Idol Mentor David Cook on Judge Antics, Top 8 Performances & Whether the Show Still Matters

David Cook Idol Mentor
David Cook Idol Mentor

American Idol Season 7 champ David Cook has something to say about the show’s continued relevance, but he’s not sure the Fox publicity department will appreciate his candor.

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Idol‘s fate is in its own hands, Cook says as he takes into account the reality juggernaut’s slipping ratings and the (perennial) questions about how many seasons are left in the tank.

“If you can solidify the judging panel and allow that attention [on the judges' lineup] to run its course, then the focus will be on these contestants. Because where Idol really hit critical mass was when people like Kelly and Clay and Carrie and Daughtry came off the show and were able to have industry success post-Idol,” argues Cook. “That gives exponential relevance to the show itself.”

And while the “Light On” singer confesses he’s never watched Idol‘s competitors (such as The Voice), he says it strikes him as “weird” that he really only knows the names of their judges, not their contestants. “I would love to see Idol get back to allowing America to focus on the contestants and their stories, and their hopeful ascent to stardom,” he adds. “Having contestants come off the show and not having America really care, that just puts the whole franchise in a weird pocket.”

TVLine caught up with Cook about mentoring the Season 13 Top 8 during ’80s Week, witnessing judge Harry Connick Jr.’s sometimes raucous antics during Wednesday’s show and recording his latest record in Nashville.

TVLINE | Had you been carefully following Season 13 or did you have to do a crash course before you went in to mentor?
I did a bit of a crash course — purely because I’m working on a new record here in Nashville, and recording time conflicted with Idol time. But, I made sure I did my homework. I was fortunate I came along at a point in the season where there’s some catalog, some body of work there, to be able to assess any deficiencies. All these contestants – the talent’s there, it’s just about molding it. I have to thank Idol. They made me look very, very good, but I enjoyed the process.

TVLINE | Did the producers give you any instruction going in?
No. The only thing I told them was that I’m going to be honest. If they wanted me to come in and sugarcoat, I wasn’t the guy for that. And they were great – they were just like “man…whatever.” They really gave me carte blanche to come in and help. And hopefully I did. I didn’t want to be one of 30 million voices in these kids’ heads all telling them to do different things. As far as song choice went, by the time I got there, they had already sorted it out. I didn’t want to push on that at all. [My approach was], “OK, this is the song you’ve got. Let’s make it work for you.” Hopefully, I helped.

TVLINE | Well, at the very least, the blogosphere has deemed you a rip-roaring success.
Oh good, I love the blogosphere. [Laughs]

TVLINE | Getting the blogosphere’s approval is really the most important thing. Let’s be honest.
Of course! [Laughs]

TVLINE | So, you arrived on the scene on Monday — once the Top 8 had already been to the studio and recorded the iTunes versions of their songs. In a dream scenario, would you have met with them earlier — maybe Thursday night right after the results show — to help out with song selection? To me, one of your great strengths as a contestant in Season 7 was your ability to pick songs that were surprising — and yet fit your voice. That’s essential to having a standout moment on Idol, in my opinion, and yet I feel like that’s the one area the Season 13 contestants haven’t quite mastered.
Maybe not Thursday night. It might’ve been a little raw Thursday and Friday. But yeah, I get what you mean. With the ’80s, there are just so many great songs. If it had been a different theme, maybe being involved in the song choice might’ve been a little bit more imperative. But the contestants’ song picks [this week] – I didn’t really have any issues with them.

TVLINE | Back when you were on Idol, the themes were a lot more narrow. But I’d argue that when contestants were occasionally stuck with Dolly Parton or Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, we actually got to see more amazing moments than we’ve had this season — where the themes have been much broader. Is there a benefit to being forced into a genre way outside your comfort zone?
It really depends on the theme. I certainly benefitted some weeks from having very narrow parameters. You know, Mariah Carey week: “What on Earth am I going to do with Mariah Carey week?” You’ve got no choice but to sing a Mariah Carey song, so it forces you to not second-guess. But then there are other weeks where having the broad theme really helps. With ’80s week, man, you’ve got 10 years of songs to sift through. Did anyone make the wrong song choice? I don’t necessarily think so. Were there better choices? Possibly. It’s all kind of subjective. With a great song, it’s all about whether you can sell it — and that’s where I really tried to drive the point home. If you can’t go on the stage and own the stage, then you’re going to get swallowed whole.

TVLINE | It seems like you had very specific things for every single contestant to work on. Are you comfortable saying which singers you felt best executed your advice, or maybe improved the most from rehearsal to actual performance?
I thought Jess made a very concerted effort to do what we had talked about, which was specifically showing enjoyment in her face. I think that maybe came at the cost of stage blocking. It seemed like the way that they had her performance blocked was a little meandering. It didn’t feel like every step had purpose – I don’t know – that threw me a little. I thought Keith Urban said it best about C.J. — something about him just connected. He didn’t make a lot of eye contact with the camera – which we had talked about – but it didn’t really affect the performance so much. I found it to be a powerful performance. And then Alex was another one that seemed to really take what we talked about to heart. I was really, really happy with that performance.

TVLINE | What would be your over-arching message for the contestants going into Top 7 week, considering you’ve now had a chance to get to know them a little?
Just keep honing. Sam struck me as a great synopsis of a lot of the group – the guy has talent coming through the gills, and yet he is the last to know. Just keep honing and be confident — and realize that out of the thousands of people that have auditioned for the show you’re the last seven or eight. Find confidence in that. It’s a big deal.

TVLINE | When you were on Season 7, you were known for creating moments. Whenever I do a “Best Of” list, there is inevitably a flurry of comments regarding my choices for you. “You picked the wrong David Cook song! It should’ve been ‘Always Be My Baby’ or ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Hello’ or ‘The World I Know’!” In Season 13, I’m not entirely sure we’ve had a moment that’ll get permanently etched into our brains. There almost seems to be a fear of taking huge risks. As you said at the start of last night’s show, Idol is a bit of a chess match, and sometimes risks don’t pay off. With that in mind, how would you motivate the remaining singers to make bigger, bolder moves? And is it too late in the season for those kinds of risks?
Alex seems to be doing it a little bit. I kind of understood J.Lo’s critique of [his "Every Breath You Take" cover] last night, but it’s a weird conflict to tell somebody to make the song their own and then not get into them making the song their own. It is the inherit risk. I suppose it’s never too late to try something. I mean, worst case scenario you’re going to go home — which depending on your outlook, could be the worst thing in the world or be the beginning of something else. For me, I just tried to do things that got me excited, because if you go on stage and you’re not into your song and you’re kind of like “I can’t wait to get through this,” that’s going to show. Maybe they’re just not enjoying every song they’re doing. I don’t know what it is because everybody [in the Top 8] seemed to have at least a sense of their musical identity. So, maybe it [comes down to] just doubling down on that.

TVLINE | So, the current judges’ panel…
The judges’ panel last night was certainly very…energetic. But I think, this season as a whole, I like this panel, and I hope they’re around for a long time.

TVLINE | I’ve liked them all season — up until last night. Then they annoyed the heck out of me.
[Laughs] I know! I saw your tweets last night, man. There was a little silver tongue last night. It was kinda awesome.

TVLINE | Harry jumping around, hoisting that girl on his shoulders. I was like, “Settle down!” It felt a little disrespectful to the contestants.
A lot of energy, which honed is not a bad thing.

TVLINE | Honed. That’s the key. So… if they asked you to come back for Top 7 week to be the mentor, would you do it?
I don’t know. Maybe. Working on my own stuff is the priority but yeah, if I got called, I’d listen at least.

TVLINE | And how is the new record going? Like how far along are we on that road?
I’d say we’re 70% there, which is probably optimistic. We’re probably 60% of the way there. [Laughs] But we have 18 songs. We’re going to try and narrow it down to 12 for the finished product and then find the right avenue for releasing this one. I’ve really doubled down on just enjoying making music. With the last record, the headspace was different. Personally and professionally it was just different. This time around, I want to have fun, I want to try new things and expand — which is the goal with every record. I feel like I’m heading down the right path.

TVLINE | Does not having major label involvement during the recording process free you up?
Well, I enjoy the creative freedom — whether or not it makes for a better product, I think remains to be seen. Not all of the music that I like is going to be on top 40 radio. But I do know this record will have my stamp of approval, and if it gets some other peoples’ stamp of approval on the way that’s just bonus.

TVLINE | If you had to describe in a nutshell how the new record might differ from your previous work, what would you say?
In a nutshell, there’s more piano, there’s more synth, guitars are still there. I feel like the voice is still there, but it’s a little more outside of what I think people perceive my element to be. That’s a big nutshell, I understand. [Laughs]

TVLINE | You’re being slightly cryptic, but I guess when it comes to art, you don’t want to slap a gigantic label on it and tell people how they’re supposed to be feel about it.
Right, right. And especially lyrically on this new record, I’m trying to leave more up to interpretation and allow people to find what they want in it.

Idol Mentor David Cook on Judge Antics, Top 8 Performances & Whether the Show Still Matters
Idol Mentor David Cook on Judge Antics, Top 8 Performances & Whether the Show Still Matters

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