As the unexpected winner of Season 13 of “American Idol,” Caleb Johnson brought a unique rockin’ sound, soulful voice and undeniable passion to a land of bland pop tarts. In the year since his win, Mr. Johnson released a killer debut album, “Testify,” and has played several high-profile gigs.
On the eve of a U.S. tour, which includes a stop at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, on Sunday, the singer discussed his life-changing win, his favorite rock bands and the fears of playing on a moving vehicle in a parade.
Question: How has your life changed since winning “American Idol” last year?
Answer: The biggest change is I get to do what I want for a living now. All I ever wanted to do is make music. It’s great to look at all the stuff that has happened in the past year and everything that is happening now and see how my dreams are really all coming together.
Q: The first six months must have been pretty crazy. Have things calmed down?
A: It still gets pretty wild, but I have a lot of fun. I enjoy every second of it.
Q: Did you have control over which songs you sang on “American Idol”?
A: For the most part, I got to pick every song I wanted to sing. The only songs I didn’t have a choice in was the coronation single at the finale. I got to sing so many songs that I love and that I feel showcased me in the best possible way.
Q: Was it hard to be the rock ‘n’ roll guy on a show known for producing pop stars?
A: In a sense, it was a challenge because what I did was so different for that show. A lot of viewers didn’t like that. But [it] turns out a lot of viewers loved it. It was a very polarizing thing for a rock guy to end up an Idol winner.
But I did some pop songs during my time there. I did Adele and Lady Gaga, but I twisted them out and made them into my world. I think after that people kind of got on board with it and really enjoyed it.
Q: What are your top three favorite rock bands?
A: I would say Queen would be No. 1. Rush would be second. And third-favorite of all time would be anything that Chris Cornell does — any of his bands: Soundgarden, Audioslave or his solo stuff.
Q: What is the coolest thing you’ve got to do since winning?
A: I got to sing the national anthem for the National Memorial Day Concert for the veterans there on the lawn of the Capitol in D.C. That was in front of thousands of people. Then I got to go into the White House [and] met some amazing people. I also got to go to a couple hospitals and meet some incredible families.
Q: Your debut album came out faster than those of other “American Idol” winners. Were the songs completed before you won?
A: No. Right after the show was done, I met in the dressing room with all the management and record company folks. They said, “OK, you got three weeks to make this record.” I said, “All right, let’s go for it.” It took me literally one week to write the songs. I did a session a day with different songwriters. They helped me flush out my concepts. The next two weeks were the recording process. It took a week to write [and] two weeks to record.
Very quick. Lots of energy and adrenaline. So much fun. I think it is the right way to make a record. I love the fact that record is so raw.
Q: What can people expect to hear when they come to see you live?
A: The show itself is a mix of originals and covers with a lot of electrified energy. I’m touring with my actual band. They are super badass. We’ve been playing together for a long time. We cover The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and [perform] a Led Zeppelin medley, plus some stuff from my pre-Idol days. The show is an exciting mix of songs that I think everyone will enjoy.
Q: You are playing the National Memorial Day Parade again May 25 along Constitution Avenue. Is that with your full band?
A: For the parade, I’m performing a stripped-down acoustic thing with my guitarist on a float.
Q: Are you nervous about playing music live on a moving vehicle?
A: I think it will be challenging and really weird, so I think I’ll have fun with it.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Caleb Johnson in concert with Kalen Lister of Kalen & The Sky Thieves
WHERE: Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave E, Vienna, VA 22180
WHEN: Sunday, 7 p.m.
INFO: Tickets $15 to $22 by calling 703/255-1566 or visiting jamminjava.com