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

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 (Phillip Phillips earned the most votes from the second group of seven of the top 14).

The final seven were revealed Monday (April 16) evening. Here are their stories.

Marcio Donaldson

Born: April 27, 1989 – Compton, Calif.

Favorite Alumni: Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson, David Archuleta

Formative Listening: Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison

First Idol Experience: His father told him to check out this new TV series during season 1

Donaldson’s father knew his son could sing when the two-year-old toddler stood up on his workbench and belted out some songs. At age five, young Marcio would go to the hairdresser with his mother and she would ask him to sing for her friends. “I was nervous but she would give me a dollar and then some of the other women would give me five dollars. I caught the singing bug not because of the money. It was the reaction I was getting from these older ladies. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can sing!’”

From the age of 6 until he was 19, Donaldson took vocal lessons from a private teacher, Evangeline Stewart. “She took a chance on me. It was a time when we didn’t have money and she told my mom she believed in me.”

About to turn 29 later this month, Donaldson is the oldest finalist among this season’s top 14. He’s been trying out for Idol since he was 16, auditioning for the first time during season 4. Although he watched from the beginning (“That note from Kelly Clarkson on ‘A Natural Woman’ was crazy!”), he first thought about auditioning after watching Fantasia during season 3. “I saw that everybody had a shot. So after Fantasia’s season I thought, ‘What the hey? Let’s try it.’”

Donaldson continued to audition every year. This time, he traveled to San Antonio, Texas for his last shot before hitting the upper age limit. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I’m doing something that most people probably would never have the gall to do and I’m really chasing my dream. It sounds so cliché but you actually do have to chase it because they’re not going to come to you and say, ‘Oh, do you want to be the next American Idol?’”

Caleb Lee Hutchinson

Born: March 2, 1999 – Dallas, Georgia

Favorite Alumni: Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips

Formative Listening: Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith

First Idol Experience: His parents watched from the beginning and it was family viewing

Hutchinson discovered music very early in life. “I can still recall my parents singing to me in the bathtub when I was tiny. I remember when I was really young riding around with my dad and listening to music when he was out driving. He listened to the oldies but goodies, all those Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard songs. My mom was the one who got me more into Prince and Shaggy at that time. When I started singing, I was doing half old country and then I’d get in the basement and be yelling Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and everything else. I listened to everything with an open mind and there’s not a lot of things that I don’t listen to or at least know a little bit about in terms of music these days, so I think that helped.”

Admitting that he didn’t have the courage to pursue performing when he was very young, Hutchinson says he started playing guitar at age 12 when he was in middle school. “I’m self-taught. A few older people that I played guitar with showed me the ropes, but once they showed me a little bit, I spent my time on YouTube looking at music videos, trying to figure out how to play. And from that point on, I started singing. It gave me my whole identity and saved my whole life, really.”

Shortly after high school graduation, Hutchinson was trying to figure out what to do with his life when he found out the Idol bus tour was coming through Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, just over an hour away from his home. “I thought I’d give it a shot and if it didn’t work out, something else would happen. My dad works in Georgia and the whole Southeast, so we woke up very early, around 4 a.m., and got there before the sun was rising. There was already a huge line outside the park and we almost got lost trying to find out where to stand. We waited in line a good six hours. It was fun. I did a lot of sweating that day, but it was a cool deal.”

Garrett Jacobs

Born: Jan. 6, 2000 – Bossier City, La.

Favorite Alumni: Clark Beckham, Phillip Phillips, Haley Reinhart, Casey Abrams

Formative Listening: Chris Stapleton, Brandon Heath

First Idol Experience: Started watching Season 10

“My earliest musical memory is watching my mom sing in church and singing with her in the car. She loved country music and at the same time she loved gospel music,” says Jacobs. “My parents involved me in piano lessons from first to fifth grade. But I was interested, too.” When he was 12, Jacobs told his parents, “For Christmas, I want a guitar.” His folks said, “Why not?” “That was a turning point for me because I practiced every single day. I loved it and I could create my own music and sing my own songs without relying on a track.”

Jacobs led worship at his church from his freshman year until he was a junior. “That’s where I got used to singing in front of people. But I never really got the chance to do gigs. I was always doing sports. I played baseball and football but ever since I found music, there was no question in my mind. I always wanted to do music. It was just out of reach, and I thought it was some dream that could never happen, so I stayed with sports.”

Currently a 12th grader in high school, Jacobs wrote his first song (“Unwind”) as part of his senior project. Billboard asked the teenager how he was handling being in school and on Idol at the same time. “I’m a good student and the school staff is behind me,” he replied. “I have A’s right now. When I came back to Hollywood they let me know I’m going to be OK.”

Watching Scotty McCreery on season 10 first inspired Jacobs to audition. “Then I heard on the radio that American Idol was coming back and they were having open call auditions in Shreveport. But then my mom said, ‘They’re doing online auditions too. Why don’t you record a video and send that in and if you don’t hear anything, then you can go to open call.’ Out of that five-minute conversation, I recorded a song in one take and sent it to Idol and I heard back in a week.”

Jurnee

Born: May 11, 1999 – Tucson, Ariz.

Favorite Alumni: Jessica Sanchez, Jordin Sparks

Formative Listening: Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Katy Perry

First Idol Experience: Started watching Season 1 because her mother was “obsessed” with the show

“My mom tells me I was singing before I could talk,” says Jurnee. “I heard music as sounds and colors. I still can’t read music, because I’m better hearing it and seeing colors in my head and making pictures. So my whole life, I’ve been singing and I started writing at seven. The first song I wrote was called ‘Glam.’ I was writing about how I didn’t want to go to school and listen to my parents and I wanted to go to the mall and get jewelry and shopping bags. Then I got to middle school and learned how to play guitar. I taught myself. The first song I wrote with music was called ‘Round Again’ and then by seventh grade, I wrote my first real song that actually meant something and made sense. It’s called “Unstoppable” and I have an ‘Unstoppable’ tattoo because I consider that my first song.”

Jurnee took advantage of her parents’ record collection to expand her musical horizons. “Mom had a lot of Madonna and a lot of Prince. I listened to a lot of Michael Jackson and No Doubt. Those were the ones that were always in the car on the CD player. My dad listened to a lot of Type O Negative and Metallica and a lot of rock.”

As a three-year-old, Jurnee watched season one of Idol because her mother loved the show. “I didn’t like the show when I was younger,” she admits. “My mom made it like a chore to watch with her. So it came to a point where I didn’t want to watch Idol. I wanted to play. And then during season 14 I decided to actually sit and watch the finale with her and they said they were holding auditions in Denver.” Jurnee decided to try out. “I made it to group rounds and was sent home, so this is my second time.”

After that initial rejection, Jurnee stopped playing music. Married last September, Jurnee credits her wife Ashley with helping her to find music again. “And find myself. She helped me find my inspiration and was my muse for a lot of great music. Idol is my first gig in a year or two.”

Mara Justine

Born: Feb. 28, 2002 – Galloway, N.J.

Favorite Alumni: Jessica Sanchez, Phillip Phillips, Joshua Ledet

Formative ListeningCarole King, the Supremes, Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, P!nk, Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross

First Idol Experience: Started watching season 11

Justine is the youngest of this year’s top 14, and the first finalist in Idol history to be born in 2002, the same year that Idol premiered. Her earliest musical memory is being in diapers, singing “Genie in a Bottle” and songs by the Cheetah Girls. “I remember when we did housecleaning, we’d have a lot of good music playing, like Billy Joel.”

Justine grew up listening to music on iTunes and Spotify. “As I grew older, all I ever wanted was vinyl. I got my first vinyl albums on my 15th birthday. I got Carole King, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and the Supremes. I love the Supremes with all my heart. I feel like I grew up listening to that kind of music and to have it on vinyl, it’s like a whole different kind of feeling. I love my vinyl.”

Her Idol entry point was season 11. “I’ve wanted to audition ever since then. I’ve always loved music, so watching it as an aspiring singer at my age at the time, I dreamt about it. To be on Idol is so surreal. I don’t even feel like this is real life. It’s a dream come true.”

Inspired by her mom and her vocal coach, Sal Dupree, Justine auditioned for Idol for the first time this season, the first year she was eligible. The night before, she had one hour of sleep and woke up at 1 a.m. “We left at 3 a.m. and got there at 6. I don’t know how I stayed awake. I figure it was the adrenaline. It was a very, very cold morning in New York. I went with my entire family and my vocal coach and his wife. It was a very long 16-hour day but it was one of the best days of my life. When I went into the audition room, they were so kind and welcoming. I don’t remember any of it. I only remember it now because I watched it on television. I sang ‘Love on the Brain’ by Rihanna and got the first standing ovation of the season.”

Maddie Poppe

Born: Dec. 5, 1997 – Clarksville, Iowa

Favorite Alumni: Brooke White, Haley Reinhart, Taylor Hicks, Megan Joy ​

Formative Listening: Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor

First Idol Experience: Remembers watching Taylor Hicks in season 5 because she remembers voting for him

Music was always a part of Poppe’s household. “My dad was in a bluegrass band for a while. Then he was in a country band and a rock band, so he did it all and I was always around it. Dad had a recording studio in our basement and when I was five he had us record Christmas songs like ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and he put them on a CD for our grandparents.”

Poppe joined her school band. “I was not very good because I can’t read music, so I had to write everything out. I was in choir and did musical theater in class, but our school was too small to ever do a musical. I graduated with 22 kids.”

Poppe described to Billboard how she came to audition for this season of Idol:

“I was in a rut last summer. I always thought opportunities would come my way and I would get really excited and I would get my hopes up and then things would fall through. I was getting ready to go back to school and I felt like, ‘Is this the end?’ I know I’m young, but it was hard. Then my dad emailed me one day and said American Idol is holding auditions and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I got to the first round and sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ Being told yes changed everything. It came into my life at just the right time, and I’ve met so many cool people on the show that I think are going to be lifelong friends. We’ve become so close so quickly.”

Poppe has already learned a lot during her Idol journey. “I think I’ve become more myself than I ever have been. I’ve really found myself and who I want to be and my style. I’ve never been this confident and I feel good about my song choices.”

Ada Vox

Born: May 17, 1993 – San Antonio, Texas

Favorite Alumni: Melinda Doolittle, LaToya London, Amanda Overmyer, Elise Testone, Candice Glover, Amber Holcomb

Formative Listening: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Selena, Eydie Gorme

First Idol Experience: Watched Season 1 while recovering from brain surgery

Watching season 1 of American Idol was a family activity for young Adam Sanders, who was recovering from brain surgery at the age of eight. “My mom, my stepdad and my sister watched every week.” That same year, Sanders discovered that singing was something he could pursue and dream about. “That’s when I said, ‘This is something I want to do. Look at those people up there achieving their dreams.’ It was such a great thing to witness Kelly Clarkson winning. And having experienced music as a form of healing while I was in recovery, it meant a lot. It came together in the next couple of years that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a singer and I wanted to be on American Idol.

Sanders was in his first semester of college but didn’t care for school. “I said, ‘I’m going to audition. If I make it, I’m going to drop out of school.’ I made it and I didn’t go back to school.” Cut from the show during Hollywood Week, Sanders didn’t give up. “I’ve auditioned multiple times in different seasons and never made it past the producers. Sometimes up to three times in one season, going to different states. But I came back this time. I thought it was obvious that just being Adam and having the voice wasn’t good enough. They never said I wasn’t a great singer. They just said that I wasn’t what they needed. And so I thought I had to create something that is relevant, something that is for the music industry. This is a search to find the next superstar and you have to find your place in the music industry, not just as a singer. So when I came back this year, I came back with a whole new strategy. I had created Ada outside of Idol but was still auditioning as Adam.”

A couple of years after season 12, Sanders took into consideration everything that everyone had told him about sounding like a diva but not looking like one. “I was invited to perform at our San Antonio gay pride event and that was the first time I saw a drag queen in person. I didn’t even know we had gay pride. I was kind of sheltered before then. So this was my first time in this crazy world. I saw a drag queen onstage lip-syncing and I thought I can do that too, but I’ll actually sing. Once I started, I got into local clubs and since then, I haven’t stopped. I’ve been doing at least one show a week for the last three years now.”