Caleb Johson
Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

North Carolina native Caleb Johnson, 23, became the first classic rocker to win American Idol on Wednesday night after a season battling bronchitis and high expectations from the judges and fans on his third time auditioning for the show. “This is absolutely crazy!” Johnson said during his first press conference as the winner immediately after the show. EW sat down with Caleb for a one-on-one interview Thursday after probably getting very little sleep to see if his surprise win has sunk in a little more, what’s next now that the show is all over, and testing his Idol knowledge.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats! You seemed pretty surprised when Ryan said your name. What were you thinking?

CALEB JOHNSON: Oh snap! You know, it was just a surreal, almost kind of terrifying moment. But then it was complete shock and amazement, and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I just won American Idol.” It’s just kind of crazy, you know? But it was so incredible and the rush of energy and everything that came with that was ridiculous.

How did you feel after Tuesday? Did you think you were going to win?

To be completely honest with you, it just felt like such a close race. I think the votes were just kind of neck-and-neck. Me and Jena, we both are two completely different artists but both have these incredibly powerful voices, and I think that was what made this finale so fun to watch and awesome, because we were kind of neck-and-neck vocally wise, and it was cool, it was a lot of fun. But I had no idea what was going to happen. Either way, it was awesome.

What was it like being with Jena in the end?

I mean, it was just an honor. She’s just an incredible singer and person and just a complete goofball. She is so funny and nice, and it was just such an honor to get to share that stage with her one last time before the show was over. It was just a culmination of all the hard work that we’d been doing each week. I’ve grown so much, she’s grown so much, so it was a great way to top it all.

You seemed to be very overwhelmed not only by the moment of winning, but by all of the other contestants surrounding you. You couldn’t even sing your song!

Yeah, man, that was awesome! I really just wanted to go hug them and embrace them and just love on them, ’cause they went through the whole process with us, Jena and I. To just go over there — to be honest with you, I didn’t want to sing, because I was just completely exhausted, so I just went over them and hugged them and embraced it, cherished that moment, because it was seriously just incredible.

What was your favorite part about the finale?

The whole thing! It was just a night about music and just really amazing people and performers and the audience was amazing and the whole night was just a culmination of complete awesomeness.

You called yourself the antithesis American Idol last night after you won. How does it feel to bring classic rock into a pop-oriented show?

For me, the past seasons, I was a huge fan of Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert and David Cook and really just in awe of their courage to not try to — they would just be themselves and not worry about pleasing everybody or one select viewer. They were just there, they were themselves and lived in the moment and harnessed their energy to perform, and they didn’t care. They didn’t let any of the other stuff get into their heads, and they just lived and breathed in their music, and I think that came across as very truthful for all of those guys, and I think that was what I really strived for coming on this show, just to be myself and not to veer from my vision and my path and what I wanted to do on the show.

Not only did you win a singing competition, but you won a TV singing competition. What was it like to have to deal with the added pressure of not only performing, but being on TV twice a week?

I mean, you just learn. It’s a great learning experience, you’re growing so much as a person and as an artist. There’s so much being thrown at you, but if you stay grounded and focused and have fun and enjoy it, it’s great. You can handle all that stuff and brush it off like water.

But you still had a lot of fun with Ryan and some video packages throughout the season.

Yeah, be corny, be stupid. It’s a reality TV show. You don’t have to be so uptight and treat it like a pageant or whatever. You can be a complete idiot and be completely fine and have fun with it.

It obviously worked for you!

It did! It did! For some weird reason, it did.

Most Idol winners and runner-ups have been from the South. Do you think being from North Carolina gave you an advantage?

I don’t know, I don’t think that me being from the South has anything to do with that. I think it was people who I made connections with while singing, they felt my passion, they felt whatever emotions I was conveying with the songs and they just got on board and latched on to that.

How did you work with the stylists on the show to come up with your look for the season?

I love, again, rock ‘n roll is all about being weird and unique, and I’m from the South, so I love Southern rock and stuff like that. This hair took a long time to grow, I used to have short hair. So it was really just coming up with an image that all worked and fit that mold and that vibe so when I hit that stage, everything just lights up like a firecracker. You see this big guy with long hair sweating, he’s jumping around, he’s moving, he’s screaming, he’s belting his ass off, that whole thing had to all click, because that makes it natural and people are like, wow, you know?

Your album will be out August 12. What are you excited to show on the record?

I really want this record to be an amazing experience. I want it to be a full deal, that front to back every song is awesome and tells a cohesive story and it culminates me stylistically and vocally and have all these facets to it. I’m a rock singer, but I love soul, I love blues, and I love theatrical stuff too, like theatrical rock like Queen and Meat Loaf. But I want this to be deep and heavy and soulful and convicted and have a lot of depth to it and hit people right in the gut when they hear it. That’s my thing, and to be over the top and just a lot of fun.

What’s next now that you won? Any plans to move out here permanently?

Nashville I think for me, personally, would be where I want to live and work. L.A. is a whole other world and has a whole other vibe to it, so I would like to come out here for work for a couple of months, but L.A. is just not really my scene, per se. But it’s a cool town, lots of nice, amazing people, but I want to stay on the East Coast.