ANAHEIM, California — Back in 2003, on the eve of the release of his debut album, first-season "American Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini told MTV News he just wanted to sell enough to get to the third album, "because usually they'll give you a chance for the second album, but it's the third album where you really [have to] establish yourself."
Less than six months later, RCA Records dropped Guarini after selling 134,000 copies in about the same time Kelly Clarkson had sold 1.7 million (see "Where's Justin Guarini These Days? Not On RCA Records, Apparently"). He read about it in a trade magazine and never did hear from the label.
"American Idol," meanwhile, banished his name from any further episodes of the show, while lending plenty of support to second season runner-up Clay Aiken.
All that considered, the last place one might expect to find Guarini on a recent Tuesday night is in front of his television, watching Simon Cowell dis singers, like he so often did to Justin during that first season. But — as the title of Guarini's self-released second album suggests — Stranger Things Have Happened.
"As much as it seemed liked things just started to go horribly wrong, and to be honest with you, it felt that way at the time, it really has been just Music Industry Education 101," Guarini said, coincidentally while supporting music education at the John Lennon Education Tour Bus at the annual National Association of Music Merchants convention. "I learned a lot from it. I think that ultimately things worked in my favor. If I had not paid my dues before then, I definitely did during that period. And it's not a finger-pointing issue to me; I take as much responsibility as I can. It was more just me not really knowing what I wanted to do and how to get it done."
Guarini insisted he holds no hard feelings for RCA or "Idol," and said he still watches the show.
"It was one of those things where everything happened the way it needed to happen, and it may sound pie-in-the-sky, but it's really true," he said. "[I'm] so grateful because it got me to this point with my new album, and I don't have to deal with a lot of the same pressures and a lot of the same contractual obligations that a lot of other people have to deal with coming off of that show. It is a win/win for me."
The singer said he maintained a great relationship with "Idol" and wants to work out a cross-promotion with the fifth season and his new record.
"It's not show friendship, it's show business," he continued. "It's part of a business, and everything 'American Idol' takes from you, they'll give you just as much, especially if you know how to work it. They're giving you promotion, deals, access to people you couldn't buy. It's one of those things where it's give and take, and that's part of everything from politics to the entertainment industry to whatever."
Guarini did take a slight jab at "From Justin to Kelly," the disastrous musical film he and Clarkson made after finishing their season, noting that he would only make another movie if it took longer than two months to write the script. "Actually, the musical was awesome, man," he added quickly.
After he was dropped by RCA at the end of 2003, Guarini was offered some other reality shows, but turned them down to retreat from the music industry and get back into stage musicals (Justin studied theater in college and worked as an understudy on "The Lion King"). Eventually, he returned to the studio to record Stranger Things Have Happened, which he's selling on his Web site (www.justinguarini.com) until he finalizes a new record deal.
"I really wanted to make sure that what I did spoke from my heart, and I think that's what this album is," Guarini said. "It's kind of a fresh arrangement on some really beloved standards and I'm really proud of it."
Along with a few originals, the album includes remakes of "My Funny Valentine," "I'll Take Romance" and "Night and Day."
"Jazz is not the format where I want to stay, but it really is a starting point for me," Guarini said. "These songs have been rearranged in some really cool modern versions of jazz and I think it's part of the evolution that is going to lead me to more of a jazz/soul/funky format, and the next album after this is really gonna be more of the essence of me."
Once again, he's eyeing that third album.