Michael Muller
February 16, 2016 at 07:40 PM EST

American Idol may be nearing the end of its fifteenth season — and its run as one of the most influential reality shows of all time — but its most famed alums keep making waves in the music world. Among them is Chris Daughtry, the fourth-place finisher in season 5 who used his Idol stint to launch a career that only trails Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood in terms of album sales by former contestants.

“There’s a huge sense of gratitude that washes over me that I was a part of that and that that is the reason people know who I am,” Daughtry tells EW. “That is the reason that I am able to, at this level, do what I love to do — and actually pay my bills and take care of my family. That probably wouldn’t have happened, at least at this level, otherwise.”

To commemorate his time on the show — which took place 10 years ago, in early 2006 — Daughtry released a hits album, It’s Not Over… The Hits So Far, on Friday that features favorites like “Home” and “Feels Like Tonight” and new tunes “Torches” and “Go Down.” The rock singer chatted with EW about the stories behind some of his greatest songs, including the origins of his Max Martin collaboration, writing with Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, and getting inspired by Man of Steel.

“It’s Not Over” (2006)

[Songwriter] Gregg Wattenberg had shown me this song that was half done that he liked and wanted me to rewrite or write a chorus for. I was on the Idol tour in 2006 and [season 5’s] Ace Young, who was one of my closest friends on the show, and I were listening to it. I was like, “Hum the first melody that comes to your mind when I play this.” And he literally, without any hesitation, hummed the melody that is now the chorus for “It’s Not Over.” I thought for sure that it had to be the first single — it was a good mix of rock and melody and was still radio friendly. I fought and fought and fought [for that] and I ultimately won. And it turned out alright for us.

“Home” (2006)

I had already made it through to Hollywood, but I’m still at home at this point, because once you make it through auditions there’s this whole torturous waiting period. And I got in that mindset of what this is going to be like. I’m going to be away from my family for the first time and I’m not working a job anymore. This is weird. I was wrapping my head around something a little more radio friendly and just started strumming and wrote “Home” within 15 to 20 minutes. I played it for [then-RCA Records CEO] Clive Davis once I was off the show and had a meeting with him. I played it in front of him with my guitar and he pretty much signed me on the spot.

“Feels Like Tonight” (2006)

[Max Martin and Dr. Luke] had written this song and it was actually one of two songs that I’ve recorded that I didn’t write anything on. I didn’t work with those guys. I remember it being very close to the end of the record making process [for 2006’s self-titled debut] and I remember getting this song and I was like, “No, no, I’m not cutting it, it’s way too pop. It’s so not with the rest of the record.” I was really being a bull about it. I remember being told, “This was the song that they wrote for you had you won the show.” And I was like, “Well now I definitely don’t want to do it!” Anyway, I appeased them and I recorded it and then I remember hearing it back and going “OK, you were right, this was definitely a good idea.” And it became one of our bigger songs. I still don’t know what it means.

“No Surprise” (2009)

We thought the record was done and the label kept pushing me for more writing sessions, which told me that they didn’t think they had the single — which was a big change for me because nobody interfered with the first record, other than suggesting two songs that were already written. Not a lot of work for me. We had started writing for this [2009’s Leave This Town] on tour for Daughtry, so at this point whether they’re good, bad, finished, or not, there were a good 50 to 60 tunes. There was pressure because Daughtry sold 5 million. I flew to Vancouver and worked with Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. We had toured together at that point, so we were already close. He had had this song started that he was working on in the past for another artist. We jammed out for a while and wrote and finished that song and went and tracked it. Then the label pretty much greenlit the record.

“Waiting For Superman” (2013)

“Waiting for Superman” was an interesting one because the fans know my obsession with comic books and they’re always like, “When are you gonna write a song about Batman?” And I’m like, “Ah, that’s cheesy.” [Songwriters] Sam Hollander and Martin Johnson had this little chorus idea that was just a few throwaway lyrics, but it got to the hook and it was “waiting for superman.” I had just gotten back from seeing Man of Steel at the premiere and I was all jacked up on that. It was cool because it got to show a little humor in a pretty serious tune. I thought stuff like being stuck in the laundromat washing his cape was something that the fans had never really seen from me before, being a jokester. They say, “He takes himself too seriously,” so I just started saying “Screw it” and putting a little more true personality in the songs.

“Torches” (2016)

It took a long time to get to the two songs that we felt were a nice introduction to where this next record may go. “Torches” was an instant favorite at the label. I love working with Dave [Bassett] and I finally got to go out to his house in Malibu, which is the most beautiful setting to write at. You look off his balcony and you see the ocean and the mountains and it’s gorgeous. I was looking at all the dry brush talking about how if someone flicked a cigarette or something the whole place would just go down. It got me thinking about how fire spreads.

We were talking about all the bulls— on the Internet and how people just hate on stuff. We were saying, “What if we used that energy to spread positivity? Would it spread as fast as the hate does?” “All the hate and lies around us like an ember in the brush”: It just started writing itself from everything we were talking about. I think it’s a message that we all need to hear. None of us are impervious to being negative. It’s easier to complain about what’s wrong than it is to talk about what’s going right. We’re all a part of this, whether we want to believe it or not — why don’t we try shining some light in the darkness?

“Go Down” (2016)

We were like, “You know what, we already know we’re bringing guitars back on this next record, so why not put it on the greatest hits. Who cares if it goes to radio, this is for the fans.” It’s about letting loose and not really giving a crap. Just… get your freak on. It’s got kind of an indie, heavy alternative vibe. It’s definitely heavy, but it’s got this danceability to it. Almost a little bit of Garbage in there — the band, not the trash.

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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