Coronavirus

'American Idol': Get to Know the First Half of the Top 14

American idol
ABC/Craig Sjodin

American Idol host Ryan Seacrest with judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. 

Last Thursday (April 12) inside dressing room 36E at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, the top 14 finalists on the latest season of American Idol continued a tradition that began years ago: one by one, each contestant sat down with Billboard for their first major interview since reaching this elite level. They talked about their earliest musical memories, their musical influences, when they first watched Idol and which alumni from the series were their personal favorites (Chris Daughtry earned the most votes from the first seven of the top 14).

On Monday (April 16) evening's broadcast, the second half of the top 14 will be revealed. Their stories will be told on Billboard in a few hours. But first meet the seven finalists announced last Monday.

Gabby Barrett

Born: March 5, 2000 – Pittsburgh, Penn.

Favorite Alumni: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, Phillip Phillips

Formative Listening: Whitney Houston, Etta James, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Carrie Underwood, Guns N’ Roses, KISS, Eagles

First Idol Experience: Started watching Season 4

Music became a big part of Barrett’s life when she was nine. “I was always a daddy’s girl. One day we went up to the football field at the high school. He wanted to exercise, and there were some ladies up at the field and he told them, ‘My daughter can sing.’ They invited us to their church because they wanted me to meet the pastor. He said to me, ‘I heard you could sing.’ And I replied, ‘Maybe.’” Barrett sang Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” “And the pastor said, ‘Oh, you can sing sing.’ I stayed with that church for two years. I worked with a group of women every Saturday. They would take me aside after church was over, working on my voice. I sang with the church for the Steelers, the Pirates and at the Daytona 500 and then I started doing my own shows when I was 12.”

Barrett opened for Cole Swindell at Stage AE in Pittsburgh and Keith Urban in Delaware. “I’ve had a lot of cool opportunities,” she says. The 18-year-old believes she got the musical gene from her dad’s side of the family. “My mom is a shower singer, but my dad’s grandparents’ parents wrote for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. My great-grandmother was a very good musician. She had an ear for music. She did harmonies very well. So it passed down through my bloodline and I got blessed with a gift.”

Barrett is one of the few finalists in Idol history who was discovered online. “They found my videos on YouTube and asked me to audition for the judges. I went in with Carrie Underwood’s ‘Church Bells.’ Normally I never let nerves control me but this time I got really nervous because I’m standing in front of three icons. It was just insane to be in there.”

Jonny Brenns

Born: March 22, 1999 – Guadalajara, Mexico

Favorite Alum: Carrie Underwood

Formative Listening: Frank Sinatra, Khalid, Shawn Mendes

First Idol Experience: He watched clips on YouTube

Brenns made his debut on the stage when he was seven, taking the lead role in a school production of Oliver! “I remember singing the song, ‘Where Is Love.’ It was super high, but it was very pure. For how old I was, I was impressed with myself. From that point on, I’ve always loved music,” he explains.

Brenns taught himself to play guitar, and at age 11, while living with his family in Maryland, he took piano lessons at his parents’ suggestion. “My piano teacher was so mean to me. I walked out and told my mom I quit. It wasn’t until we moved to St. Augustine, Fla. when I was 14 that I decided I love music and I want to play.”

Later, Brenns would receive emails from American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The Voice. “I would print all the paperwork but then I would get scared out of my mind. It was too much. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ and because I was under 18, I would have to tell my parents.” Brenns, who auditioned for Idol without telling his family, says, “the same rule applied back then. I didn’t want to tell them.” When Idol returned for its first season on ABC, Brenns was attending college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a thousand miles away from his parents, so it was easy for him to audition without letting them know.

Once he made the top 24 and Brenns was about to perform in front of a live audience, he looked out from backstage and was surprised to see his family. “I was overwhelmed. Normally I don’t like singing in front of my family because music is my own thing, but in that moment, I was singing for them. It was less of a performance and more just showing them, ‘This is what I’ve got.’”

Cade Foehner 

Born: July 24, 1996 – Nacogdoches, Texas

Favorite Alumni: Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks

Formative Listening: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings

First Idol Experience: As a little boy, watched every season

Although he now lives in the woods, a mile from the nearest highway, Foehner grew up in Shelbyville, Texas. “My mom was a huge Fleetwood Mac fan. When she drove me to school, she’d play Rumours and The Dance. I was mesmerized lyrically and by the cool weird element of rock music. I was drawn to the eccentric, wilder side of rock. It was not the most perfect thing in the world. The screeching, wailing notes of Robert Plant would reach out of the radio and grab you. That changed me as a kid and sent me on a trajectory toward something like rock music.

“As a kid, I was in rodeos for a long, long time. In eighth grade I broke my leg on a horse and in my down time, I thought, ‘I want a guitar and let’s see how that goes.’ I picked it up and it literally changed my life. From the get-go, I knew I had to do this.

It was a Christmas gift from my parents. They got me an acoustic guitar. I learned to play it by watching Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance on DVD. I was obsessed with them for a long time. I would watch Lindsey Buckingham and that’s how I learned how to play guitar.”

Foehner started playing in his worship group at church. “I thought I was all right. After that, I learned how to play drums and bass guitar and piano. I couldn’t play all of those things live at once, so I taught my cousin how to play drums and taught a friend from school how to play bass and we started going all over Texas where they would let 15-year-olds into the bar. I went to the Dallas International Guitar Festival in 2014 and won the Texas 10-to-20 guitar competition. That was a big deal for us and we thought we had made it. I was writing all during that time, because listening to people like Robert Plant and Stevie Nicks and their abstract lyrics really drove me. I was always trying to write something like that, looking for that ‘Rhiannon’ moment.”

Dennis Lorenzo

Born: April 4, 1991 – Philadelphia

Favorite Alumni: Chris Daughtry, Fantasia, Justin Guarini, Adam Lambert

Formative Listening: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, a-ha, Pink Floyd, Toto, Yes

First Idol Experience: Started watching Season 1

Lorenzo discovered music when his parents took him to see the movie The Lion King. “I remember being in the theater with my dad and my mom and it really hit me that the film had a great soundtrack.” Lorenzo credits another film with changing his life. “I saw Free Willy. I had seen Michael Jackson sing ‘Billie Jean’ when I was younger, but now I was more conscious of what was going on. I listened to ‘Will You Be There’ over and over and I would do Michael moves and sing the song. My mom knew I could sing before that, but that’s when I realized that I had the talent. I was never really interested in it though. I would do the whole Michael thing because I thought it was really cool, but I didn’t want to be a singer.”

Lorenzo had two other interests. “I wanted to either be a wrestler – and that wasn’t going to happen – or a scientist. I idolized The Rock when I was younger. And now, I’m a huge fan of Elon Musk. I read about astrophysics to my daughter and I have Musk’s autobiography. I’m really into space and astronomy.”

Lorenzo didn’t get into singing until he was 16. “My grandmother and grandfather bought me an acoustic guitar. I wanted an electric guitar, but they could only afford an acoustic guitar. I was very grateful. I never told them that wasn’t the one that I wanted. I couldn’t put the guitar down. I would strum it and I would strum all the pain away. I’ve been writing and singing ever since.”

The first song Lorenzo wrote was “Share the Love.” “I want to sing it on the show at some point. It’s about my struggle with faith and God. After my dad was murdered, I had so many questions and I didn’t understand what was going on. I wondered, ‘Is this what the world is supposed to be? Are some people meant to have less and some are meant to have more?’ That’s what the song is about. Before I had the guitar, things were dark. I went through some tough things. I didn’t know I was embarking on this journey. In the hook, the song says don’t be bitter, just be better and it’s in an eerie falsetto.”

Lorenzo first auditioned for Idol almost eight years ago. “I think I wasn’t ready at that time. I sang a Donny Hathaway song. I was crushed that I didn’t make it. At that moment, I had yet to embark on a journey of ups and downs. I look back on it and think, ‘Dude, you had no idea. Pick yourself up because you have a long way to go.’”

Michelle Sussett

Born: Aug. 2, 1995 – Caracas, Venezuela

Favorite Alumni: Jessica Sanchez, Haley Reinhart, Angie Miller, Carrie Underwood, Phillip Phillips, Chris Daughtry

Formative Listening: Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Hilary Duff, Belinda (Peregrín), Ha*Ash

First Idol Experience: Her mom showed her a Kelly Clarkson performance of “Since U Been Gone” on MTV

It’s no surprise that Sussett loves music. While still in the womb, her mother would put headphones on her belly and play the Beatles and Bob Marley for her yet-to-be born daughter. Sussett started singing at age four, and within a year was staging mini-concerts for her family. “I would tell my family that in 10 minutes I was going to perform. I turned off all the lights and put sheets all over the living room. I’d leave one light on so they could see me and then just sing.”

Sussett did consider another career. “I thought about psychology, because in my mind I imagined if I studied psychology, I would write better songs, but I always had music in mind so I never really thought about being a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe a lawyer, yes, because I could write songs about justice, but music has always been my main focus.”

Sussett was 18 when she moved with her family to the United States. A year later, she tried out for Idol for the first time. “I sent a video, but I had a problem with the audio so I guess they couldn’t hear me. They never called.” That didn’t stop the young singer. “When I first moved from Venezuela, I didn’t have a green card and I knew one of the requirements was to have one. Eventually I got the green card and a month later American Idol started promoting the show’s return. I thought it was perfect timing.”

Catie Turner

Born: Feb. 14, 2000 – Philadelphia

Favorite Alumni: Haley Reinhart, Katharine McPhee, Kellie Pickler, Caleb Johnson, Kris Allen, Phillip Phillips, Lauren Alaina

Formative Listening: Stevie Nicks, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin

First Idol Experience: When she was four, watched Simon Cowell. Didn’t know who he was, just that he was “mean”

Turner has a vivid memory of how she first became aware of music. “I had one of those Disney princess carousels and if you pressed it, all the Disney princesses would dance around to Beethoven. It was my first obsession. The Disney princesses and Beethoven were my musical jams. And then when I turned seven, it was all about Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.”

It would be another nine years before Turner realized she had musical talent. “No one in my family was musical. We’re the most tone deaf family in the world.” Things changed when Turner sang “Yellow Submarine” for her mother. “I was belting it because I saw some girl on America’s Got Talent sing and I wanted to get on one of those TV shows. My mom just said, ‘Oh yes, that’s nice, honey,’ and then went on her phone.”

Turner says that watching American Idol with her mom helped them to bond. “That was our TV show. I watched it when I got my tonsils taken out and I was drinking a strawberry smoothie and I was crying. I remember Katharine McPhee and how much I adored ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ by her and how angry I was when Taylor Hicks won, no offense. I remember Sanjaya and his Mohawk and the Crying Girl. I was too young to understand why she was crying.”

When she was 15, Turner tried out for Idol, thinking it was her last chance to be on the show. “The producers weren’t convinced, so they sent me to Clay Aiken and Michael Orland for a second opinion. And they told me that I wasn’t ready and I should come back next year, even though Clay totally knew it was the farewell season. I thought my American Idol dreams were over because it was done and there was no talk of a reboot, so I was bummed. Last year, my mom bought plane tickets for the Orlando auditions without me knowing.” With just four days notice, her mother broke the news. “She told me, ‘If you don’t get through, you can always go to Disney World. The sadness will kind of even out.’ I told myself. “It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to get through. I’ll get to go to Disney and it’ll be good. I’ll just go for the experience.' And then I got through. They gave me that first Golden Ticket and I collapsed. My grandmother was with me and she thought I passed out from heatstroke. But it was because I was so happy. I fell to my knees on the grass and that will always be one of my best days.”

Michael J. Woodard

Born: Oct. 6, 1997 – Philadelphia

Favorite Alumni: Fantasia, La’Porsha Renae, Adam Lambert

Formative Listening: Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, James Brown, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber

First Idol Experience: Watching Season 3 with his grandmother and being impressed with Fantasia’s performance of “Summertime”

Woodard’s earliest musical memory is singing “A Little Candle” at a Christmas pageant when he was seven. “And then I sang ‘Praise Is What I Do’ for my pastor.” His musical education continued thanks to a flip phone. “There was a ring tone section and I used to find a lot of songs. I downloaded them to the phone but I didn’t know we’d have to pay for them eventually. I grew up in a religious household but (pop music) wasn’t taboo. I remember watching Justin Bieber in 2009 and I thought I could do that.”

Woodard had plenty of encouragement. “My school was a performing arts elementary school and everybody grew up singing in the church, so I had people around me who were nurturing my gift. I had my first audition when I was eight years old for a play called Wild Things Whirligig. It was on Broadway.”

Woodard moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2016 to attend college. “It was tough trying to balance school while trying to pursue a career and things were really not happening as fast as you’d want them to. So it was like a really hard time and when we found out about the auditions I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know. I don’t want to go through any more rejection.’ She said I had nothing to lose. She was right. I figured just go and do it and whatever happens happens. And I did it and I’m in the top 14.”

Woodard has his eye on the future. “I want to create a legacy for myself and I really want to change the world. I know it seems like a cliché, but the reason why I’m doing this is so I can make an impact on the people that are watching. I think with this platform comes a major responsibility, and I’m going to treat it really delicately. I’m going to change lives.”


THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.