Continuing our exclusive series, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland sat down with EW to discuss Wednesday night’s Top 6 performance show. For a decade, 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 “Songs of Carole King” show, including why Lauren cried at the end of her critique, why Scotty has stopped holding his microphone sideways, and why Orland lets Casey get away with ad-libbing parts of his performances.
JACOB LUSK — “Oh No Not My Baby”
DB: We had a very hard time picking his song. He was afraid that people didn’t know this song. Carole King week really was hard for him to choose a song that gave him what he delivered onstage today. Maxine Brown sang it originally, and Aretha Franklin covered it, so we found something between the original version and the Aretha Franklin version. We found a middle ground that would suit Jacob. Aretha’s version is much churchier — lots of background vocals all over the place. So we had to extract some of that and send it closer to Maxine Brown’s version. [This song] seemed to deliver that energy that the judges said they wanted to hear again. And Carole King’s catalog doesn’t lend itself to a Jacob-type singer. But we crossed out fingers, and it worked.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Where You Lead”
MO: You get far enough in the competition that you start doubting yourself. The judges really freaked her out last week — Jennifer saying “You’re not hitting the high notes.” But she does hit high notes. She hits them all the time. It’s just when she hits them with conviction, then they sound great. When she really does it like she did tonight, I was so proud of her. Every time she did it, she sang it better and better. I think she was crying because she tried so hard, and the judges picked up on how hard she was trying. She put some really high notes in it. When we worked out with Rock Mafia to do her track, I was like, “Maybe we should go up a half step?” We did that key change, and she’s belting these E-flats!
She has a lot of emotion in her voice. She has that cry in her voice, and that’s not something you can teach somebody. She’s just got that natural thing. So when her voice cracks, she always freaks out. I’m trying to teach her that it can be part of your sound, and you can use that for whatever you’re singing about.
[When did she get the idea to bring a boy onstage?] When she was rehearsing, she said, “Scotty, come over here!” She made Scotty come up onstage and be that boy. She kept putting her fingers through his hair, and they were all laughing at Scotty. They were like, “Scotty, what’s the matter? You don’t like her doing that?” And he was like, “No, she’s messing my hair!”
SCOTTY McCREERY — “You’ve Got a Friend”
MO: I loved that he held back. I pulled him aside after the rehearsal this morning. We went up to the piano, and I made him sing it through like five times. And we put more breath in it. It’s not natural for him to sing like that, but I loved that he showed that side of him. He thinks he’s just pure country, but that opening was as country-pop as you get. Take the twang out and sing it plain.
He was under a lot of pressure from last week — it was the first week the judges were harsh on him. I think he felt he did great last week, but everyone wants to please the judges, even though it’s three people out of all these hundreds of thousands.
Did you notice that the [way he holds the microphone] changed a lot? That’s something that [vocal coach] Peisha McPhee has been working on with him a lot. And so have the sound people, because you don’t always get the optimal sound when you [hold the mic sideways]. These mics are unidirectional, and you need to [hold it vertically].
JAMES DURBIN — “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
MO: He found a rock version of the song online. It was some obscure band that was just doing a live cover of it, and he just knew he wanted to do it like that. Originally he was going to play his guitar all the way through the beginning, and then all of a sudden he had the idea to do a cappella. It was yesterday, in the middle of band rehearsal. He just said, “Excuse me, I want to try it a cappella.” Thank God he has really great pitch and can get away with it. I love that he was so praised by the judges tonight. [The singers] all have to have that same edge as James had tonight — they got to sing like they just got voted off.
CASEY ABRAMS — “Hi-De-Ho”
MO: I didn’t know that song, and I know so many Carole King songs. But he loved it right away. That song is so him — that honky-tonk piano thing at the beginning. I thought it was so cool that he came out and played a few little riffs. And he’s like an instrumentalist with his vocal. I don’t think I’ve heard him sing the song twice the same way. Normally I’m not a big fan of that, but he’s such a great blues singer. That’s his forte. Normally I would tell somebody, “Stop ad-libbing it.” At some point, you have to remember what you’re doing, freeze it, and then do it. But that boy sings it different every time, and he’s always in the [right] chord. And even if he reaches for a high note and doesn’t hit it, he knows how to trail off of it. He’s that kind of improv guy, and on this kind of song, it just works.
[Throwing his hat into the audience] That was never a planned thing. That just happened.
HALEY REINHART — “Beautiful”
DB: I was concerned about this song, but [Babyface] added a great element to it in contrasting the two sections — the driving section on the choruses and then the [Byrd sings softly] verses. To pull down the verses made a huge difference, because she was just hammering everything [at first]. Making that contrast was his suggestion, and as soon as he did that in the mentoring session, it clicked in for me. It made the song come alive for her performance. And she knew she wanted to do that song. She loved it. Unlike Jacob, who had such a hard time finding [a song].