The scene, with Caleb Hawley singing Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” with all his heart and rock star and “American Idol” judge Steven Tyler grooving to it to the point that he was accompanying Hawley, subtly and not-so-subtly, is one of the most enduring of all “American Idol” audition videos that continues to capture viewers in Internet-land. And it proves that, in Hawley’s case, the second time was the charm.
The first time Hawley auditioned for “American Idol,” back in 2007, he forgot the lyrics to the song he was performing, and the show’s judges promptly forgot about him. Last year, says Hawley, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter and one of the featured performers at the New York Songwriter’s Circle showcase at Grounds for Sculpture on Friday, June 17, his wife, Samantha, saw an ad in Billboard magazine for auditions.
“She encouraged me to do it,” says Hawley, a folkster with huge soul and jazz roots that take his music in directions not often heard with singer-songwriters. “While I don’t like standing in lines, if I didn’t do it, I would have never known what would have happened.”
Although Hawley didn’t win the competition, it was certainly an enduring moment. “Steven Tyler flipped out about it, and that was so much of an amazing experience, because I really liked him as a kid; he is one of the most amazing singers around. Then it just kept going. I went to Hollywood, three rounds of Hollywood, and then I made it to Vegas, the final 50. We had to draw a song, and I got a Beatles song that I had never heard. It was really hard to get down and deliver to the best of my ability, and so I got sent home.”
Hawley has no regrets. “I got a lot of TV time, and I met a lot of people in the business, performers and otherwise. I still do shows with a lot of people I met on ‘American Idol.’ We call ourselves the ‘American Idol Rejects.’”
And, last but not least, judge Jennifer Lopez called Hawley “cute.” When Jennifer Lopez calls you “cute,” that’s almost as good as winning “American Idol.” For some of us, it would be better than winning.
The Idol experience, he says, taught him that the celebrity culture is little more than “a big game.” He says he appeared on the infamous celebrity TV show “TMZ” and had seen his friends from the show converted from obscure guitar pickers to celebrities whose every move and utterance was treated as if it were of high importance.
“These were just human beings, mostly good people, and all of a sudden they find themselves as big stars. It’s an interesting thing, maybe not all it’s cracked up to be,” he says in a phone interview from a tour stop in San Francisco, where he had just finished attending a Giants game. He was in the midst of a tour with Steve Seskin and Liz Longley, two other singer-songwriters. Seskin has written more than 1,400 songs, including Grammy-nominated hits for country stars Tim McGraw and John Michael Montgomery. When not performing or attending baseball games, Hawley has been spending time working on songcraft with Seskin and some other writing friends in the Bay Area and other stops on his tour.
“We’re doing kind of a triple bill thing,” he says. “I’ve been singing and writing for a while, but I don’t have anything near the type of catalog that (Seskin) has. I’m going to eventually have to get that part of my work up to the level of my singing and playing.”
Hawley was born and raised in Hudson in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the son of Dale and Vicki Hawley, two psychotherapists. Must have made for some fascinating dinner conversation. “Growing up in a family of therapists has really had an impact on me lyrically,” he says. “Especially on my last album (We All Got Problems), I tend to write about some of the things that people face. In general, my music, especially in terms of the lyrics, is like a commentary on the human condition. What I tend to do a lot, growing up in a family where there was a lot of thinking and talking about that, is to write a lot about people’s brains.”
Hawley’s older brother and sister grew up to become therapists too. “I’m kind of the odd one out.”
As a young kid, Hawley was a huge baseball fan. He played from tee ball through Babe Ruth League and wanted to play professionally, but as he puts it, “life didn’t give me huge muscles or great hand-eye coordination.”
It was at the age of 12 that Hawley began playing guitar. “I played a lot of Nirvana. Later I went to a lot of folk festivals, and then I picked up electric guitar. Anybody who played the blues and the electric appealed to me.”
Hawley attended York College in Nebraska in 2003 and 2004 before moving to Boston’s legendary Berklee College of Music, from which he received his bachelor’s in jazz composition in 2007.
“As much as I love jazz, and I still incorporate much of that into my music, I concentrate more on the pop form now,” he says. “I just like to find as many ways of connecting with people musically as I can. I still practice jazz all the time, but I often don’t really get a chance to use it. It’s kind of rare, as I’m into the lyrics and vocals. I don’t get too much into straight-ahead jazz as I used to.”
He moved to New York after graduating from Berklee, and now, Hawley plays music exclusively. He lives in Harlem with his wife and their dog, Fargo, a black labrador retriever. He and Samantha met as sophomores at Hudson High School and have been together ever since. Hawley usually drives throughout the country for his tours — the Bay Area sojourn was an exception to that practice — but other than when he is accompanied by Samantha, his main road buddy is Fargo. Hawley tries to take Fargo on as many trips as he can.
“He used to be at all of my shows,” says Hawley. “It was just a good way to have a friend along on the road. Sometimes I’d get a sympathetic host at a show, and they’d let Fargo backstage or at least let me keep him in the green room. It’s almost like he’s my manager.”
Fargo will be at Grounds for Sculpture with the rest of his family. Along with Hawley, the June 17 show features Tina Shafer, Gillian Grassie, Chris Ayer, Patty Blee & Ernie Trionfo, and Keith Monacchio.
“The Songwriter’s Circle, for me, has been a really huge introduction to the scene in New York,” says Hawley. “When I first got to New York, I was just wandering around, and I played a showcase with them and met some of my best friends there. It’s a really great community for songwriters to meet each other and be inspired by other artists.”
New York Songwriters Circle, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Friday, June 17, 7:30 p.m. Song Circle, the artist-centric music community, is launched. A legend in the West Village, the current featured songwriters include Caleb Hawley, Tina Shafer, Gillian Grassie, Chris Ayer, Patti Blee, Ernie Trionfo, and Keith Monacchio. Register. $25. Rain or shine. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.