When we last saw Josiah Leming, he was sleeping in his parents’ basement in Morristown, Tennessee, hammering out otherworldly tunes on a rickety old piano and licking his wounds from his recent “American Idol” ouster.
He was “the kid who slept in his car,” the homeless scamp who cried buckets on a televised singing competition, the scrappy underdog with the deck stacked against him. He was a directionless, idealistic dreamer, the kind of guy you really want to see succeed but at the same time were relatively certain he wouldn’t. All you could really do was hope for the best.
Fast-forward three months. My, how things have changed.
Today, Leming sits behind a massive console in a shiny Los Angeles studio, tickles the keys of a well-lacquered baby grand and is talking about his freshly inked deal with Warner Bros. Records. He’s still got the same mop of hair, the same amount of baby fat, and he’s still wearing the same baggy T-shirts. But something is different about him: He’s no longer an underdog. Rather, he’s transformed into an emboldened and immensely talented recording artist, someone standing on the verge of something very big. And he knows it.
“I signed my deal with Warner Bros. about a month and a half ago, and I’m glad to finally announce it. The songs are written, the arrangements are done, and right now it’s time to work with the producers,” he said. “I’m so excited. I’m just beaming inside right now. Since I signed the deal, it’s been a lot of wait, wait, wait. Now it’s finally come. I’m in this awesome studio, working on songs. … It’s amazing. This is everything I ever wanted.”
But herein lies the new quandary facing Leming: He’s clearly an indie-minded artist playing in the big, bad world of the majors. And more often than not, this scenario doesn’t exactly end well. So how does he plan on making sure that he ends up more like, say, Death Cab for Cutie than Jawbox?
Well, for starters, he’s not gonna lose the attitude that got him here in the first place — you know, the one that was on display when he dismissed the band during “Idol” auditions and decided to perform Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” solo, and when he proclaimed he had “no regrets” immediately following that performance. And for further proof of this, well, let’s just ask him about “Idol,” shall we?
“It’s like glorified karaoke,” he said. “And yeah, I did it and it was great. I love those people there. They were great to me, and it gave me a great kick-start to my career. But the fact is, it’s glorified karaoke — they pick people with pretty faces and the pretty voices, and they don’t let them write their own songs. They pick these good-looking people with voices, and they have them sing these songs that other people have written. And therefore, it lacks passion, it lacks emotion and it lacks the things that set an artist off from being good to being great. So that’s my feeling on it.”
And while he’s glad to point out that he holds no ill will against anyone involved with “Idol,” he claims that he’s glad he didn’t make the cut. Because, really, he wouldn’t be where he is right now if he had.
“As everyone clearly saw, I poured my heart and soul into the process and into the competition. But looking back now, things could not have gone any better. Things happened perfect,” Leming said. “I got the exposure. … People liked me, which was amazing, and I love my fans more than anything. I’m happy I didn’t make it. Looking back, it couldn’t have gone any better. It’s like this tiny little door shut and voom, the door to the world opened.”
Leming said he plans to work on his Warner debut in Los Angeles and London, and he’s tapped post-punk heavyweight Nick Launay (Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, Talking Heads) and electronic producer David Kosten (who records under the name Faultline) to helm the project. And while both might seem like odd choices for his bare-bones tunes, Leming said fans won’t be disappointed with the results. After all, he didn’t work his whole life to screw things up now.
“There’s something in me — call it ambition, call it arrogance, call it cockiness, it doesn’t bother me because it’s necessary to my music. I can’t be in that middle pile. I don’t want to be in that middle pile. I don’t want to be just another musician with a record label that’s putting out albums that are just … OK,” he said. “It’s got to be great, because this is everything to me. This is the reason I set on the road, this is the reason I dropped out of school. Everything has led up to this point. This is like the climax of what has been the last 19 years. It’s finally all come to a peak. This is more than I could ever ask for — it’s ridiculous.”
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