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Interview: Katharine McPhee – Singer and Songwriter

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Although 2006 was a very good year for Katharine McPhee, it spun her around at a break-neck speed, without much time to “see the forest for the trees.” And for good reason: fresh off her American Idol experience, in which she was the runner-up of Season Five, Katharine released a best-selling album, married the love of her life, and dabbled with her “other” love – acting.

An unexpected setback occurred in January 2008, however, when industry pressures led to Katharine McPhee’s abrupt break from RCA Records. Consequently, she spent the following months in “artistic hiding.” Once Katharine’s spirits were refreshed and her artistic confidence was renewed, she re-emerged a year later, with news that announced the signing of a contract with Verve Forecast Records and the forthcoming release of her sophomore effort, Unbroken. The album is set for release on January 5, 2010.

In the midst of a promotional campaign for Unbroken, Katharine McPhee managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on her love of “God Bless the Child,” the inspiration behind Unbroken, and the invaluable mentorship of David Foster and Andrea Bocelli.

Your mother was a cabaret singer and also a vocal coach. What early and lasting influences has she had on your career?

Thankfully, my mother wasn't one of those mothers that had me in voice lessons every day, working my voice. She was very smart, in that she let me really develop my talents on my own, just by being around music so much. But the thing that I remember and I was just thinking about it the other day was her telling me — even if I would sing for a little church function when I was six — she would always say to me, “Now, honey, remember, it's not about you. It's about the audience, and trying to move — even if it's just one person —singing your song and telling your story.” I remember thinking to myself the other night, “Oh, that was so cheesy.” And in a way, cliché, but also so true. Music is about touching people. That is something that I've carried with me.

It goes without saying that you got a lot of exposure to The Great American Songbook. And as fate would have it, you sang “God Bless the Child” when you auditioned for American Idol. Do you remember when you first heard that song? What kind of personal attachment do you have to that song?

I don't remember a specific time, but I remember just loving Billie Holliday and the way that she sang it with such passion. I just loved the way she told the story in the song – and it wasn't so much about the way she sang it, but it was her storytelling. I wish I could remember the first time I heard that song, but I was exposed to that kind of music at such a young age. That music comes so easily to me because I really was truly raised on The Great American Songbook. I know so many of those songs — they're just in my body.

While on Idol, you had the pleasure of having producer David Foster and singer Andrea Bocelli as guest mentors. And over the years, you have worked with them on various projects.

Yes. David Foster has become a really good friend of mine and just a great mentor in the business. He said to me very early on, “Find one person that you trust in this business, one person, and keep that person close to you. Always value their opinion and always listen to their opinion above others.” That was really good advice. I think I've done that. I actually ended up marrying the person that was that person for me, and I think my husband was actually present when he said that to both of us. So it was very helpful.

And what about Andrea? What kind of advice has he shared?

Well, one of the things he told me when we first started recording was, “You need to learn how to breathe.” [laughing] He said, “I can hear in your voice, it's very tired.” I said, “I am tired, Andrea. I've been singing so much.” He said, “Your voice is weak. You don't know how to sing yet. You'll learn one day.” He said, “When I first started to sing, I lost my voice all the time because I didn't know how to breathe.” The last time I saw him, he said, “You've learned to breathe.” I said, “Yeah, I think I have. I've been working on breathing and not holding all my attention while I'm singing in my throat.” Because, really, singing does come from your breath, and Andrea was one of those people who let me know that I was doing it improperly. And, not a bad person to learn it from.

I really loved your rendition of “The Prayer.” That song is difficult to sing on so many different levels, and there are a number of great names attached to that song, like Celine Dion. Did you feel a little intimidated to put your own touch on it?

You'd think I would be intimidated, but I think at that point in my life I was coming off of such a whirlwind experience that there wasn't a lot that intimidated me, because there was just no time — you were thrown into everything. There was no time to be intimidated. That's the best way I can explain it. And I probably should have been.

As I was reading through the various press releases for your sophomore album, one particular quote caught my eye: “Having a big voice, I had to realize that singing high notes didn’t equal artistry.” When did you have this epiphany? And how did that affect the musical style on Unbroken?

I guess it wasn't a one-moment epiphany. Part of it was going back, looking back at old performances on Idol and just thinking, “Ooh! Wow! That sounded a little screechy. Why didn't I lower the key one step?” Something as simple as that. Also, sometimes I see myself really struggling, working on a song. I'm just working on a particular note and it's so difficult and I know it shouldn't be this hard. Of course, singing is hard and it takes a lot of discipline and practice, but I'm thinking, “If I just lower the key a little bit, then it will be so much better.” All voices are different, and I think going to see other people perform– watching them — it wasn't even about the highest note they could sing. Yes, it's always incredible to see Celine Dion hit those high notes. The time you were most moved was when they did that one, little riff that links straight to your heart. And it just really moved you. So, I guess for me, it was just a process of really learning myself as an artist, because when I was on Idol I was trying to be an actress. I was going out on auditions, and I just sang all the time in the house. I wasn't quite sure how you get a record deal. I wasn't focused on going on Idol and saying, “If I make a record, I'm going to make this record.” I didn't have that knowledge of myself as a singing artist at that point in my life. Being able to go through the process of making my first record and then now making my second record, I've really had the time to figure out where I fit as an artist. So I think this record really reflects the process that I've gone through.

When you sit back and reflect on the recording process for Unbroken, is there a particular thought that comes to mind?


Yeah, my mind always travels back to Nashville. Doug Morris, the head of Universal — when I had a meeting with him, one of the first things he said is, “You're a great singer, and you should go to Nashville because they write songs that people can sing.” I thought, “Wow.” He said, “Not because you're making a country record, but because you want to sing songs that have things to say.” I thought, “Wow. Imagine that.” Which is funny, because I like country, but I've never been a country music singer. It was cool that I got to explore that little bit of a folky side of me, and it comes out on the record, I think. So I went to Nashville. I made quite a few trips there, two weeks at a time. I'd just literally get up every day and write songs with different people, different combinations, vetting out who I worked best with.

While in Nashville, you had the opportunity to work with some of Music City’s top songwriters. As a co-writer of six songs on Unbroken, what lessons did you learn about songwriting? And what noticeable changes have you seen in your songwriting skills?

Everybody works differently. Songwriting for me is very much about what kind of mood you're in. You can't really go into songwriting — because I tried it — when you're not in the mood to song write and to really go to that place. It's a lot of concentration. It's a lot of focus. So if you're not there, if you're not in that head space, it's really hard. I found that journaling and referring back to past journals really gave me inspiration – literally gave me inspiration – for song titles. That's the way I work best — working off of something that already exists. Of course, sometimes someone will just play a chord and then you start singing over it, and that's how a song begins, too. So I feel for me, the tip that I picked up is that there really should be no structure to songwriting. It should be an adventure and different every time.

Out of the six tracks that you wrote, “Unbroken” serves as the title track? What insight can you give me about behind the title and the song’s lyrics?

Well, “Unbroken” is a song that I wrote with Paula Cole. I wrote it based on a relationship. I decided to go with that song title for the title of my record because I felt like there were so many changes I went through and so many experiences: being new in the industry and getting married . I felt like, “Wow, I've so got it together.” Like, “I'm still whole and I'm not unbroken. I haven't been broken down yet.” Also, I just felt really free to explore a lot of things on this record. I looked up the definition of "unbroken," and one of the definitions was untamed and wild. So that was another angle of the word "unbroken" that I felt like I related to — the label [Verve] giving me the freedom to do what I really wanted.

Although “Unbroken” is the title track, “Had It All” was used as the lead single. Why do you think that song was the perfect introduction for this particular album?

Well, it was one of the first songs that came to me. This isn't one of the songs that I co-wrote, but I just think that I related with the theme of feeling like you could get something better and you could seek something more, and in reality, you already had everything you needed. The song is talking about a specific relationship, but I think in life, I, myself – and for so many people – it's human nature to always look for the next best thing. But that doesn't always end up being fulfilling. You're just shaking your head, thinking, “Man, if I had known then what I know now.” I feel like that speaks in my music and my experiences in the industry and in my relationships. It’s empowering having the knowledge now. So that's why I decided to go with this.

As you worked on this album, you traveled between Los Angeles, Nashville and Boston to write and record. Are there any particular songs that defined your work in each city?

Well, Nashville would be the song “Anybody's Heart.” Of course, I wrote tons of songs in Nashville, but there are only so many that end up on the record [laughing]. But I really love “Anybody's Heart” and “Last Letter.” In L.A. — “Surrender,” “It's Not Right” and “Had It All.” And in Boston, I recorded “Unbroken.”

The early promotional material describes this record as having “darker lyrics with a positive outlook.” And as you said, you have had a lot on your plate recently following your Idol experience, label change, and recent marriage. Do you think that there is a particular life experience that has defined this new stage of your career?

I don't think it's one thing. But it was important for me to find the joy in music again. I feel like that was the number one thing for me – just rediscovering the joy I have for singing. Obviously the label change and things like that had a lot to do with inspiring songs and the courage to — when something as crazy as coming off of a show like Idol and making a first record, then switching to another record label —get the desire to even make another record. I think a lot of that comes out in this record.

What sold you on signing with Verve?

They came to me. I was very familiar with Verve because Verve is a very well-known label. They have a great history of incredible, respectable artists that span way back. Of course, to be among that history of incredible singers, I was very honored to be a part of that. Also, the way that their business model is structured, in that they really develop their artists. They look at their artists as long-term, and not disposable. So much of the music industry today is in such a weird place, and so many artists are disposable with different record companies. If it doesn't hit right away, it's very difficult. Verve is just not like that. They're really into developing their artists and having relationships with their artists for the long-term, which is very comforting to an artist.

For more information on Katharine McPhee, visit her official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • http://www.katpedia.com/katpedianew.asp Simon

    Thanks for a great interview, one of the best with Katharine since her career began 4 years ago. It is nice to get some real information and not the usual publicity machine fluff.

  • katbeliever

    This was one of the best interviews done with Katharine ever. So many of the right questions were asked. With Katharine, since she’s pretty honest, that’s basically a lot of what you need to have a great interview with her, although most journalists don’t understand her well enough to ask those questions.

    A lot of her fans have picked up on the fact that her voice has improved significantly since idol. It was good to hear her talk about that. Also, her talking about wanting to record another album kind of shows, to me at least, the impact the first album experience kind of took on her. RCA didn’t understand how to package her as an artist, and although I think she instinctively knew, she just wasn’t as set about it. Her talking about Verve’s business model shows exactly how different it was than RCA, where she basically paid for the mistakes of its executives. And perhaps she never was right for them in the first place because she isn’t a fast food music artist.

    She definitely seems in her element with this record, though I hope she returns to the style of singing she once had where she’d go heavier on the melismas. Sure, she was a bit more untamed, and certainly over did it at times. But I think if she can marry some of that with what she’s learned since in terms of exercising control, she’ll basically find her optimal voice.

    Certainly what she’s put together now is something the public can embrace.

  • Bill

    “industry pressures led to Katharine McPhee’s abrupt break from RCA”

    Which is just a nice way of saying her album lost a lot of money and she was kicked to the curb.

  • Sheena

    Thank you for posting this interview, Mr. Perry. This serious, reflective side of Katharine is something that us die-hards rarely see and you laid out all the right questions that unraveled that side of her. Hopefully a lot more people will get to read this and realize that not only is Katharine a beautiful face with a beautiful voice, but is someone with a mind capable of deep thoughts and reflective musings. Great job!!

  • scott

    Bill, I worked for a record label for several years. Still have some friends who do too. I just want to say that RCA may have their head stuck up their backside and maybe didn’t promote the cd as much as it takes for a first album to succeed. Being on America Idol certainly might have impressed the label. They squandered their opportunity with bad judgment. I would never infer that the label kicked her to the curb. Maybe she just needed some time to acquire a more savvy representative and management. Its all in the contract. Guess we’ll never know.

  • malia08

    I like to see her with longer and darker hair, she looks more beautiful with longer and darker hair.