At 29, Michael Johns made it into the final rounds of “American Idol” at the last possible year he could, due to age constraints. The Aussie sat down with Billboard to discuss his label luck, tennis and being one of the few married finalists on AI.
When you were growing up in Perth, was anyone in your family musical?
Everyone in my family is musical. My mum has a very pretty Doris Day-type voice. My brother and sister both play piano and sing. My stepfather is a great singer too. I was always around music growing up.
What are your earliest memories of music being present in your household?
Sitting around the family Pianola, which is a very old turn-of-the-century piano which plays itself – just like the ones in the old Western films.
Did you have another career in mind before deciding to follow a musical path?
I was an avid tennis player growing up. I dreamt of being a Wimbledon champion. Around 15, I gave that idea up and that’s when music found me and I have not looked back.
But tennis is what brought you to the United States. How did you choose Atlanta as a place to live?
I received a tennis scholarship and it was my ticket to the States to pursue music.
Originally I was going to attend Denver University. I thought it was way too cold there and it turned out the coach had second thoughts anyway. I chose Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College as it was in the South and a lot of great music was coming out of there. I knew if I went to Los Angeles or New York, I could get swallowed up.
What was going on in your life musically while attending ABAC in Tifton, Georgia?
I met a guitarist, Roddie White, and we would write and play shows on campus.
You were in a couple of bands – Film, and then the Rising. Which came first and which ones were signed to labels?
I was playing cover gigs in Atlanta. Then I joined a band call Film. We were together for 18 months or so. We wrote some great songs together. We had deals offered to us but they just wanted the songs and me. It was a very hard time for me. Being 21 with the rest of my band over 30, it was a messy situation. I told Michael Sickler, the main songwriter and guitarist, if we want these songs to see the light of day, I need to take one of these deals. It was hard to hear but it was the only way to maybe make some money out of his great music.
I was signed to Maverick Records by Michael Goldberg and I went by my birth name Michael Lee – I didn’t switch to Michael Johns until 2006. I came up with the name as an homage to my stepfather. His name is John and my middle name is John, so that is where the “Johns” comes from.
I was signed to Maverick as a solo artist. However, I was always going to form a band around me. The name “the Rising” came after I finished my record and then I auditioned members. The label folded and my record never saw the light of day until I appeared on “American Idol.” Warner Bros put [the Maverick recordings] up on iTunes.
After Maverick I was signed to Columbia by Tim Devine. I kept the name “the Rising” but I did think about changing it. The West Coast side of Sony/BMG [collapsed]. Almost everyone lost their jobs and most of the bands in development were dropped.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
I moved to L.A. in 2004. I had been here for a bit in 2002 when I mixed my record. I moved here to be closer to my label.
I understand you’ve watched ‘American Idol’ from the beginning. True? Which contestants had any impact on you, and why?
Yes, I did watch from the first season. I was intrigued like the rest of the world. Kelly Clarkson was awesome and still is. I think she is the biggest reason why the show got as big as it did. She came out and legitimized the credibility of the show. “Idol” is the best platform these days for finding new talent.
Since you had already been signed to a major label, did you have any qualms about competing on “American Idol,” or based on the success of artists like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood did you feel this was a great way to launch a career?
I was totally ready to audition for “Idol.” The music biz has been in disarray for years and “Idol” has been the only steady ship for the last seven years.
You sang Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” when you auditioned in San Diego. That tells me you have some knowledge of music that came before you. How did you discover songs that were hits before you were born?
I grew up listening to all that stuff. My mum was a huge Sam Cooke and Otis fan. I listened to everything from the Beatles to Abba. A wide variety of music was in my house.
How easy or difficult was it to compete on “American Idol”? How did the actual experience match up with your image of how you thought it would be?
It was tiring. The singing was the easy part. Our days are so long between shows. I love to sing but all the other stuff was a little much for me to take sometimes.
What was your experience of performing on stage and then having three people judge you?
I knew what I signed up for. I didn’t really let it affect me. I took the good with the bad. I was doing my thing and knew I had an audience. It wasn’t my goal to win – meaning I would have liked to win but it wasn’t the end-all.
Was song selection easy or difficult for you?
I had the entire season pretty much picked out from the beginning. [Music supervisor] Nancy [Severinsen], who clears the songs, couldn’t believe it.
Did you feel like you were in a ‘bubble’ during the season, and what is it like returning to the ‘real world’? Or is it still surreal?
Oh yes, such a bubble. It was so strange coming back to the real world and everyone knowing my face.
What was it like to go home after appearing on “Idol”? Were you as recognized in Australia as you are here now?
Yes, it blew my mind. They were so supportive and proud.
Some people have suggested you were eliminated too early, and that it happened because you’re Australian. What is your take on this?
I was eliminated because I didn’t get enough votes that week. Being an Aussie had nothing to do with it.
If you could meet the season eight contestants right now, what advice would you give them?
Be yourself, not what you think people will like.
The summer tour is coming up and you’ll be traveling all over the country. Aside from Atlanta and Los Angeles, have you seen much of the United States yet?
It will be awesome. I have traveled a lot in the U.S.; it such a beautiful place. The landscape changes every 100 miles.
In your post-‘Idol’ life, what are your goals? What do you want to do next, especially in terms of recording an album?
Record, record, record. Tour, tour, tour.
When did you write your first song? Do you write lyrics and compose music, or is it one or the other? And how did you team up with Diane Warren?
[I was] 18 [when] I wrote my first song. I write music and always write the lyrics.
Diane called out of the blue a couple of weeks ago. We have a few songs we are working on. She is an immense talent and I am very honored to work with her.
You’re one of a few finalists to be married while competing on ‘Idol.’ Where did you meet Stacey and when were you married?
We met at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood 2003. We started out as friends, then became serious in 2004. We got married last May at the Little White Chapel in Vegas. Such a great night.