Why Katharine McPhee and husband David Foster came out of 'retirement' for 'one-off' holiday EP: 'I just didn't really find a place in the recording industry'

David Foster and Katharine McPhee. (Photo: Loma Vista Recordings)
David Foster and Katharine McPhee. (Photo: Loma Vista Recordings)

Power couple Katharine McPhee and David Foster just released an EP of holiday classics, Christmas Songs, and surprisingly, this marks the first time — aside from their disguised run as the Banana Split on The Masked Singer Season 6 — that the two have officially worked together in 17 years. In fact, both the American Idol star and superstar producer/songwriter had all but retired from the music business, but this seasonal project got them back in the spirit.

“David says, ‘I'm retired. I don't want to produce anymore. I spent 40 years in a submarine,’” McPhee tells Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from their home, as she and Foster take turns looking after their 20-month-old son, Rennie. “And I really haven't desired to do much recording. Literally last year, I think I was on a red carpet and I said, ‘Oh, I'm a retired recording artist; I'm not recording anymore.’ Because I really didn't want to, and I haven't wanted to. So, this was sort of like a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

McPhee, who was the runner-up on American Idol’s all-time highest-rated season, has been one of the show’s most successful alumni, branching out to acting onscreen in Scorpion and Smash and on Broadway in Waitress. But it has been five years since she released her last studio album, and she admits that her post-Idol recording career never really took off like she thought it would.

“Listen, if you're a new artist, an unknown artist, and you sell half a million records on your first album, it's a huge success. … But of course when you're coming off of a platform like Idol, the expectation was a million and above,” McPhee notes. “I remember feeling a lot of pressure and being disappointed. I kind of also knew, though, that I wasn't getting the right lift-off. I don't feel sorry for myself or anything like that. It’s just kind of how I see it. I'm very practical about it."

McPhee continues: “I didn't want to take an indefinite break from singing; I just didn't really find a place in the recording industry. I've made a lot of albums. I made my first album, which was actually critically really well-received ... and I had a lot of celebrity attention post-American Idol. But I never really got that major hit. I had little tastes of success, this, that, and the other, and I had a great touring situation where I was going out and performing live. And so that was great, and I loved it.

“But I think that I just have been one of those singers that is capable of doing a lot of different genres. I can sing R&B. I can sing country. I did a little show called Country Comfort where I played a country artist. I played a Broadway star [in Smash]. There's a lot of different genres in which I can cover, which is great, but can also be challenging in the recording world. It’s like, ‘What kind of album do you want to make?’ And I never really knew the answer to that. The last artist album I made was a standards album [2017’s I Fall in Love Too Easily], and that's probably closest to who I am — which is why Christmas songs are easy and great for me.”

McPhee admits that — much like her husband, one of music’s biggest hitmakers — she is a perfectionist. “People send me songs and I'm like, ‘Nope, that's not going to be good enough!’ I don't want to do a good song; I want to do a great song. And sometimes those are really hard to come by. So anyway, my point is, I never really felt like I had a place in the recording industry. … Maybe I'll be a late bloomer and put out an album when I'm 40 or something, and have a massive hit like Natalie Cole did [with the Foster-produced Unforgettable… with Love] when she was later in life. Maybe David will be that secret recipe. We certainly had a great time making this Christmas album together.”

At the moment, though, Foster and McPhee are content to mostly not mix business with pleasure and just focus on home life, celebrating the holidays with Rennie. McPhee is 34 years younger than Foster and is Foster’s fifth wife, but against all odds and despite rampant public skepticism, their union is going strong.

“I think we have had really good communication over the years,” says McPhee, who first met Foster when he mentored a “Greatest Love Songs” episode of Idol Season 5 in 2006, and McPhee covered a ballad that Foster had written with his third wife Linda Thompson, Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” (Foster gloatingly points out that Simon Cowell had advised McPhee not to sing that song.) “We’ve known each other so long, as friends and colleagues, and then we got married [in June 2019]. I feel like we've been married for 10 years. And I don't say that in a bad way; I say it in a good way!”

Perhaps that’s another reason for the couple not collaborating professionally since McPhee’s American Idol days: to not encourage any more hate from the all the doubters and gossipmongers out there. McPhee admits with a slight eyeroll, “Maybe some haters thought, you know, ‘Oh, this is this your opportunity to marry the guy who's going make [you successful].’ … I mean, even if we were an age difference that made more sense to people, people would still have comments about the relationship.”

“It sort of feels, like for the most part, [the hate from fans] is over. It probably isn't, but for the most part, it feels like it's over. Maybe we just don't look [at comments sections and tabloids] anymore," says Foster.

"I mean, I just thinking about Celine and René,” Foster continues, referring to Celine Dion — with whom Foster has worked extensively — and her late husband and manager, René Angélil, who was 26 years Dion's senior. (Dion and Angélil first met when Dion was age 12; they began dating when she was age 20.) “Their age difference was huge. And it was strange at first, but it got to the point where it was just ‘Celine and René.’ We hope that we are now getting to that point. There's so many years that we've been together now that people are just going to think, ‘Oh yeah, it's just Kat and Dave’ — and that's the end of the story, we hope. And if not, screw them!”

At the moment, McPhee says working with Foster on Christmas Songs still “feels like a one-off thing” — although a second EP will come out next year, to form a full holiday LP — but she adds, “I don't want to say never, I don't want to say no, because I guess anything's possible, considering that just a couple of years ago I said I didn't want to record anymore! But with David, he makes it so easy to be in the studio — not that I want everything to be easy, but I want everything to be enjoyable, and I want it to be great. … And with him, I know most of the songs are going to come out great. And he always says, ‘Good is the enemy of great.’ And so I want to enjoy myself, but also have product that I'm really, really proud of. And sometimes that's easier said than done. … I've not really wanted to make any recordings, because I think that being in a recording studio is a different art form in itself. It's different from performing live or doing Broadway, doing a TV show. It's such a different art form that I've always found to be very challenging. But [David has] made it very easy for me.”

“Yeah, we’re perfect in the studio together. At home is another story, but the studio is perfect!” Foster grinningly quips. The producer, who has worked on iconic holiday recordings by the likes of Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Rod Stewart, Mary J. Blige, and (his personal favorite) Michael Bublé, adds,Making a Christmas album, as I've learned from doing it so many times, is a time when you can just relax and pick great songs. There's 50 great songs to pick from. You pick them, and whatever mood you're in that day is the way you decide to do it. In the case of this album, like with ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ we decided that we would do a big-band version. There's no bad way to do these songs, as long as you do them well.

“People love these songs, and it's a liberating time for me — there's no stress of having to be on the radio or having to sell anything,” Foster sums up. “You just make music with these great songs. I’ve got a great singer, and I know what I'm doing. And we had fun.”

Watch Katharine McPhee and David Foster’s full Yahoo Entertainment above, in which they also discuss Foster’s career-spanning documentary Off the Record, Katharine’s “joyous” memories of being on American Idol, Foster’s well-wishes for the ailing Celine Dion, the couple’s plans for the holidays this year, and McPhee’s just-launched KMF Jewelry line.

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