Continuing our exclusive series, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland hopped on the phone with EW to discuss Wednesday night’s Top 5 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 “Now & Then” show, including why Jacob took the risk of singing both parts of a pop duet, why Scotty had such a hard time with song choice this week, and all the details behind Haley’s big decision to sing an unreleased Lady Gaga track.
JAMES DURBIN — “Closer to the Edge” (30 Seconds to Mars)
MO: He definitely picked that one quick. He does this every week. He came into the rehearsal room, said, “Here’s what I want to do.” Now, [executive producers] Ken [Warwick] and Nigel [Lythgoe] had never heard that song, and he played it for us and he sang it for us, and everybody loved it. He was like, “This is what I want to do.” So, you know, he’s so set in who he is. [Idol mentor] Jimmy [Iovine] talked to him and said, “I know you think you’re that metal guy, but you aren’t. This is who you are.” He does know who he is and what he wants to show and all that stuff, so I commend him for that. I think it’s amazing to be that far ahead.
James has what Scotty is really getting good at now — he’s getting good at engaging the audience. He makes everyone in the room feel like he’s a part of it, including the people who sit behind. I dig his whole performance skill. I think he’s great. When he goes on tour, it’s going to be crazy.
JACOB LUSK — “No Air” (Chris Brown and Jordin Sparks)
DB: Jacob did this song, basically, because he can do both parts. He has enough vocal range to do both the Chris Brown part and the Jordin Sparks part. So, I think he took it as a challenge, and I think he sang it very well. He chose the song because he likes it. He said that’s the kind of song he’d like to record. Randy said, “Oh, I don’t see you doing that.” But it’s a song he sang very well, and if you hadn’t known that it was a duet between Chris Brown and Jordin Sparks, it could have worked as just a singular artist recording it. The fact that it was recorded by two different people, Randy just stayed on that. If you take away the knowledge that it was recorded by two people and strip that away, it’s just a song. He had enough insight to know that he could handle that entire range.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Flat on the Floor” (Carrie Underwood)
MO: She loved this song to begin with. It was actually one of her possibilities from when we were 21st Century Week. She wanted to do it back then, so when the opportunity came up again to do this song, she just totally jumped on it. She felt like it showed off her vocal things, which it did — it really did. She sang it so effortlessly.
Lauren is one of those people who is really affected by what the judges say to her, so when a couple weeks ago, Jennifer told her she should be singing high notes, that literally sticks in her head. And no matter how much you tell her she doesn’t have to sing to the judges — they don’t vote for you — it just made an impact on her. So she’s all about, “I gotta give them those notes. I wanna give them those notes.” So we’ll put those high notes in the song for her. She just sang it out, sang it out — I couldn’t believe it. Every single week, she gets over a new hump.
She turned last night. I’ve always been a huge Lauren fan, but last night, for me, she went over to the other side.
SCOTTY MCCREERY — “Gone” (Montgomery Gentry)
MO: I had never heard this song before Scotty brought it to us. Scotty was one that had so many choices he could do for the “Now” song, and we sang through a lot of songs. After singing through five or six songs, he just really knew that he wanted to do that. Rock Mafia [producing/songwriting duo Tim James and Antonina Armato] were in the room with us, and they had a really good idea of what to do with the song.
I cannot believe how great his performance skills were last night. He pulled it all off. You know, he works the camera, he knows the way to look, he works those eyebrows. He was such a showman last night. He definitely knew that he wanted to start out in the audience and he wanted to walk around and move. I think he probably felt the frantic energy of the song.
HALEY REINHART — “You And I” (Lady Gaga)
DB: We love Gaga. Now, I want you to know that Haley was sweating bullets over this. She was having such a hard time with this decision, of singing this song. We talked about it. We went over and over it. I had to speak to her about courage and bravery because she picked this song and then she doubted it. “Oh, the judges are gonna hate it!” she’d say. I said, “I’m really into making history on this television show.” We’ve had many historic moments on American Idol. And I said, “Let’s create history. Whenever those seeds of doubt creep in about your song choice, I would like you to remember you’re making history by singing an unreleased song by Lady Gaga.”
And she was really worried about Lady Gaga’s response. She said, “Oh my goodness, I don’t want her to hate me.” That is the phrase she used — “I don’t want her to hate me for singing this song.” She made Jimmy promise, “Please let her know.” Once she got over one hurdle and spoke with Gaga, then she felt better. Then she doubted it again. I said, “Haley, you’re a very good singer. You perform it very, very well. You must believe it. You’ve got her blessing! You know what to do.” And she thanked me. She said, “I like hearing your voice in my ear before I go on. I need to hear that before I go on stage.” I’m so glad I can buoy her up and encourage her as she goes on stage.
Did she do what she intended to do? I’d like to think, yes, she did. There have been other contestants this season where the judges didn’t know the song and they eventually liked it. It happened with Scotty. It takes a lot of courage for the contestants to sing a relatively unknown song.
JAMES DURBIN — “Without You” (Badfinger)
MO: We were at Interscope with Jimmy and [Idol mentor] Sheryl [Crow], and we were struggling through lists of songs. He knew he wanted to do a ballad this week to be contrasting to his other song this week. We were going through them and going through them. It was Ken or Sheryl who suggested “Without You,” and when we played it for him, he went from standing at the microphone at first to coming over to sit next to me. He just got so into the song. It was really moving for all of us to watch, for something to hit you that hard. He didn’t know the song at all. He’s never heard it! It couldn’t have been more genuine. He was like, “I can’t even go over it right now, I can’t even go over it. I just have to go listen to it.”
The place he went to up on the stage is exactly the place he needed to go. He needed to go there, but not go all the way, and instead let us go all the way. You know, for me, that’s what he did. When he sang it, it was so moving to watch him. He went there, but he didn’t have a breakdown in front of us, but he let us have our own thing with the song. He produced one perfect tear at the end. That’s not something you can teach someone. It was a perfect song. I think it’s going to go down in history. We’ve never heard him sing a sad song. It was just different for him. I just loved what he did with it.
JACOB LUSK — “Love Hurts” (The Everly Brothers)
DB: Him singing it soft went over very well. I’m glad that they showed Sheryl singing it softer, more emotional, telling him to do that. It really was a stretch for him. He acknowledged it being a stretch and he worked very hard to make sure that the emotion of the lyric was brought through, that it came through. It was a challenge for him, making sure that the emotion of the song felt right.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Unchained Melody” (The Righteous Brothers)
MO: I was confused as to why Jennifer and Steven said they couldn’t critique that or whatever they said. I was like, Why? I thought she did a really great job. First of all, she sang that song back in the sing-for-your-life round. It was one of the songs that she had sung through, so she really loved it and really enjoyed it. I remember when she sang it, everyone was like, “Wow, she’s sung it so great.” So when she wanted to do that again, I was excited for her because she needed to be in a comfort zone.
The problem with doing that song on American Idol is that it’s really long, number one, so it’s really hard to cut up. It’s really hard to make a minute, 45-second version of it, so we really struggled with that at our band rehearsal. She was being pulled back and forth about finding a cut that made it seem like a complete song. I think we got it.
I try to avoid doing coaching stuff with the kids on the last day — some of them can’t handle it, but she can. I gave her all these notes on Wednesday afternoon and she ran with that. I thought she did a great job, considering everything she went through with the song. It was strange that the judges didn’t want to comment on it. I’m just going to take that as they though it was so good that they didn’t need to comment on it. It didn’t need any critique. I told her afterward that my favorite part of her doing that song was that whole beginning thing. We worked all day on perfecting that beginning. It was a side of Lauren that no one has ever seen. For her to show that kind of restraint and that really contemporary sound with her voice was really great.
SCOTTY MCCREERY — “Always on My Mind” (Brenda Lee)
MO: We went through a lot of songs again. I think because it was almost like the field was too wide open, maybe? He wasn’t sure which way to go, or whatever. I don’t want to take the credit, but I think I yelled out “Always on My Mind.” They were singing some other song, and it just reminded me of it. When he sang it, it was a natural fit for him. He did not know which way to go for his “Then” song, and I think it was probably one of the first weeks that he spent so much time trying to pick it because he wanted to get it right.
HALEY REINHART — “House of the Rising Sun” (The Animals)
DB: She had a list of songs. We sung through them — songs that would sound great on her. By the normal process of elimination, she got to “House of the Rising Sun,” and it just felt fantastic. “House of the Rising Sun” was an obviously slam dunk. She started singing it with that rasp, and I said, “You don’t have to do any fancy tricks. You don’t have to growl. Just the sound of your voice alone makes this haunting song work.”
This entire season, she was a slow burner. Obviously, we were in the Scotty camp immediately, the Pia camp immediately, certain people, and Haley kind of grew on us. I guess that’s what we’d call the dark horse of any season. Jimmy Iovine said in one of the sessions — I don’t know if it aired — but he said, “People don’t understand what a good singer you are.” It just bothered him. “People really don’t understand you’re an amazing singer here.” I was so happy he said that. The judges acknowledged that she’s grown so much during this process, and that was a nice acknowledgment.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky