Idol Innovation: An Interview With Casey Abrams
Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel.
Casey Abrams didn’t win American Idol during the show’s tenth-season run, but he revived the idea that the show could be more than simply a staging-ground for cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers pop drivel. From the moment he showed up on America’s televisions, grinningly playing his melodica, eventually breaking out the upright bass to blow the judges away with his performance of “Georgia on My Mind” in Hollywood, we knew this guy was keeping things real.
But this was no fluke. Abrams was classically trained as a student of jazz bass while a student at Idyllwild Arts Academy, and his reputation is that of a pop performer who prefers to improvise, shifting our attitudes of what makes music “pop” in the first place. The real surprise during that season of American Idol was how willing Abrams was to step out of the way of Idol convention, emerging from the experience as the same person he was during those early auditions.
Abrams’ self-titled studio debut has been out since June, and he’s already plotting out how he can continue to subvert pop conventions when he finally gets to take these songs out on the road. He took the time to sit down with PopMatters to discuss the new album and the others floating around in hs head, his experience being mentored on American Idol, and why it’s critical to stay true to your vision as an artist.
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I know you play a whole bunch of instruments. But I’m interested – how many do you actually play now?
I feel comfortable playing guitar, bass, piano, drums, sitar, maybe some bongos and the melodica and cello. I feel comfortable playing these, but there are other instruments I dabble with.
How did you end up discovering you could play so many different instruments? Did you start out with anything specific?
Yeah, I remember I was listening to Pokemon, and there’s a character, Jigglypuff, and Jigglypuff had a song. [Casey attempts to sing the “Jigglypuff song.”] And I remember I was like “I love that song!” So I tried it on piano, and my parents said they could tell I had an ear for music. So from there I went to clarinet and then to the bass.
You went to art school, didn’t you?
Yes, for for years.
Did you develop your style there, your jazz influences?
Most definitely. Before then I remember in sixth grade I got an electric bass. And I was listening to AC/DC and Blink 182, Tenacious D. Even Eminem – I was playing basslines to all that stuff. But then as soon as I got to Idyllwild Arts, I remember I met Marshall Hawkins, this great jazz teacher, who introduced me to the upright bass and jazz. So from there the next four years of my life were spent learning how to play some jazz bass, listening to jazz music, even learrning some jazz piano too.
As far as your influences go, who inspires you as a musician currently?
Esperanza Spaulding does, and Alvishai Cohen, who is this crazy bass player – the whole instrument, not just the strings – percussion stuff. And also, Jack Black. He’s where I’d love to be in five years or something. He’s acting, he’s singing, he’s in comedy – he’s just one of the artists who’s everywhere.
I was interested, while watching you on American Idol – what inspired you to actually audition? Your style’s not exactly what they’d ever showcased before.
Exactly. But I wanted to see if my style could fit into the pop genre. It was really my mom’s idea. Me and my dad were kind of against the whole Idol thing, and my mom showed me some videos, and I knew I could do that. She says, “alright, then try it!” She really encouraged me to do it.
Were you surprised when you started pushing through the whole process and everyone was really enjoying the music?
I was shaking as I made it past the very first round. There were like ten thousand of us. I almost had a heart attack, but I decided I was going to try this, we’d see what happens. And then it’s just: “My God! This is my ticket to the next step!” And then from there I got a lot less nervous. I felt like I could stand out from those ten thousand people.
I was also interested in the mentor process. I know on TV they only show you a few minutes of every week’s mentoring time. But we know you have to spend a lot more time with guys like Jimmy Iovine than they show. But that night you decided to do “Nature Boy”, Jimmy Iovine came on the screen and was saying he thought you should have taken the advice and done Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. The next night he came out and apologized, saying you obviously made the right choice. Was it really so dramatic that night?
Yes. I honestly got emotional that night, because I really wanted to do that song. And no offense to Phil Collins, but that’s one of those songs everyone could have done. With “Nature Boy”, I had already worked out an arrangement with the bass, and then my mom calls me and says “Why don’t do do that?” I knew she was right. So I recorded the Phil Collins song and was just “I don’t feel it!” So at the last second I tried it [“Nature Boy”] and Jimmy was not too happy. And you know what? I don’t hate Jimmy at all. I think the advice he’s been giving this season has been really accurate. I think he really looks out for people. It’s just he’s got that power that he always thinks he’s right.
I found it interesting, because a lot of people would be afraid in that situation. “He’s telling me that I should do this thing, and he’s my mentor!” But the whole idea of a mentor is to push you in the right direction, even if it means eventually you have to tell the mentor that maybe you’ve got a different idea. And I don’t know that there were a lot of people who would have stood up and said “I’d really rather do this song.”
Right, but I have to pay attention to my gut. And my gut knew the song. No one on Idol had heard the song done like that. And I tried hard. I listened to him, and I said we’d record the Phil Collins and see how it goes. And in the end I could say “I tried it but I don’t like it! I’m sorry, but I’m the artist and I think I should do what I want to do.” And he says, “Alright …”
But if you’d fallen, it would have been on you.
I’ve been listening to the new album. And I was impressed, you’ve got a sense of style which shows through the whole album, even as you’re jumping around from genre to genre.
Right, I’d say we stuck to the same color pallette even as we played with different styles.
I was wondering about the songwriting process on that. Did you write the songs, or was it a group-writing process?
It was a group-writing process. Sometimes I’d walk into a room with one or two writers and they’d have ideas for me, but sometimes I’d come in with ideas to bounce off them. I think music is collaboration and compromise. And I think without another person – there can be that singer-songwriter vibe, but without the collaborative process, I don’t think music would be much fun.
I really enjoyed “Ghosts”. I’d heard the acoustic version online, but hearing the fully fleshed-out recording, I couldn’t imagine that not being a single. But the one which really stood out was “Blame It on Me” – I kept hearing Michael Jackson.
[Laughs.] Really? I’d like to call the genre of the album “organic focal.” The focal point is the melodies and the harmonies, but we’re using organic instruments. There’s acoustic guitar, upright piano, the double bass …
Does using those organic instruments have more heft than, say, using a pre-produced beat?
Most definitely. There are electric basses, but the upright bass adds a different element. It adds depth, changing frequencies you wouldn’t hear on an electric bass.
Have you listened to anyone recently whose music has you really wanting to work with them?
I think working with Mumford and Sons would be interesting. That would be really fun. I also really like this band Tinariwen, a buddy turned me on to them – they’re traditional mixed with modern African instruments. These dudes are hairy and they’re usually playing in a desert or somewhere like that. [Laughs.]
I’d heard rumors that you have two albums planned – this one’s going to be your pop album and then eventually you’ll be doing something more "straight jazz". Is this actually true?
I don’t know at this point. I’m actually sitting with several albums brewing in my head. I’ve discussed it with everyone what I’d like to do. I do think it would be cool to do a jazz album in the future, something like this album I’m putting out, but change up the time-signatures, add some saxophone and I could really sing, and we’d do some jazz covers.
It’s great that you brought Haley Reinhart in to sing with you on “Hit the Road Jack”. You both have so much vocal chemistry and, on American Idol, were pushing your boundaries constantly. Neither of you won, but at least you were out there taking risks.
You know what? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Music is exploration. Everything should be exploration. I’ve tried it, and it’s fun to see what comes from taking chances – what better place to try that out than on American Idol? The audience will go along for the ride. I really don’t care if people like everything I do, or everything I did on the show. I’m just experimenting, and I want to be able to have fun making music. Wait … to a certain extent I do care. I hope at least some people liked it.
We could tell you cared. The night they used the Judges’ Save, I thought you were going to have a heart attack. Everyone talks about “Reality TV” being staged, but that wasw the least-staged moment you’ll ever see.
Oh God, dude … that moment on Idol changed my life. I think that was a life-saving moment. I really didn’t know what to do. I was running around the stage; I didn’t know who to hug or what was supposed to happen. It was crazy. But it basically worked out perfectly. I knew as soon as I tried out for the show that I wouldn’t win it. I’m sure there was the possibility in my mind, but I knew it wasn’t going to get that far. But I couldn’t be happier where I am right now. Now that I’ve had that exposure, I can go on the road and try things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try if no one knew who I was.