From Naima’s reggae risk to Casey’s stripped-down shot at redemption, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland had a great deal to say about the Top 11 (take two) performances for Elton John week. For 10 seasons on Idol, 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 learn how best to shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. As we have for the Top 13, 12, and 11 (take one), we spoke with Byrd and Orland backstage at Idol HQ after the show about the contestants and their musical journey this past week. Check out their thoughts below:
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Country Comfort”
MICHAEL ORLAND: He was a little freaked out about Elton John week. He didn’t know what to do. But when he found that one, he was beside himself. He actually came up to me the day before, and said, “This is the first week I am so excited about my song choice, and I’m definite about what I want to do.” He’s not always. He has to find something that will fit his genre and we can tailor make to him. This song was just perfect, and I think it was a great pick for him. He went into the week feeling really confident. I thought he had that on stage tonight. In his makeover, when they did the fashion shoot, he had a new hair do, and all of a sudden he had some hair product in there. He said yes to hair product!
NAIMA ADEDEPO — “I’m Still Standing”
DEBRA BYRD: She immediately connected to that [song]. She had no doubt. It struck her in terms of her position in the competition, having been in the wild card and having been in the bottom. [Smiles] It was very literal, there was no subtext there. Don Was, the producer of her track, hired Ziggy Marley’s band to play on that track in the studio. It’s so authentic, I was very surprised by the responses from the judges. You can’t get any more authentic than that. She wasn’t putting it on. It’s where she lives. Everybody’s waiting for her to do reggae; she did it, and everybody’s like, “Eh.” I’m a bit baffled. But Steven Tyler loved it.
It was a risk. The fact that she sang it in the [reggae] patois is a whole other risk she took. I give her a medal for bravery. We’ve never had a contestant do that. Don Was turned to me and said, “Has anything like this ever been done on American Idol?” I said, “No, this is a virginal experience.” So I really hope that people embrace it.
PAUL McDONALD — “Rocket Man”
MO: All of these contestants have been singing an awful lot. Paul has definitely not 100 percent of his voice right now. I thought he used what he had of it. He definitely was suffering vocally, but he has one of those voices for me that it doesn’t matter. I said, “Use that rasp.” It sounds so good on him.
I think they did a different arrangement for his iTunes track. I did this arrangement with him for just his on stage thing. I think his iTunes track turned into something different and bigger. I know when we got to band rehearsal yesterday, he said, “I just want to take it back down to where you and I put it originally.” So we just stripped down to piano, guitar and him.
PIA TOSCANO — “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
MO: On Thursday, I walk around to all these kids asking them “Can you think about what you want to do for next week?” It’s very hard, because Thursday is just a stressful day. Nobody knows who’s going home; everybody thinks it’s them. This was Pia’s original choice for what she wanted to do. She was the one who said, “I really want to do it with a little bit of a beat and a choir.” That was on Thursday. Then we thought, oh, we better find you an up tempo song. But I thought she killed that song tonight. She’s also exhausted vocally. She used everything she had, and she was better than she was at dress rehearsal. I was so happy it went that well for her.
I said something to her about the Clay Aiken version [of the song]. She reminded me that we also did the song on the [season 5] finale. She knew there was a history of that song on the show. She still didn’t care.
She already gave away what she’s going to do on the show next week [the Ike and Tina Turner hit “River Deep, Mountain High”]. I want to go on the record and say she’s doing an up tempo next week. I’ve already got a few ideas of what we can do with it, so we’re going to come in and try to work on that tomorrow, if she’s one of the people who can handle it, which I know she will be.
STEFANO LANGONE — “Tiny Dancer”
DB: What he went through this week was very deep for him. He wanted to make sure that he connected with the audience as the judges requested. I really had to spend time with him breaking down what that meant in terms of how he performs on a weekly basis. Up until he was performing it on the stage tonight, he was really still trying to process how to make that work. He undid a lot of stuff that, though it may have seemed more subtle — it was just things that he had accumulated over the years. It’s beyond singing with his eyes closed. He performs, as opposed to connecting. He does something physically that [exec producer] Ken Warwick calls the two-step. We had to undo his two-step. He doesn’t even know he does it. If you watch his past performances, you see him take one, two, stop, singsingsing; one, two, stop, singsingsing. And he got rid of it; totally dumped it this evening. And he was doing it this afternoon. It was really, really hard.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Candle in the Wind”
DB: She shared with me that she has in her room an entire Marilyn Monroe collection. Now, did she connect with the song? It took her a while, because she did not connect to the song [at first], and she was very upset about it. There was a lot of handholding. She wanted to make it work, and she doubted it. We talked about it line by line, what this song is, and the subtleties of it. I said to Lauren, “Have you ever Googled Marilyn Monroe?” She said, “No, but I’ve got all her dolls.” I said, “That’s not what I asked you. Do you know about the ache, the hurt, the gorgeousness, the tragedy? Do you know that part of her heart?” She said [looking sheepish], “Not really.” I said, “That’s homework.”
One thing that struck me as very funny, before she was able to connect with it, she was doubting it, and I said, “You sing songs about Santa Claus, you’ve never met him.” She said, “Yeah. That’s a good analogy! I can work with that!” [Smiles] It was the oddest thing to me. She felt a connection. That was a huge turnaround for her. I applaud her. She worked her heinie off.
JAMES DURBIN — “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
MO: I actually worked on it with him last Thursday. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He came up to me and said, “I already know what I want to do with my song.” He told me the whole staging idea. We did it in, like, five minutes. He was, like, “I want a piano that goes up in flame.” He wanted it. I’m not kidding. That was all his idea. It was not even a real piano; it was a shell with the flames in it. There was real piano and a fire one. I thought Ray [Chew] should get a little acting award, because I really looked like he was playing it. He even stood up for that one.
THIA MEGIA — “Daniel”
DB: We talked about the melancholy of [the song]. Because Thia, even though she’s 16, she’s performed a lot. I find that on American Idol, when you’ve performed as a kid, you get stuck in a box: “Now I’m going to perform!” And you turn it on, because mommy or daddy asked you to. Diana DeGarmo [the season 3 runner-up] had that exact same thing. Diana could turn it on and leave the song. Literally, I could do this [waves hand in front of face] and she wouldn’t be there. With Thia, she’s got a bit of that where she goes into remote control. She did it one time during dress rehearsal, and she had to come out of that. She let her heart and her brother and the melancholy of missing him take over.
CASEY ABRAMS — “Your Song”
MO: It was his total idea to do that song. He knew he wanted to do just piano. He didn’t want anything else in it. He said, “I just want to sit, and sing.” He did want to do anything. We got to work with these unbelievable producers every week. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, because I got to work hands on with these people. When Casey was at Interscope [talking with Jimmy Iovine], I was there [playing] with him. Casey was singing for Jimmy and [producer] Rodney [Jerkins], and Rodney’s like, “All right, that’s the perfect song for you. And I found my piano player.” [Points at himself.] “You.” I was so happy. Here’s the thing. Ray Chew is a genius, and we love having him, he’s so easy to work with. I get to work with the kids every day, hands on, so I know every little musical thing they do. There’s no tempo to that [song]; I was just breathing with him. I was so happy he had a great week, and I got to share it with him.
JACOB LUSK — “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”
DB: I think there were only 20 songs on the song list. Jacob went off of it because he wanted to sing “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — that song wasn’t even included on the list, because Robbie Rosen sang it [as his wild card song].
In the American Idol process, it takes a while for things to settle in for all of them, getting rid of habits they walked in the door with. In terms of pulling Jacob back, last week, he said “I don’t think I’m doing enough,” and I said, “Trust me, you are.” I said, “You’ll feel as if you’re doing absolutely nothing.” I said, “I want you to know that there are charts. We as singers sing these songs, and the orchestrator creates a chart where we don’t have to do anything except let the chart do the work.” So when Jacob chose “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” that’s what Tricky did. Tricky gave him an arrangement — it had muscle, it had drama, it had key changes, all these wonderful elements.
HALEY REINHART — “Benny and the Jets”
DB: This is one of those things, on this TV show, season in and season out, you hear “song choice, song choice, song choice.” It paid off for her [this week] big time. “Benny and the Jets” is one of the coolest tunes that Elton John has ever recorded. It’s got the coolest groove, and the fact that that young woman made it work — the female energy of it all — I think is extraordinary. She got it, she knew what she wanted to do, and she was able to stretch out in it and made it thriller. The fact that after having a whole show of melancholy and wistfulness, here she comes slamming this song. She couldn’t lose.