Idol Worship

'American Idol' Winner Caleb Johnson Parts Ways With Interscope, Takes Label to Task

Brian Bowen Smith

Caleb Johnson

After a year with the major, the season 13 victor tells Billboard, "I want to find the right home and the right team of people that are going to get behind my music."

With his time as the reigning American Idol almost over, season 13 champ Caleb Johnson has a lot on his plate, including his first tour as a solo headliner, a new music video for his song “Fighting Gravity,” a sophomore album in the works and a search for a new label deal, as his contract with Interscope ends this month.

The native of Asheville, N.C., has been living in Nashville. “Its an amazing city,” he tells Billboard. “It’s a cool, eclectic town that has so much good food -- I’ve gained 10 pounds. There are so many genres of music, not just country. It’s rock, soul, pop, blues and bluegrass.”

Johnson has been busy the past two months collaborating with songwriters on new material. He has also been to the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium, seeing artists like Little Big Town, Restless Heart and one of the judges from his Idol season, Keith Urban. “I went backstage and talked to Keith about writing in Nashville. I’d been working with the writers of his song ‘Stupid Boy.’ We talked about my voice going out and he told me to be careful and take care of it.”

Johnson’s goal is to, “get a deal with a new label that’s actually going to support me. I want to find the right home and the right team of people that are going to get behind my music and really do something. What’s the point of doing it if the [label] isn’t going to do anything?” The Idol winner wrote some songs with his band at home in North Carolina before relocating to Tennessee. Says Johnson: “I started cranking out songs down there. I was ready to make another record. These past couple of months I’ve been trying to write a song a day. It’s been a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun. I’ve got 25 songs written that we can pick from when we start making the next album.”

The 24-year-old has a clear vision for the follow-up to his first post-Idol release, Testify, which has sold 24,100 albums, according to Nielsen Music. “I want the new record to be a rock and roll record with soulful, visceral, aggressive, powerful rock songs. That’s who I am.” It won’t be a surprise if the album reflects the music that Johnson has been listening to lately, including Hozier, ’80s Aretha Franklin (especially “Freeway of Love”), Duran Duran, the latest Kid Rock album, ’70s funk/rock band Mother’s Finest, Alice Cooper, Whitesnake and the 1993 album by that band’s David Coverdale and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “I’ve also been listening to George Michael’s Faith. “There are some great songs, like ‘Father Figure.’ I wasn’t even born (when the album was released).”

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Johnson kicked off a month-long solo tour this past weekend. Tonight (May 4) he is at the Foundry in Athens, Ga. This current leg runs through May 27 with a gig at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, N.C. The tour features mostly original songs, including many of his new compositions, with some covers in the mix, including the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down” and a medley of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” “Immigrant Song” and “Good Times Bad Times.”

“I love being on the road,” Johnson says. “I love that lifestyle, traveling city to city, rocking out and moving on to the next place.” Johnson is traversing the southeast in a van, with a drummer, guitarist, bassist and a background singer. “We’re road doggin’ it the whole month of May, then we’ll take a break and add more dates.”

Despite his busy schedule, Johnson has done his best to keep up with season 14 of Idol. “It’s awesome to see people going through the same thing you did. You want to reach out and talk to them and help them out but you’ve got to let them do their own thing and find their path. They have to bring their A-game; this is their shot. Every week you get the chance to sing, you’ve got to kick ass because this is an amazing opportunity. People are discovering you for the first time and you’ve got to win them over.”