Katharine McPhee Premieres Nina Simone 'Everything Must Change' Cover: Exclusive

Amanda Demme
Katharine McPhee

Playing a little hardball with CBS' Frank Sinatra centennial special two years ago paid some major dividends for Katharine McPhee.

The singer, actress (CBS' Scorpion) and 2006 American Idol runner-up initially turned down an offer to do an introduction at the 2015 Sinatra 100: An All-Star Grammy Concert, reckoning that the havoc it would cause to her schedule "to say 'This next performer is blah, blah, blah'" was counterproductive. But then she got a last-minute invitation to perform, which led to an introduction to music director and Blue Note Records chief Don Was, who subsequently produced McPhee's new standards collection I Fall In Love Too Easily -- whose rendition of Nina Simone's "Everything Must Change" is premiering exclusively below.

"This is where I'm heading," McPhee tells Billboard. "This is where I'm going to kind of live, I think, for the rest of my musical career. It just makes so much sense to me. That night (at the Sinatra filming), all these light bulbs went off. All these people were saying to my manager, 'She really sings this stuff very well,' so it really makes sense." And it feels more comfortable to McPhee than trying to fit into the pop world, as she did after her Idol run.

"When you look back at my Idol history, I was always very confused as a musical artist," McPhee acknowledges. "I never thought about genres and all of that. I just loved to sing. So I came out of the gate singing 'God Bless The Child' and 'You Came Along' and 'My Funny Valentine.' I was constantly picking those songs of my own free will. It took me 10 years to figure out, but it's never too late, and I'm really happy doing it. There's nothing better than feeling true to who you are."

Teaming with Was -- who shepherded her through the last-minute addition to the Sinatra special singing "You And I" with John Legend -- was perfect for the album. "We just had such a great rapport together," she says. "Just the circumstances under which I met him, him teaching me the song backstage when they're onstage rehearsing this song I'm learning...It was a trial by fire but he got me through it, and that made it very easy to make (the album) with him.”

"Everything Must Change" was a song McPhee had downloaded during her Idol tenure to consider singing but never got around to hearing. But it wound up taking on a more personal meaning in her life. "Maybe a year after Idol my parents were going through a divorce, and no matter what age you're at it hits you hard," McPhee recalls. "I remember sitting on the bed one night scrolling through music, being kind of down and melancholy, and ('Everything Must Change') came on and I hear this voice and I'm like, 'Who is this? How do I not know who Nina Simone is?' I just fell in love with her voice and so much pain and emotion behind her voice, and it was the most incredible song. It explains life so perfectly at this painful moment in my life." McPhee immediately added the song to her live performance repertoire and has been singing it for years before recording it for I Fall In Love Too Easily.

McPhee's Scorpion schedule limits her ability to perform live to promote the album, which comes out Nov. 17, but she will perform Nov. 21-25 at the Cafe Carlyle in New York. And she hopes to line up more shows for 2018 when Scorpion is on break. Meanwhile, McPhee, like others, is interested to see what the revived American Idol will be like next spring -- but only to a point.

"I keep forgetting Idol's coming back," she says with a laugh. "I ran into Lionel Richie in a hotel here in L.A. and chatted with him for a little bit. He was telling me the dynamics between the judges and he seems really excited and said they play off each other really well. So much of it starts off with the judges and their chemistry. So he's very excited, and it was fun chatting with him about it. I imagine it's going to be a different thing. I'm sure out of curiosity I'll tune in to see what it's about. I would think at this point people are a little bit sick of the sort of talent competition thing, but good TV is good TV, so if they have a good chemistry going on with the judges it could be fun to watch again."


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