Continuing last week’s exclusive, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland chatted with EW following the Top 12 performance show. For 10 seasons, 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 “Year the Contestants Were Born” show, including what Thia needs to accomplish to make it to the later rounds, which 1980s song Orland thinks is going to reemerge as a hit thanks to Idol, how Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t Casey’s first song choice, and why Casey got to play an instrument.
NAIMA ADEDAPO — “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (Tina Turner)
DB: This morning, because she’s first in the show, she was the first to rehearsal. She did a runthrough, and I said, “Are you awake?” She said, “Not really.” This was at 8:30 in the morning, and I told her, “I want to be the voice of reality. This is your moment and your time to rehearse. Now please take advantage of it.” The second time she [sang], she pulled herself up. She found her swagger.
She acknowledged that her pitch was under, and I’ve given her intonation things to pull her pitch up. She did it last week, and I guess this week it just went out the window. I’m sure we will be talking about that at [the next] rehearsal.
Also, this was the first season they’ve ever been using in-ear monitors [like Naima used on stage]. You have to get used to them. If you put one in both ears, it’s very isolating. You can make the request [for what audio you hear in the monitors]. You can hear your voice. If your song is keyboard-driven, you can puts keys in there. If it’s guitar-driven, you can have your voice and guitar in there. And if it makes you feel off balance, you can take one out. If you look at the show again, you’ll see that most of [the contestants] have one in, or they chose to not use it at all.
PAUL McDONALD — “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (Elton John)
DB: Paul was having a bit of vocal problems. On Friday, he looked at me and said, “I have nothing.” It always feels like crap, as a singer, when you know you have to deliver a show, and not even taking into consideration a singer who has to stand in front of 30 million people and be told that you’re fabulous or you suck.
He didn’t have much voice. I didn’t think he had sinusitis. He had, “I’m so tired, my voice is tired.” But I think he did great. He was having some melody struggles, but he pulled it off.
THIA MEGIA — “Colors of the Wind” (Vanessa Williams)
MO: One of the tricks to this competition is to show something a little different every single week. She does need to change it up. [If and when] she makes it through this week, I think she really needs to find something up and fun and youthful. She’s got a gorgeous voice and a great sense of pitch, but they want to see her changing it up. She’s got to do that.
But she had this beautiful song ["Colors of the Wind"]. Rock Mafia, who produced her track, helped take it out of that Disney pocket. She didn’t want to make it sound like a movie soundtrack. There’s only so much you can do with that song, but I just thought they made such a great track.
Also, what [songs] were there in 1995? To find a song for a girl who’s that age — there’s so much she cannot sing about. You can’t sing about your love, or [quoting a Bonnie Raitt verse] “Lay down with me and tell me no lies.” You can’t sing that at her age, unless she’s singing to her stuffed animal or something. It’s so hard to find an age-appropriate song for her.
JAMES DURBIN — “I’ll Be There for You” (Bon Jovi)
MO: He has iron lungs. He sang this morning at 8:50 the same way he sang today at 5:00. It’s ridiculous. I told him, “I can’t believe how good you sound,” and he said, “I haven’t even warmed up yet!” He knows how to change stuff up. This kid finds things he wants to change up before anybody can give him a suggestion. Like where he put that scream in today — he just made it totally his own.
HALEY REINHART — “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (Whitney Houston)
DB: The judges talked about, “Who are you? You did country last week.” But she’s many things. We’re not just one thing, and it becomes frustrating because when you’re on a TV show like this, you want to show everything you can do, and the record industry wants to put you in a lane — in one slot. So I applaud her for being courageous enough to do that.
She didn’t have vocal problems, but her voice got tired. Just before the show, I went upstairs and said, “It’s okay. You sound fine. You only have to do this one more time — a minute and 40 seconds.” When your voice is not at a high percentage, you start doubting everything, and I did have to pull her back from a doubting moment just before she performed.
STEFANO LANGONE — “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Simply Red)
DB: Before the show, he took two steps back and said to me, “I’m not going to sing the high note on the end.” I said, “Why not? You were magnificent yesterday at rehearsal, and you were magnificent today at rehearsal. Why would you not sing it?” And he just looked at me and said, “Oh, okay.”
I love Stefano because he has an incredible fighting spirit. During the rehearsals, he does not hold back. I guess that’s what made him doubt [himself], because your body gets tired from doing that constantly. So I said, “No, you’re fine. You can do it one more time.” And that’s what you saw. Afterward, he said, “I needed that pep talk just before I went on.” I love him because he kisses my hand and hugs me.
PIA TOSCANO — “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” (Whitney Houston)
MO: I wrote one note about Pia when I was watching the show: “Amazing.” [Record producer] Rodney Jerkins took that song, which could have been so dated, and made it a hit today. This song is going to be a huge hit again — this is my prediction, or I’m going to give up my job at the psychic hot-line. [Laughs] That was a danger song because the sound of the song is so Whitney. But Rodney got inspired by Pia’s voice and totally reinvented the track. The song’s a typical ballad, and he made it a little more up-tempo and dance-y.
My favorite thing about tonight, more than the song, was her whole [childhood] package. I got to see a vulnerable Pia, with her grandfather. It was really moving. I’ve seen [that vulnerability] when we’ve rehearsed, but I don’t think the American audience has seen it. Right now, she’s like this perfect package, and I’m so happy to see this human side of her. It made me cry, but I cry a lot.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Can I Trust You with My Heart” (Travis Tritt)
MO: We really worked on getting those high notes out of him. He’s not really sung from a middle-C to a high-C the last two weeks, and for him to sing that way tonight, it blew me away. From the chorus on, he started going above his comfort zone. Maybe only once the whole week did I hear him be unsure about it. And his mother was so excited about it, too. She’d say, “Thank you for pushing him!”
What else can he show? One of these weeks we’re going to hit a theme where there might not be a country song, or we’re going to try to find some song that fits in the category and make it country. But just bringing out those five extra notes in his range that we never got to hear him sing — in his style — was just thrilling for me tonight.
KAREN RODRIGUEZ — “Love Will Lead You Back” (Taylor Dayne)
MO: We need to keep working on giving that girl confidence. Last week she had a problem with hearing herself, and she was not feeling 100 percent [tonight]. Before the show, she showed me a couple riffs that she was going to do, and then she changed them and made them a little lower. And then Jennifer [Lopez] made that note about how if you don’t have those notes, switch it up. She’s the girl where I go, “Just make me feel something and give us goose bumps.” It’s not about having high notes. That’s a trick — you don’t have to have them. Just make contact with me, and make me feel it.
It’s hard for contestants when they peak early. When she did “Hero,” she made it so her own and so gorgeous, and I loved it when she switched back and forth [from English to Spanish]. She has to keep working on topping that. And she can — I know she has it in her.
CASEY ABRAMS — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)
DB: That wasn’t his first choice. He had chosen a Boyz II Men song [ed. note: Byrd wouldn’t name the specific song], and he changed it because it didn’t quite work on him when he sang it. He made the change on Sunday, and it worked out well for him. Nirvana has not been done on the show before because it’s a “family show.” I think the fear was that maybe it would have not been embraced by the audience demographic on the younger end and the older end. But I think he can surpass that. He got a great response. Jennifer [Lopez] said it was a little scream-y, but he did that last week and they loved it, and he did it the week before and they loved it.
They were told on Friday by [exec producers] Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick that this week, if they choose, they could play an instrument. This was the first week that they were allowed to play an instrument. Casey is so at ease playing [the bass] that there was no trepidation [on his part].
LAUREN ALAINA — “I’m the Only One” (Melissa Etheridge)
MO: She was walking around with a [flu] mask all day. I didn’t even know she got sick until yesterday. I thought she sang great today. All day, she sang it four times. But I could tell she was not feeling herself. I was saying to her before, “I don’t care if you have half of your voice — just use the whole half of it.” She was such a trouper, and I’m happy it went over so well. She didn’t have a great week last week. She settled [on Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine”] because it was the best song she found at the time, but she didn’t really commit to it.
I’m not big on [prefacing a performance by revealing you're sick] myself, but there was no denying that the girl was sick. She literally had to wear that mask everywhere she went. You couldn’t really hide that. But I am not one for making excuses. Don’t tell me you didn’t like your song, don’t tell me you couldn’t hear. Just go out there, be a trouper, and get judged.
JACOB LUSK — “Alone” (Heart)
DB: He wanted to take a chance this week. He had three songs, and he couldn’t decide which one. He chose “Alone” because there was one line he kept singing to me. In the chorus, [Byrd sings with an escalating pitch] “How do I get you alone?” He kept going, “How do I? How do I?” He said, “That’s why I want to sing this song — I could hear myself sing that.”