'American Idol' behind the scenes: 'Idol' coaches talk the Top 11 taking on Elton John -- EXCLUSIVE


Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox; Kevin Winter/Getty Images (2)

From Naima’s reggae risk to Casey’s stripped-down shot at redemption, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland had a great deal to say about the Top 11 (take two) performances for Elton John week. For 10 seasons on Idol, 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 learn how best to shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. As we have for the Top 13, 12, and 11 (take one), we spoke with Byrd and Orland backstage at Idol HQ after the show about the contestants and their musical journey this past week. Check out their thoughts below: 

SCOTTY McCREERY — “Country Comfort”
MICHAEL ORLAND: He was a little freaked out about Elton John week. He didn’t know what to do. But when he found that one, he was beside himself. He actually came up to me the day before, and said, “This is the first week I am so excited about my song choice, and I’m definite about what I want to do.” He’s not always. He has to find something that will fit his genre and we can tailor make to him. This song was just perfect, and I think it was a great pick for him. He went into the week feeling really confident. I thought he had that on stage tonight. In his makeover, when they did the fashion shoot, he had a new hair do, and all of a sudden he had some hair product in there. He said yes to hair product!

NAIMA ADEDEPO — “I’m Still Standing”
DEBRA BYRD: She immediately connected to that [song]. She had no doubt. It struck her in terms of her position in the competition, having been in the wild card and having been in the bottom. [Smiles] It was very literal, there was no subtext there. Don Was, the producer of her track, hired Ziggy Marley’s band to play on that track in the studio. It’s so authentic, I was very surprised by the responses from the judges. You can’t get any more authentic than that. She wasn’t putting it on.  It’s where she lives. Everybody’s waiting for her to do reggae; she did it, and everybody’s like, “Eh.” I’m a bit baffled. But Steven Tyler loved it.

It was a risk. The fact that she sang it in the [reggae] patois is a whole other risk she took. I give her a medal for bravery. We’ve never had a contestant do that. Don Was turned to me and said, “Has anything like this ever been done on American Idol?” I said, “No, this is a virginal experience.” So I really hope that people embrace it.

PAUL McDONALD – “Rocket Man”
MO: All of these contestants have been singing an awful lot. Paul has definitely not 100 percent of his voice right now. I thought he used what he had of it. He definitely was suffering vocally, but he has one of those voices for me that it doesn’t matter. I said, “Use that rasp.” It sounds so good on him.

I think they did a different arrangement for his iTunes track. I did this arrangement with him for just his on stage thing. I think his iTunes track turned into something different and bigger. I know when we got to band rehearsal yesterday, he said, “I just want to take it back down to where you and I put it originally.” So we just stripped down to piano, guitar and him.

PIA TOSCANO — “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
MO: On Thursday, I walk around to all these kids asking them “Can you think about what you want to do for next week?” It’s very hard, because Thursday is just a stressful day. Nobody knows who’s going home; everybody thinks it’s them. This was Pia’s original choice for what she wanted to do. She was the one who said, “I really want to do it with a little bit of a beat and a choir.” That was on Thursday. Then we thought, oh, we better find you an up tempo song. But I thought she killed that song tonight. She’s also exhausted vocally. She used everything she had, and she was better than she was at dress rehearsal. I was so happy it went that well for her.

I said something to her about the Clay Aiken version [of the song]. She reminded me that we also did the song on the [season 5] finale. She knew there was a history of that song on the show. She still didn’t care.

She already gave away what she’s going to do on the show next week [the Ike and Tina Turner hit “River Deep, Mountain High”]. I want to go on the record and say she’s doing an up tempo next week. I’ve already got a few ideas of what we can do with it, so we’re going to come in and try to work on that tomorrow, if she’s one of the people who can handle it, which I know she will be.

DB: What he went through this week was very deep for him. He wanted to make sure that he connected with the audience as the judges requested. I really had to spend time with him breaking down what that meant in terms of how he performs on a weekly basis. Up until he was performing it on the stage tonight, he was really still trying to process how to make that work. He undid a lot of stuff that, though it may have seemed more subtle — it was just things that he had accumulated over the years. It’s beyond singing with his eyes closed. He performs, as opposed to connecting. He does something physically that [exec producer] Ken Warwick calls the two-step. We had to undo his two-step. He doesn’t even know he does it. If you watch his past performances, you see him take one, two, stop, singsingsing; one, two, stop, singsingsing. And he got rid of it; totally dumped it this evening. And he was doing it this afternoon. It was really, really hard.

LAUREN ALAINA – “Candle in the Wind”
DB: She shared with me that she has in her room an entire Marilyn Monroe collection. Now, did she connect with the song? It took her a while, because she did not connect to the song [at first], and she was very upset about it. There was a lot of handholding. She wanted to make it work, and she doubted it. We talked about it line by line, what this song is, and the subtleties of it. I said to Lauren, “Have you ever Googled Marilyn Monroe?” She said, “No, but I’ve got all her dolls.” I said, “That’s not what I asked you. Do you know about the ache, the hurt, the gorgeousness, the tragedy? Do you know that part of her heart?” She said [looking sheepish], “Not really.” I said, “That’s homework.”

One thing that struck me as very funny, before she was able to connect with it, she was doubting it, and I said, “You sing songs about Santa Claus, you’ve never met him.” She said, “Yeah. That’s a good analogy! I can work with that!” [Smiles] It was the oddest thing to me. She felt a connection. That was a huge turnaround for her. I applaud her. She worked her heinie off.

JAMES DURBIN — “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
MO: I actually worked on it with him last Thursday. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He came up to me and said, “I already know what I want to do with my song.” He told me the whole staging idea. We did it in, like, five minutes. He was, like, “I want a piano that goes up in flame.” He wanted it. I’m not kidding. That was all his idea. It was not even a real piano; it was a shell with the flames in it. There was real piano and a fire one. I thought Ray [Chew] should get a little acting award, because I really looked like he was playing it. He even stood up for that one.

THIA MEGIA — “Daniel”
DB: We talked about the melancholy of [the song]. Because Thia, even though she’s 16, she’s performed a lot. I find that on American Idol, when you’ve performed as a kid, you get stuck in a box: “Now I’m going to perform!” And you turn it on, because mommy or daddy asked you to. Diana DeGarmo [the season 3 runner-up] had that exact same thing. Diana could turn it on and leave the song. Literally, I could do this [waves hand in front of face] and she wouldn’t be there. With Thia, she’s got a bit of that where she goes into remote control. She did it one time during dress rehearsal, and she had to come out of that. She let her heart and her brother and the melancholy of missing him take over.

CASEY ABRAMS — “Your Song”
MO: It was his total idea to do that song. He knew he wanted to do just piano. He didn’t want anything else in it. He said, “I just want to sit, and sing.” He did want to do anything. We got to work with these unbelievable producers every week. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, because I got to work hands on with these people. When Casey was at Interscope [talking with Jimmy Iovine], I was there [playing] with him. Casey was singing for Jimmy and [producer] Rodney [Jerkins], and Rodney’s like, “All right, that’s the perfect song for you. And I found my piano player.” [Points at himself.] “You.” I was so happy. Here’s the thing. Ray Chew is a genius, and we love having him, he’s so easy to work with. I get to work with the kids every day, hands on, so I know every little musical thing they do. There’s no tempo to that [song]; I was just breathing with him. I was so happy he had a great week, and I got to share it with him.

JACOB LUSK — “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”
DB: I think there were only 20 songs on the song list. Jacob went off of it because he wanted to sing “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — that song wasn’t even included on the list, because Robbie Rosen sang it [as his wild card song].

In the American Idol process, it takes a while for things to settle in for all of them, getting rid of habits they walked in the door with. In terms of pulling Jacob back, last week, he said “I don’t think I’m doing enough,” and I said, “Trust me, you are.” I said, “You’ll feel as if you’re doing absolutely nothing.” I said, “I want you to know that there are charts. We as singers sing these songs, and the orchestrator creates a chart where we don’t have to do anything except let the chart do the work.” So when Jacob chose “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” that’s what Tricky did. Tricky gave him an arrangement — it had muscle, it had drama, it had key changes, all these wonderful elements.

HALEY REINHART — “Benny and the Jets”
DB: This is one of those things, on this TV show, season in and season out, you hear “song choice, song choice, song choice.” It paid off for her [this week] big time. “Benny and the Jets” is one of the coolest tunes that Elton John has ever recorded. It’s got the coolest groove, and the fact that that young woman made it work — the female energy of it all — I think is extraordinary. She got it, she knew what she wanted to do, and she was able to stretch out in it and made it thriller. The fact that after having a whole show of melancholy and wistfulness, here she comes slamming this song. She couldn’t lose.

Read more:
‘American Idol’ recap: Haley and the Jets
‘American Idol’ on the scene for the Top 11 (take 2) performance night: Scotty’s grandma and James’ flaming piano
Behind the scenes at EW’s photo shoot!
All ‘Idol’ on-the-scene reports
All ‘American Idol’ recaps
EW.com’s ‘American Idol’ Central

Comments (69 total) Add your comment
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  • Nene Hates Star

    I liked James, Haley, Scotty, Naima and Pia this week.

    • Pearlie

      I’ll go with James, Scotty, Haley, Paul–that’s it. Jacob was ATROCIOUS. Lauren is reaching “goat girl” territory–ugh, her attempts at her high notes are unlistenable. Stefano–yikes. Pia is a huge bore–even Thia was better than her this week. Naima and PillowHead Egomaniac Casey need to go.

      • yes

        agreed, you nailed it

      • PN

        Jacob was good, but it’s really going to be hard to top what he did last week. That’s going to be a tough sell to the voting public when you compare his performances.

    • Zakry

      If you think Jacob was atrocious, you need new ears.

      • J

        Z…I’d argue that youre the one who needs your ears checked. The guy is TERRIBLE.

      • marlowe32

        Jacob is consistently out of pitch. I am a musician and it sometimes amazes me that people cannot hear what is often so obvious to me.

    • Tina

      heather morris(glee) was in the audience!!!!!

  • Lily

    Great to read this Idol Coaches Talk. Wish they had this talks during Season 8 (Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey etc)…

    • PN

      ….Or Season 9 last year, becuase they would have chewed up those singers and their mostly dull performances on TV! Those vocal coaches would have been so completely hateful, it wouldn’t have been published.

  • forrest

    best insight into idol that I’ve seen all season – excellent info from the inside – thanks!

  • Esme

    Re Naima: “Steven Tyler liked it?” Doesn’t Byrd realize that Tyler likes EVERYTHING? Big compliment!

    • TorontoTom

      The judges LOVE EVERYONE. They are obviously being directed by the bosses to pimp every contestant and give the impression that this is the best season ever. It isn’t. The contestants are okay but nowhere near as AMAZING as the judges keep trying to make us think. The new judging panel started the season off on the right track but they are losing any and all credibility quickly. The more they tell me how AMAZING each singer is, the more I resent the manipulation and disconnect from the show.

      • TorontoTom

        P.S. Think they could officially retire the word PITCHY once and for all?!?

      • Peggy Sue

        I know what you mean but it’s been said before, when you are live at the show, it all sounds completely differnt. Also I think the judges appreciate what each singer brings, and that’s what they see. I too would like a little more constructive criticism – Randy’s trying – but I also think they love each singer so much and see their potential – I don’t mind that. We can judge for ourselves.

      • Zakry

        But they don’t love everyone. Pay closer attention. Just because they are blunt like Simon doesn’t mean they aren’t constructive.

    • PN

      I wonder if they really like those performances or are they just doing it for the TV cameras? Jennifer sounds the most honest with her comments, she’s fun, giddy and upbeat. Steven seems to say beautiful every time. I think they each have their personal favorite singer in that group of 11 but don’t want to say it to anybody.

  • dctoronto

    Wow Pia doing River Deep Mountain High next week. Very hard song. It took Tina Turner hours when recording it just to get the “When I was a little girl” intro right.

    • Chichi

      She is going to do the Ceine DIon lite version, no way in hell can Pia pull of Tina’s.

      • PN

        No I think she’s going to do Tina’s style! Great singer as she is, she needs a break from singing those Celine Dion-styled ballads. Nobody can do it like Tina’s, but I’m sure that Pia will give a good spin of that song!

    • Mary Ann

      I love the glee version with Mercedes and Santana, including the dancing. It would be really different for her if she could pull of a similar arrangement.

    • Templar

      If Pia is doing that song next week, what is the theme?

  • Peggy Sue

    What a great week it was! Of course with Casey’s save everyone was excited to see the entire 11 again, and to see what he would change. I liked his “no growling” transformation. Also loved James’ performance, so him. Haley is a jazz singer and having her sing on the piano and do her thing was really exciting. I like Jacob but not last night – he looked like he was going to cry the entire time, I don’t like all the theatrics, like him much better when he TRIES to underplay it and then builds.

  • PK

    I love Scotty…there’s just something about him.

    Pia, I loved Clay Aiken’s many versions so much better. Again, there is something about her that just rubs me the wrong way.

    Sometimes I wonder what the judges are hearing…definitely not what I hear at home.

    • Mimi kahn

      Pk, i echo your sentiments. Pia is so boring to listen to. She likes to sxream every song she sings. I don’t even like celine seabiscuit dion.

  • joy carolino bush

    Pia looks like mohammed atta.

  • Mimi kahn

    Naima was not praised enough. She did a tremendous job. Pia is so overrated. This bores me to tears. Haley should be eliminated tomorrow night.

    • TankGirl

      I voted last night for Naima and I never vote..it was the only song that I didn’t feel I had heard eleventy billion times before!

      • KristenV

        Agree. Enjoyed the “change-up.”

  • martha

    Did Sir Elton watch the show? I’d like know HIS opinion. Haley did better but it still seemed like HSM4 to me. Oy, Stefano, ever since I heard the misheard lyric “hold me closer Tony D’Anza” that song changed for me! But James blew it out again, he’s the real Rocket Man. Jacob needs to listen to the advice he’s being given, he’s too… ick.

  • liv craner

    I don’t see why people love niamoi. She can’t sing and she weird. The comment randy made about halley and how she’s the best WHAT ?? She can’t sing either. Those two need to leave. My three pics are Thia Jacob Scotty. Pias a Frod,fake and is cracked up like she’s the queen in this seasons idol.my personal fav is Scotty.

  • SD Tim

    Naima needs to get more credit! She really has an artistic vision and takes pretty huge risks each performance. I’m kinda bummed about Casey – he was my favorite during the auditions and now I’m not so sure. He was wise to tone it down last night, but his “Your Song” wasn’t stellar for me. It was okay – he had some pitch problems and still managed to “growl” a little bit. The one thing I miss this season are the judges pushing people to go outside their genre. I don’t think Scotty could have ever gotten away with country every week if Simon were still around! Or Pia with the “big ballad.” Interesting season!

    • Yo

      I agree about Naima. She is the boldest Idol contestant I have ever seen and gets no praise for it. She takes major risks, so unusual for a competition.

      • Michael

        There is a big difference between taking risks and making those risks work. I thought this week was a bold choice but a complete and utter failure for Naima. I’m disappointed because I thought she could do amazing things on this show.

      • Kat

        I actually thought the risk worked this week. I wasn’t a huge fan of what seemed like random African dance in last week’s performance, but I thought this week’s was really interesting and enjoyable.

    • Natalie

      Naima has a flat voice and uses her “act” to make up for it. I can see her as a pop star, but the fake accent last night was too much. I was a fan of hers until she did Umbrella. I don’t find her act innovative at all, but expect she will go far on the show anyway. She could be a pop star, and that’s really what Idol is looking for.

  • pjr

    The worst performances were Paul, Jacob, Naima, Casey, Haley. I knew the judges would not diss Casey since they saved him last week. First Jacob performance that I thought was AWFUL. Naima did not get the reggae accent and I agree it was corny. Paul floundered with his performance, but he is cute. Haley, I don’t know why she is here.

    • AmazingCrazyCryin

      Really? Haley? Man, and I’m being honest, but after hearing Bennie last night, then re-visiting her performance on youtube today, she nailed it and made it her own. Does not deserve to go this week. Not sure what you heard. But to each its own.

  • Abb J

    Naima deserves props for having the guts to do reggae and do it well. She’s entertaining, real and always puts her heart into her performance. Love her!

  • Todd

    I LIKE a lot of these contestants, but when it comes to actually voting, I ask which of them I’d actually pay $$$ to see in concerts (as a lead, not on the Idols tour) or which full albums I’d buy. That list is pretty short: Naima (because she DOES have a good voice and she’s an original performer) and Casey. Both of them could keep a concert interesting for beyond three songs. James will find great success a la Daughtry (with a band, not as a solo act), and Pia and Lauren are great as well. Scotty will cut a country CD that will sell like hotcakes. But for me, dawg, you know, just for you for me…Naima and Casey are the ones that are interesting to a level that’s worth the $$ in my wallet.

    • mscisluv

      This is the first year that I’ve sought out the iTunes tracks the morning after the show, and I have actually paid for a couple of Casey’s songs (“Your Song” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”). I also bought Paul’s version of “The Tracks Of My Tears” (which, by the way, is really good!).

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