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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.

About Clayton Perry

  • 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.