Image Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesFor ten seasons, American Idol associate music director and arranger Michael Orland and vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd have been on the front lines with the contestants, from Hollywood week to the grand finale in May. Orland and Byrd work with the wannabe superstars on their respective songs, helping them shine on the big Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. With the revamped judging panel, “the show feels brand new,” says Orland. “The kids are totally supported every inch of they way.” Adds Byrd, “I love this season because there are So. Many. Excellent. Singers.”
Now Byrd and Orland will be sharing their behind-the-scenes insights about the Idol finalists each week on EW.com. Click through to read their take on “Musical Idols” week, including Lauren Alaina’s struggle with song choice, the reason Stefano Langone chose his wild card song, and why you shouldn’t call Naima Adedapo’s performance of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” “risky.”
LAUREN ALAINA — “Any Man of Mine” (Shania Twain)
An early frontrunner this season, Lauren received only tepid responses from the judges.
DB: She is one of the younger ones. She had a hard time with her decision. We always say, “When you choose your song, choose it early, love it, live with it, and grow.” She doubted it every step of the way, unfortunately, and I attribute that to her age. She wanted to sing a ballad, but she made that decision to go with [the up-tempo “Any Man of Mine” instead]. I said, “Okay, you’ve made this decision; make sure you’ve made friends with it.” She did, but I think what’s going on in the back of her mind even as we speak: “I should’ve done the other song.”
Interestingly enough, at rehearsal today, she ended the song on a high note. At the show, she chose not to. My only suggestion was to be sassier, as a story teller. “Any man of mine better be heartbreakin’, breathtakin’, earthquakin’…,” you know, all of this stuff — be sassier with it. I think she was still searching for her sassy, but she’s 16 years old.
CASEY ABRAMS — “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Joe Cocker)
Backed by a gospel choir, the bearded 19-year-old brought the studio audience to its feet.
DB: Casey is one of the people on the American Idol stage who is fearless. He is willing to try anything. “Okay, I’ll try that. Oh, this didn’t work? Okay, I’ll try that.” Some of the singers on that stage have a great sense of who they are. So it’s like, “How do I fit what I do into this particular situation of being on the American Idol stage?” I think it becomes a song-by-song thing, as opposed to him finding himself.
One of the executive producers probably said, “Oh, he needs a choir.” I have no idea how that developed [for Casey], but that’s usually how it developed in the past. This is also an American Idol first: We’ve never brought a choir at this stage of the competition. There is a lot of newness in this year’s American Idol remix.
ASHTHON JONES — “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” (Diana Ross)
The judges appreciated that the wild-card candidate was able to pull her voice back on key whenever she fell either sharp or flat.
MO: She did say that they pushed her to sing a little higher than she’s ever sung before, which is great. You know, you have to remember that these kids sing the song like five times on show day, and because a lot of them are new in show business, a lot of them give their best performance at dress rehearsal. I’m not saying that’s the case with her, but it happens to a lot of them in the beginning because they don’t know how to pace themselves yet. Some people, the more they warm up, the better their lower notes; some people like Ashthon, you know, she lost a little of the bottom, but she hit those notes on top.
I love her. Listen, I love all these kids. I wanted her to do well. I thought what she had against her was she had a song that not everybody knew. [Exec producers] Ken [Warwick] and Nigel [Lythgoe] love the song — it was a big hit in the U.K., it was not a big hit here. I thought she did a great job. Like I said, I love these kids. There’s nothing horrible I can say about any of them, because they’re all trying so hard.
PAUL McDONALD — “Come Pick Me Up” (Ryan Adams)
Perhaps season 10’s quirkiest contestant, he’s also one of the most experienced professional singers.
DB: He’s unlike anyone that’s been on the American Idol stage. He is an artist; he knows where he’s headed, he knows what he’s doing. For me it becomes about getting him to realize it’s a television show, and there are certain parameters that you need to acknowledge being on a television show, as opposed to being in a club with your band. He lights up the stage with that smile and those eyes, and I have to keep reminding him of it. “Dude, when that camera hits you, you will get a gazillion votes. All you have to do is connect with the audience.” That’s what all of them have to do, and some do it faster than others. I think Steven Tyler said tonight [to Paul], “I hope America gets you.” I totally agree with him.
PIA TOSCANO — “All By Myself” (Celine Dion)
Usually, when an Idol contestant tackles a Celine Dion song, the result pales in comparison to the original. Usually.
MO: Every week, they come in with the songs they want to do [for that week’s show], and we sing through all of them, so they can’t say, “Oh, I didn’t make the right choice.” Last week, her first week, Pia sang that Celine song — that was on her list [of possibilities]. I didn’t know she had that big, huge note. So when she did the Pretenders’ song “I’ll Stand By You” [last week], I put that note in the arrangement. I was like, “You have to show that you can do that.” Even Ken came in and was like, “I didn’t know she had those notes!” I love that kind of thing. I know she’s great at warming up, but those notes are just placed so right, she could sing them all night and she will never lose it. I’m knocking on wood, but that girl has got some iron lungs.
JAMES DURBIN — “Maybe I’m Amazed” (Paul McCartney)
Known for his rock god high notes, James dialed it down this week.
MO: When I met him in Hollywood week — that’s the first time they ever get a piano to play with them — I remember him at two in the morning, he came in and sang “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” and I was like, what is going on with that kid? That voice is ridiculous. He can sing anything — another one who can sing it and nail it every time and doesn’t lose his voice. I don’t know if someone taught him correctly along the way, or he just has one of those natural gifts that he just sings right. His Tourette’s Syndrome totally goes away when he sings. I love that he can overcome that. It doesn’t affect his singing at all. When he’s singing, I guess his mind is so focused. The kid is so special, it’s ridiculous.
HALEY REINHART — “Blue” (LeAnn Rimes)
While Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler seemed to like Haley’s Patsy Cline-esque performance, Randy Jackson said he was “bored.”
MO: I loved her; the judges were not so much. I think it’s really hard to do that with your voice, just to switch between that falsetto voice and your chest voice like that. That’s such a talent; not everybody can do that. For her to sing it so perfectly every time, I thought she was great. I felt bad that the judges did not appreciate it as much. Now that they’re getting coached from the record execs, and [Interscope-Geffen-A&M chairman] Jimmy Iovine’s really is in on it, and really giving them feedback — like, hey, we’re making you guys a record right now — I would think that they think there’s a market for [Haley’s performance]. I remember my favorite thing, we did the sing-for-your-life performance after Hollywood week and after Vegas, and she did “Lady Marmalade” with a bass player. I just love her.
JACOB LUSK — “I Believe I Can Fly” (R. Kelly)
The question for Jacob isn’t whether he can make it bigger; it’s how he can rein it in.
DB: I was saying to Michael Orland, it’s the same thing we had to do with Fantasia and with Adam Lambert: Teach them how to pull it back for TV. The thing that we said to all of them is you’ll feel, as a singer, as if you’re not doing anything at all because you’ve got so much more to offer, but you don’t have to do it on this stage. I’ve told Jacob this — it served Fantasia well, it served Adam Lambert well, and it is serving him well.
He’s got so much more. He didn’t push it as far as he can [with “I Believe I Can Fly.”] He’s got a musical reserve in there somewhere. He takes it beyond where we think a singer would normally go. The music producers took him to a different place, and he doubted it. He said, “Is it too much? It feels like it’s too much.” I said, “No. It’s a lot, but you can’t go any further.”
THIA MEGIA — “Smile” (Michael Jackson)
A jazzy remix of the Charlie Chaplin-penned classic did not go over too well with the judges.
MO: So listen, I kinda liked what [the producers] did [with Thia’s song]. The judges didn’t buy it. Jennifer [Lopez] made a really good point — they’re doing these full-length versions of the song too, and then we’ve got to make them into the 1:40 songs [for the show]. Maybe [“Smile”] did lose something in its cut in particular. She had to go right to the second verse both in the slow style and in this new jazz style. It was jarring to my ears, but I think you can’t take away that the girl is very talented, and she’s 16. It’s crazy that that comes out of her.
STEFANO LANGONE — “Lately” (Stevie Wonder)
It wasn’t until his wild-card performance of the gospel song “I Need You Now” that Stefano really made his mark on the show.
DB: I asked him why he chose it [as his wild card song]. And he said it’s the song that got him out of the wheelchair. He was in a terrible car accident — a drunken driver hit him — and they didn’t think he was alive when they found him. He was working at a men’s clothing store, and after that car accident, he said, Okay, for the rest of my life, I’m going to pursue my dream — I’m not going to sell clothing anymore. And he sings like it. He sings like he’ll never sing another note again.
When we were editing [“Lately”] with [music producer] Polow da Don, Polow said, “I’ve got an idea — I’m gonna make it uptempo!” My eyes squinted and I said, “May I hear it?” And Polow did the beats and he sang it, and I said, “Oh, okay.” I couldn’t hear what he was hearing, and I didn’t want to take it for granted. It became very street. Radio people would call it “urban.” [Stefano] pulled it off. He’s this guy who’s got this swagger.
KAREN RODRIGUEZ — “I Could Fall in Love” (Selena)
Jennifer Lopez zeroed in on Karen’s struggle to hear herself sing as the culprit for her slightly shaky performance.
MO: She had a hard time hearing herself at dress rehearsal, too. I know originally in the studio, they wanted to take the key up a little bit, because those low notes are really low in the beginning. But they kind of pushed her. She wanted to put her own mark on it, because she is such a huge Selena fan. In the key they put it in, which was the original Selena key, by tonight, those low notes got really low for her. I think she tried to maybe overcompensate for them being so low.
She’s been singing it all day. They sing it a couple times in the morning, once for cameras, once for sound, and then we do a dress rehearsal, and then we do a show. She was so great this morning. When you get out there with the lights and the judges and you’re waiting to be judged and everything, you’ve got a lot of stuff going against you. If you think of anything else but what you’re doing right now and the song you’re in and the lyric you’re singing about, it can get you.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “The River” (Garth Brooks)
The Idol studio audience went absolutely nuts for Scotty’s version of this country music classic.
DB: The phrase that always comes to me is, “You gotta love that kid.” He’s always prepared. He has a good sense of who he is, which is very interesting. The joy I have for him, if he got sent home this week, I think that kid would have one of the largest music careers ever. Number one because he is so likeable, he is so loveable, he is so adorable. And when you hear that voice come out of that kid, it just blows you away. We’ve never had his talent in American music ever, ever ever ever. We’ve never had a 16-year-old, male, country singer. People are going to embrace that immediately.
I don’t know about Scotty changing it up. He did change it up before he came on this stage, and Jennifer Lopez said to him, “Scotty, you showed us you can sing higher notes, and that’s nice, but I love it when you’re down there in the lower range.” That’s part of his uniqueness. I applaud him for knowing who he is; we get people who are 27 years old on that stage and they have no idea who they are. You can see them floundering trying to figure out who they are. This kid doesn’t have that problem at all. I always say the ones who do well on American Idol are the ones who know who they are when they come in the door.
NAIMA ADEDAPO — “Umbrella” (Rihanna)
With a reggae-rap interlude that she penned herself, and several major dance breaks throughout, the wild-card contestant charted new territory for Idol, and would seem to have taken a big risk in doing so.
DB: It wasn’t a risk, not for her. One of the things that was not said in the interviews [before her performance] was [changing up the song] was her idea. She’s so comfortable with it. And I told her God smiled on her and put her with Tricky [Stewart]. What kind of grace is that? That’s an extraordinary, crazy grace that you’re working with the actual producer of the song. She didn’t even know that she was assigned to that guy [when she chose “Umbrella”].
I remember when she was on the wild card [show], and I thought they were going to take Kendra [instead]. I remember looking at the monitor and I said, “Her song next week is so good! Oooh, it’s too bad!” Because we had already worked on it. After she said what she wanted to do with the song and that’s why she chose it, I said, “Here, write your rap down.” She got pencil and paper and she just started writing — she just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I watched her do it. We had to cut it down. It was 16 bars. Tricky is one of the co-writers [of the original song] — that’s why I’m saying God smiled a great big smile on her, because normally we’d have to clear [Naima’s rap] through other people.
At rehearsal [she didn’t struggle with her breath]. Maybe adrenaline kicks in. You always push it a little harder when there’s an audience in front of you. Just before the reggae part kicks in, she says, “Boom fiy-ah!” She kicks it up to another level. So she probably over-extended herself. You get that rush and you just keep rolling. She and I did work on places where she breathes in the song. We had a breathing road map. I think she worked it out very well. I think she was very impressive. From your standpoint, she may have taken a huge risk, but she would have it no other way. That’s who she is.