Interview: A Few Words With Kris Allen
The "American Idol" season eight winner brings his latest project, "Somethin' About Christmas" to the stage at The Southern Theatre on December 21
I watched American Idol religiously for most of its fifteen-season run. Like the rest of its hundreds of millions of global viewers, I glued myself to my television in a nearly hexed state every week – eating up the premise that this miraculous prime-time laboratory was dusting off fledgling buskers and basement guitar strummers and transforming them into sparkling celebrities overnight. That’s not to say Idol didn’t do some heavy lifting in the launch of its contestants’ careers, but many of those diamonds-in-the-rough arrived in Hollywood with credentials to spare.
Kris Allen had been playing guitar since the age of thirteen and had already recorded an album, Brand New Shoes, two years prior to him winning season eight of the Idol dynasty. Shortly after, he inked a major label contract with Jive Records, recorded and released a hit debut album, and charted three top-twenty singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. A second album for Jive/RCA, Thank You Camellia, arrived in 2012.
When Allen and I chatted over the phone last week, I asked him what he gleaned from his Idol experience as he looked back almost a decade later. He jokingly chided me about slightly overstating the length of his career. “Oh, don’t make it any longer than it has been. It’s seven years…seven-and-a-half…”
He continued more seriously: “I think for me it’s always been making sure that I saw what happened and the opportunities I had on the show as that: as an opportunity. Not a handout, not that I was given anything. And I was given some things – I was given a record deal. I was given a management contract. And even then I knew…and then I toured and went out on the road with a bunch of people who were really successful and I saw how good they were. I saw how much they work at it. And I knew that I really needed to work really hard and make sure to always be…if I wanted this to be my career and what I do and where I wanted to go with it, then I had to practice every day and write all the time and I’d have to figure out a lot of different things and play a lot of shows.
And so I’ve always just thought of that as an opportunity and just tried to take it and make my own way with it. Because…my journey has been different than a lot of people who have been on the show…some people go the acting route, or the Broadway route, or I have friends that are on the radio doing broadcasting that were on the show. You get whatever you want out of it, I think. I’m saying that maybe I’m lucky because I won and I got some initial things out of it.”
Allen’s post-Idol story – and his growth as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and family man – is actually much more intriguing. He has collaborated with an accomplished slate of composers, including Steve Kipner, Charlie Peacock, Chris Lindsey, Pat Monahan, and Greg Kurstin; established his own independent record label, DogBear; married his high school sweetheart, Katy, and became a father with the births of his son, Oliver, in 2013 and daughter Rose this past June. He released his fifth studio album, Letting You In, earlier this summer.
His latest project, Somethin’ About Christmas, is a labor of love – born out of his emergence as an independent artist who is now making music on his own terms after his deal with Jive/RCA ended in 2014.
“Well, I love Christmas. I don’t know that a lot of people can say that, but I just do. It is in my soul, and when it comes around and it’s that time of year, I get pretty excited. And so the whole idea for this record was I [didn’t] want to make a pop Christmas record, I want[ed] to make a throwback kind of Christmas record where it reminds people of…and maybe this is just me, but when I hear Christmas music it’s got that, like, jazzy, old school – maybe even a little country western, but not really. More on the jazz side of things. And also, like, a little bit comedic as well.
So I tried to take that and I tried to…there’s a lot of freedom in that for me. Maybe it’s because I’m making my own records, but just the chords I’m using…it’s like ‘oh, I can use that chord now because this is a Christmas song’. It was so much fun…and I even remember the producer I was working with, K.S. Rhoads – I kind of told him my idea and he was like ‘are you sure you want to do this?!’ (laughs) ‘Are you sure you want to make this type of Christmas record?’ And I was like, ‘yeah! I mean, no-one’s gonna stop me.’ And I knew that he was the right one to do it because he doesn’t care, either. And it’s funny when you do that…I wouldn’t even call it taking a chance. But, I think a lot of people would. Christmas is a little bit different from what I do, but when you have an idea and you see something through. I’ve heard from people who are listening to it that they really love it. I think it feels like Christmas, and that’s really all I was going for.”
Allen’s slightly smoky, honeyed tenor voice gives Somethin’… its instant appeal and breathes life into the five covers on the track list with a few new twists. His original compositions, however, are really where the album shines. The gentle folk bounce of “Just Like Snow” is lovely, and the humorous charm of “Mommy, Is There More Than Just One Santa Claus” is infectious. And then there’s the beautiful “Peace and Happiness” – a subdued, bluesy ballad with Allen’s vocal reduced to a near whisper draped over soft snares and keys. In a genre that has become perhaps mechanical and overly commercialized, Allen’s holiday heart-note feels refreshingly personal.
Columbus fans will have the chance to catch Allen singing selections from his new release live as a special guest on veteran pianist Jim Brickman’s Comfort & Joy tour, which will stop at The Southern Theatre on Wednesday, December 21.
So, 2016 has been a rather big year for you. Two albums, a new addition to your family, and a lot of touring…
“This has been a big year – it’s going really well. I’m excited – I’ve been on the road for a little bit now, but I am – I’m excited for the year and excited about next year. It’s been crazy, but it’s been a good crazy.”
You began playing guitar at a very early age. What made you pick it up at first?
“Well, I started playing the viola first. And when I was thirteen…my dad had a guitar in the house and he played. And so one summer I just decided, you know, ‘I’m gonna learn how to do this’. It was before the internet, which is weird to say, so there wasn’t a lot of chord books or anything like that around – at least that I could just quickly look at. So I just listened to songs and tried to play them and learn..you know, I think I found one chord book that my dad had and learned some basic chords and just kind of went from there.”
“As a guitar player…I was definitely a guitar player before I was a singer – which is hilarious. So I wanted to learn all these guitar songs like ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – all those things…anything Stevie Ray Vaughan or Santana. I would kind of lock myself in a room and try to learn how to play those.”
As I’ve been reading press about you, there seems to be much agreement among your fans that you should re-release your first studio album, Brand New Shoes, for broader public consumption. How do you feel about that?
“I don’t know. I think some things are best left unsaid. Or at least not said again. And so I think that it was a record that I made of the first songs I’d ever written…any of that. So, I thought to myself ‘I’m going to make a record. This is what I want to do.’ I put it out and had a bunch of friends come to the release party when I was in Arkansas. I go back and listen to it now and I’m happy I did it because you’ve got to start somewhere. But, you know, it needs to stay under a lock…or a very translucent rock if people can already hear the song.”
You’re now an independent artist, which is obviously a much different experience than being a member of the Jive/RCA stable like you were on your first two albums. How do you think it’s changed how you make music – or have those differences surfaced yet?
“They’ve definitely surfaced. It’s been a learning experience. When I made Horizons, that was the first thing I did on my own. And I think I kind of went into it with one foot instead of both feet. I really enjoy some of the songs that are on there, and I think the record is great. But I think, you know, to do that…to do the independent thing you kind of have to jump in with both feet in the cold water and just go. And so I’m learning how to do that. I’ve made two records since Horizons…and this Christmas record is the third I’ve done on DogBear – and it’s been an awesome experience. I think that any one of the last three records that I’ve made would not have been made on a label. And I say that very tactfully (laughs)…because I love [the first two albums] and I think the fans do, too. I don’t think I make records just to make some weird Picasso art…I want to make songs that people want to listen to – or at least my fans want to listen to. So I’ve always tried to be cognizant of that. It’s been a really good experience for me.”
You were in a fairly serious car accident and injured your wrist a few years ago – to the point where you weren’t sure if you’d play guitar again. I’ve seen vague references to how you’ve had to adapt your playing style since…but how specifically has that been affected?
“I would say that most of it has been physical things, like my wrist doesn’t move – my right wrist, my strumming wrist. It doesn’t have that natural movement any more to where I can hold a rhythm down. And so that was something I really had to work on – and still something. So I don’t feel I can put my guitar down any more, because I’m at a disadvantage now. So I’m always playing, always trying to figure out things…and in a way, I feel like I’m a better player now because I’ve had to figure out all these different ways to play. And you’ll see me – I play with my fingers a lot, I don’t play a ton with a pick. And I think more than anything…maybe it’s the nature of my growing up, my upbringing or whatever, I don’t know…when something like that happens and you get put at a disadvantage, you can go two ways: you can go, ‘oh well, feel sorry for me’ – or ‘I’m going to make the best of this’. And I feel like I’ve tried to do that – make the best of it and see something that is a disadvantage now to maybe making it one of my advantages.”
Since we’re almost at the end of 2016 – dare I ask if you have any plans or resolutions on deck for 2017?
“I’m going to go on the road with Parachute, who I’ve been a big fan of for a long time. We tried to go on the road together a bunch and it’s just never worked out over the past six, seven years or something like that. They were the very first show I ever played…so this has been a long time coming, and I’ve known [lead guitarist and vocalist] Will [Anderson] for a long time. So, that’ll kind of fill up the spring, and I’ll do some college dates. But other than that, I need to start writing again. Writing is one of those things for me that comes in spurts – I have to kind of lock myself in my house for a month or so and come up with a bunch of ideas, and really kind of do that. Because I’m not a writer that…and maybe I should be…but I’m not a writer that writes all the time. I write stuff down and I’ll sing stuff into my phone. But, full songs…I haven’t written them since the Christmas songs. I take my time with it and I let things fester inside a bit – and it eventually comes out. And it’ll probably be closer to the beginning of the year, so maybe I’ll be working on a new record later in the year or something like that.”
Kris Allen is a special guest on Jim Brickman‘s “Comfort & Joy” holiday tour, stopping at The Southern Theatre, 55 East State Street in Downtown Columbus on Wednesday, December 21 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $33.00 to $68.00 (plus taxes and fees) and are available via Ticketmaster. Kris Allen’s latest album “Somethin’ About Christmas” is available on his website.
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