Cas Haley burst onto the scene as part of America’s Got Talent, riding his soulful reggae tunes all the way to a second-place finish. Yet when the dust cleared, he walked away from the major label record deal that came with his success on the show, preferring to set out on his own. Haley’s new album, Connection, is out on September 14 on Easy Star Records. Read on to find out what it’s really like to play in front of David Hasselhoff and why Paris, Texas, will make you a fan of Bob Marley.
How do you feel about your new album, Connection?
I’m getting closer and closer each time I record an album to being able to listen to it. It’s always tough to listen to yourself. It’s an album that’s heavy on the reggae side, but then there are a lot of different styles and influences that go into it—old jazz standards and swing; old Motown and soul.
This is the first album that I’ve recorded where the majority of the songs are ones I’ve written in the last year or so. It’s stuff I’m experiencing now compared to a collection of songs that I’ve been keeping my favorites of. The last time I recorded was a collection of the last ten years. In the past, I could play some music then come up with some words, instead of really take from an experience or something I was feeling. This time, it’s a little bit more honest and real. Most of the songs are about things that happened or are happening in my life. I hear the difference between the last two, which makes it more special to me.
What were you doing before going on America’s Got Talent?
I was still on the trip that I’m on, but the wave just got sped up a tad. Before the show, I was playing music. My commitment was to writing tunes. I had been touring across the Midwest playing little clubs for whatever they would give me. I wasn’t sitting in a room wishing music was my career. I’d been committed to music since I was 16 or 17 years old. Before the show, it just was moving a lot slower.
What motivated you to audition for America’s Got Talent?
A friend of mine had been trying to get me to go to different auditions but I was just against it. It can do a lot for you, as far as getting you in front of the public eye, but as far as an art community and people thinking you are a valid artist and songwriter, it’s like “Yeah right, he was on that TV show or whatever.” Anyways, he called me the morning of the audition and asked me if I was going. I ended up showing up in the clothes that I had on when he called. There was no kind of preparation and I didn’t know what I was going to play. I just went and the first tune I played was an original of mine. They liked it. “Oh, that’s cool, but can you play anything current?”
Now, the only cover tunes I had ever really done were like 30 years and older. So then they said to play something a British guy would like. I played a couple of different Police songs, which one ended up being “Walking On The Moon,” which I played on the televised show. I played some Marley for them and then I played them a few more originals and that was that. When I left, I didn’t expect to make it. You see all the people there who had put so much into the audition. Whether it was magician acts or they had ten people in their show with outfits, I just felt really under-qualified and under-prepared. I didn’t feel like I had a chance.
Yet there you were, playing for David Hasselhoff.
(Laughing) Exactly. After seeing the people they put through, I was like, “Oh my god, do I even want to be on this show?” Because during the first twelve weeks or so of the show, you’ll have some talent here and there but it’s mostly all the crazy people. My dad asked me, “Do you want to be on this show? Are you sure you want to be on this show?’ I told him that I really didn’t know. One thing led to the other and I just did it.
You walked away with the record deal that came with your second place finish. How hard was that?
As a musician growing up where I came from, the pinnacle of music career, from my perspective, was to get a record deal. The first illusion of the music business is that is what you’re striving for. Everything that I thought I wanted, when I had it and it was there, it was not anything like I thought. I just wasn’t feeling it, it was weird. The first major thing was that my songwriting wasn’t going to be part of the album.
They wanted me to go write with people I didn’t know. I understand that on a tune or two, but the whole album? I’m no Ashlee Simpson; you know what I’m saying? That totally took away the whole reason for me doing it. For me, it needs to be an honest expression. Even if I’m covering someone’s tune, I have to be able to do it in a way I can truly feel it.
I just didn’t like the way the whole thing was structured. I felt like I was getting a job. It was one that paid really well but I was going to have bosses. The reason I went into music was to not have a boss; to not feel like I’m working for somebody else.
What was it about reggae music that first appealed to you when you were a kid?
Obviously, it makes you feel good. Living in the area I live in, I love the area I live in now, but it was very small minded, back woods country here in Paris, Texas. This is sort of negative but there is a lot of fear-based living here as far as like the government and all the redneck stuff. So maybe it was that, being surrounded with that type of environment, I wanted to feel good, and get rid of that weird negative vibe.
Do you have any advice for any songwriters out there trying to get started?
I think the biggest thing is commitment. To stay in the music business and be successful, you need commitment. It has to do with everything, just never giving up. As far as songwriting goes, you should be honest and write songs that are real. It’s made everything much better for me, from my attachment to the song to when I’m performing it live. It makes such a difference.