Josiah Leming talks a lot about his "unfocused focus," the way he has a tendency to be so passionate about everything in his life that sometimes he doesn't move forward as quickly as he should.
It happened when he was on the seventh season of "American Idol," feeling so confident after all the praise the judges heaped on him from his early auditions that he felt he could do no wrong with them. It turned out - even after all the attention to his back story about living in his car - that he could rub them the wrong way, and Leming ended up not even making the semifinals.
"Every step of the way has been drenched in frustration," Leming says. "It's been a tough two years. But those two years were absolutely necessary. It happened for a reason."
All that frustration, as well as the death of his mother last year after a bout with cancer, fed into making his debut album, "Come On, Kid" (Warner Bros.), so poignant, as well as so poppy.
Leming says he's grown a lot since his unceremonious, but memorable, exit from "Idol." But his "unfocused focus" is still on display on the streets of midtown Manhattan, as Leming goes in search of a pack of smokes. He gets shot down in the gift shop of the News Corp. building - his boyish face and rock star sunglasses not helping sell the fact that he's recently turned 21. Then he gets a shock at Duane Reade.
"$11.97 for a pack of Marlboro Lights?" he asks the cashier.
"Welcome to New York," the guy replies.
Leming gets the cigs, but no matches. He searches the Honda Element he's driven across country on his current tour for his lighter, but comes up empty. He takes to asking passing strangers for help, before spotting a fellow smoker down the block and running him down to get a light.
It's only when Leming is happily puffing away on the sidewalk that his focus returns to his music and his new album.
"These songs are like love letters from me to me," he jokes, adding that his style is "wordy piano-pop," an apt description considering how much of "Come On, Kid" sounds like Conor Oberst fronting Coldplay.
"A lot of it is self-help or self-motivation," Leming says, "but I gotta beat myself up a bit, too."
His first single, "Maybe," offers a glimpse of how Leming's creative process works.
"It's a song that I've been thinking about writing for years," he says. "It's about the first relationship I was ever in, probably with the only girl I've ever really been in love with. For years, I wanted to write a song where all these lines started with the word 'maybe.' But I didn't know what I wanted to say. Was it going to be hopeful? Was it going to be mean toward her?"
As a young artist, Leming found himself in a series of writing sessions with more experienced songwriters, which he mostly hated. "It just didn't work for me because they were all about writing hits," he says. "But after one, I thought, 'I'm going to beat them at their own game.' I'm going to write this 'Maybe' song. I realized that I learned a lot from the sessions and that I wanted to be hopeful. I don't want to have a song end without hope."
A fresh start
In a way, "Maybe" became an anthem for Leming, with its chorus of "Maybe we could start again, baby, I'm a brand new man. ... Let's put the past aside, maybe we could love again."
"For me, it's all about the lyrics," he says. "Music is my language. Sitting here talking, it's almost like trying to think in Spanish. Music is my No. 1 language. That's how I best communicate."
Leming says he wants "Come On, Kid" to be the first step in a new career.
"I have so much to prove," he says, laughing. "Right now, the only thing I'm known for is crying on TV. If you Google my name, you get a bunch of pictures of me crying. I gotta change that."
Leming says he feels like he needs to give something back to music, since it's given so much to him.
"Music saved my life as a kid," he says. "Every kid needs a release valve and that was it for me. ... I want people to know that I am this album, and that this album is me.
"I also want people to know I don't cry all the time," he adds, cracking a smile.