On Thursday night, 25-year-old Mississippi farm boy Trent Harmon made history as the very last singer to win American Idol – an honor he earned with some of the best Idol performances of this farewell season, like Sia’s “Chandelier” and ZZ Top’s “Sharp-Dressed Man.” So it’s hard to believe that when Trent competed on The Voice in May 2014, he turned no chairs, and his Blind Audition never aired.
Speaking to Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks the day after his historic Idol victory, Trent says his Voice rejection was a learning experience that prepared him for the next, much more successful phase of his career.
“It was really a reality check, if you will,” he says. “I thought at that point in my life I was good enough. I thought, ‘I can hang.’ And I wasn’t. I wasn’t good enough, and they knew it. I think looking back, I knew it… So I took a little break from music – and when I say a break, I mean like a week – and I sat back and thought about my whole life. And I thought, ‘You know what? Michael Jordan even got cut one time. So let’s go get better.’”
A strong work ethic has been instilled in Trent since birth (his family runs a yard-to-table restaurant, where until recently, Trent was a waiter). “You better know how to work on farm, or you’re going to get left in the dust, literally… and it’s kind of the same on Idol,” he says, adding: “I did not expect to win [Idol], and I feel that anybody who says, ‘Oh yeah, I expected to win,’ it’s not true. But I prepared to win, and that’s more important. I prepared to win at every facet of this competition, from the beginning to the end, and it paid off.
“If you don’t know how to work, you’re going to be forgotten about. If you get comfortable, you’re going to be forgotten about. I just never got comfortable [on Idol],” Trent continues. “I always thought at any moment… any time a 310 [Los Angeles area code] number would call me, I would think, ‘This is it. You’re getting cut today.’ Every time, every time.” Trent amusingly admits he still flinches a little when he receives an L.A. phone call. “I’m always thinking [producers are going to say], ‘Trent, there was an accident, and we gotta redo the finale!’”
Trent – who has fond memories of watching his favorite Idol contestant David Archuleta in his teens, and laughingly recalls hoping that a tornado drill wouldn’t ruin his plans to watch the Season 1 Kelly/Justin finale when he was 9 years old – still can’t grasp the fact that he’s now part of the Idol elite. (He reveals that when he was hanging with the show’s alumni at this week’s rehearsals leading up to the all-star finale, David Cook had to tell him to stop calling him “Mr. Cook.”) Trent doesn’t seem to feel he’s yet at Cook’s level or quite worthy of his new “Kelly Clarkson bookend” status.
“I don’t believe that, because I don’t have a proven track record at this point,” he says. “But it’s weird to think that I’m in that mix. Like, you think of Kelly, and you think of all the great ones in between, and well, you can throw ol’ Trent at the end of it now. It’s weird, it really is.
“I really want to put into words what it means to me, and I don’t know yet. I don’t know what I am going to add to the Idol legacy,” he says. “I want to work hard and do something that’ll be worthwhile. That’s why I’m ready to go into the studio, go on tour, go shake some hands, kiss some babies – whatever it is, you know? I’m so grateful that Idol pushed me so hard.”
As for what’s next for Trent, he has signed to Idol mentor Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, and some fans are concerned about Borchetta’s recent remarks about pushing Trent in a country music direction. After all, Trent first made his mark covering Allen Stone, OneRepublic, and Sam Smith, and the appeal of his first audition, in fact, was his element of surprise – that he was a country boy who sang indie-soul. And of course, his standout performance of Season 15 was the very non-country “Chandelier.”
But Trent, who cites Justin Timberlake’s recent country experiments as the direction he’d like to go in, explains: “If anyone can define ‘country’ in the year 2016, I will be impressed, because what is country in 2016? I pull from a lot of different genres when I sing, and that’s what Mr. Scott said. He said, ‘Trent, you’ve sung this, this, and this, but you’re still from the South… Country people buy albums. Country music supporters go to concerts. Country music supporters go to festivals. You don’t necessarily have to make a traditional country album, but if you could go down that vein, you could have a career.’”
However, fear not: Trent insists that his indie-soul influences will still inform the music he makes in the future. “Of course! You gotta do you. Can’t nobody do you like you.”
So far, it’s been working for him.