Continuing the exclusive interviews that we launched during the Top 13 and Top 12 weeks, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland chatted with EW following the Top 11 performance show last night. For Idol‘s 10 seasons, Byrd and Orland have been on the front lines with the contestants, from Hollywood Week to the grand finale in May. The two work with the contestants on their respective songs, helping them shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. Click through to read their take on this week’s “Motown Night” show, including what Byrd thought of Jacob Lusk’s big night, the magic behind what Scotty McCreery did with his song “For Once in My Life,” Naima’s conviction when planning her performance, and why Orland disagrees with Randy’s critique of James Durbin’s song.
CASEY ABRAMS — “I Heart it Through the Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye)
DB: I thought Casey had fun, I thought he brought a great energy to it. I found it interesting that the intro called him “the beast.” It’s quite interesting to me. He’s got this great energy, and he’s a fearless guy. And he brought his fearlessness to this.
I loved his choice of “Grapevine” because he got a chance to really work it. And also, his intro was very hard. He made it seem effortless, musically. Musically, it was hard, and I applaud his musicianship. One of the things that I told him was that he was very smart about how he approached the song, about how he delivered the song. And because he is a musician, he’s able to jump into a hard arrangement like that. Other musicians wouldn’t be able to do that. He did a great job, and I’m glad he got great feedback. He had fun doing it.
THIA MEGIA — “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” (Martha and the Vandellas)
MO: Everyone forgets that when we went to Vegas, and she sang Beatles, she was kind of up and fun — everyone kind of forgets that because the last few weeks she’s only done the safe ballads. But you know, it’s what she is. That’s who she is, and that’s what she does. I was so happy she took it there — went up, went young, went fun. She never wanted to do anything slower. When we knew it was Motown, she totally got it. How many times can you knock it into her head? She wanted to do that.
I just love that she stayed youthful, but she was great. She did forget her lyrics, which she admitted during her little interview afterward, but what a little 16-year-old pro that she didn’t even indicate while she was singing it that she forgot it. She could have had a breakdown about it, but she didn’t. She didn’t let it affect her at all. That’s a little pro at work. I love that the judges were moving around and bouncing to her song — that’s always a good sign.
JACOB LUSK — “You’re All I Need to Get By” (Marvin Gaye)
DB: I’m very happy that he did so well. One of the things I’ve been working on with Jacob is restraint. He brought restraint. He’s got such a fire in him, and I said, “You can’t bring all that fire on stage.” That’s why I’m so happy the judges said what they said. They praised him for his restraint. I told him: “Make them wait. Make them wait until you give them fireworks.” And he did. One of the things about his fire is that he digs in, and I told him to hold it in, and he did. I applaud him, and I thank him for trusting me because that’s huge. You’re on stage and you’re in front of millions of people, and he asks: “Is it too much or is it too little?” It’s hard to gauge on a weekly basis where your energy should lie.
I think he did a great job and he didn’t over sing, and I’m glad that the judges responded to that. They were happy about that. He felt good, and that good feeling comes from the fact that all three judges stood up. That’s huge at American Idol! That does not come easy and that does not come often. There’s a joy that just hits you. He worked so hard, and that’s the pay off. All three of them stood up!
LAUREN ALAINA — “You Keep Me Hanging On” (The Supremes)
MO: My little girl. First of all, she looked so great. She looked really awesome. I loved how she was dressed, even though we have nothing to do with it. She had some problems picking her song this week for Motown. It’s just that she really doesn’t know this music. It’s really hard. Few people can be that age and just know that music. And she didn’t know any Motown music. But she did a really good job — Rock Mafia produced her track, I’m totally in love with them.
We were in the room with her and Jimmy, going through all of her songs that she was thinking about — she brought a list. We kind of just passed by that song really quickly, and then we thought, Why not try it again? So I started it out really slowly in the beginning, out of tempo, and she totally loved the song. You have to give them ideas of how they can do it, to make the song sound fresh to them. When they hear the old recordings from Motown, they don’t hear themselves doing it, especially a song like that that’s a group vibe. I love that we took that whole beginning thing out of tempo at the top and just made it slow. I loved how she walked out and was so playful with Randy and stuff. I loved that! She looked right in his eyes! She was not afraid!
STEFANO LANGONE — “Hello” (Lionel Richie)
DB: I enjoyed Stefano’s performance. I think he’s disappointed in his feedback, but I enjoy working with him, the small amounts that I’m able to this season. It hasn’t been a lot. He has a different kind of fire, and he hasn’t found his balance yet. Today Jacob found his, and he got the praise for it. Communicating is very hard for a lot of singers, and we’re working on his communication. Can you connect with your song, with the emotion of your song? Are you being the storyteller? Can we connect with you? Make us feel something! That’s what makes the public want to buy your CD and want to hear you sing more.
I think Stefano was disappointed in his song, but I wasn’t disappointed in him at all. You beat yourself up, and I say to him constantly: “Don’t beat yourself up.” He sang well, but it’s so tight between everyone.
HALEY REINHART — “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)
DB: I’m proud of her. I think she’s making huge leaps and bounds. She’s growing greatly. She’s taking to heart what the judges say to her, which is extraordinary. The extraordinary part of it is that she can sing anything. And being on American Idol, because they’re looking for the next new thing, they want to find a lane for her. Today, she clearly found her lane — it’s the bluesy lane. She does that very well in her youngness and her youth and her look and her vibe. She’s comfortable there. But the fact that she can sing a lot of things is not a terrible situation to be in. She’s been very smart about being on American Idol, and I applaud her for that. She did, she delievered, she sang. This is all part of her growth.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “For Once in My Life” (Stevie Wonder)
MO: Listen, I sit in a room with all 11 of them when they go through all their songs, I’m sitting there playing piano. So I get to hear what they all go through with their song picking, which is awesome. Scotty, I thought, was going to have the hardest week of everybody. But he didn’t. I love how, now, they want the contestants to be who they are as artists every week, so just incorporate whatever style is into whatever theme we’re doing. For him to take that song and turn it into that Harry Nilsson feel, it made it so great for him.
He totally took that second verse and changed the melody himself. It was his idea to do it, to hold that high note at the end. He showed some high notes last week, but he showed some even higher notes this week. He’s already developing his own style, the way he hold the microphone. He has learned how to work the crowd and the camera. That’s like way beyond his years. When he said he wanted to do this, I was like, “What are you going to do? That Stevie Wonder version?” He was like, “No, I want to slow it down.” It just worked for him. I love that he changed the melody up. I loved that little wink at the end.
PIA TOSCANO — “All in Love is Fair” (Stevie Wonder)
MO: I’m just in love with this girl. I think she’s got the toughest job of all my people because she is this great ballad singer. She stands there and sings. She can sing any note, she can sing it 100 times. She sang it great all day today. She sang great tonight. The judges are really coming down on her to pick it up now and work the stage. The song that she did last week, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” the judges forget that they made it kind of uptempo-y for her. They made it way more uptempo, it was great.
But here’s the thing for me, I just want to hear this girl sing ballad after ballad. She is going to be the next Celine, it’s who she is. She can sing all those notes. I know she’s going to want to change it up next week, and I’ll do anything to help her, but that girl is just a star, like crazy. I don’t think she needs to change it, but the judges do. I wrote one word down while I watched: “Amazing.” The girl is just ridiculous. The last note, she held it longer than she did in dress rehearsal — forever. People like Celine turn into that talent, but this girl has the raw talent.
I want to see her change her staging, too, but I don’t think it’s in her comfort zone. Even last week, when it was a little bit more uptempo, she didn’t move that much, but you know, when she dresses like that, people just want to see her stand there and sing.
PAUL McDONALD — “Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles)
DB: I’m glad he played guitar because he plays very well. I loved his song choice, and it suited him very well. That one he wore very nicely. It sounded like he could make that a single and make it a hit record. I think the singer-songwriter thing came off because he played the guiar. He’s strumming, and you think, Oh, that’s nice, that person is singing and playing. So that’s why it came off that way.
He was reserved. As Randy said, he wasn’t all over his place doing his funk dance. This is the phase of the competition where we need to see different things from them, so that was this for him.
NAIMA ADEDAPO — “Dancing in the Streets” (Martha and the Vandellas)
DB: She saying to America: “This is who I am. This is what I like, and this is what I’m bringing.” And the other thing about her is that American Idol has never had a Naima before. That’s another plus for her. She goes for it.
She’s very specific in things that she wants. She picked her song: “Dancing in the Streets.” She said, “I want to dance. I want to dance African.” She knew it. It was just that simple. She named the African instruments that she needed. When you see her working with Ron Fair on the piece, she literally said, “I’ll sing the drum parts I’d like on my track.” She was that specific. It was incredible to watch that process. She appreciated Ron Fair for hearing her because she was that specific. I applaud her for that.
I like the contestants who know who they are. The contestants who do well are the ones who know who they are. Naima is like that. I think it was great that Naima was a wild card. Because she was a wild card, it gives her a different kind of fire. She said: “Okay, they brought me back, and I’m going to prove that I belong her.” And that’s that fire that she has that makes her fearless.
JAMES DURBIN — “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder)
MO: What can I say? He’s ridiculous. I said last week, he has iron lungs — and he does! It’s just incredible. I love that he’s found somewhere to put his signature little voice in there. I love the way he works the camera. I love the way he works the crowd! Before he even let the judges speak to him, he worked that crowd — they were standing and screaming for him. He took it all in, and took his time with it. I just love watching him. He’s such a great performer, and I love that he just felt the energy of the crowd. He gave even more than he did at dress rehearsal. I loved his little dance.
I loved his song choice, and I totally disagree with Randy. Randy thought it didn’t start out well and didn’t get good until the middle, and I totally disagree. I thought it was great. He could sing those high notes for me every sing week, and they’re never tired. I always thrill at hearing them, how effortless they are. He’s unbelievable.