updated 08/03/2014 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 08/03/2014 AT 12:00 PM ET
Michael Johns was at a crossroads: take advantage of his tennis scholarship in his native Australia, or pack his bags for a chance to make it big as a singer in America.
After talking to one of his favorite bands backstage, the answer was clear, and Johns soon found himself moving to a small town in Georgia.
But success in the spotlight didn’t come easy – and it took years of highs and lows before Johns finally earned a spot on season 7 of American Idol.
“It’s just been an absolute roller coaster for me, of really good moments and then really horrible moments of just getting stomped upon,” the singer, who died Friday at the age of 35 from a blood clot in his ankle, told PEOPLE in 2008, at the time he was on the TV singing competition.
“All you can ask for as a singer and an artist is just a chance – just a fair shot of showing America or the world that I can sing and I’ve got something to say.”
Despite being the oldest contestant among the group, Johns, then 29, wasn’t fazed by his age. “The one cool thing about getting older is that you do feel more comfortable in your own skin,” he said.
But behind Johns’s growing success stateside was a strong support system made up of his mother, stepfather and wife, Stacey Vuduris.
“All of my family is very musical. My mum is a great singer. She sounds a little like Doris Day with just that very pure voice,” Johns said. “She really encouraged me at an early age. I didn’t sing for anyone publicly until I was about 17 or 18.”
Although he credited her with being his cheerleader from the start, Johns – who cut ties with his biological father at 15 – says it was his stepfather that stepped in and inspired his stage name.
“His name is John and he came in and not only saved my life, but also my family with his positivity. There are so many qualities in that man that I can look up to,” he said.