April 10, 2014 at 06:30 PM EDT

It was a blast from the past in many ways Wednesday night on American Idol. Season 7 winner David Cook returned to mentor the top 8 finalists on ‘80s night, a theme the rocker absolutely crushed during his season with “Hello” by Lionel Richie and later “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Cook brought a needed new perspective for the contestants on how to perform on live television and what it’s like to be going through the crazy process. EW caught up with Cook on the phone after the performances to ask what it was like to be back at Idol

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, I’ll fan girl myself out of the way – I was a big fan of yours on the show. Great seeing you last night. I love your new look with the glasses and slicked back hair.

DAVID COOK: Thank you, I was trying to look studious. Not sure if it worked though!

What was it like coming back as a mentor?

Oddly less stressful, I enjoyed coming out and not worrying if my voice was going to crack and all that stuff. I was unsure going in what the vibe was going to be like, the contestants’ vibes can be a little different. But the contestants this year were great, they were very open to learning. No one was set in their ways, which was great. I did my work going in and the thing that I noticed is that they all have all the tools, but maybe just don’t know how to use them all. It made my job really easy, I have to say. Fox and Idol both made me look pretty good.

All the contestants are very young this season compared to the past. None of them were actually alive during the ‘80s.

Which broke my heart if we’re going to be honest. I was born in ’82 and it’s like, man do I feel old now.

Did you give them any advice about the decade?

The thing that I was really trying to get them to understand as far as the music is concerned, and they filmed me talking to Caleb about it – people seem to hold the ‘80s up musically, and I think for good reason. The musicality from that decade was intense, there was so much depth to recording and so it was really about paying a reference to these songs and, you know Alex’s version of “Every Breath You Take”, and the way he cut it and put it back together with a little bit of a different chord structure, I thought that was really incredible and shows a huge amount of brass. That’s an important song and I loved the outcome of it but I think J. Lo said some negative things about it, but I really loved what he did.

What do you think of the judges this season? What do you think they would say to you now?

If I was on stage now, they would probably tell me I’m over the age limit! [Laughs] There was a weird energy last night with the three of them, seems they got into the caffeine cabinet. But as far as the season, I kind of like this judge panel, and I really hope they stick around for a while. I think some continuity on the judges’ panel could [pay] some dividends, not just for the show but for the contestants coming off the show. It allows America to see the judges’ panel for what it is and focus on the contestants again and give them the platform to make hit records, which was the original point of the show.

One of the best pieces of advice you gave to multiple contestants was how to perform in front of the cameras and on live TV.

I gave them the same advice that was given to me by Debra Byrd, one of the vocal coaches on my season of Idol. Byrd was great. I remember it was the 3rd week of semis, the top 16 I think, the week I did “Hello”, and the first two weeks the judges didn’t seem too interested in whatever I was selling. Byrd kind of pulled me aside when we were working on the song and said, “You got the personality and space, and you got the voice. You’re just not connecting.” She told me to go home, read the lyrics, have a bottle of wine and just sit on your patio and find a way to internalize the song and when you’re singing, find your pockets and look through the camera, look through the lens to everyone at home. And I took that stuff to heart and I did it, and when I got the reviews for “Hello”, is it working, should I keep going? It was really kind of the beginning for me with Idol. Those two pieces of advice from Byrd. I was so happy I was able to pay it forward and it seemed that there were at least one or two who really took the advice to heart. I didn’t see anything that really fell apart, I think everyone improved. As the elder’s statesman at this point, it made me proud.

Was there any advice that you got from a mentor during your Idol time that you remember most?

I think the mentors we had on our season, most of them were really, really incredible. Neil Diamond was really great but it wasn’t anything he said. It was a weird thing to go to the person who wrote a song and play the song to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with that! So, to have to play Neil Diamond songs to Neil Diamond, well, it’s kind of vomit inducing. Oh god – what am I doing? I remember right before I went into the room to tape with him, he walked by me during the first song and just patted me on the shoulder in an almost fatherly way — it put me at ease. Made me want to just go and do my thing and that helped a lot. If I can just go into these rooms and do my thing and be confident and calm in what I’m doing. Just little things like that, the mentors we had on our season really helped me a lot.

You’re in Nashville now, working on music I presume?

Working on a new record and been doing a little bit of writing for people, really fortunate to have David Nail’s current single that I wrote with a couple of friends here in Nashville, a song called “Kiss You Tonight”. And then working on another record, about 60-70% done for principal tracking and just working on getting it done and getting it out for everybody, hopefully sometime this summer.

To find out which contestant must return their headband and leg warmers, watch American Idol Thursday night on Fox at 9 p.m. ET.

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