On The Record: Josiah Leming Is You — Only With More MySpace Friends
Any time you start your day with an impromptu business meeting at an International House of Pancakes (in Tennessee, no less), you know things are going to get fairly surreal. When that meeting is followed by an hour-long drive to a bait-and-tackle shop in Dandridge — “the second oldest town in the state!” — where you’re greeted by a one-eyed dog and taken upstairs to meet the biological grandparents of an 18-year-old former reality-TV contestant who sings like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and looks kind of like Haley Joel Osment (pre-DUI, of course), well, let’s just say things quickly head into uncharted territory.
And yet, that’s exactly how I spent my weekend, trekking around Eastern Tennessee with Josiah Leming, the “American Idol” also-ran who might very well be the most popular contestant to never make the show’s top 24, thanks in no small part to that voice, those looks and his back story (which, depending on whom you ask, was either 50 or 90 percent embellished by “Idol” producers). Throughout the day, I met his grandparents, his aunt-turned-manager, his nephew, his extended family and his vindictive ex-girlfriend. I went to the high school he dropped out of at the age of 17, the park he wasted afternoons in, and the skating rink he used to haunt (the locals call it “the skanking rink”). I saw the Chick-fil-A he used to work at, the basement where he wrote his songs, and the final resting place of his now-infamous 1989 Mercury Topaz, the vehicle he drove across the country on his quest to get famous.
Reeling off miles of Tennessee county roads in a pickup truck a family friend had loaned him (being famous has its perks), Leming spoke about growing up in rural Morristown, about the lousy jobs that come with growing up there, and — most prominently — about the music he started writing at 13 as a way of breaking the small-town cycle. He said he writes mostly about emotions that course through his veins — sadness and anxiety — and that he is obsessed with the concept of death, of some great specter coming for us all. He wants to help people with his music, to heal them and help them survive. And he says he doesn’t care if he ever gets famous.
Later, in the basement of his parents’ house, he plays a couple of songs on a battered old piano. The room is littered with Dr Pepper cans, cigarette butts and bags of Friskies Seafood Sensation cat food. The walls are covered with Radiohead and Smiths posters, a framed photo showing him and his brother playing in a band, and a thrift-store painting of an old wooden ship adrift at sea. It is exactly like any other teenage melodramatic’s hideout, dirty and closed off from the rest of the world — only the music that is currently filling it is something otherworldly. Leming does not play piano so much as he assaults it, hammering the keys with his stubby fingers. The music that explodes from the rickety piano is booming and urgent, a little unsettling, incredibly raw. Honest.
And then there’s his voice, which is startling as much for its clarity as for the reckless way Leming wields it. One minute he’s barely whispering; the next, he’s screaming in a ragged, full-throttle roar; then he lets it fade out in an airy vibrato. In the room, with it bouncing off the walls, it’s almost disorienting. You don’t hear people sing this way … with this little regard for their vocal cords or for the people around them. To say that the television cameras do not do it justice is an understatement of LaKisha Jones-ian proportions.
Then it’s over — we shake hands and I return to my hotel. The following morning, I am sitting on a plane in Knoxville, and my BlackBerry is positively humming with e-mails from friends. “What’s Josiah like?!?” they want to know. “Does he cry all the time?” “Does he still live in his car?!?” It seems they are just as fascinated by the boy with the voice as I am.
So, as a service to pretty much everyone, here it is. Josiah does not cry all the time (he didn’t tear up once when I was with him) and he doesn’t live in his car anymore, though it is sitting in the driveway of his parents’ home in Morristown. As for the man himself, well, that’s slightly more complicated. Because Josiah is unlike anyone I have ever met before, but also a lot like everyone else, too.
He is very nice. He answered all my questions and was willing to talk about anything. But at the same time, I also got the sense that he could definitely be a jerk if the situation warranted it, in the same way that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or Oberst or anyone with a prodigious level of talent and a mission could be a jerk. He was very wary of those close to him latching onto his fame, and because of that I could see him alienating people just because they were standing in his way, or because they are out to get him. That is the way it has to be.
He speaks in glorious generalities, about death and life and his dreams, in a way most idealistic, gifted 18-year-olds do. They tend to think they are very wise, that they have seen it all. And maybe he has. Who am I to judge? I wanted to snicker, to think in my head, “Oh, just wait …” But then I remembered that when I was 18, I spoke in the same all-knowing manner. So did — or will — all of us, probably.
But perhaps the thing I got the most from my weekend with him was the overwhelming feeling that he is going to be very, very famous. He is prodigiously talented, largely self-taught and driven beyond his years. At the moment, the world is his oyster.
Yet I could also see him not amounting to much of anything: He could very well sign with a major label that would not know what to do with him, would waste his talents and eventually drop him into the castoff bin. He is in a precarious situation, to be sure — an indie-caliber talent who didn’t seem all that keen on signing to an indie label, because he has big dreams and big ambitions.
Who knows though? I could be wrong about all that. But I don’t think I am. And in the meantime, I’m going to stick with my gut feeling that this kid from Eastern Tennessee truly has something and that we’ll be hearing from him for years to come, and that he’ll always be known as “The one ‘Idol’ producers let slip away.”
Regardless, it’s a safe bet that he won’t be packing his things into his Mercury Topaz any time soon; he’s clearly graduated to another level. What that next level holds for him, I’m not exactly sure. But I hope it’s big things. In a way, he represents the dreamer inside us all … his goals were once everyone’s goals, and we’re all rooting for him to make it, because we don’t want to think about what it means if he doesn’t.
After all, for all the ephemera surrounding him, Leming reminds me most of another 18-year-old dreamer that I once knew: me. And you probably feel the same way too.
B-Sides: Other Stories I’m Following This Week
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Questions? Concerns? All manner of Josiah-related correspondence? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.
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