‘American Idol’ genius Alejandro Aranda emerges from — and embraces — the darkness as Scarypoolparty

Scarypoolparty, a.k.a. 'American Idol' Season 17 runner-up Alejandro Aranda. (Photo: Hollywood Records)
Scarypoolparty, a.k.a. 'American Idol' Season 17 runner-up Alejandro Aranda. (Photo: Hollywood Records)

When Alejandro Aranda, who records under the name Scarypoolparty, competed on American Idol this past spring, it was impossible to believe that he’d only been seriously playing music for a few years. Though he ultimately placed second to teen country singer Laine Hardy, he was undoubtedly the breakout star of the season — earning raves from Stevie Nicks (who said he made her cry and predicted that he’d go on “to play and sing across the great stages of the world”); his Pomona neighbor and onscreen duet partner Ben Harper; and judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, who described him as an “absolute genius” and declared his audition of original song “Out Loud” the best in Idol history. It seemed Aranda was always destined for greatness, so it was shocking to learn that he’d taken up music relatively late in life.

Aranda, whose hotly anticipated debut album Exit Form drops this week, sheepishly admits that his parents made him take piano lessons as a child, but he “hated it and didn't do it. I was a problem child.” He’s reluctant to describe himself as entirely self-taught — “because YouTube is a treasure; I feel like YouTube helped me out a bunch” — but it was only five years ago that a freak accident made him realize music was always his true calling.

“When I turned 20, I almost lost my hand,” Aranda, now age 25, reveals to Yahoo Entertainment. “I was working at a warehouse and I got my hand stuck in the conveyor belt, and I could've really lost my hand. … It got stuck in between, and then it caught my flannel shirt; I was wearing a long sleeve and it caught. If I wasn't wearing that, it would have basically ran my whole hand through it.” While Aranda was thankfully able to extricate himself from the machinery without any serious injuries, the scary situation served as a wake-up call.

“It kind of opened my eyes — like, ‘Just what exactly am I doing?’” explains Aranda. “I was struggling personally, just struggling in life. I didn't have a direction. I was working too many jobs. I was searching for something that wasn't there. And then, I just decided, ‘You know what? I've always been a lover of music, but I've never really taken it seriously.’ After that incident happened, I decided to start trying. I started playing the guitar, started playing piano, and then from then on it was nonstop, just thinking about classical music and presenting it in the way that I fell in love with music. I found that road that I was searching for, for so long.”

Fate intervened again, this time in a good way, when Aranda uploaded one of the first songs he ever wrote, recorded in a garage in Claremont, Calif., to Instagram. Aranda tagged one of his musical heroes, George Lewis Jr. — a.k.a. Warner Bros. Records esoteric indie/chillwave/funk artist Twin Shadow — and Lewis was so impressed with Aranda’s “little piano piece” that he got in contact the very next day and became Aranda’s benefactor and mentor, buying Aranda musical and recording equipment and even hiring Aranda for his touring band.

Twin Shadow’s support gave the humble Aranda the confidence he’d been lacking for so long. “When I started producing, when George gave me the laptop, I started getting that little fire,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, I can play this arpeggio now, and I can work hard at playing this guitar piece and I can start making demos. I can start making songs.’ Early 2017 is when I started really thinking, ‘I can do this.’”

Aranda has since repaid the favor: He brought Lewis on American Idol’s top five dedication-themed episode, had Lewis co-write and produce on Exit Form, and has brought Lewis out as a support act on his own sold-out headlining tour. “He helped me out so much in the area that I was struggling with. He gave me a choice, and he gave me a chance,” says Aranda of his bond with Twin Shadow. “If there’s a way that I can pay him back for what he did, because he really did take me from nowhere to something. …I want to make sure that people know that this guy helped me out and there's people out there that do the same. There's people that care.”

Now that Aranda has found success, he’s tried to pay it forward to other friends, including one named Oscar, that helped him through the tough times when he felt like giving up on music. “Those dark moments came in waves for me,” he reflects. “There comes a point when you try something for so long, but you have to stabilize a living. I knew I needed to pay bills and responsibilities came higher, and I would have to put music on the back burner. ... I didn't know what to do. I was like, ‘I don't have a place to stay, I have no money for rent.’ This one guy that's on my crew, Oscar, is an assistant now on this tour we're on, but I stayed at his house for the majority of the time. I slept on the floor. He helped me out in ways that he would never speak of.”

It may seem odd that an artist like Aranda would try out for a show like American Idol in the first place. A alternative virtuoso who cited Mozart, Chopin, and Bach (and Trent Reznor!) as influences; performed a DJ set during an electro version of Drake’s “One Dance”; transformed Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” into a Gothic-industrial funeral dirge; and played no less than seven original songs throughout the season (the highlight of those being the jazz/prog/classical/soul/pop/fusion tour de force “Blesser,” dedicated to Lewis), Aranda never seemed like a typical contestant. But his accidental Idol tenure was just another example of fate — and a new friend — stepping in.

“I was trying to write my own music and get my own thing going, but nothing was really adding up. I never had the right focus and the right headspace to do it,” says Aranda. It was then that he played a backyard party, where a talent agent from American Idol happened to be in attendance. The agent approached him about auditioning, but Aranda made it clear that he’d only do it if he had a chance to perform his original music — a rarity on the show.

“This opportunity came up with American Idol, and they're like, ‘Hey, you can come in and play your own songs. Like, we're totally backing that. We want you to do it.’” Once he was on Idol, of course, Aranda was repeatedly warned by producers that performing unfamiliar — and sometimes downright uncommercial — material was a huge risk. But, says Aranda, “The main thing I would tell them is, ‘It's not a risk, if it's something I love doing.’”

It may be cliché to say a contestant would be better off not winning American Idol, but it Aranda’s case, such an observation is apt. Almost an anti-Idol, he admits that he struggled with his sudden TV fame (and points out that the only reason his family didn’t appear on the show was because he didn’t want to expose them to the same scrutiny and stress), and says he was genuinely relieved to not win. “I would've been happy with 10th place, or like, any place,” he chuckles. “Music to me is not in terms of judging or placement.”

Aranda says of his surreal Idol experience, “It was so not normal! Coming from playing bars and little cafes and open mics and busking, the max of people that I played for [solo] was like, three or four or 10 people. … When I filmed with Ben Harper, I had a really, actually deep conversation with Ben. I felt like I was on this road that was not stopping, and it was just scary. I was like, ‘Whoa, like what the hell is happening right now?’ … They don't train you for that.”

Now that Aranda is off the show, he’s still blazing a trail, making music his own way. He’s releasing Exit Form under the stage name he had before all this madness began, Scarypoolparty, as a way to “put a little bit of a wall in between the show and the art.” And while his ambitious album features five songs he performed on Idol (“Millennial Love,” “10 Years,” “Tonight,” “Cholo Love,” and the viral audition song that started it all, “Out Loud”), the new tracks are a marked departure from the mostly acoustic fare for which he’s become known. “Black Cross,” “Diamonds,” and “Dance the Night Away” make for a ferocious triple-punch of an opener — metallic, monstrous, thundering classical/industrial hybrids that evoke Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails, Twitch-era Ministry, and Dead Can Dance. Meanwhile, the darkwave epic “Vampire Shade” and glitchy drum ‘n’ bass ‘n’ piano track “Beneath the Skin” showcase why he’s been such a favorite at Austin City Limits, Life Is Beautiful, and Lollapalooza — alt-rock-leaning festivals that hardly ever include former reality show contestants in their lineups.

“Of course it was a conscious choice,” Aranda says of Exit Form’s surprising stylistic shift. “I just love hard synthesizers and stuff like that! When I made the record, I was in this headspace where I just wanted to make music that I love playing and love hearing. Right from the get-go, you have ‘Black Cross’ and classical elements within industrial music. I haven't heard that in a minute, and I wanted to really incorporate that and pay homage to the people that have done it before. I'm very proud of the record. It is a departure, but I think it's a departure for those that just watch [American Idol].”

And the accolades from the music community keep pouring in. Billie Eilish’s brother and producer, Finneas, recently attended one of Aranda’s sold-out L.A. shows and called Aranda “The G.O.A.T” in his Instagram stories; Aranda will be opening for Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds next year; and he says he’s been contacted by everyone from Quincy Jones’s camp to Critics’ Choice Brit Award winner Jack Garratt to alternative R&B star Gallant. That’s the sort of genre-blurring career Aranda hopes to have: “Someone like Gallant, an amazing singer that makes really an atonement of creativity… to me, that's someone that really knows exactly what he's trying to go for, and I respect that to the fullest.”

Aranda has clearly come a long way since his “couch-surfing” days, when he was the “humble dishwasher” presented on Idol. And while he doesn’t forget those hard times, he knows that all of those experience led to Exit Form. “I'm just thankful that I had good people around me,” he says. “There were a lot of dark moments, but then there was a lot of good moments, too, within the darkness.”

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