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With his rich tenor voice, distinctive looks, and endearingly innocent charm, Jason Castro won over millions of viewers as a contestant on the seventh season of American Idol, parlaying his substantial singer-songwriter appeal into a third-place runner-up finish. He may not have won the competition, but the 22-year-old Texan earned himself a devoted fan base eager to hear what he would do once freed to perform his own songs. Those folks will get their chance with the release of Castro’s self-titled debut album on Atlantic Records.
Though rooted in the classic, melody-minded singer-songwriter tradition, with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and acoustic guitar-driven arrangements, the album brims with toe-tapping pop (first single "Let’s Just Fall In Love Again," "This Heart Of Mine"), strummy folk ("That’s What I’m Here For"), and electrifying rock ("Closer") - all cleverly balanced with unabashedly emotional tunes like "Love Uncompromised," "It Matters To Me," "You Can Always Come Home," and a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" (which Castro performed on Idol, citing Jeff Buckley’s version as a huge inspiration to him as an artist).
To capture the moods he wanted, Castro collaborated with producer Eric Rosse (Sara Bareilles, Tori Amos) and a host of top-notch songwriters - including Marc Roberge of O.A.R., Gregg Wattenberg (Five For Fighting), Zac Maloy (David Cook), and Espionage (Train) - all of whom helped Castro create an earthy showcase for his considerable gifts as a vocalist, songwriter, and musician, not to mention the warmth and sincerity that shines through everything he does. "I feel like the album really captures my personality," Castro says. "People got to know me a bit on the show, so I wanted to build on that by including all these songs I’ve written about my life. I wanted to share with people the things that are meaningful to me."
Those who watched Castro on American Idol are by now familiar with his likeably down-to-earth personality and aw-shucks demeanor. But when he opens his mouth to sing, it’s like watching a totally different person. Any offbeat quirkiness seems to fall away and the listener is struck by an authentic maturity and the spell-binding intimacy of his voice. "I’m actually a pretty serious guy, and that’s the side people didn’t see on the show and wouldn’t see unless you’re my best friend," Castro says. "These songs represent that other side of my personality - the more reflective, thoughtful side. I really think music is an extension of one’s self. One can’t go without the other, so my personality and character are a huge part of the music and that’s what people have told me they love about it-just the realness and that they can feel my heart and the emotion in the songs when I perform them."
Making that connection is a satisfying accomplishment for Castro, who actually began his performing life as a drummer. A first-generation American of Colombian descent, Castro grew up in a musical family in Rowlett, Texas, just outside of Dallas. His grandfather was an opera singer and his father and all five of his uncles sing and play guitar. Castro started playing drums in the fifth grade ("because I didn’t want to be like everyone else") and played in bands throughout high school. After graduating, he entered Texas A&M University and bought a guitar because he couldn’t play drums in the dorm. "I couldn’t sing when I picked up the guitar," Castro says. "So I read about singing techniques on the Internet, like how-to articles with breathing exercises, and taught myself."
Ever the perfectionist, Castro didn’t want anyone in the dorms to hear him, so he’d go across the street to a park to practice. "I would sing out while sitting at a picnic table in this park in the middle of the night," he says, "and if anyone came within walking distance, I would be silent until they were out of sight. That was the most privacy I could get." Also during that time, Castro drove home every weekend to play shows with his band and would listen to all different types of music on the three-hour drive. "That’s when I started loving pop singer-songwriter stuff," he says. "I loved melodies and had fun singing along while making these long drives." He’d also seek out acoustic versions of songs he liked and teach himself how to play them on his guitar.
During his sophomore year of college, Castro quit his band to focus on school, a turn of events that he now credits with making him see how badly he actually wanted and needed to be a professional musician. "I was absolutely miserable. It was the worst year of my life," he says. Not long after, needing to get some things off his chest, he began writing songs and experimenting with working them out on the guitar. Eventually, he got up the nerve to perform at local coffeehouses where meeting other songwriters served as further inspiration. During his last semester at college, he lived in a house full of musicians. "That’s when I realized I couldn’t live without music," he says.
In August 2007, Castro decided to try out for American Idol (an experience he calls "an awesome boot camp for singers") when the auditions were held in Dallas. "I had watched Chris Daughtry do something different on the show and I started scheming, like, ‘There hasn’t really been anyone on Idol like me - a serious singer-songwriter who plays guitar.’" After impressing the judges, he made it to Hollywood. Week after week, he won over audiences with a number of memorable performances ("Over the Rainbow," "Daydream," and "Hallelujah" to name a few) accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and ukulele (the show’s first-ever contestant to play an instrument onstage). Castro’s rendition of "Over the Rainbow" hit No. 1 on iTunes, while "Hallelujah" proved such an audience favorite that Jeff Buckley’s cover of the song hit No. 1 on the iTunes chart the following week, selling an astonishing 178,000 digital singles, and propelling the song to platinum status. After the season’s conclusion, Castro hit the road, performing on the hugely successful "American Idols LIVE! Tour 2008."
When the tour ended, Castro moved to Los Angeles and began writing songs, eventually signing a deal with Atlantic Records, because he felt the folks at the label understood his desire to make an authentic artistic recording. "Some people come off of Idol and sing what’s given to them, which is cool, but I sing because it’s an outlet for me to express the things I want to say. Atlantic understood that and wanted to help me take my writing and performing to the next level." Castro went into the studio with Eric Rosse in June 2009 to start recording his first album. "Overall our focus was to keep it really natural and not lose the magic of the voice," Castro says. "When you play with a band, the vocals can sometimes get washed away, so we tried to pull back whatever wasn’t necessary. Eric has a history of making really organic, but still commercially appealing records. I couldn’t have done it without him."
The result is a truly heartfelt record about love that relays what Castro calls a positive message of love and acceptance. "That’s really the common thread running through the songs - loving somebody and accepting them for who they are." Though many of the songs are personal to him, Castro doesn’t mind giving listeners a view into his world.
"I don't think there’s a limit in art on how much of yourself you put into it," he says. "That's the purpose and the magic of it - sharing something so deep that it can impact somebody else. When it moves you to hear about someone else’s experience, that’s what songwriting is truly all about: translating your feelings and passions to create meaning for others. That’s what I try to do every time I write a song or sing one on stage. And hopefully that’s what I’ve done with this album."