The Billboard Q&A: Carly Smithson Of 'American Idol'
Carly Smithson wasn't much like a lot of "American Idol" finalists: she had a rock edge, a load of tattoos and even had a record label deal before she joined the show. Read up on her international pasCarly Smithson wasn't much like a lot of "American Idol" finalists: she had a rock edge, a load of tattoos and even had a record label deal before she joined the show. Read up on her international past, her plans for the Broadway stage and her former alliance with MCA.
Everyone who watches 'American Idol' knows you were born in Dublin, but I don't think people realize you also lived in Johannesburg.
We lived in Dublin for about six months after I was born and then we moved to South Africa and lived there until I was about four. Mom went home for a Bruce Springsteen concert and decided that she missed Ireland a lot and never went back to Africa and told my dad to pack up all our belongings.
Do you have any memories of living in South Africa?
All my aunties still live there, so I go over and visit. They've moved down to Cape Town and Durban and it's a really cool country. I love going over there. It's a very different way of life -- go to bed early, wake up early. Bars close early, stores close early.
How long did you live in Dublin?
I lived in Dublin until I was 12. My dad and I went to New York and I met with a singing coach. I took four lessons with him over a week because my dad wanted to make sure I wasn't doing anything wrong to my voice and then we flew back to Ireland. We moved to Los Angeles when I was 13 1/2. My dad always wanted to live in L.A., so after my parents split, he decided to go there and I followed with him.
Were your parents musical in any way?
My mom can sing really well but won't unless there's karaoke, but I hear her in the shower and in the car. She's got a great voice, but she's very nervous and not the type of person who would get in front of anyone and sing a song. Dad thinks he's a great singer and he's terrible, but my brother is very musical and he plays guitar and used to write songs.
We were always in an environment that was very musical. It's Ireland, so you go to the bar. People bring their kids to the bar on a Sunday and there's usually a little session and I would always sing for everybody. And then later on that night, everyone would finish in the bar and they'd all come back to the house and Mom would cook dinner and the musicians would follow and there'd be like a session in the kitchen, everybody playing banjos, violins and guitars.
What was the first song you remember singing?
My mom says it was "Chain Reaction" by Diana Ross. I'd put on my dress and then I'd put on my mom's big white coat and like the part where Diana storms in and throws her coat off, I'd storm into the living room, throw my coat off and sing, "I'm in the middle of a chain reaction." Mom says it was super funny.
But my mom saw that I could really sing when they had a dinner party and they were doing the dishes afterward. My mom and her two best friends were singing "I Know Him So Well" [from "Chess"]. It was like their party piece, and at six years of age I started wailing the whole song and my mom said they all stopped and turned around like, "What?"
Aside from the trip to new york with your father, did you ever take vocal lessons?
Not really. I was always in the choir at school. I got kicked out when I was 11 because I was always talking. I was in the church choir and learned all these Latin songs that we didn't know the words to. I went to a Catholic school run by Carmelite nuns and they were all about music. I really enjoyed music early on in life. I think it was just inevitable.
When did you realize you were good at singing?
People tell you you're good all the time. I made the top six on "American Idol," I must be all right but I don't know. I look at other people in awe. But I love to sing and I love to try and figure out what my voice can do and experiment and find new things every day.
Did you participate in talent contests in school?
Yes, I sang "The Rose" by Bette Midler, it's my favorite. I used to love movies where the person sang as well. I used to think that was cool and Bette Midler would always do that. "Beaches" was a very early favorite of mine. "A Star Is Born" is one of my all-time favorite movies and I think that movie influenced me to go on "Idol." It has that overnight success crazy idea.
What about theater?
I did "Les Miz" when I was nine. It was the big Cameron Mackintosh production. They were coming to Dublin and they needed a kid to play Cosette. All the other kids had bruises on their eyes and the makeup fully done to where they looked the part and I had a t-shirt and a pair of jeans on. I finally ended up with the part and got to sing on the opening night and the President [of Ireland] was there. It was at the Point Theatre in Dublin.
It's funny, but I've never seen the second half. I was in the show for three months and I know every word from the score but I've never seen the second act. After the first act, I would go home.
You should catch it sometime.
We tried while I was in New York [last week], but it stopped running recently, so we went to see "The Lion King." I've wanted to see the entire show my whole life, and from an adult perspective. That was a very special thing to me, being a part of that show so early in life.
Was 'Les Miz' your professional debut?
That was the first time I'd been in front of an audience. When we were on vacation in Spain, there was a karaoke place called Coco's and I used to drag my mom into it every night and she never wanted to go to that bar. I'd get all jazzed up, like I'd have my funny dress on. My green shoes, my green dress. Everything would have to match, with green earrings.
I would always sing Whitney Houston songs. I don't know why, but my mom would always make me sing Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and I never really liked that song.
Aside from the score to 'Les Miz,' what music did you listen to while growing up?
My musical influences were very different from any other child. My friends were listening to Take That and New Kids on the Block, the pop artists of the time, and I was listening to Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pretenders. The only person in the house who had something I could play music on was my brother, so I was influenced by all the music he used to listen to, like Bob Dylan, Guns 'N Roses and Motley Crue. All these bands became my favorites. My mom had five records, including Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and U2. My brother used to catch me in his room and he'd freak out. "Get away from my record player," because I'd scratch all of his records.
Since you already have "Les Miz" on your resume, and since so many Idols have starred on Broadway, would you like to do more theater work?
Maybe later on in life, I will. I talked to Andrew Lloyd Webber about it. I told him that it's something that I love, but I definitely want to focus on a record first. I wouldn't like to do it the other way around. "Les Miz" would be a really nice thing. I've always wanted to play either Fontine or Eponine.
If you do, try to catch act two. Speaking of Lord Webber, you exited the show after singing 'Superstar.' How do you think that performance ranks among all of the songs you sang on 'Idol'?
I was going for the big song, which is "All I Ask of You" [from "Phantom of the Opera"], but for the three days before the show, "Superstar" kept ringing in my ear, like I should be singing that. And every time I heard it, I heard "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. So when we did the track I wanted to incorporate that CCR vibe.
"I Drove All Night," "Crazy on You, "Come Together" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" were the four songs that nailed on the head who I am musically. I loved singing "Superstar." I thought it was great. I think a lot of people had a problem with the lyrics of the song. It's not supposed to be taken seriously in that way. It's musical theater.
IT'S NOT SACRILEGIOUS.
Not at all. I apologize if people saw it that way. I think it's a great song. It's got a real quirky vibe to it. I would have probably done more with it if I wasn't on "American Idol." I wanted to dress up the backing singers and go wild. I think the song definitely suited me more than the others and it made me notice I had been picking the big song to sing rather than the song that fitted me perfectly through the competition. But you have theme nights and it's hard to find a song that's perfect for you out of 20 songs, so you've got to put your stamp on whatever you're singing that night.
Did you always get the song you wanted to sing?
I wanted [Dolly Parton's] "Jolene." I didn't get it. I wanted "The Long and Winding Road." Didn't get it. And I wanted "Yesterday." Didn't get it. All these songs that I could have put my stamp on, but I got another song and then I had to try and make the best of it. It was easier for the boys, because there were a lot of boy theme nights. Like the Beatles are guys. They're going to sound good on those, and then you have Mariah Carey, who is not a guy but being girls, we're going to be compared straightaway, whereas the boys aren't. So it's like they really have the advantage.
How did you discover music from before you were born?
I am a golden-oldies station junkie. I'm a Skeeter Davis fan, believe it or not, and Nancy Sinatra. I watch a lot of movies and you hear songs in movies that you like, then you go and find them, like "Almost Famous" and "Forrest Gump." The soundtracks of those movies are just incredible. You'll never make music like that ever again.
Let's switch gears. I remember your album, 'Ultimate High,' was released in 2001, when you were 17. How did you get signed to MCA?
When I was 15 we met Michael Lippman and he put me in contact with a producer, Steve Dorff. Did some writing with him. His lawyer was Harley Williams, who was the lawyer for Jay Boberg, who was president of MCA. Harley gave my demo to him, and then they signed me like a week later.
I did some of my record with Steve and I did some of my record with Gregg Alexander, who had just come off of MCA as a member of the New Radicals. The label thought he would be good for me. I wanted to do the pop rock kind of thing and he was really into that and his sound was happening at the time. Gregg and Danielle [Brisboise] really allowed me to write a lot, so I ended up writing on four songs on the record.
When I worked with them, it was this crazy musical environment. I had a different creative vibe in me. I wrote mostly with Danielle and Nick Lashley. He had that real rough guitar sound. They really helped me with songwriting. I'd written before, but I didn't really understand what I was doing. I wrote music from a very early age. I look back on the songs now and obviously they were terrible but I was young. [Danielle and Nick] made me understand how to write a song.
A lot has been written about the failure of your MCA album. It was scheduled to be released on a very fateful day.
There was supposed to be a thing for it on my 18th birthday. That was the release date we were thinking of and it ended up going to stores [the day before]. My birthday is the 12th of September and 9/11 happened the day before. So what are you going to do? You know it's completely inappropriate to plug a record. I was more worried about what had happened. They sent me to Europe and I moved back in with my mom to wait until the time was appropriate and it never happened because the record company merged with Geffen.
After that initial experience in the music business, what was your goal in competing on "American Idol"?
"American Idol" is the best way to get to the public. It's an incredible thing that has happened in the music industry.
I want to make a record again and sing great songs. I'm kind of over singing covers. I loved every minute of singing in the bar [in San Diego], but it got old and what's so great about coming off of "Idol" is now I get to make a record. It's my songs, original material and people are maybe going to listen to it.
I can't let you go without asking how you developed an interest in tattoos.
When I was 18, I ran straight to the tattoo shop and got my first. I used to love Motley Crue and Tommy Lee was so tattooed. I got a tattoo on my back, which I will definitely get removed very shortly. Your first is always your worst. I want to get a phoenix on my whole back, so it's kind of in the way because it's kind of in the middle. I used to get a little one here, a little one there. [My husband] Todd had a few tattoos when I first met him. He had a few on his chest, a couple on his arm. He wasn't as heavily tattooed as he is now. It's just something that I always thought was cool.