Former 'X-Factor' star goes small and faces down his fears on excellent new EP

Every so often, ever since he was a kid, Josh Krajcik awakens in the middle of the night to a thousand whispers flooding his ears and a shadowy figure looming over him.

The worst part of this late-night assault on his senses, though, is that Krajcik can't move. He lies there, frozen in bed, unable to lift his limbs or speak. His body is a prison.

“Sleep paralysis is this weird phenomenon,” Krajcik said during an interview at a coffee shop. “My brother called me [recently] and said, ‘There's this cool movie on Netflix called ‘The Nightmare.' It describes this phenomenon where [people hear] 100 TVs on the snow channel, or bees.' I started feeling sick and getting scared. I thought it was just me. There's this shadow person that people see, too. I don't even have to see him to know he's over here. It's terrifying.”

To Krajcik, the combination of paralysis and doom is a manifestation of oblivion, and it inspired the title track of his newly released, six-song EP, Oblivion. “Shake me awake, I'm only screaming / I feel oblivion, I fear oblivion,” he sings in a delicate-yet-powerful falsetto over arpeggiated acoustic guitar.

“It's been this thing that's been on my mind and a source of anxiety for a long time. The song came from that anxiety,” said Krajcik, who also described the phenomenon as a harrowing foretaste of something even worse. “My ultimate fear is oblivion itself — lack of consciousness. I'd almost rather burn in hell for all eternity than not exist.”

While recording the song with co-writer and co-producer Bill Patterson of the Wet Darlings, Krajcik whispered into the mic over and over again, stacking the tracks on top of each other to emulate the sound of his worst nightmare.

“Here's this thing that's a source of fear; I'm going to make it into something beautiful,” Krajcik said. “It's like a healing from that, because I haven't had it happen to me since the song. Maybe I purged it. It's like an exorcism.”

Oblivion is intimate and minimalist — a purposefully stark contrast to 2013 album Blindly, Lonely, Lovely, Krajcik's major-label debut that came on the heels of his impressive run singing for judges and millions of viewers during the 2011 season of “The X-Factor.” Krajcik took second place in the competition, along the way winning fans with his warmth, grace, Midwestern charm and a deeply soulful voice honed in bars in Columbus and his hometown of Wooster.

“It was this bizarre, difficult experience,” Krajcik said, reflecting on his time going from a “burrito slinger” to a TV star and all the ups and downs since. “Everything that has happened to me since [the show] is what's supposed to happen, but I've had a lot of challenges and personal defeats. Or maybe I thought somebody I met was a friend, but they were just another snake. I think that was hard for me to deal with.”

“‘X-Factor' is in the business of making a television show, not necessarily making records and tending to these folks on the show. They're not good at it,” he continued. “But honestly, I have wonderful supporters and fans now that I wouldn't have had, and they love my music and care about me. That is the best thing that's ever happened. And I got to make Blindly, Lonely, Lovely. On it was a song called ‘Let Me Hold You,' and I've had people write to me saying, ‘This song saved me,' or, ‘This person passed away ... thank you for this song.' That would never have happened had I not been on ‘The X-Factor.' ... I'm not sure I'd recommend it, but I'm glad I did it.”

While Krajcik is proud of Blindly, Lonely, Lovely, he and Patterson traded in horn sections and other big-budget production flourishes for an up-close, personal sound on Oblivion. “I wanted to make a really Ohio-y sounding record,” Krajcik said. “We're in-between Detroit-Motown and Kentucky bluegrass, so I guess I just wanted to be honest sonically. … I wanted it to be small, honest and moody.”

At the beginning of “Let's Disappear,” before he launches into the story of a woman from Xenia, Ohio, who's bigger than her hometown, Krajcik breathes in deep, then exhales. “It sounds melancholy and paints a picture,” Krajcik said of the decision to leave the audible sigh on the final recording. “I think these songs are melancholy because I have felt melancholy. There's some challenges I've gone through in my career recently — with change and disappointment and excitement, all the good and bad — that have affected me. … I think vulnerability lends itself to that vibe. This record, in particular, exemplifies some of the insecurities I deal with.”

These days Krajcik, 36, is still a full-time musician, but he's considering going back into the workforce part-time as a cook or maybe as an Uber driver. It's a strange thing being semi-famous, but he welcomes fans who stop him on the street. He greets them warmly when they tell him how much they love his voice, how they still remember that first “X-Factor” audition, when his rendition of “At Last” brought the crowd to its feet and left the judges teary and in awe.

“I love it when people say hello,” he said. “It's great. I'm known for singing, and I am a singer.”