Last Wednesday, hours before the Top 11 from American Idol season 10 took the stage at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, I had the opportunity to talk with one of the more unique and interesting voices from this past season.
Cool, calm, and collected, 26-year-old Paul McDonald from Nashville, spoke candidly about the American Idols Live! Tour, including which contestant fell victim to the first tour prank of the summer, and working on his solo music while out on the road.
How has the tour been going?
It’s been excellent so far. We’re only like, I think, five shows in, and we got about a thousand more to go. [laughs] We go through September, and we do a handful of Canada dates, maybe one or two. Then they take us over to the Philippines.
Wow, I’m pretty sure that’s a first with taking the tour overseas. What has been the most fulfilling part of the tour for you so far?
Oh goodness. I guess it’s just the whole vibe of pretending that we’re real rock stars for the summer. We’re singing karaoke and stuff, but the production is like a huge tour. We have six buses, six semis, we have catering, we have the whole VIP kind of like a very pro tour. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, unless you’re the Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen, or Carrie Underwood, or one of those, you know? So, it’s kind of cool to be in that for just a little bit and see how this grand scale of venues and touring works. It’s cool.
Do you have any kind of fun bus stories from the tour so far?
Fun bus stories? Oh gosh, I’m trying to think. We really don’t hang out on the bus too much, because they literally have us working from [about] noon. This morning I got up at like eight-thirty, we went to the Ronald McDonald House, me and Casey. We did some charity, we hung out with the kids, came back and had hair and make-up, which I don’t do any of that stuff. After that we have lunch, and then we have sound check. We go from normally from 12 noon to 12 at night. The only bus time is after the gig we go in there and like have a drink and pass out, but there has been a good story.
The first gig in Salt Lake City, Jacob Lusk decided to take a shower in the locker room — we’re playing all these big basketball arenas and stuff — and I was like, “Let me show you how it’s done fellas.” This is like “Band Pranks 101.” I got the bucket of ice, and all of us, Scotty and everybody, filled it up with ice-cold water. Jacob’s in the shower singing, you know, doing his thing. We walked in there and Casey’s filming it, and came in and just busted him with an ice cold bucket of water, and he was like, “Ahhhhh!” I was like, day one, the tour pranks begin.
That’s pretty hilarious.
We gotta watch our backs, because there will probably be a little bit of pranking going on in this one.
That’s funny. You’ve mentioned before that you were going to start working on some writing for your solo record during the tour, so how’s that going?
Yeah, I’m always constantly working on that stuff. I remember while I was on American Idol, they’d be like, so have you learned like “Rocket Man,” or whatever song they picked for you this week? And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t really like that song, but check out this one I wrote.” I’m always writing. I’ve got about 15 or 16 right now that are down. I’m writing all this summer. I’m hoping to get around 40, then obviously cut that down to about 10 or 12 and toss that on. It’s the first time I’ve tried a solo album in the past six years, so we’ll see how it goes. My band stuff tends to work out alright, but this is kind of a I’ll try it after the show, and I can always go back to the band.
How would a Paul McDonald record differ from a Grand Magnolias record?
Ooh. I don’t know. In all honesty, this past record, The Grand Magnolias, we had Dan Hannon produce it. He does Manchester Orchestra, and more kind of hard rock stuff is kind of his forte. I was thinking about going with more of a roots vibe, kind of like a Ray LaMontagne. I mean, it’s all similar to the old High Tides Blues records, that was my first band.
My writing style has been more singer-songwriter, chill, rootsy kind of stuff; what I’ve been writing lately, nothing like upbeat. The Grand Magnolias have got serious guitar riffs, double guitars, like Black Crowes stuff. I don’t know, man. I’m just writing and we’ll see what turns out. I’m going to show ‘em to all my friends and see which ones they think go over. That’s the best part about being in a band. Before a record, we would tour and we would play these new songs and test them out in live venues with a few hundred people there and be like, “This is a new one, what do y’all think?” And if they dug it, we’d be like, that’s cool, let’s put that one in the pile that might be on the record.
This is the tough part, because I haven’t done any, like, originals and touring in forever. I’m just singing karaoke. Although this is great, I don’t have an audience to test these songs on. So we’ll see. Sorry, I’m rambling. My original music is where my heart is.
Let’s switch gears over to Idol. What was something you weren’t expecting while on the show?
Oh gosh. Honestly, I never watched the show, so everything was a surprise. I remember when we got to Vegas, and they were like, you know if you win American Idol, you get a record deal and win a car. I was like, what? Are you serious? What else happens on this show? Everyone else had been watching it forever, and I was like, oh, that’s cool, man.
One of the coolest things to me was working with a bunch of the producers. They’re serious pros. Don Was has worked with the Stones and he’s doing John Mayer’s next record. And even though we’re doing covers, it’s cool to vibe with those kind of guys. And most of the time I’d also be showing them my records, and being like, “This is what I do.” It’s amazing working with those guys.
Speaking of the producers, is there a producer from the show that you would like to work with on your album?
There’s a handful of them. Don Was, Jim Jonsin is another one of my good buds from that. I keep in contact with them. Obviously I’m on the road with this, but I’m hitting them up, like, “Hey, I’ll send you over some demos.”
Since you’re performing the same set night after night on this tour, what are you doing to stay amped up for each show?
It’s the thrill of being in front of that many folks. I’ve been touring for years and years, and that was the thing that keeps it interesting. Every night you kind of do something different in the set, so the set’s always different. This is not. It’s a script, you know, and it is a show, so there’s not too much art involved. You have to focus on in every city [that] it’s brand new to every single person. I go out there and rock it like it’s one of my own songs. That’s how I have to put it in my brain. “Maggie May” is like my old girlfriend from high school or something, like that. But yeah, you have to do that. Then it’s fun, you go out there, and when there’s thousands of people screaming, even when you’re singing anything, it’s fun being out there. It’s pretty easy to stay amped up and pumped about it.
What was your favorite performance while you were on Idol?
Oh gosh. I didn’t really do anything too cool on the show. I never was really proud of too much of my stuff.
I really liked your performance of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Dude, I will tell you this, that was one of the covers that my band did. It was one of our worst covers out of all of our set. I told Jimmy Iovine, “Dude, let me just do this.” And he was like, “No, you have to do like this and that.” I remember [saying], “Let me do something I’m comfortable with. I’m gonna do this cover, my bands plays it. I’m going to play it the way that I do it.” And that turned out to be one of the best. And I like Johnny Cash. If you go see my band, we do a whole lot of stuff like that.
Well bring the band out here, and I’ll come see y’all.
I know! We need to rock it. It’s way cooler than any of the stuff that I did on American Idol, I promise.
Speaking of your band, I watched a couple of your videos on YouTube last night, and you have your rhinestone-covered suit that we saw a couple times on the show.
I was wondering about the background of the suit and if it will be making an appearance during the tour?
Ooh. I’m thinking about busting out the rhinestone suit for Nashville. Right now they’ve got me, like I said, it’s all kind of scripted out; so they’ve got us lined up in different things. And I don’t do too much on this tour. I only sing just a handful of things.
I saw the set list, and I’m bummed you’re not highlighted a little more.
I was like, alright, it is what it is, but the good news is it’ll save my voice, and give me more time to write and focus on real stuff. But the rhinestone suit, I got that right when Grand Magnolias released the last album. I decided to spend all my money, because I always wanted a rhinestone suit. My friend, Manny, his dad Manuel made Elvis’ suit, Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles; like, he is one of those legendary guys. He’s made Steven Tyler’s clothes. So, it’s history. I was like, I’ve been touring for five years, this record is supposed to do good, and we’re gonna do a big national tour, and stuff like that. So, I’m gonna get a bad-ass rhinestone suit and just rock it out. I spent all my money on it and got it.
I tried out for American Idol kind of as a joke, and it kept going and going, and the last show we played was with a band called Truth & Salvage Co. and Dawes on New Years. And I rocked it on New Years. I got to rock it a few times. Then I was like, hey, now I’m on TV, so I might as well bust it out on TV. And it also helped out Manny. The rhinestone suits are this old classic piece of art and music history. So I thought it would be cool to try to bring those back to the mainstream. Some people thought it was awesome, some people hated it. It is what it is.
Going back to the show for one last question, which one of the judge’s advice and critiques did you take more to heart over the others?
Let’s see. Steven Tyler’s and Randy’s, I think a little bit over Jennifer Lopez. Just because of the fact that they’re more of my scene. Steven had paid his dues, he knew. They’d be like, “So why are you dancing so funny and jumping around?” And I’d be like, “Dude, Steven, you know exactly what I’m doing.” I’ve opened up for huge bands, where they don’t know any of my music, and I have to get the crowd involved and excited about it, or I don’t sell any records. You have to prove that you’re equally as good as the headliner. So, Steven Tyler, anything he said I tried to soak in.
You can catch Paul McDonald along with the rest of the American Idol season 10 Top 11 at a city near you. Check out the official tour website for more information.
For more information on Paul McDonald and The Grand Magnolias, check out the band’s official website.
Photo credits: Kirsten Coachman