2006 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks was a headlining act at the 35th Telluride Jazz Celebration earlier this month. Hicks and his band The Little Memphis Blues Orchestra dazzled fans while performing on the Paquito D’Rivera Town Park Stage. In fact, they followed D’Rivera himself, the legendary Cuban saxophonist and composer who was the 2011 Guest of Honor. Among the other headlining acts at this year’s Telluride were Tower of Power, Allen Toussaint, and Rita Coolidge. That’s damn impressive company for a guy who’s been the butt of countless jokes in the mainstream media.
Those who recoil at the sight of “American Idol winner” and Telluride Jazz Celebration in the same sentence have perhaps never witnessed what Hicks is capable of on the concert stage. Possessing serious chops, not only as a vocalist but also as musician and bandleader, Hicks is a true anomaly among winners of America’s favorite singing competition.
Doubters should check out his full eighty-minute set, still available for viewing courtesy of Telluride Jazz. That’s not a slight against other talents that have emerged from Idol, but the fact is they’re not headlining at Telluride. And don’t miss Hicks dueling on harmonica with fiddler Lisa Haley (who played Telluride with her band The Zydekats) during “Seven Mile Breakdown.”
In the midst of planning a new album, his first since 2009’s The Distance, Hicks and I discussed his various projects earlier this summer.
How do you feel at this point, beginning the new album?
What’s so great about this particular process for me is that there’s no big vehicle that I have to hop on to be able to sell my record. The last one had the vehicle of the Grease tour: 18 months, eight shows a week, 12,000 people a week, and trying to sell records to ten percent of the 12,000. I love big vehicles because financially they’re great, not going to lie. But does it help the organic process of writing a record? It doesn’t help it because it puts a time constraint on the process.
Do you like songwriting?
To be honest, I enjoy writing. But it’s not easy. Writing is tough. It wipes me out, mentally, writing all day. I would rather be wiped out from performing a song then from writing one.
You didn’t write with anyone on your pre-Idol material, did you?
No, that was just me on the early stuff. Up until The Distance I never collaborated. I wrote a couple songs on the debut album after Idol. I loved collaborating because I’d never done it. For ten years I wrote by myself in a little hole. I think this next record might be a combination of both; writing with people and by myself. And collecting songs and putting those on the record. I’m excited because it’s going to be really roots oriented.
Do you prefer recording with a road-tested band, or with session players?
That’s kind of a tough one for me. I would like it to be a little bit of both. When you’re dealing with so many great musicians, you want to put them all on the record. It’s all about the song. For instance, I saw Little Big Town do a Lady Gaga song and it really opened up her lyrics to me. I thought to myself, “If you have a great song, you can do anything with it.” The musicians are just the colors and the paintbrushes.
Do you see a particular benefit when recording with musicians you’re comfortable with?
Well, people sometimes say, “You should have a band hole up for ten months, eat the same food, use the same bathroom and shower.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. When writing music, that would be a whole different ballgame. That could possibly work. But as far as using a band to record, I think it’s all about the song.
Describe the difference between your current approach and of your 2006 self-titled album.
The tough thing about the Idol winner’s album is that it happens so quickly. It’s almost like everything is laid out in front in of you — all you have to do is just go and sing it. You don’t really have much time to get your feel and your head around things because of the rush. With everything being said, you have such a platform to sell a ton of records it balances itself out.
Did you enjoy working with producer Matt Serletic?
We had a good relationship. Obviously I had done some recording before, and I think that’s the key in all of it: becoming a better recording artist. That’s something you learn over time. It doesn’t come to you right off the bat.
Which harmonica players have had the most influence on your playing style?
I never really went through musical artistry with the harmonica like I did with the artistry of performing music and songwriting. I studied the performance styles of Van Morrison, Bob Seger, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley. But as far as the harmonica is concerned, I listened to a lot of players, [such as] Mickey Raphael. But I never really went into an apprenticeship, listening to other players as much as I probably should have. At the same time, I think it’s a good thing because it allowed me my own kind of style. I didn’t really mimic the style of other players.
You’ve been studying acting, is that right?
I’ve got a guy named Carl Ford, who is Susan Batson’s son. Susan Batson has a company called Black Nexxus, which is one of the more famous acting studios in the world. I’ve worked with Carl Ford — he’s been teaching me.
How has it been going?
It’s been going great. I definitely think that there’s some natural ability that needs to be exercised. And Carl knows that. It’s fun, like a brand new toy that I have to work with.
Do you have a definitive goal in mind for this training?
I have to get to a point where the carefreeness that I exhibited on the American Idol finale, I have to exhibit in an acting role as well. That’s the bridge that I have to cross. I can tell you, there are a lot of industry insiders that are super excited about me being coached by Carl and are excited about the prospects of me doing scripted television and film. They see the carefreeness that I exhibited in front of 38 million people and they know that if I’m coached the right way, that bridge can be crossed.
So you’re aiming for parallel careers, music and acting?
The two would go hand-in-hand. My ultimate goal is to do television and film for part of the year, and do a record and tour the other part of the year. It would probably kill me, but I think it would satisfy a lot of the people that watched me on television. Touring the rest of the year would also satisfy the musical aspect. I would probably just need one week off, like everybody does in a twelve-month working year.
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