It takes a diplomat not to trash last week’s Latin theme on American Idol, and we’ve found just our statesman in Michael Orland, the show’s beloved pianist arranger. ”I thought it was really fun!” he says, without even laughing. Maybe things sound better from behind the piano. Still, he gave us some good insight into Melinda’s old-lady song choices and Sanjaya’s vocal prowess.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you really like Latin week?
MICHAEL ORLAND: I did. It’s really hard because a lot of those songs — especially the Gloria Estefan songs — are not big vocal pieces. They’re not show-off-your-vocals pieces. Paula commented about that when she said LaKisha was playing it safe this week. It was safe, but there was a great feel to it. The band was so great, though.
You know when you’re saying the band is great, that’s like Paula saying ”You look beautiful.” At least it seemed like Jennifer Lopez was a lot of fun.
Jennifer Lopez was so great. She was so into the contestants, she knew every single one of them. She’d give them a note and instead of just leaving it at that, she’d go, ”Okay, let’s try it now.” And she showed them that if you’re a great performer nothing else matters. I think I know, but what did you think of the performances?
Latin week always makes me cringe a little. I’d like Gloria Estefan songs to be banned from Idol, actually. I have too many flashbacks to John Stevens.
Yeah, I just had one when you said that. I think that’s how the judges felt. They had the same opinion as you. During a commercial break I said to Simon, ”Are you having fun?” And he said, ”As much as I can.” I don’t think it’s the best showcase vocally for everyone, but we certainly had fun.
What was up with Melinda singing ”Sway”? Can she please sing something written in the last decade?
I’ve heard that criticism. I didn’t work with her this week for country, so I don’t know what she’s doing. But that’s her thing. She’s always been great with the older song. To me she could sing the phone book and it would sound great.
Can a singer who excels with songs from one era sing songs from any era? Is it possible Melinda simply can’t do current pop?
There are definitely certain people who sing certain things better. She’s obviously got this amazing sound for these songs that are older. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. It will be interesting to hear her sing — if she makes it to the finale — a pop song. I just think she can sing it all. She’s got that Gladys Knight thing. Maybe she’s saving it up for when she runs out of that other stuff. I’ll tell you one thing about her: She is one of the hardest workers. She plans and plots every single thing she sings.
Did you know Sanjaya could speak Spanish?
Only when I heard him ordering his breakfast. I didn’t work with him last week. It was really funny watching him. I was with [vocal coach Debra] Byrd in the back watching him. We knew it was going to go either way — either we’d love it or it would be one of those things we really had to work on. But he did a great job. Sanjaya has taken all this stuff being said about him and people either loving him or not loving him and he’s just turned it into this positive thing. His whole stage presence is, ”If you like me or not, here’s what I do.” It’s such a great lesson in turning something around. I wish everyone else would perform with that same kind of recklessness.
Whose performance style are you hoping will improve?
The week Phil wasn’t feeling 100 percent, the week he wasn’t concentrating on his vocals, was his best week [Gwen Stefani week]. The judges have been hard on him, and I think he’s a really good singer. They get their opinions about somebody and once they have their mind set, you really have to do something to change their opinions. I have to constantly remind him to go out there and not think about his voice and just perform. The voice with him is a given.
I know what you’re saying about the judges making up their minds about someone. I thought Chris Richardson was completely off-key this week and yet the judges couldn’t stop praising him. It’s like they’ve decided to love him, no matter what comes out of his mouth.
That’s one of the biggest things you learn about the show from being in the studio. Watching in the studio is a completely different thing than watching at home. For the last few weeks I haven’t watched it over at home. They can say to someone ”You were off pitch,” and the person really wasn’t that bad. And sometimes they’ll say ”You were so great” and you go, ”How did they not hear that?”
Who are you working with this week so we can praise or blame you on Tuesday night?
Phil and Jordin and Chris Richardson.
I’m a little nervous for country week for the same reason I’m always a little nervous for Latin week. Should I be scared?
That’s my favorite part of the contest: Somebody every week is out of their comfort zone. Melinda and LaKisha are going to be challenged this week. I love that. Some people are able to go with the flow. I remember Chris Daughtry and Bo Bice before him were like, ”I’ll find a country song but I’ll sing it how I want to sing it,” which is not playing along. So much of today’s country music is crossover pop, though. I don’t think anyone’s doing really twangy country. We’ll see how it goes.
NEXT PAGE: The Idol stylist weighs in…