Sunday, August 02, 2009

"Idol" wave hits Charlotte

Thanks to post-lame-season burnout and Legitimate Work Reasons, this blog has been on hiatus since the end of the sixth season of "American Idol." But I never stopped watching the show, and thought the eighth and most recent season was one of the best. So when the "American Idols Live" tour stopped in Charlotte this weekend, I was eager for the opportunity to sit down with some of this year's finalists - and bring back "Idol Thoughts" for a special "We Actually Talked To Some Contestants" edition.

We met for a press session a few hours before Saturday's concert at Time Warner Cable Arena, gathering in the Back Court, a subterranean, restaurant-like room used for special functions. As weird yellow light filtered in from above and noise from an ongoing sound check/apparent strobe light testing occasionally intruded, we chatted with six of the season's top 10: Winner Kris Allen, third-place finisher Danny Gokey, fifth-place finisher Matt Giraud, sixth-place finisher (and N.C. native) Anoop Desai, seventh-place finisher Lil Rounds and ninth-place finisher Megan Joy. On the way out, we also passed Michael Sarver (wearing, semi-hilariously, the same "Idols 09" black-and-white track jacket on sale at the merchandise table) and Scott MacIntyre (accompanied by his brother), as they arrived for a meet-and-greet with fans.

This meant that the only two I neither interviewed nor saw up close were Adam and Allison - my two favorites. Sigh: So close, and yet...not happening. I could say I can at least take comfort in the fact that I didn't throw my professional dignity out the window in an Adam frenzy, but frankly, I'd rather have had the chance to discard said dignity for that cause.

ANYWAY: We've posted a few of the best bits from the interviews that did take place here; below, I've written up some morsels that didn't make the video cut and embedded YouTube links to bonus clips from the session. In person, the contestants were all very cool, even those who sometimes proved frustrating on the show. They were relaxed, friendly and pretty self-aware and down-to-earth, and it struck me that they largely came across better as distinct, genuine individuals outside of the televised "Idol" box. Something to think about, I guess, as you watch the show in the future...

Kris: After arriving in Charlotte at 4 a.m. Saturday, he woke up around 10, walked around the hotel - and discovered it had a YMCA inside it. ("The Y is big in Charlotte," I explained.) So, he worked out. After the tour ends, he says, he's planning on going to Los Angeles to finish his album and will then set out to promote it. "I'm having the time of my life, seriously - no David Cook puns there," he cracked. I also asked how they amuse themselves during long hours on the road. Said Kris: "We've never had a problem with that. Matt keeps us pretty amused all the time, and me and Anoop, we pretty much sit there laughing at everyone else. It's pretty fun." Oh, and they watch a lot of "Family Guy" on the bus.

Here's Kris talking about working on an album while on tour:

And Kris explaining why his visit to Coca-Cola headquarters was a little disappointing:

Danny: He was glad to have had a frozen custard flavor named after him in his hometown of Milwaukee, and recalls getting handed "a huge tub of ice cream - like, my favorite ice cream, butter pecan." Not sure if that's all gone now, but from the way he talked about it, I'd guess yes. He performs two Rascal Flatts songs on tour, and I mentioned that the band was also playing Charlotte Saturday night. As it turns out, their paths had crossed before: Danny ran into the guitar player and his wife at the airport in Nashville, where they were on the same flight, and they chatted then.

Here he is talking about his experience as a truck driver, and how that's shaped who he is today:

Matt: On tour, he said, he feels like he's performing better than on television, and he feels like he can be himself and connect with the audience more. He's looking forward to what he considers his two hometown shows, in Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich. And as for how he spends his rare days off: He and the others will try to slip back out into the public, and can usually go unrecognized alone or with just one other Idol. But in a group, that doesn't work quite as well. For example: He, Kris, Danny and Michael walked to the mall the other day. "That was just a bad idea," he joked.

Here's Matt talking about what it's like to be on tour in a group where some have record deals and others don't:

Anoop: He believes his experience in the Clef Hangers a cappella group at UNC Chapel Hill was good preparation for the "Idol" stage. And no, don't ask him if he's going to finish his education: He graduated two years ago and is putting aside his master's studies to devote himself to pursuing a music career. He has his education; now, he says, he's pursuing his dream. He's aiming to make melodic pop R&B: "I'm not going to be Usher; I'm not going to be T-Pain," he noted. And about that celestial background that he entered to early in the tour? "We cut most of that, because it was terrible," he said. "I saw that the day of the first concert, and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. That's the corniest thing I've ever seen in my life.'...I would've laughed at me."

Here's Anoop discussing that all-important North Carolina subject, barbecue:

Lil: Bet ya didn't know - Lil's husband was in the audience Saturday in Charlotte. In fact, he was in the audience - if it could be called that - during the interview, too. "He's sitting right over there," she said. Sure enough, he was at a table just across the room. Her children will join her in New York City, she said. Also, having passed a sign in the hall labeled "American Idols Live massage room," we had to ask: Is this for real? "It's real, because we can get really, really stressed," Lil said. "We are in a different city probably every day." They also can get someone to do their nails, too, she said. That aside, they also kick back by trying to go to dinner together, if possible; a bunch of Idols also went to see "Bruno" the other day. "Me and the girls, boy, we were gone," she said. "That movie is crazy, it is crazy - but it's so funny. We were screaming laughing."

Here's Lil talking about her old job as a bill collector:

Megan: She's been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately and has found that writing in rhymes helps her - then, she'll try singing it. This is not at all out of character, as it turns out, because during Saturday's concert she burst out with a surprisingly cool and distinctive little rap during the pre-intermission performance of "Beggin'." She also likes what she calls "screaming music" - groups like Cradle of Filth (!) and the Used - although she's fully aware that isn't preferred listening among "AI" concert attendees, who are largely middle-aged women and their husbands and families. But, she stressed, she appreciates the fans of the show.

Check out how dramatically Megan's life has changed in the last year, then listen to her thoughts on the shiny hot-pink outfit she wears during her tour set: