Four years ago, Sanjaya Malakar was tearing it up on the American Idol stage with Joe Perry of Aerosmith during the season six finale. They were reprising what became a sort of signature song for Malakar during his time on the show, “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. Though he finished seventh, he became one of the best known contestants in Idol history thanks to his unpredictable wardrobe and hairstyles. But it was his soft, smooth, quiet storm vocals that originally captured the Idol judges’ attention.
In the years following American Idol, Sanjaya Malakar has kept busy. He recorded an EP and penned a memoir. Earlier this year Malakar was in New York City, starring in the Off-Broadway production of Freckleface Strawberry. Most recently he has released a cover of the Squeeze hit “Tempted.” Next month he will be playing a benefit for Gilda’s Club at Seattle’s Musicquarium Lounge, followed by Summer With the Stars in Cancun, Mexico. I recently had a chance to chat with the twenty-one year old singer-songwriter.
What was the play Freckleface Strawberry all about?
It’s based on a book by the actress Julianne Moore. It’s about her childhood, growing up with freckles and red hair. The premise of the play is that it’s okay to be different and have quirks. Things that set you apart from others. In the end, that’s what makes you unique. If everyone was the same, the world would be boring.
What was it like performing in a New York City playhouse?
The audience reaction was great, they really got into it. Most of the audience was obviously kids, but we got a lot of energy back from them.
What have you been doing musically lately?
I’ve been writing and recording my album. And setting up a tour for later this year. While I was in New York for the play, I was working with some local producers. It’s really given my songs time to develop – it’s a fun process.
Any release date at this point?
That’s not really settled yet, but we’re hoping to have it out in time for the tour.
How does your new music compare to what you released in 2009 on your EP?
I was kind of new to songwriting, it was very much experimental. And I was working with different people and developing. Between the ages of 18-21 there are huge changes in life. I have a lot of different influences. When I released my EP, I was still kind of figuring out a way of making it a cohesive style.
So the new songs represent your style more effectively?
With the new music, I wanted to focus it so I was using the instrumentation for a specific reason, not to just put them in there. I want to really enhance the emotion of the song, because a lot of the lyrics I write are observational and expressive. I have kind of an R&B vocal styling, with some funk influence. I think that having an outlet like songwriting to express yourself really helps you grow as a person.
Were you involved with Richard Rushfield’s recent book American Idol: The Untold Story? He had some nice things to say about you in it.
Yeah, he interviewed me. It was cool. I actually met him when I was on American Idol and hadn’t really seen him since then. So it was like a flashback. I haven’t seen the book yet.
In the book, he tries to remind people about your vocal talent. Has it been a struggle to deal with being perceived as a kind of novelty act by some people?
I think it was more of a struggle earlier on. When I first got off the show there were a lot of offers from production companies and television shows, “You should do a reality show about your life, and your hairstyles” – all that stuff. For me, I did American Idol for the experience. I didn’t know that I would even get past the first audition. I wasn’t thinking about how it was going to effect my life. I was focusing on performing at my best under the circumstances. Then I had the stylists saying, “Oh, let’s do this for the hairstyle!” And I had the clothes stylist saying, “Hey, try this on!” It was a whirlwind, and underneath it all I was trying to pay attention to who I am as a musician. But it was definitely a great experience though.
Sometimes people assume if they don’t see a former Idol finalist at the Grammys, they must be working at a Wal-Mart or something. But like many, you’ve carved out a career doing something you love.
When people go on American Idol, a lot of them probably think, “Oh, I want to be the next Kelly Clarkson.” But a lot of people, I think, go on Idol for the experience and exposure in doing what they love, like you said. Obviously I have goals and places I want to be at the height of my life. But I’ve always said, if none of that happens I’ll die happy as long as I have family and music. That’s what really matters. Wherever else it goes from there, it’s free to go there. I’m not putting any expectations on it, because I don’t want to be let down by something that I love so much. I just want to let it bring me where it’s supposed to. I think that for a lot of the people who go on Idol, that’s what drives them.
On June 14, you’re performing at “Songs for June,” a benefit for Gilda’s Club Seattle, a non-profit organization that provides support for people who have cancer.
Yes, I’ve actually had a lot of experiences with people that have been sick. People really close to me that have died. It’s really close to my heart to be able to participate in something like that. To give back as much as I can.
One of the main ways that I want to use this fame, or notoriety, sometimes I think people get lost in that and forget they have the ability to make some kind of impact. You have all these people that pay attention to you, so you can say something meaningful rather than say something stupid.
For more information about Sanjaya Malakar, including upcoming performances such as the “Songs for June” Gilda’s Club benefit in Seattle, please visit his official website. The brand new single “Tempted” is available for purchase as well.