really has a passion and an ambition for music. I’d love to have a couple hits, maybe a great-selling album, but really the ultimate goal with me and music is that I just want to help people,” he said. “I’ve gone through so many things as a person and an artist, and I really feel like if people are feeling the same emotions I am, they can release those emotions through the song. I really feel like [my songs] can help people. And whether I help one person or a billion people, I don’t care. And if I have to get into my car and get back on the road again and try to reach as many people as I can, that’s the goal. I don’t care about the fame, I don’t care about the fortune. I don’t need the money. I can stay alive, I’ve already proven that. … I don’t have any regrets, not with any of this. You’ve got to do things wrong before you can do them right.”
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