David Cook only decided to audition alongside his younger brother at the last minute, but now the 25-year-old is among the last four singers in the season seven competition.

David Cook only decided to audition alongside his younger brother at the last minute, but now the 25-year-old is among the last four singers in the season seven competition. Having sung everything from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" to Free's "All Right Now," the Missouri native sat down for an exclusive Billboard interview, revealing how he chooses his songs, how former contestant Michael Johns' departure was a wake up call, and how "Idol" fans' interest in him has been "awe inspiring" and how the whole experience has been "vindicating."

You have been in a couple of bands and have released a solo album. How did you decide to audition for "American Idol"

My little brother Andrew had wanted to try out for a long time. I didn’t really have any interest. I was working on another record and was really content to do it my way [but] he asked me if I would go as moral support up to Omaha while he tried out.

As we got closer to it, my mom and my little brother were being a little bit more persuasive in trying to get me to audition with him. So at the last minute, I decided to do it. He didn’t make the first cut and we were in the same audition group of four. It was very awkward, like to the point where I turned to him and said, “Is this something you want me to do, because if you don’t want me to it, I won’t.” And his response was, “If you don’t, I’ll beat your ass.” So yeah, it’s entirely his and my mother’s fault that I’m here and I’m very grateful for it.

What songs did you and your brother sing at the audition?

I’d done some acoustic gigs and played “Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi but there’s a version they did that was a little more mellow called “Prayer ’94” off their “Crossroads” record [that] I played at shows and stuff so I knew I could do it. Andrew auditioned with “Last Request” by Paolo Nutini. I really thought he would make it through at least the first cut with that song because he did really well with it. I’ve given up trying to figure out other people’s logic.

How have you gone about choosing songs each week?

For lack of a better way to phrase it, there’s an idiot savant aspect to the way that I pick these songs. When given a theme like the Beatles or the ’80s, there are parameters which help because it gives me a limited list of songs. If the vibe of a song grips me and/or if I can immediately hear what I would want to do with that song, that’s usually a good indicator that I probably should do that song. As far as arrangement, I operate on the mantra, "just keep it simple, stupid." If I feel like the song needs something to access the vibe that I want to go with it, I’ll try it but I try not to over-think anything. Like with inspirational week, I really second-guessed myself on how I wanted to do that song [“Innocent” by Our Lady of Peace] and so by the time I got to perform it, my head was just going a million miles a second as opposed to just really focusing on the vibe of the song. Another lesson learned. I’ve had to force myself to trust myself.

What other lessons have you learned doing the show?

This show and this whole process has allotted me a brand new lease on life in that I’m more sure of who I am now than I ever was before. When you’re trying to be a career musician and you have $200 in the bank and your car’s breaking down and you’re lonely, you tend to think about whether or not you’ve got what it takes to do this, you know? To be here now, be in the top [four] and to have this outpouring of support from people I’ve never met and may never meet, it’s awe inspiring that in a couple months time that large an amount of people have managed to invest themselves in who I am. It’s allowed me to walk around with this new aura about me. I feel like, “All right, I’m in this. I know why I’m here and know what I want to do and I’m not going to accept anything less,” which is cool. So yeah, I think the whole process has been very vindicating.

I think everyone wonders if they are good enough.

I’ve been fortunate in that some really cool things have happened to me throughout this show that have kind of alleviated the day-to-day concerns. When Michael Johns left, that taught me a huge lesson, because it was like you can go home at any time. So if you get caught up in this week-to-week thing, you’re going to flounder.

Since then, it’s given me a new lease because it’s like I’m just going to go out on stage and I’m going to embrace that minute and a half. If it doesn’t work, I’m okay with that. During the Mariah Carey week, there were a few things personally going on that I would choose to remain private, but with all that going on, to have the judges say what they said, to get a standing O from Randy and everybody, that moment solidified the whole experience for me. I could walk away tomorrow and feel like that moment was my bookend. I said [when I made the] top 24, I feel like I already won. I still feel that way.

How do you feel about being judged after every performance?

It’s been a process for me. To have three people of their caliber invest their time enough to say anything, it’s pretty cool in and of itself. But what it took for me was really kind of detaching myself from the song as soon as I got done singing, and that’s been the hard part for me. In order for me to do these songs the way I want to, I have to spend that week leading up to it investing myself in that song.

I learned a very hard lesson in week two when I sang Free’s “All Right Now” and Simon referenced the pre-packaged video and I made some comment and I didn’t say anything bad and I certainly was not trying to be demeaning toward him in any way but at the time, it was a speak-before-you-think kind of vibe. The lesson I learned is when Randy, Paula or Simon talks to you, unless they ask you a question, you probably shouldn’t say a word, which in turn has allowed me to listen a little bit more.

You were under the radar before you emerged as a front-runner. What has that experience been like?

I loved the way that this has all panned out. I do. I like that I snuck up on people in those first couple weeks. There are 24 people to sift through and so my vibe was, “You don’t have to be one of the best yet. Just don’t be one of the worst.” It was fun for me because I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure. I was able to find my footing doing what I wanted to do.

As we get further into this, the only pressure that I really feel is to try to one-up myself, which is fun for me because I don’t feel like I’m competing against the other kids. I feel like I’m competing against last week’s version of myself, it allows me to evolve. I watch myself when I did “Happy Together” during week one and I watch myself coming into Neil Diamond week and I’m a completely different performer.

I feel like I’ve done what I needed to do, whether or not that makes me a frontrunner is not really up to me. If the other contestants see me as a frontrunner, if anybody else sees me as a frontrunner, I take it as a compliment and nothing more at this stage, because anybody can go home at any point and if I’m the last one standing, awesome. If I come out [fourth], that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

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