To Jason Castro fans, this week's news that the dreadlocked "American Idol" season-seven finalist inked a recording contract with Atlantic Records must have seemed like a return from a long, lonely exile.
But for Rockwall, Texas, native Castro, who just turned 22, the nearly yearlong wait to secure a record deal seemed like no time at all. "I hear it happened pretty quick compared to what it usually takes to get a record deal," Castro said. "I'm pumped. There's a big misconception about how fast things move ... but since I got off the 'Idol' tour, I've been writing nonstop and meeting with publishers, and I actually signed a publishing deal ahead of the label one."
Castro — who finished fourth on "Idol" last year and won legions of fans with his alluring, laid-back demeanor and sensitive takes on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" — said when he first got home following last summer's tour, he asked himself, "What do I do now?" But soon enough, he began writing songs, hooking up with Dave Lichens (Fefe Dobson), a songwriter whose work he was a fan of and who now plays guitar and bass in Castro's band.
"At first it was just a lot of meetings with a lot of other writers," said Castro, who said he was able to support himself with the money he earned from the "Idol" tour and some cash from the occasional live show. "Then it was mostly focusing on writing. ... That's what I do. That was always my dream, to be a songwriter."
So far, he's written or co-written around 30 songs, with more on the horizon, thanks to collaborations with a number of well-known songsmiths, including new "Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood). Castro met veteran writer DioGuardi through his A&R representative, and he said they instantly clicked.
"At one point she made a face she makes on TV when something clicks, and I said, 'Whoa, I've seen that face before!' "Castro said of their first session together, which resulted in a chorus for the song tentatively titled "Missing You." "It's so strange to feel like we've known each other though we never met."
He described the song as midtempo, noting that most of the tunes he writes match his laid-back, "walking tempo" attitude. Castro has also written songs with Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall); Sacha Skarbek (Adele, James Blunt); Guy Chambers (David Archuleta, Robbie Williams); and Colbie Caillat collaborator Jason Reeves.
He's still figuring out what shape the album will take and what the vibe will be as he experiments with playing with his band, but he's pretty sure it will be a kind of "modern singer/songwriter" effort that will feature tunes that have a personal meaning for him. "I'll be telling real stories people can connect with," he promised, saying he's aiming for organic songs without a highly produced mechanical studio sheen that can't be replicated live.
Castro hopes to have the first single out by early summer and the album shortly after, with tour dates to follow. Asked if he ever worried that the 12-plus months out of the spotlight might hurt his ability to sell records, Castro said he's reminded every day what a big platform "Idol" can be. "I walk outside, and it reminds me that I can't get anywhere [without being stopped]," he said. "I still have thousands of plays on my MySpace page every day, and my fans have provided nonstop support."
Though he was disappointed his younger brother flamed out during his first shot at the "Idol" main stage earlier this season, Castro said Michael is working on his live chops and might take another swing next year. Last month, big brother Castro was set to make his triumphant return and perform on "Idol" during top-12 week, but due to time constraints, he said he was bumped, though he hopes to make it back at some point this season, if time allows.
He did, however, appear in the audience two weeks ago and said the return was a bit overwhelming. "Sitting there, I was like, 'Wow!' " said Castro, who swore that the "space case" persona people have ascribed to him represents only one side of his personality. "I just remembered how crazy it was."
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.