When we left Adam on part 3 of this four-part interview by Fred Bronson, he was getting inspired at Burning Man, did the Wicked thing, shared his audition for Idol and talked about performing with Kiss and Queen on the finale. In the final segment, Adam talks in depth about the Idol experience.
Let’s talk about some of the songs you performed on “Idol.” One of my favorites was your interpretation of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” during Motown week.
My first impulse was to do “War” by Edwin Starr. I love that song.
That makes sense — Bruce Springsteen recorded it, too. He has? I haven’t heard that version. I want to hear that. And Randy Jackson produced a Motown album with Boyz II Men and they do a version of it. It’s great, but the week before I had just done “Ring of Fire,” so I already caused controversy and pushed the buttons and polarized everybody and I’m really happy about it because I liked what I did and I got to be weird and set myself apart, so I felt I should probably go the complete opposite direction and be super-cleaned-up and kind of pretty and acoustic and organic. That was me being strategic, because I don’t really see myself singing in an acoustic style but I knew I could and it was fun. Because it was Motown, I always wanted to dress fitting the song, so I said, “Let’s get a suit and brush my hair and take off the makeup and the nail polish and do like a real classic look because it’s fresh.” It got everybody talking and I realized I could play with image on the show more than I thought I could.”
How did you work with the stylists? They were really good. Miles and Art were very, very, very collaborative and receptive to every idea that I had and they really supported me. I mean, a lot of it was me saying, “I want to do something like this,” and they’d say, “OK, let’s go shopping,” and then we would put together [my look] as a team.
Not every contestant comes up with their own ideas for how they’re going to look. I’m the L.A. guy. I like clothes and visual presentation and playing dress-up. I think that definitely was an advantage.
You mentioned singing an acoustic song. Your version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” was a great example of that. How did you choose to sing that? The theme was year of birth. They gave us a list and that song popped out at me and I remembered the Gary Jules version from the movie, “Donnie Darko.” It’s haunting and beautiful and it gets in your head and the words are amazing and I wanted to do it because I knew it would be different and very non-“Idol” and not showy. I wanted to pull back and sound really vulnerable and just do the song justice and they came up with a great arrangement of it, kind of this ambient, acoustic thing.
How closely did you work with [“Idol” Music Director] Rickey Minor on arrangements? I worked with the vocal team first and my team was Dorian Holley and Michael Orland. We would look at the song and cut it to make it fit in the time of one minute and 45 seconds. We would figure out which parts of the song we liked the most, how to make it flow, what key to put it in, vocal things to do with it, style things to do with it and if I had an idea in my head we would figure it out and they would make notes and they’d send that off to Rickey’s arranger. Then Rickey would get it and develop it. So the first time we hear what it’s going to sound like is the Sunday before, because they give us rough mixes for our iTunes recording which happens the next morning, Monday morning, before our band rehearsal. After a couple weeks of that, I got Rickey’s number and I asked if I could just call him. He’s super-talented, awesome. So I was really happy that we got to skip all that process and talk one-on-one.
You mentioned the Johnny Cash classic, “Ring of Fire.” Tell me about choosing that song and the very non-country arrangement of it. I was really inspired by David Cook’s approach to the show the year before. I thought he was really smart in that he didn’t let the theme weeks throw him off, whereas a lot of people conform to the theme, so it turns into this talent show, whereas he kept his cool points because he always made it work for his style and he was very true to his own artistry. I just took a page from him. When it came to country week, I thought: “This is one of those moments where you can take a song and make it work for you,” like he did with “Billie Jean.” Country music is like the furthest thing from me but I remembered an electro version of “Ring of Fire” I had heard a couple of years ago. I didn’t remember who it was by. It was sexy. The words are hot. The melody’s good. I knew that’s the one I should do. It’s dark and kind of risqué and I liked it. I searched iTunes for different versions of it. That’s basically what Cook did, he found covers and used those arrangements, which he got a lot of [criticism] for. There’s no reason why he should have. We’re singing covers, so what’s the difference?
I’ve never understood why anyone would be upset that a David Cook would sing Chris Cornell’s version of “Billie Jean” instead of Michael Jackson’s original arrangement or that a Chris Daughtry would sing Live’s version of another Johnny Cash song, “I Walk the Line.” I never got that either. If you asked him who it was by, he would tell you. It’s not like we’re trying to trick anybody. There was a woman named Dilana who sang “Ring of Fire” on the “Rock Star: Supernova” show and that was the way she did it. She had a recording of it out with the Middle Eastern dub kind of feel to it. I loved that style. I love world music, especially when it’s in that dub electronica kind of vein. I really love that, like Thievery Corporation’s a good example of that. I was really excited to be able to do a song on “Idol” that sounded like that and I knew it was probably going to be like, “What?” Vocally, I felt like I nailed it. And of course I read the press and people were saying, “He’s screeching,” and I’m thinking, “That’s not really screeching. I don’t really know what that is to you.” But everybody has their own opinion.
So while you were on “Idol,” you were reading what people were writing about you. Did it affect you? I’m pretty objective, pretty resilient to that kind of thing. I didn’t take it personally. I try to take it as research, like how people were responding to it, and I felt the same way about the judges. They had objective opinions and everybody has one. Listen to their comment and if it’s a good critique, take it. Make notes. Fix it if you agree, and if not, just keep doing your thing.
It’s not about them and what they think. It’s about that I get to be on TV in front of millions of people and I get to sing. It’s about the opportunity and the experience and it’s not about “Did the judges like it?” I didn’t want to be too concerned with that, and by having a sense of humor about it, it made me more OK.
Back to David Cook for a moment. You’ve said you were inspired by the way he looked at the songs he did over the season as a “set list.” I definitely approached the show in the same way, creating a lot of variety with the songs I chose. If I did an acoustic down tempo soft falsetto ballad the week before, then I wanted to contrast and go completely the other direction the next week. I wanted to keep everybody guessing and I wanted to make it a really dynamic set of songs.
Was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” a song you knew from your father’s record collection? Yes, and my mom’s a huge Stones fan. She’s gone to their concerts. I was going to sing “Cryin’” by Aerosmith that first week and had rehearsed it and cut it down and gotten a rehearsal track, but at the last minute, the publishers weren’t comfortable with one of the details in the contract and didn’t really know who I was yet, so they pulled it and I had to come up with something really fast. I needed to do something that would establish me as a rocker, because I looked at my group and I knew that there were a lot of poppier R&B and country [singers], and I wondered, “How do I make myself different and stand out?” There was a girl rocker and I thought I’ll be the boy rocker. Kris [Allen] and Allison [Iraheta] were both in that group with me and we went through together and did all our press together and all three of us are signed now. It’s a beautiful thing that, for reasons that are beyond us, we’ve been cool. And the three of us get along really well, which is nice.
Anyway, I picked “Satisfaction” because I knew the song and it was a song that everybody knew. It was a rock song and I wanted to associate myself with icons, with famous rock stars. And Hollywood Week was a good time for me to do my research into how [people] were going to see me. It was an experiment. What happens when I sing this way? How does it go over? What happens if I do this?
We did our second round of a cappella group choreography and we sang “Some Kind of Wonderful” by Grand Funk Railroad and I got to really wail and go high and go crazy and they loved it. So I knew I could go nuts and they’re going to like that. Simon said, “You can sing. I didn’t know what the big deal was before. OK, you’ve got pipes.” That helped establish myself and then the final day of Hollywood Week was pick your own song off this list and I wasn’t feeling any of the songs. I asked, “Can we sing from the girls’ list?” and they said yes. I knew I had to get up early the next morning and know the song and be prepared. I didn’t want to worry about learning words. I wanted to be able to sing the song. What song on this girls’ list do I know that no one else is doing? “Believe” by Cher. I remember loving that single.
It was the first time I had worked with Dorian and Michael and I asked them, “Is it too gay? Is it too ridiculous?” And they were like, “Uhhh…” [Adam shrugs his shoulders while looking up and rolling his eyes]. I said, “What if we make it a rock-pop ballad, not a dance song? What if it’s totally different?” And they said, “Let’s try it.” I sang it and I felt good about it. It set me apart. None of the other guys were doing ballads. I knew the [judges] would remember me, because there were 75 people. I needed to stand out so that they would put me on the show. I knew that that was how it was going to go down.
Looking back at the season as a whole, what do you know now that you didn’t know before you were on “Idol”? I learned a lot by watching myself back. Like, less is more. I don’t have to do quite as much every time, because when I watched some of the first performances, “Satisfaction,” “Black or White,” they get a little manic and that was because I was excited and had all this adrenaline. By getting used to working on the soundstage and getting comfortable and not being as nervous, I learned what works and what doesn’t.
How did you like working with this season’s mentors? Slash was really cool and very flattering and Smokey was amazing. That was an honor. All the mentors were great, like being onstage with Queen and Kiss was so cool. And I learned a lot about dealing with the cameras. I had never really worked with a camera and the director on the show, Bruce [Gowers], is amazing and really fun and we got along really well. He would tell me, “I’m going to do this with the camera. Just play with that camera.” He gave me some directions here and there and it helped me make the most of that format, because I was used to being onstage and not being intimate. And Ken Warwick, the producer, is the most supportive and warm and so is Mike Darnell, from Fox. I mean, he’s amazing. I never felt stifled. They really encouraged everything, all of it. It was really, really nice.
And now you’re recording your debut album. What is your vision for your first record? I want to do pop-rock electronic, like dance rock. I want it to be rock and roll, a nod to all the ’60s and ’70s rock that I love, the classic and the glam rock, but with a very current, futuristic sensibility for dance floors. I want people to have fun. I don’t want to sound like I have this social cause, but I think that music in the ’70s was so cool because it was about partying. It was about bringing people together and celebrating and not about all this dark sad [stuff]. I want to bring back the fun stuff. I want to bring people together and get them to dance and smile and feel sexy and celebrate our similarities, not our differences.
— Fred Bronson