Two competitors entered, but only one was left standing. American Idol finalist Caleb Johnson battled triumphantly over Jena Irene to become the show’s crowned winner this season. So now it’s just a matter of time until he earns a place in the Billboard charts just like platinum-selling artist Kelly Clarkson, or…as the singer in a Meatloaf tribute band playing Reno casinos. It’s anyone’s guess, and that includes the otherwise all-knowing American Idol judges Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban.
Australia’s king of country and husband of Nicole Kidman took some time with JustLuxe to take a look back at what it took to produce a strong and entertaining show this season.
JustLuxe: This year American Idol had more country music represented than usual, in both the talent and the songs. Was that your influence?
Keith Urban: I think country has always been fairly well represented, though it might be a little more prominent now. I don’t know if that’s because I’m there or what it is. I like that we had diversity in the country area this year because we had C.J. and Jessica who can fit in that genre. And I like the diversity that we’ve got. Idol has always played very, very well in the Midwest and rural states that have huge country audiences, so I am really grateful to be on the panel because of that. Hopefully we can discover some exceptional country talent.
JL: One of the show themes this season was “First Audition Songs.” Do you remember your first audition song?
KU: I did a few shows when I was very young in Australia. I think when I was nine was the first time I went on, and I think I did a song called Lights on the Hill which is a country song by Slim Dusty.
JL: It’s sweet that you’ve been occasionally bringing your kids to the show with you. What kind of music do they like?
KU: Well, they love Let It Go, of course, from the Disney film Frozen, but they like all sorts of stuff. They tend to just sing to whatever is on the radio. We play the radio a lot in the car and they respond to different things, but up-tempo things they both particularly love. Sunday is five and a half and Faith is three, so you never know what they are going to be cranking in their room. They have an iPod in their room that they play a lot. I love that there’s music coming from their bedroom all the time.
JL: Would you let your kids go into showbiz?
KU: Absolutely! If they are willing to work for it, if they have an aptitude towards it and a real desire to work towards really anything, whatever they have a passion for, they just need to work at it. That’s the big thing that I find constantly with Idol even, is that it’s not just about having the talent, it’s about having the passion for it.
JL: Do they seem to have a passion for anything showbiz-y at this point?
KU: I don’t know. I mean, Sunday is only five and a half, so they both sing and dance a little bit around the house. They might go into acting, there’s a little bit of that in our house! There’s a little bit of music in our house, too, so who knows where they will go.
JL: Your wife, Nicole, mentioned that you started teaching Faith to play the guitar. How are her lessons going?
KU: I don’t know if I really am teaching her to play guitar, but she can sort of mimic a little bit of what I am doing strumming-wise. That’s really what I am trying to teach her, she’s only three. But what I love is how she gravitates towards the guitar. She’s got a little pink guitar and she sits with it, and she strums with it, and I hope she keeps going with that because it does seem to be something that she reaches for.
JL: How well did the young American Idol contestants make the transition to the big stage this season? Have you witnessed any big challenges?
KU: Definitely. I think it’s one of those places where you can be very, very young — 15, 16, 17 — and have a great voice and a good look, but if you don’t have any experience in front of an audience, it can really throw you. We saw that a little bit this year. It’s a particular thing to be able to perform in front of an audience with the energy and the cameras on and all that sort of stuff. It’s been an interesting group, because now I am watching a lot of them really rise to that. The very first show threw a lot of them, and then the second week got a little easier and most of them got into their groove.
JL: How important is song choice, especially when it gets down to the bitter end?
KU: Song choice matters a lot for some more than others. There were some artists in this group, who can sing most things, and I think their vocal and their artistry comes through no matter what they are singing. But I think other ones really have to pick their songs carefully to play to their strengths. I think we saw that with Ben Briley choosing a song that didn’t quite fit who he is. So it’s tricky, because I know it can seem contradictory that we ask for everybody to show us something different, but you also have to know how to be different and still remain yourself, you know, it’s not just different for different sakes. It’s showing another side of you; not just this complete other thing that’s got nothing to do with who you are, so I think song choice is particularly crucial.
JL: Can you explain this year’s “Storytellers” concept and how that came about?
KU: This will be the fifth year that we have done it, and I look for a different theme every year. That helps me figure out a guest list, because every year my dream list is way too big for what we can actually take on. Trimming it down is always difficult, so this year I came up with the idea for song-tellers as a way for the audiences to get to hear the stories about the songs. This isn’t just about songwriters telling the story either. This is artists like Reba McEntire, who’s never really talked about why she chooses certain songs to sing. There are a lot of cool stories about why artists choose them, and what the songs mean to them. So this year was just an opportunity for the audiences to hear some of these stories behind the songs.
JL: Has your approach to judging been changed because you’re sitting on the panel with Harry Connick and Jennifer Lopez?
KU: Not at all, no. I mean, I respond to what I feel, what I see. I don’t overthink it. I respond. The only time for me it gets sort of into the thought is like if I can then pinpoint what it is that I am missing in this performance and how they might be able to fix it. In some cases you’ve got people that just hit a wall, and they need to keep writing songs or keep performing live. Something. They need experience. And I find that there is not a lot of advice that you can give other than you’ve just got to get out there and live life and it’s just going to take some time now.
JL: When Idol approached you about being a judge, what did you consider as the pros and cons and what was the most important thing you wanted to give to the contestants?
KU: The most important thing I wanted to be able to do was help them, because a lot of the times I see artists struggling with something that is very simple to fix, and Harry’s the same. In my case, it’s things that I’ve had to figure out how to do, how to perform properly, how to choose songs properly, just a myriad of things. And I think a lot of that can be taught. You have to have an intrinsic talent to start with, you really just do have to have a gift. Then hopefully you have the work ethic that’s so crucial. If you are interested in growing and learning and listening, then I think a show like this particularly can be extremely helpful. I love that part of it more than anything: watching to see if they’re listening to the advice that works for them. Because it’s not about just accepting every piece of advice. It’s about listening and registering the ones that feel right and discarding the rest, because it’s not all truth. It’s not all accurate for each person. We’ve all got our opinions of what they should be doing, but they’re [artists] and they’ve got to decipher what is right for them. I love watching from week to week seeing that growth. It’s really extraordinary.
JL: Given that you know the recording process and touring grind, what do think is the single most important skill that this year’s American Idol contestants can apply to their music career from now on?
KU: It’s always different for each person because everybody’s in different places on their artistic journey. And it’s a contradiction in terms too, because we can be offering all this advice, but they also have individualism and originality about them, which can defy every single thing we say. They could go against every single suggestion and create something extraordinary. So that’s the beauty of art: there are no rules to it. There’s just the creation of the art and then there’s the response from it. And that’s the only thing that’s true.