I spent several years involved in American Idol. At the time it took off Simon Fuller and I were pretty close and he invited me to join him in LA for most of Season One. This was an extraordinary experience, being backstage watching the dynamics of the show. There seemed to be a pattern: the show would start and most of the contestants would be relaxed, thinking they had loads of time before they had to perform. Then suddenly they would get a one minute warning and before they knew it they were standing on the stage singing live to millions of people. They were lambs to the slaughter, singing for their lives, trying to deliver their best performance in just two minutes. And when they finished they were more often than not ripped to shreds. Massive emotional swings. All in the name of entertainment. Of course the argument would have been that it was their choice to enter the competition, however the reality was devastatingly harsh.
Simon wanted the finalists to make an album, much like I’d done for Pop Idol, so we figured the songs and I asked James McMillan if he’d do the backing tracks in the UK. The plan was that he’d send me the tracks, I’d get the vocals done and make any adjustments where necessary. The system worked out really well, and in fact James went on to do the next few season’s albums.
I set up at Larabee Studios on Santa Monica where the singers came and went, as did assorted musicians, backing singers etc. This was a massive learning curve since I had to figure how to get the best performances in the short time I had with each singer, 2 hours. No idea why, but that was the situation presented to me. I realised that the best use of the time was to spend nearly all of it chatting and doing the vocal in the last 15 minutes. This worked really well, especially because I knew they were all good singers. It was tense for me, not knowing if this plan would work, but all the contestants were able to relax and the process of singing became an afterthought which produced great results.
There were for me two standout singers, Kelly Clarkson and Tamyra Gray. Kelly sang two songs, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Respect, and Tamyra sang A House Is Not a Home. Tamyra was brilliant, the song not being easy, but she was super impressive. Kelly however was in a different league to everyone else. She was utterly unpretentious, super friendly and of course an amazing singer. We did Respect really quickly, and then turned to A Natural Woman. She sang the song really well all the way up to the bridge section where she stopped. I went out into the studio to ask her why and she broke down in tears, saying she was physically and mentally exhausted and couldn’t possibly get up to the high notes at the end. So we talked for a while, she calmed down and I suggested she give it one shot. She was amazing. She just went for it, her natural singing ability kicked in and the one time she managed to sing it ended up on the record.
I listened to the track recently and her performance still gives me chills. There’s a smokey subtleness to Kelly’s voice which has enormous soulful depth. I was really surprised when she turned to rock, not that it’s harmed her career at all. But I always felt that she was a far more sophisticated singer than her discography would lead people to believe.
I don’t know what to make of these singing competitions. We all know the arguments against them, but some amazing singers have been discovered, one shining example being Kelly.