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Jason Castro: Finding Hope in the Climb

By Chris Carpenter Program Director It has been five years since Jason Castro captivated audiences on American Idol with a mellow blend of friendly pop-infused music and distinctive dreadlocks.  Viewers will remember him for his soulful spin on the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah” or his playful ukulele-tinged rendition of “Over the Rainbow”.

Since that time, Jason has forged a promising career in Christian music and has performed to audiences all over the world.  In January, he released his second full-length album, Only a Mountain, an offering that Jason hopes will give listeners a chance to rejoice and find new hope in our risen Savior.

I sat down with Jason on a recent tour stop to discuss how a construction science major in college found his way to the American Idol stage, how faith has transformed his music, and why it is important for people not to let their struggles overtake them.

I had to chuckle the other day when I was preparing for this interview with you.  I came across a feature that referred to you as … “Jason Castro, an acoustic folk, pop, contemporary, Christian songwriter.” That’s quite a mouthful. How would you characterize yourself, as an artist?

Good question. I think a lot of the time this question comes back to, because it’s so easy to get carried away with descriptions. I think at the heart of what I do as far as my music, the reason I started singing was because I fell in love with songs, and the way they worked. I grew up playing drums, and when I started going to college, I was driving three hours back and forth, every week to play with this band. And for the first time, I started hearing songs in a different light. I don’t know if it was because I was getting more mature, or something, but I started listening beyond just the drums, and started being drawn to more introspective lyrics, and people who were telling stories. I just remember starting to be moved by music in a way I had never been before, and the way the lyrics and melody all come together to say something. And so, that’s really why I started playing the guitar. I wanted to be able to play these songs, and through that, just fell in love with songs. I wanted to be able to write songs.  So, I think at the very heart of what I do, a lot of people with the folky-acoustic thing, a lot of people just call it the singer-songwriter genre. And so, I think that’s at the heart of what I do.

I obviously want to get into your time on American Idol but before we do, I understand that prior to auditioning for that show you were a construction science major at Texas A&M.

It’s true, for one semester.

So, while in college you tried out for American Idol. That brings me to two questions, A) What were you planning to do with construction science, and B) Why did you make the decision to even audition for American Idol when it seems like your life was kind of heading a different direction?

I’ve always had a conflict with school versus music. Because when I started in college, I was in a band at the time, playing drums in a band that was kind of doing stuff. We were talking to labels. I got flown to LA for a showcase when I was eighteen and I kind of thought I was going to be a rock star. So, I was pouring all my energy into that, but then my first semester of college came, and the only reason I went was because of some scholarships, and because my parents really encouraged it.  The way I looked at it was it’s free living. I didn’t have to get a job. That’s what went through my head. And so, I start school, and I quickly realized it’s not as easy as high school where you could just coast. So, after my first semester, it was a wakeup call. Really, my first round of exams, when I hadn’t been going to class much, didn’t study much and got like 20’s across the board. It was really bad.  It was terrifying. So, I started to turn things around. That whole semester ended pretty rough. I ended up dropping a few classes. After that first year, I had a wakeup call. I was always talking with my parents and was close to them, but my dad always challenged me. He never understood why we didn’t love this opportunity to go to school. My parents are from South America and he couldn’t get why we didn’t value education as much as he did. He was supportive of music -- he plays guitar and sings, but it came to a point where he wanted to know what I was going to do with my life.  I figured that I’ve got to give it my all if I want to be in music. So, that’s what I’d been doing, and in the process, really neglecting something else that God had given me. At the end of that first year, I just realized that I felt like I needed a restart from a lot of things. It was a time to grow up. So, I decided to walk away from the band, and it was a real last minute decision.

That period of time is when I just played a lot of guitar, a lot of music, and spent a lot of time praying. My focus became less on the music and more of who I was becoming. And so, I got involved with a lot of Bible studies, went on a mission trip during spring break. I really think of it as my time in the wilderness, when I was figuring out, God, what are we doing? Why do I have all these desires in my heart, but I want to please you? How does this all work together? And the next year, American Idol just came to my home town. I auditioned on a whim.

The rest as they say is history.  From there you were swept up into a vortex that continues to this day.  When you look back at American Idol what was the greatest thing about that experience for you?

I have to point to today. The greatest thing of it is the fact that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now, what I’ve always dreamed of. It was a great way to get here. There are obviously a lot of superficial things too. At the time, there were a lot of cool things like private jets, stuff like that.  That was just mind blowing at the time, being twenty years old. But overall, the greatest thing is the fact that it lead to this.

When you finally incorporated your faith into your music in a public way, it seemed like something just clicked for you.  What happened?

I think it was a lot of things. I always kind of struggled with what am I doing?  Does this really matter? And also in my personal life I was saying, even with touring, you just feel isolated, and it’s hard to even connect with God. You just feel so disconnected. And so as I was traveling, I was having fun. And I was even traveling with my wife when we got married. That first album we were touring together. But it just got to the point that being gone so much, I really just wanted to have more God in my life, more God in my music, and figure out how to do that. It just happened this way, and it just felt like home when I started doing more Christian music type things, and visiting Christian radio stations. It was really welcoming and inspiring, and encouraging. It just feels like my personal desires and my personal faith really merged with my musical ambitions.

Your new record is called Only a Mountain. In listening to it, something I noticed from your first album is that you’re really growing as a vocalist.

Thank you.  I think I’ve seen massive growth, looking at this album, and even if you rewind all the way back to my time on American Idol. Now I watch that stuff, and I ask myself how did I make it through? Like, some of it was pretty bad.  I think my voice has definitely grown. I think that’s just something that comes with time and the practice. But looking back at those early days, I think what initially got me going and fueled a bit of success was the passion of how I did things. I think that will only able to be exemplified more as my voice grows.

I would love it if you could take me through a couple of the songs on Only a Mountain. Tell me what they are about and your inspiration for writing them.  Let’s start with the title track and your first single, “Only a Mountain”.

That is a very special song. That was actually one of the last ones I recorded.  I was getting together with one of my main co-writers, Seth Mosley. We were listening through the songs, and trying to figure out what are we missing on this album.  After we had listened through a bunch of songs, he’s like, “I just started this song yesterday with a girl named Mia Fieldes.”  She is another writer I’d been working with, and he showed it to me, and he had this idea of “Only a Mountain.”  I just fell in love with it, and I loved not only the concept but it felt like something that hasn’t really been said in a song before. I love the attitude that it takes in being such an upbeat song.  It’s just a happy driven song. That’s the attitude I want to share, and I want to impart to people as they face their challenges, and face their mountains. It’s only a mountain. Don’t make it bigger than it is, because I think so often, in our challenges we face, we just think they’re these monumental things. I know in my personal experience, starting in community was a big deal for me. I never really fit in a Biblical community until I got married, and once I started sharing my burdens and my struggles, you start to realize, I’m not that different. My problems aren’t only mine, everybody has problems, and I have found a lot of strength and hope in that, and just realizing that through God, all things are possible. In the big picture, I just think so often when we look back at our lives, and once we’re in Heaven, these problems, they’re just a small step along the way. And so, I just love that, that’s the spirit of the song.

How about the song “Stay This Way”?

When you’re writing, sometimes you can tell whenever you’re onto something that’s just powerful, when it’s speaking to you every time, when you’re just singing the chorus, you’re like, man!  You can only hope that it will speak to people the same way, but you know, it’s about that struggle. At my church there’s a program called Celebrate Recovery, which I have participated in. Just going through that and seeing all the stories of hope and all the dark places people came out of, that’s really what inspires this song. I think so many times when we’re stuck in isolation in our own sin and you are just stuck in a never ending hamster wheel, making the same mistake over and over again.  What I experienced through this in the Celebrate Recovery process, through reading a lot of God’s Word, and a great curriculum with self-examination, doing the community stuff, sharing with people on a weekly basis, really learning to live in the light, and that’s what it was. That just transformed so many things in my life. I realized you don’t have to stay this way, there’s so much hope in Christ. Just jump in and believe what He said is true, and renew your mind on a daily and weekly basis. All that hope, all those ideas are bottled up into that song.

After people pick up Only a Mountain, listen to it, or they see you on stage somewhere along the way, what do you want people to take away from that experience? What do you want them to learn?

I’ve never thought about teaching people through my music, but I guess am doing that.  The theme throughout the album is one of hope. I think that’s the biggest thing I hope people walk away with, even from a live concert. I just hope that they are encouraged and inspired, and seek more into the lyrics, and ask where did these lyrics come from? Who is Jason, and why does he sing these songs?  This album was also intentionally written, not so much as an overtly Christian album. Because of my background with American Idol I hope that through my music people listen, and they just question more, why is Jason like this, and it leads them to Christ and that the true hope is that the music’s all good and stuff, but at the end of the day it is just music.

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featured cd

Jason Castro: Only a Mountain Only a Mountain (2013)





did you know?

Jason had only performed five times in public before auditioning for American Idol.

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