Ask Jason Castro what comes to mind when he hears the words American Idol, and he breaks out his impression of the familiar theme song.
The former Texas A&M student, who grew up in Rowlett and is now based in Dallas, made his name on Idol. He finished fourth in 2009, and enjoyed a groundswell of support from Aggieland. Friends and fans wore Castro T-shirts and held watching parties, even at the MSC Flag Room.
"I'm really thankful for it all the time," he says of the Idol experience. "It seems like . so far removed from it, it seems a little unreal sometimes. I'm always reminded that I'm getting to do what I do right now because of that."
Castro, 25, performs Saturday at the Grand Stafford Theater. Expect to hear the song that became his signature moment on the show: Hallelujah, the hymn-like classic by sardonic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Castro was introduced to Jeff Buckley's cover of the track on his drives from College Station to Dallas, where he played with a band. He included the song on his 2010 album.
"I think one of the reasons why it went so well - aside from just being an amazing song - it was also the first song that I sang on the show that I had known previously to performing," Castro says. "I think that does have a lot to do with how authentic the performance becomes, because you're not trying to remember words, you're just singing a song that you know and love. . It was really a privilege for me to be able to sing that song."
As for cranky former Idol judge Simon Cowell, Castro laughs when asked what he'd say to him if they passed each other on the street.
"I'd probably awkwardly say, 'Hi,'" he says. "Some people get buddy-buddy, and they're like, 'Oh, hey Simon!' Me, I was just always very intimidated by him. I'd say 'Hi' and not much else."
Castro's latest effort is Only a Mountain, a five-song EP available at Wal-Mart and online, which will be expanded to a full-length album in January.
The EP's title track shows the spiritual side of Castro's music. Christian radio and retail outlets showed interest in Castro since his first album, he says, which led to his single You Are. He's also part of the I Am Second campaign, a faith-based website featuring testimonials by celebrities and athletes including Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw and surfer Bethany Hamilton.
The upbeat, motivational Only a Mountain sits at No. 23 on Billboard's Christian songs chart. Castro refers to a Bible verse, Matthew 17:20, for its theme.
"It was definitely inspired by some words of Jesus, when he was talking to his people and basically calling them out on their faith, telling them if you have faith, even the size of a mustard seed, you could tell this mountain to move and it would move," he says. "That's been a big part of my life these last few years, just growing in my faith, realizing that maybe I didn't have a whole lot of faith all along."
Castro says Only a Mountain is not an exclusively Christian album.
"It's something that anybody can listen to . and be encouraged, and find hope in it," he says. "I hope that's what my music does for people."