“I’ve heard it said that music is the language of the soul,” says internationally-renowned recording artist Jason Castro. “I think it’s something God created for our souls to be able to rejoice in.”
Now, as this mellow Texan with the blue eyes, bright smile, and distinctive dreadlocks prepares to release his first full-length Word Records album, Only A Mountain, he finds himself with the chance to rejoice alongside a broad new audience of fellow believers. The prospect, he says, is thrilling: “This album to me is really kind of a breakthrough,” Castro confesses. “It feels like this veil has been lifted.”
Produced by Matt Bronleewe, Ben Glover, and David Garcia, Only a Mountain is set to be released January 15, 2013. Its eleven original tracks – all written or co-written by Castro – are primed to appeal to fans both old and new, whether they discovered his unique voice via his captivating run on American Idol, or have found their lives touched by one of his melodic, heartfelt performances in the years since. The songs on Only A Mountain are fueled by “the realization that life is beautiful,” Castro says. “It’s a lifestyle philosophy that I carry: What good can we do today? How can we be a light in the challenging world in which we currently live? I feel like I’m coming into my own. This is just my story to tell.”
Much of that story is now familiar to millions of people worldwide: Raised in the church by a musical family of Colombian descent, Castro started drumming at 11, playing music in the youth ministry, joining his father in leading worship. But despite his musical background, the notion that young Jason might have a voice – or something to say with it musically – didn’t really begin to take shape until he hit college and picked up the guitar. The young drummer who cut his teeth on a steady diet of Blink 182, Switchfoot, and MxPx found himself drawn to the introspective sound of singer-songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and Jeff Buckley. “I started listening to their lyrics,” he says. “And that really captured me. I loved what the words were doing to me, and I wanted to be able to do that, you know?” Although he admits the first song he wrote and played for his then-girlfriend (now wife) was “pretty bad,” he soon gained enough courage to join friends for some coffeehouse gigs. When he hit the stage for the seventh season of American Idol, he’d only been singing for a year and a half.
“I don’t know if I ever had an indication that I was meant to be a musician, or good enough to do it professionally,” Castro laughs of taking the Idol plunge. “All I really had was a heart for it.” That heart eventually led him to a fourth-place finish on the show, where he won consistent critical acclaim for his stripped-down takes on songs like “Over the Rainbow” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” His laid-back acoustic style was unlike anything that show’s belting-diva-accustomed audience had ever seen. “I wasn’t a great natural singer or anything, but I had passion,” he says now. “For whatever reason, things lined up the way they did, and I believe there was a bigger reason than things just ‘happening.’ I really cherish the Idol experience. Sometimes I just laugh, like, ‘Was that real?’”
The success that came next was even more unbelievable for the soft-spoken and humble Castro: His 2010 self-titled debut on Atlantic Records entered the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart at No. 18, and spawned the international hit “Let’s Just Fall In Love Again” – a No. 1 single in Norway, Singapore and the Philippines. Determined to establish himself with the public as a legitimate performing artist and not just a TV star from American Idol, he then began touring regularly with his band and has never stopped.
Jason joined the I Am Second campaign in Dallas, speaking publicly about his faith for the first time since gaining national attention, and the Christian community began to take an interest in his message. Later that year, Atlantic and Word teamed up to re-release his debut as Who I Am, this time featuring five new faith-based songs. For Castro, something suddenly clicked. “As I started venturing down that road, I found a lot of fulfillment,” he says of combining his Christian faith and music career.
Home, of course, now extends to around the globe, as Castro and his longtime band have earned their stripes in countries as far-flung as Singapore and the Philippines. “We get to play in front of thousands of people singing every word to my songs,” Castro says. “It’s just crazy – like, these people don’t even speak English. But the thing that always moves me the most is when someone comes up and tells me, ‘Your music got me through some heavy times.’ It just blows my mind, the power of music.” Fans who still remember Castro as a solo acoustic performer might find their own minds blown a bit when they witness his growth as a live performer – which now includes plugging in and rocking on the electric guitar. “One of my early managers told me, ‘You gotta be undeniable,’” Castro says. “When it comes to music, I believe in that excellence, in every performance. Be undeniable. I’ve carried that with me every day.”
Castro’s deepening musical chops are apparent on every track of Only A Mountain, which explodes out of the speakers with strength, integrity and confidence. “Rise To You” is a fist-pumping power ballad with a sing-along hook, “Same Kind of Broken” a compelling and emotional duet with CCM newcomer Moriah Peters, and “Runaway” a straight-up stunner that showcases how Castro’s vocal talents have blossomed. Songs like “If It’s Love” exhibit the kind of layered sonic textures Castro picked up from more recent influences like Coldplay , lending them a fresh and modern sound likely to appeal to music lovers everywhere, regardless of their spiritual beliefs. According to Castro, those choices are intentional. “I think as a kid, sometimes you discredit Christian music because it’s churchy and not cool,” he says, speaking from personal experience. “I was on a plane earlier this year, and I had an old dc Talk album on my iPod. I’d heard it before, way back when, but this time when I pressed play, I was really impressed by the production. It really inspired me to think maybe I could reach a kid who’s like I was –who doesn’t think Christian music is that cool. Maybe I can get him or her to listen to the music with a fresh approach?”
If anything is going to capture that young person, it’s the infectious, bouncy, piano-driven pop of the title track, which also serves as the album’s first single. When co-writers Seth Mosley and Mia Fieldes brought the song’s theme into their writing session, Castro says it struck him immediately as exactly the kind of message he wanted to deliver to Christian radio. “I thought it was a fresh concept,” he says. “It was inspired by the verse of Jesus telling the Disciples, ‘If anyone has faith the size of a mustard seed, he can tell this mountain to move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible.’ Living that out has just been huge for me this past year, knowing that there’s no problem too big for God to tackle. You just gotta have faith.”
For Castro, those five words – “You just gotta have faith” – currently serve as a kind of creative centerpiece. “I love ‘Only a Mountain’ as the first single, because I think it sums up a lot of things that I’ve realized in the past few years,” he says. “There’s definitely been a lot of challenges and adversity, and those things have really shaped the album. I’ve found a new life through all of it.” Castro admits he’s gone through some pretty “monumental stuff” of late – including the birth of his first child, daughter Madeline, in August of 2011 – but it’s brought him to an even stronger spiritual place. “I’ve always believed in God and his power, but I didn’t really have faith, you know?” he asks. “I had this knowledge, and this acknowledgement, like, ‘God, you’re there, I want you to be honored and everything… but I’m not ready to give you this.’” He pauses, and his joy is palpable. “I’ve learned to give it up.”
Be undeniable. Carry the message of God forward. Have faith. These are the goals Jason Castro has set for Only A Mountain, and the goals that he has set for his career as a performer – a path that, in retrospect, seems very much laid out by a greater hand. “What I like about songs is they take you through a journey,” he says, “and this album is very much my journey, and what I have found in my journey is just a lot of hope. I think that’s what comes out in these songs, regardless of where you come from or where you are in life or what you’re going through. There’s hope here for everyone.”