By Joseph Brannigan Lynch
Updated April 04, 2011 at 08:23 PM EDT
Koi Sojer/PR Photos

It’s been almost one year since former paint salesman Lee DeWyze became the ninth victor of American Idol—and the last winner crowned with crotchety Simon Cowell piloting America’s top-rated TV show.

After DeWyze performed his latest single “Beautiful Like You” for the new panel of Idol judges a few weeks ago, Live It Up returned to the Top 100 albums chart. Currently on a lengthy tour, the 25-year-old Illini spoke with us about his favorite singers from this season, how his life has changed, and what he has to say to those who criticized his season.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You recently performed your new song on Idol. What was it like returning to that stage?

LEE DEWYZE: There was definitely a sense of going back as a musician and not worrying about being judged. I mean you’re always being judged, which is fine, but it was more or less like playing a gig as opposed to trying to be accepted by a panel of judges. Much more relaxed. It wasn’t like whatever song I sang would send me home: I was just there to play and have a good time.

How do you feel about all the changes in your life?

Working a job I love is mentally less stressful than punching in a clock everyday, but it’s a lot busier. There are a lot of things I didn’t worry about before that I do now. It’s sometimes rushed, but I get to wake up and do what I love, so it’s a great change.

Have you been watching the new season?

A little bit. We’ve been on the road a lot lately, but I’ve caught a few episodes, I think the judges are doing a great job. It’s definitely different without Simon Cowell, it’s got a different vibe.

Who are your favorites so far?

I think Pia [Toscano] and Casey Abrams, those would be my two. And I’d throw Haley [Reinhart] in there, I think those three are very talented. But I think they’re all great, it’s going to be good to see what they all do.

Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez have a more positive judging style. Do you wish you had had that experience?

In my season, there was never a day that went by where they went easy on us, ever. I think it’s a different feel, it would have been nicer to have more positive feedback than negative, but at the end of the day it worked out well for me, so I’m okay with it.

Do you keep in touch with fellow finalists Crystal, Casey, or anyone?

Nope. Not so much. I think we’re all… I’ve been so busy. I talked to Crystal a long while back and I wish them the best of luck, but I’m really focusing on not riding that Idol wave too long. Making real music and really getting out there and make a name for myself and not just be the American Idol contest winner.

When people criticize season nine as being a little dull, what do you think of that? Does it bother you?

I mean, I’ve heard people say this and that about it, and as the winner of my season it’s almost like I’m the spokesman for the subject. And I don’t see why… whether the ratings were up or down or the contestants were this or that, I just went on the show and did my thing. If people think the season wasn’t good or they didn’t like it or whatever, then they should audition and try it out for themselves and see how it goes.

How much harder was Idol than you expected?

It was 100 percent different than I thought it would be. It was putting yourself in a position where you had to compromise sometimes what you might want to do to do what they required you to do. But for me, I love music. It was the main reason I went out for the show and I tried my best every week and it worked out. It’s very easy for people to look at ratings or albums sales or whatever and make their judgments based on those things. You’re either a fan of television or a fan of music and I think it’s very easy to be a critic on the other side, but it’s not up to me to make sure everybody in America watches American Idol or votes. I get up there and play my songs and do my thing. I loved my experience, I’m very supportive of the show and what it does for people and artists, but I can’t make people like what they don’t like. Whether people like it or don’t, I do it for the fans that are supportive. And I try to be appreciative of my fans. I’m just gonna keep doing what I do.

Where would you like to see your career in five years?

Impossible for me to tell, but I just want to be making music and be out there the rest of my life. Essentially, the reason I do it is because I love playing and I love writing and recording, and so far I’ve been able to do that. In fact I just wrote one on the road and we’ve already been playing it, it’s called “Pretty Eyes.” Writing on the road is a passion of mine.

You recorded two albums before going on Idol. How much different was it working on a record with your Idol victory behind you?

My mindset was different when writing the songs. When Idol is over, there’s a very quick turnaround: you gotta write all these songs in a very short amount of time, and you really have to get them right. It was a process of nonstop writing, writing, writing. Although I definitely had a couple song ideas from before Idol, and I brought them to the table and they came out well. I’m happy with how the album turned out—I wouldn’t change much about it.