As you’ve come to expect each week here on PopWatch, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland sat down with EW to discuss Wednesday night’s Top 8 performance show right after the music ended. For a decade, 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 “Songs from the Movies” show, including how Haley Reinhart told Byrd after the show how she’d made a huge mistake with her song choice, why James Durbin was like a kid in a candy store with his choice of “Heavy Metal,” and which of the contestants were most steadfast in their song choices, despite the urgings of Jimmy Iovine.
PAUL McDONALD — “Old Time Rock and Roll” (Bob Seger, Risky Business)
DB: I thought he brought a great fun to the song. He’s the kind of guy who enjoys rocking the house, and I guess that’s why that song set so well with him. Paul strikes me that he’s just glad to be anywhere. When he performs, he’s very adventurous and very comfortable in his skin. Once again, he was comfortable in his skin. I think Paul did a great job, he had a good time, and that’s what counts.
I loved that he was wearing a black version of the white suit. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s loving life, and you wear what you can, you sing what you can, while you can. Of his list of songs, that was the perfect one for him.
LAUREN ALAINA — “The Climb” (Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana: The Movie)
MO: Wow, isn’t that crazy? Lauren, she was the only one who knew what she wanted to sing. She went in happy, everyone was happy, Jimmy happy, she was so happy, knew she wanted to do it from the beginning, when she knew it was movie week. She just killed the song.
There was a little doubt going on today. She ended up being so perfect, we just had to talk her through it. She’s just getting more and more confident every week now. We forget that she’s 16 years old, and she’s so musically way beyond. I liked that she struggled a little bit this afternoon with it because, tonight, she nailed it. I couldn’t believe it. I just think she took it away. First of all, I think that was a Tricky Stewart track, and he just took it completely out of the world. It doesn’t even sound like a Miley Cyrus song anymore. It was so fantastic.
STEFANO LANGONE — “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men, Boomerang)
DB: Stefano went through many emotions this week, in terms of what he’s bringing and how he brings it. He wasn’t defeated by being in the bottom last week, but it was about his determination. Stefano was like, “I don’t like being in the bottom.” That guy is such a fighter. I’ve said that to him, and he said, “Byrd, I used to box when I was younger.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” Because everything, his demeanor, is like a boxer. I was teasing him because he was singing his song like he was punching in rehearsal today. I said, “I need you to smooth it out a little bit.” And he did.
He has worked so hard at undoing some bad habits. It is what what has been said of him every week: being disconnected from the audience. And it’s more than just, “Open your eyes.” Which every way I’m wired, I’m able to say, “When you do this, that translates as being disconnected.” I watch him be a sponge and take it all in, and when he nails it, I said, “Now that’s connected.” That’s huge for him. It took Carrie Underwood a long time to undo her stuff and look at how she’s soaring. Jennifer Hudson! It took her weeks for her to undo. She used to have what I call a “gospel jaw.” That has to go! Just little nit-picky things to get them to their greatness as artists.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “I Cross My Heart” (George Straight, Pure Country)
MO: I’m so proud of that boy. I knew that he wanted to do that song originally, “I Cross My Heart.” But when we went to Interscope, I think they just wanted to look for other songs for him, and he is so quick musically, he literally picked up that other song so quick. But it just didn’t feel true to him, but I love that he spoke up and said something about it. That’s what ridiculous. I’m almost three times his age, and I don’t know if I would have done that. He knew.
He’s getting to know who he is as an artist. It’s really remarkable to see someone like that. We gave him some new melodies for the song. I love giving the kids new melodies to work with, but he did so much of it himself. He put that little turn-around ending on it. He’s really getting to know who he is an artist, which is amazing. I was so happy since it was so well received. It wasn’t as well known as a song for me, but as soon as I heard it, it was one of those songs that I loved. I’m happy he went back to it, I’m happy that he stayed true to who he is, and he just trusts his instinct. I have to comment that boy for sticking up for what he felt.
CASEY ABRAMS — “Nature Boy” (Nat King Cole, The Boy with Green Hair)
MO: Casey came up to the third floor rehearsal room and he did that arrangement of “Nature Boy” for us, and I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. Totally daring, totally different, I just loved it. We went to Jimmy Iovine, and Jimmy was not excited about it, and he did go and do another song, there was another song. Saturday he called me, we talked for a long time, and he was going back and forth. He gave the other song a whirl, and I told him that if he still wasn’t happy with the other song on Monday, we can change anything. We want the contestants to be happy ultimately.
It was so daring for him. It could have gone the complete other way, but I totally was confident, because I knew he was going to pull it off. If he would have done the other song that he was going to do, it would have just put him in the middle of the road. I think he felt like anybody could have sung the other song, whereas this was just totally him, totally risky, totally paid off. But I was so confident in the beginning because I knew he would sell it and he would feel great about it, even though he couldn’t sell it to Jimmy.
HALEY REINHART — “Call Me” (Blondie, American Gigolo)
DB: Haley just learned a huge lesson. She and I just talked about it. You saw a lot of discrepancies this week, in terms of what people were choosing to sing. She admits that it wasn’t her first choice, and she’s feeling stung by it, if I may use that word. And a little stunned. The lesson she learned is that she has to stick to her guns and trust and believe.
The thing that shocked me was that, after she finished singing and the judges made their remarks, I went to her and she said, “Byrd, I knew.” I said, “You knew what?” “I knew I should have changed my song.” I said, “Haley, honey! Well, you learned a lesson.” The lesson is: Go with your gut. I can’t tell you what the other song was, because she might sing it another time. She actually chose the song two weeks ago, and it wasn’t eligible. Then it came up again, and she was so excited to sing it. It was discussed, and then she was like, “Okay, let me try this other song.” And that’s the lesson that she learned.
I hope she survives it. It’s what the judges said: She killed the last two weeks. Like Jimmy Iovine said, she had a slow start, but when she hit “Bennie and the Jets” and last week, she was in full motion. She looked magnificent, she sang it great, but I was stunned when she said, “I knew I should have picked the other song…” I didn’t chastise her. I just said, “You just learned a huge lesson.”
We learn lessons two ways: the easy way and the hard way. And I think she learned this one the hard way. It puts hair on your chest, it makes you stronger. It won’t kill her. I have to honestly say to you, after she said that, I said, “What are you choosing for next week?” She said, “No.” And I said, “Start thinking of your song for next week right now! Because it’s going to start all over again.”
JACOB LUSK — “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Roberta Flack cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s original, Pursuit of Happyness)
DB: Nigel Lythgoe suggested “Bridge” over a month ago, but when it came up again, Jacob chose it. He had a problem with the interpetation of the song. He thought it was too late. I said, “No, church man, let’s just figure it’s not a Pentacostal church vibe, it’s an Episcopal church vibe.” The song stands on its own, so he and I really worked together to make him settle into his song choice. He felt that the track felt light, so he was singing it too lightly. So we had a great balancing act this week about how his vocal fits with his production. That was a huge lesson for him, as well.
He hit the sweet spot hardcore. What he’s learning as an artist is how to mix the two works, how to mix what the gospel is and how to put that on a record that makes it appealing for people who are non-believers. And that’s a huge lesson, and we talk about that. He wants to represent who he is and what he brings musically, but what he’s also learning is that there’s more than one world in terms of musicality and musicianship. I think he learned that lesson. He kept saying, “Byrd, I can’t feel it, I can’t feel it, I can’t feel it!” I told him you have to connect what this lyric means to your life. He was trying to connect that he didn’t have anything thumping. Let’s go back and look at the lyric and what this song is. Stick to the melody, and we find some thrilling moments. He found some thrilling moments. It was a huge lesson in artistry.
JAMES DURBIN — “Heavy Metal” (Sammy Hagar, Heavy Metal)
MO: I thought it was the most fun performance. I thought it was his best performance since he’s been on the show, and I told him that when he did it yesterday at rehearsal. He was like watching a little 5-year-old kid up there, he was so excited, it was like you’d just taken him to the candy store. I love what he did with it. He knew he wanted that song in the beginning. He said to Jimmy Iovine and Will.i.am, with no disrespect, I’m gonna prove to you that I can do that song, and it’s not going to be like an ’80s rock sound-alike. He was headstrong about it in a very respectful way. The boy is amazing.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky