Q&A: American Idol's Jason Castro

American Idol’s never seen anything like Jason Castro. When the 20 year-old Texan-colombiano entered the juggernaut singing competition this year strumming a guitar and sporting dreadlocks down to his ribcage, he seemed doomed for an early, Danny Noriega-like elimination. But then he sang “Hallelujah” (a much-covered Leonard Cohen track from the ‘80s), gave it a minimalist-folk spin and earned confused yet enthusiastic praise from the judges—“Pretty good.” “Unique; definitely recognizable.” “Brilliant.” People watching at home apparently liked it even more, because “Hallelujah” shot straight to #1 at iTunes just days later.

Fast-forward to May 7. Castro, who rode poignant, raw renditions of Mariah Carey’s “I Don’t Wanna Cry” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” all the way to Idol’s Final Four, was finally saying goodbye to his fans (there are more than you know—just Google “Castrocopia”). And he looked…ecstatic?!? Well, he's nothing if not a script-dodger. Where other contestants sobbed, Castro smiled. Where others bellowed calisthenic riffs, Castro turned pure, unadulterated emotion a competitive asset. So could you really be surprised that when American Idol ended its flirtation with Castro, he was relieved to part ways? Maybe neither of them had really thought their lovematch through until it was too late, but no matter...they’re both forever changed.

We know you don’t like interviews—so what number is this one for you?

Uhhh, I lost count at 150.

Are you relieved to be moving on?

I am, because I just felt like it was only going to get more mediocre. I’d rather not do anything than do something that’s half-done.

Towards the end of your time on American Idol, were you still trying your best to win?

I did the best that I could, but once the show started asking us to learn two songs a week I had a hard time keeping up. Syesha and both David’s have been singing forever, and they were more experienced than I was. I like putting my heart and passion into singing, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to remember the words the night of your performance. It got to be really frustrating and annoying, because that’s not the way music should be.

Simon seemed to be really angry with you for picking a Bob Marley song and botching the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man.” Did he say anything to you after you were eliminated?

Yeah, he said it was a pleasure having me and that I’d had a good run. He was just really kind about it and encouraging. He acted like he liked me [laughs], so we’re cool.

In an interview, Paula said you went home at the right time because your professionalism wasn’t on par with the other contestants.

I think that’s accurate, but it wasn’t by choice. I wasn’t trying to blow anything off…I just really couldn’t do it. It was my time, and I’m content.

What were you hoping to sing the following week?

There were a few songs I had in mind, but I never found out if they got cleared. I know Coldplay doesn’t clear a lot, but I wanted to sing their song “Green Eyes.” And the other song I wanted to sing was “Blue Eyes,” by the Cary Brothers.

Those are pretty bold choices. It’s been exciting to watch all the Latino contestants this season. Did you feel like you were representing?

Of course. Especially me—my parents were both born in Colombia, and I was the first one born here out of my whole family. First generation! So most of my encouragement came in Spanish…they were really supportive.

You, along with Brooke White, weren’t the typical power-vocalist contestants. Do you feel like you brought a new element to the show?

I do. I think it came with the fact that they allowed people to play instruments this season. Idol has always been a singing competition, and now it’s a lot more than that. It’s about what defines an artist—what makes them who they are, and what makes people connect with them.

Did you know they were allowing instruments this year?

I heard a little rumor, and that’s why I tried out. I started playing guitar three years ago and singing only shortly after, so I didn’t know any other way…the first time I ever sang a cappella was at an Idol audition, and it was scary.

Did you get more comfortable with that as the show went on?

Um, a little…I still don’t feel very comfortable without my guitar. I don’t know what to do with my hands!

You also grew up playing the drums. How come you never showed off your percussion skills on the show?

Because I don’t believe you should do that. When you’re singing a song, you’re trying to tell a story. You can’t really do that with drums because your whole body is occupied doing other things. So they're different forms of expression, and I didn’t think they should be mixed.

A lot of the other contestants struggled with song choices, but you seemed to pick songs based on what felt comfortable to you. Were you ever worried about what the judges would think of your selections?

No. I always tried to do a good song, but I never thought, ‘What are they gonna say?’ I just tried to find one that I could fit into easily and feel the lyrics.

Which of your performances was most pleasantly surprising for you?

Sometimes I watch my performances, and usually I cringe at some point and have to shut them off…but when I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I think that was technically the best vocal performance that I gave. I was real happy with that one, especially because I’d just learned to play the ukulele that week.

The judges were way off when they bashed your performance of “Memory” on Broadway week. It was such a cool, understated interpretation.

Thank you! I thought it was good too. When I heard the lyrics—‘Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me’…you know, I didn’t feel like screaming
that. I thought it was a much more delicate line. I thought people would respect my interpretation, but I guess not. But I think Simon said in an interview that he’d listened to it again and that they were a little harsh with me.

It was great when you incorporated Spanish lyrics into your version of Sting’s “Fragile.” How did that arrangement come about?

Well, Sting recorded the song in Spanish and also in Portugese, so I thought it would be cool. The judges didn’t like the song that much, but I liked it.

I actually know a lot of songs in Spanish because my dad sings at home. They’re all a bunch of old South American songs, and I don’t even know where they came from but I love them. I also have five uncles who all play guitar and sing, so everytime they get together it’s like their own little mariachi band.

Do you speak Spanish at home?

It was my first language as a child, but then I kind of lost it growing up. I understand it, but I’m kind of shy about speaking it. It really drives me crazy that I can’t.

How have your brother and sister reacted to your newfound celebrity?

My sister Jacqueline is 12, and Idol is her favorite show. Every week she’d be so nervous for me, even though she loved watching me. She was actually having panic attacks and my family didn’t know why, then they realized it was all about the show. She would get so worked up! Now she’s breathing better [laughs].

That's good to hear. On a lighter note...would you ever cut off your dreads?

Probably. I’m not married to them, but I don’t plan on cutting them anytime soon.

What if a record label promised to sign you if you’d cut them?

They'd be retarded.

Harsh, but appropriate. Have you been getting any label offers?

Not that I know off, but I haven’t had time to look into it. I can’t do anything for three months anyway because of the tour, so it’s not too urgent.

How would you like your first album to sound?

All I’ve ever really known is my guitar and me, so I think it’ll be acoustic-based…a little folky, rootsy. Maybe get some more people jamming along with me, but I don’t know. We’ll see.

So you’re not following in Daughtry’s footsteps?

No, not at all. My voice wouldn’t cut it.

Do you plan to write while you’re on the American Idol tour?

Definitely. Now that I’m done learning songs, I can get back to songwriting. That’s what I like to do, first and foremost.

Where do you see yourself in a year or two?

Hopefully I’ll have all my material together within a year and will be putting out a record. That would be nice.

No more reality shows?

Nope, I’ve had my share. I’m good!