Interview: Clay Aiken
Wed, 14 May 2008 17:28:00
Clay Aiken is a guy who proves that winning isn't everything. After getting his start as the runner-up to Ruben Studdard in season two of American Idol, his success and stardom has far surpassed the "winner" America chose at the time. To date, Aiken has sold well-over a million records over the course of his three-album career. And with his latest album of original material, On My Way Here, he is poised to sell even more copies—and not just to his devoted, and somewhat obsessive, fans, who call themselves his "Claymates."
Before a performance of the Broadway hit Spamalot, where Aiken stars as Sir Robin, we caught up with the double threat (he's a self-confessed terrible dancer) to talk about his new album and current Broadway experience. In the course of our interview we found that Aiken is a straight-to-the-point, no-nonsense kind of guy, who knows what he wants and gets the job done.
So, how is Spamalot going for you? You must be so busy right now.
Almost over. I'm busier now with album stuff, but I've got seven more shows.
Are you going to miss it when you're done?
I'm sure I will to some extent; it's been a lot of fun. It's been a great experience. I'm glad I did it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.
Did you find that when you started that show that you had to retrain yourself to be a Broadway performer, as opposed to just a singer or a pop star?
Yeah, as far as being on stage though, the only difference is that you have to communicate with the audience—when it comes to being in a show like this. I mean, training for me was more like getting my body the way that they wanted.
I've heard you say that you're not the best dancer.
Oh, I still am not. I've learned how to cheat, how to fake it pretty well.
All you need to do is "sell it." Now you're focusing on the album, but would ever go back to theater or Broadway in the future?
I think it's a possibility. We're not looking for it, but it was quite a joy.
When you were working on the record, you were simultaneously doing the show. Do you think that your Broadway experience somewhat shaped or influenced the new record at all?
Well, probably not at all.
You can keep it separate?
Oh, yeah. They're very separate.
Your first single, "On My Way Here," was written by Ryan from OneRepublic. How did you find that song? What made it stand out to not only be the lead single but the name of the album? Is it at all because of the success of OneRepublic?
Well, we found this song the same way we found all the other ones. We found it through a publisher and it had some great lyrics and a great message to it, and it was something immediately that I saw on the album.
Did that set the tone for the other songs that you chose for the record?
Absolutely. When I think about the theme for the whole album, this song pops out, and the experiences and all that. We decided that we wanted all the songs on the album to take up that same tone. All the songs are kind of about someone growing up and going through experiences and finding out who they are.
You've said that the album is kind of a road map of the past five years of your life, chronicling how you got to where you are now. Is it a very personal record in that respect, or can other people going through their own "coming of age" relate?
It's both. It's a coming of age [album]—coming to what an adult is record—and as much as it is now, I'm doing the same myself. There are parts of the songs that are very personal.
You're 29, right? So you're on the eve of 30?
Unfortunately, I am.
Did any feelings of getting older affect the album? Are you nervous about turning 30 at all?
No, I don't think so.
You get your songs from your publisher and pick and choose from what you're given, but is there any musician in particular with whom you'd like to work?
“[A song] either hits me, or it doesn't. If I have to try too hard, then we shouldn't be doing it.”
Well, then as a singer who uses what someone else has written, do you ever have any ambitions to write on your own—Or with a team; even something as simple as writing your own lyrics?
No. I kind of feel like there are people that write that. Let them do it. There are people who do that and they do it for their own personal gain. They want to write a song so they can make a little more money and get a few more points on their album. I don't care to do that. I'd rather have 12 great songs than two great songs written by other people and 10 great songs written by me.
Right. Most singers are just a vehicle, but then you get some singers who do feel like they can write their own songs and they'll be great! But those are usually the flops.
Right. In theory.
Another song that stuck out was "The Real Me" by Natalie Grant, who is a Christian musician. Apparently when you heard it, you said, "That's about God." You grew up a Christian, and most people know a little about your faith and convictions, but do you feel compromised turning it into a romantic song as opposed to a worship song?
They all mean the same thing to me; they definitely will for other people to. It's not a love song either. Other people think it's about their mother or their dogs.
So, it doesn't matter how it's perceived, even if you want it to come across a certain way?
Absolutely. It should all be interpretable.
Your producer brought songs to you that you called "left of center." Most people perceive you as clean cut, but where do you feel like you fit in pop? It's a genre that is constantly changing its standards. Do you feel like you need a bit of edge to stay relevant?
I'm totally happy where we are. I think that the biggest trap that people can fall into is trying to sing songs that are[n't] great [for them], and not finding songs that are great for them. I think that's what we've finally done on this album. We've done the best we can to make sure that the songs that we've found were good for me.
The album has a lot of variety: jazz to your standard pop and some rock. Are you trying to show off your versatility and range? How does Clay Aiken find a song that is going to suit you well?
We don't. We find a song we think is good. And then it's just kind of gut instincts, really. I think we found songs this time we thought were great songs, and then we'd sing through them one time—and then, you know what? That would be good for someone else; it doesn't fit right for me. It's got to be right, and it's got to be believable.
Well, now you're a pro at being believable with all your acting experience.
It's not about knowing. That's the thing! It cannot be something that you're acting.
Well do you find that since you have more acting experience now that it's hampered your genuine approach to singing?
You know, it's not something that takes much thought. It becomes natural. It either hits me, or it doesn't. If I have to try too hard, then we shouldn't be doing it.
You've refered to American Idol as high school, and keeping it in the past and using that learning experience. It seems that now the kids get a lot more scrutiny with the emergence of gossip and celebrity blogs, where anyone can be a critic. How did you deal with that when you were on the show?
I would think that anyone that thinks they had it harder than we had it—if you think that this American Idol now is more pressed than American Idol in season two—I could not speak for them.
So you were the guinea pigs?
We had two people who were kicked off our show. We had two other people who had mug shots put online. It was the biggest press shoot of American Idol ever since the beginning—and it's never been bigger. Our show was much tougher! We didn't have a band to sing to.