You may have heard of singer-songwriter Josiah Leming before. He captured the hearts of American Idol viewers, along with the show’s controversial judge Simon Cowell, back in 2008 on the series’ seventh season. Leming’s story of leaving his hometown of Morristown, Tennessee and living out of his car in order to pursue his dream touched millions around the world.
This spring Leming kicked off “The Listen Close Tour,” and with over 75 cities on the books, it’s the biggest tour yet of his career. While stopping in town at Philadelphia’s Voltage Café, Leming sat down before his show to share his thoughts on songwriting, American Idol, and the music industry.
Nicole: Welcome to Philly! How are you feeling about your show tonight?
Josiah Leming: I’m excited to play every night. The fact that this is my job, it’s not a job at all. I love my life.
N: Last week you started your Listen Close Tour, which is the biggest one of your career. How has being out on the road been so far?
JL: It’s been new, I’ve got to get re-accustomed to it. It’s different then staying in one place for a little bit, but I love being out on the road. It’s my favorite thing, so it’s been good. It’s been going really fast actually, it’s a little blurry but I just know that I like it.
N: Tell us about the inspiration behind your last album, Another Life.
JL: The album kind of came out of a lot of anger and frustration. I guess you could say it was from my situation that I was going through with the label, and the situation I was going through kind of personally. I think I was in a place where there was a lot of anxiety, so I think it came out of that, you know. But also I wanted to kind of nail down a sound a little better than the last record, because my frustration with my first record was that it was disjointed. It was all over the place, it was made by a lot of people, and so I wanted to do it just straight through. So I think I did that, and I’m stoked about it.
N: Music has definitely been a big part of your life for a long time, but what do you love most about making music?
JL: I guess it’s just that feeling, I can’t describe it. I guess different people get it from different things. But it’s like that sense of contentment in knowing that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. It’s the sense that nothing can derail you, like the worst things could happen to me and I won’t be derailed, because I’ve got this invisible thing that nobody can take from me.
N: What is the process of songwriting like for you?
JL: Songwriting for me is like catching fish. It’s not digging coal mines, it’s catching fish. When I’m in the right mindset, I toss in my line, and I just pull it up. I don’t sit with a lamp, I don’t draft and redraft and redraft, I just write. And it comes from a very pure place. There’s been times where I’ve written with other people where I’ve had to force myself to write, and those songs are absolutely s—. Because the best songs are the ones that are just going fishing — it bites the end of the line. And it’s the best way I can explain it.
N: When was the moment that you first knew you wanted to be a musician?
JL: You know, I was probably 14 or 15. I saw Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, their tour DVD, and I just knew, you know. It just hit me. When you’re a kid, you’re just like sure, I could be Chris Martin.
N: Tell me about your experience being on American Idol, way back in 2008. What are your thoughts on the experience looking back now?
JL: It was quick, everything happened really quick with Idol. Some days I regret doing the show, and other days I don’t regret doing the show. I mean, I did the show and the things that came from doing Idol are a lot of the reasons I’m able to completely do music all the time now. But at the same time, it put me in such a bad head place being on the show. So I go back and forth on it. But it all happened very quick. I know it’s how people know of me and how they remember me, but for me it was just this very brief thing in my life. I was all about my own music before the show, and I was all about my own music after. So I get a very large amount of questions about a very small part of my life at the time.
It’s not frustrating when people ask about it all the time, but it’s more frustrating with the fact that I was treated like I was done developing as a songwriter. It made me stop wanting growth as a songwriter and as a musician. I got complacent and I became a little bit too okay with where I was at, and I didn’t strive to be better. I didn’t tour a lot, I didn’t do as much as I would’ve liked to. I was 18, you know. I was like I guess this is what it’s like, you just get signed and it’s easy street. I didn’t have the work ethic I have now, and I needed that back then. I guess I just regret the timing of it.
N: There’s a lot of controversy nowadays about how people listen to music online, such as streaming services like Spotify. What are your thoughts on the issue?
JL: It sucks. Because people used to have to buy an album to get a song, and now people will stream a song on Spotify, and they have to stream it like 30,000 times for the artist to make a dollar. But you know, what are you going to do about it. People just want to listen to music. People love music. I’m glad I don’t make silent movies, because silent movies are out of style. Music is not out of style. So as much as it sucks that people are not buying music, the pro’s outweigh the cons I think, like the access to music. You know you don’t have to have a label to make music, so anyone can make it. And yeah there’s a lot of s— out there, but if you’re good you’ll get to the top of the pool. It sucks, would we all like to make a little more money for the art we so carefully create and sculpt for people to listen to? Yeah. But the fact that people still listen to it is still better than it being something that’s dead.
But I hope Spotify goes away. My dream is for everyone to have to go through me to get everything that’s mine. They have to buy an album from my site, they have to buy a ticket from my site, they can’t be resold. It’s okay, it’s an ongoing battle. Too many people are bitter, I’m not bitter about it. I love making music. Other people are motivated by cars and apartments, and all that s—, and I’m not. I’m motivated by a grand piano in an empty room, and a couple thoughts in my head. I’m a different kind of breed I guess you’d say.
N: How do you feel about releasing music independently? Do you enjoy the freedom that comes with it?
JL: I like it. There’s got to be a way to get the freedom with a label, though. Labels can be incredible if they’re the right ones and they understand your vision as an artist. So I think it’s really important for me to find that. You can’t do it on your own. You can’t do something as big as what I want to do, as big as what I’m going to do over the course of the next few years. I can’t do it on my own. Because I see it in my head, and I know I need other people’s help with it. And I’m okay with that, so I’ll still have the freedom.
N: How did you come to leave the Warner Brothers label?
JL: I wanted off so badly. I said, let me off, let me off, let me off, let me off, let me off. And then they wouldn’t let me off. And then finally they restructured the people at the top and then they were like okay you’re free. And it was like, phew.
N: Were you ever under an Idol contract?
JL: No, Idol has really nasty contracts for the people that make the voting rounds. I didn’t make the voting rounds, so it was very loose. And they tried to come after me, and it didn’t work. I wasn’t worried about it, like I said I don’t hear noise like that. I think in music. That’s the way my brain works.
N: Can you give us a glimpse into a-day-in-the-life when you’re not on tour?
When was a time when I wasn’t on tour. I don’t like TV, I just like hanging out with my friends. I like getting drunk, I like getting drunk while staying really healthy at the same time. So I like to get drunk, wake up, recover, have breakfast, and then workout and sweat it all out. And then I like to be like a businessman. I like to have lots of things going on, I like to fill my days. I’m not the kind of like lay at the park and drink a bottle of wine or anything. I’m more like I wanna have a beer, I wanna move around. I love playing sports. I love video games, that’s one of my biggest downfalls because you’ll just lose your life in that s—.
And then I’m pretty easy. I like to travel, I like to go. I feel like if you ask me where I want to be, my answer should always be where I am. That’s the way I live my life, I’m impulsive. Like why else? I don’t accept money as an excuse, I don’t accept friendship as an excuse. I don’t accept excuses in my life. So if I want to go Paris, I’m gonna go to Paris. If I’ve got to hide in a box in the bottom of a plane, I’ll do whatever it takes. That’s just the way I live my life.
N: You’re known for wearing your whistle necklace from Falling Whistles, which raises awareness for the children affected by the war in Congo. Is this an issue that’s very important to you?
JL: It is. Stuff with kids is big to me. They don’t have any choice. You reach an age as a teenager where you have control and can make your own decisions, and I think it’s important that your life wasn’t messed up before that point. So when it comes to kids, that’s where my heart lies with that kind of stuff. It’s not like I don’t feel bad for older people that are bad off, but kids, it’s a big thing to me.
To learn more about Josiah Leming and purchase tickets to see him on the Listen Close Tour, you can visit his website josiahleming.com.