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 3 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 show, including how Haley got a Led Zeppelin song cleared for the program, how last-minute of a decision it was to have Haley’s dad perform with her onstage, and how Lauren responded to slipping up in the middle of a song.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Amazed” (Lonestar)
MO: Obviously they all had a lot to choose from here. I know Scotty and Lauren picked their songs after they heard what the judges’ choice and Jimmy’s choice was, just to kind of offset it. Scotty’s just always loved “Amazed.” It was one he looked at several weeks ago to do, and when he got to pick a song, that was the one he had said he wanted to do. Never strayed from it. He put that key change in, so between that song and the judges’ song [“She Believe in Me”], he really showed off all that high-key stuff.
What I love about the song for Scotty is that he thinks he’s just old country, and this song is like country pop and he can do it. When he becomes a recording star — in two weeks — he is going to be able to do all that stuff. Even doing that song “She Believes In Me,” which he’ll never record or sing again, but it’s good for him to see he doesn’t only have to sing old country stuff. He can sing it all. He can stretch himself vocally one week, or have some fun performance skills, but there’s nothing that’s really challenging for him. He can just do it all, he really can.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Wild One” (Faith Hill cover)
MO: She had a couple of picks for her own personal song and one of them was “I Hope You Dance,” so when she found out that was her judges’ song, it was a double-edged sword. She was thrilled but had to come up with something else for [her personal choice]. She knew she needed to find something upbeat and fun. She had performed “Wild One” before — she used to sing it all the time with her best friend.
Lauren knew all three of her songs this week, so she was definitely a lucky girl in that she didn’t have to worry about memorizing her lyrics. I wish she could have done her up-tempo song in the middle [of the show] just because she had two ballad-like songs and one up-tempo one. I think she could have benefited more from doing “Wild One” in the middle, but they made everybody do their [personal] choice first.
HALEY REINHART — “What Is and What Should Never Be” (Led Zeppelin)
DB: She’s been wanting to do this song for a while, and Led Zeppelin does not clear [songs] on American Idol, except one time for Adam Lambert. There are certain artists that we know won’t clear their songs for Idol. It’s just that simple. But at this stage of the competition, we decided to take another shot. It happens on every season, like with Adam — he’s been on the show a while and people have seen him, people have seen Haley. The music supervisor, Robin Kaye, sent Robert Plant and Jimmy Page a clip of Haley singing and they said, “Yes, absolutely, we’d love for her to sing our song.” And that meant a lot to her. She was very honored because she really wanted that song. I was a little concerned because it’s not super-duper well known, but I thought that’s her fearlessness that the judges talk about. She took a huge risk and she said, “I know this song will work.”
She’s [played] it with her family before and said, “I would love it if my dad could play on this song — my dad can rip on this tune.” Haley made history by having her dad play on her song. That’s never been done on Idol before. There was a fairness issue. I think the counterbalance was that Ryan Seacrest spoke with Lauren’s mom and Scotty’s dad so that they all got equal face time.
Haley mentioned [asking her dad to play] to me last week, but because of her hometown tour and all this other stuff swirling around, it just went by her and I think she gave up [on having her dad play]. I asked her on Tuesday and she said, “It’s too late to ask.” And I said, “No, it’s not.” Her parents were coming anyway — they were on their way here. They flew in yesterday! Haley’s dad barely made dress rehearsal at 2:45 p.m. [or about two hours before the show went live]. And he played some great stuff. When you listen back to it, because when she’s at the top of the stairs you don’t realize that’s her dad playing the riffs in between — he played some tasty stuff.
[Regarding Haley’s fall] I love the fact that she did not miss a note, she did not miss a beat, and she just kept rolling. When you have a mishap you just keep going.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” (Thompson Square)
MO: He was so happy that Jimmy picked this song because he loves it. I think he even said that to Jimmy when we were in rehearsal with him. He said, “I probably would have picked something like this song or something exactly like this.” And because Jimmy picked this up-tempo song, I think Scotty leaned more toward the ballad thing with his own pick.
LAUREN ALAINA — “If I Die Young” (The Band Perry)
MO: I felt bad for that little slip she had in the middle. I don’t know what happened with her — she doesn’t know why that happened either. She did the song three times today and three times yesterday and was perfect and never messed up like that. Your mind goes for one second, and that’s what happens. I don’t think she got stuck on it — the judges said she did. I think if she got stuck on it, she could have pulled what Brooke White did a few years ago and said, “Wait, can we start over?”
But Lauren kept going, and I thought she did really well. I don’t think the average person would know that she messed up. I thought she held her own. I was so proud of her — she made the mistake and moved on. She just listened for a second and that’s the only key — you have to listen so you can know where to catch up and she did it and went right back in it. But she was upset afterward of course. I went and talked to her right away. I said, “You have to just forget that happened, and you got to go out there with your third song like nothing ever happened.”
HALEY REINHART — “Rhiannon” (Fleetwood Mac)
DB: You can’t scream and growl your way through everything. It was an interesting choice for her. It was one of the songs that was on her list a while ago. The fact that it became a choice from Jimmy, it was like easy peasy. I applaud Jimmy because it gave us a chance to pull it down. I’ve heard people say they don’t like her growling all the time. I think it showcased her very well — she has a softer side and she doesn’t have to rip every single song she sings. It took her a minute, but she found it because the song’s a bit abstract. She and I had these discussions about what the song means. We had to get inside the lyrics, and then she was all for it.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “She Believes in Me” (Kenny Rogers)
MO: He had never heard the song before, but he liked it when he heard it. If you get into the whole verse, it’s maybe too adult for him, but to do two minutes of it was great. I was wondering why the judges picked that, but they gave it to him to see him stretch on those choruses. And Scotty came home really tired from his trip home [to North Carolina] and we said, “Do you want to lower the song’s key?” He was like, “Nope, absolutely not!” He learned the song so quickly. He came into band rehearsal on Tuesday and he’s like, “I don’t know these words yet.” I think it’s amazing that he totally nailed it because he had to hold the lyrics while we were rehearsing with the band yesterday, and he totally got it.
LAUREN ALAINA — “I Hope You Dance” (Lee Ann Womack)
MO: For her to come out and nail the song the way she did — I was so happy the judges said she won that round. She could have been still stuck on that second song. She’s not the most experienced singer, but a less experienced singer could have let that affect her, and she did not. She went out there like a trooper. And again, she was going to actually pick “I Hope You Dance” for her own song, so when the judges picked it that made it real easy for her.
HALEY REINHART — “You Oughta Know” (Alanis Morissette)
DB: My only concern was that she didn’t sound like an Alanis clone. During rehearsal I said, “You must bring me a bit more Haley-isms,” and she did, just enough. Alanis has a lot of yodeling. It’s very deliberate, Alanis’s vocal. In rehearsal Haley can sing all that stuff because she did sing “Blue,” where she yodeled earlier on. And I said, “You don’t have to bring as much yodel as Alanis does. They want to see how you hear yourself as an artist, so bring that.” A little sidebar: Carrie Underwood was always looking for a week where she could yodel. It makes me smile when I hear Haley do it because I remember Carrie looking every week, and she just didn’t get around to it.
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