It’s been four years since Sanjaya Malakar was on American Idol, but he’s back in the headlines this week. He’s set to make his New York stage debut in the off-Broadway hit family musical Freckleface Strawberry, the adaptation of the children’s book penned by actress Julianne Moore, on Feb. 23. Producers reached out to Malakar to join the show, which is about accepting others for who they are and feeling comfortable in your own skin (even if you have freckles and red hair). “It’s a kids’ book, but the story pertains to everyone. It’s about people with insecurities, and everyone at some point has some kind of insecurity,” Malakar told EW this afternoon before heading to his first rehearsal. (He arrived in New York yesterday.) He’ll take on the role of Danny through May 28. “He’s the jock in school. He’s cool. Everyone thinks he’s awesome. He’s good at all the sports and gets all the girls. But really, he’s just like everyone else. He wants to be smarter. Everyone wants to be a little different than what they are. But in the end, you realize that you’re perfect just the way that you were made,” he says. Danny excels at basketball, and, fortunately, it’s the one sport Malakar played. “I played basketball a little bit, but I was never really amazing,” he clarifies. “It’s definitely some work getting the choreography down, but I enjoy a challenge like that. We’re dribbling to the beat. I have dribbled a basketball in my day, so it makes it a little easier.” If Danny is “cool,” does that mean we could see a return of the infamous pony hawk? Malakar has yet to discuss Danny’s hairstyle with producers. “I would assume that it would be a little more mild because the show is about a group of 7-year-olds in school,” he says, laughing. “I assume it would be however 7-year-olds wear their hair.”

Malakar, who’s previously released a memoir and EP titled Dancing To the Music in My Head, says he’s now also working on writing songs for his first feature-length album, an independent CD he’ll call Life-Love-Music. That, he says, will reflect his true sound, which he admits he hadn’t established when he was on American Idol. “I’m an R&B vocalist, and I have a lot of blues and jazz influence in my voice, but the music itself is neo-soul-meets-rock with some world influence,” he says. “I’m trying to make a totally new sound work commercially, which makes the writing process a little more difficult. It’s the process of finding a really good song that’s personal and has a lot of depth, but can still be played on the radio and be commercial to a lot of different people and not just people that want to listen to a song that makes you think. It’s finding that balance.” Now that he’s in New York, he’s looking forward to meeting with other songwriters and working with different musicians and producers.

Speaking of different musicians, we couldn’t let him off the phone without asking what he thinks of the new American Idol judges’ panel. “I think it’s great. Obviously, it was weird the first couple times I watched it to not to see Simon. For me, it’s Simon, Paula, and Randy. But I love the dynamic that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez bring,” he says. “Randy’s almost switched over to Simon’s job. Now he’s the seasoned one who’s not gonna waste his time with people who aren’t good enough. He’s straight-forward. Steven Tyler has taken over Randy’s role, and Jennifer Lopez is in the nurturing Paula Abdul role. It will be cool to watch as it goes forward into the real show as opposed to just the auditions.” How does he think his Idol run would have been different under this judges panel? “I would have loved to have been judged by Steven Tyler, that would’ve been amazing,” he says, laughing again. “But I think it probably would have gone similarly. I think it’s really about where you’ve evolved to at a certain point in your performance. It doesn’t really matter who’s criticizing you.”