The Billboard Q&A: Brooke White From 'American Idol'

From smiles to tears and everything in between, Brooke White was one of the most emotionally charismatic finalists on "American Idol" this season. Billboard chatted with the Arizona native about her m

From smiles to tears and everything in between, Brooke White was one of the most emotionally charismatic finalists on "American Idol" this season. Billboard chatted with the Arizona native about her musical background and her dreams post-AI.

Perhaps more than any other contestant in seven seasons, you have not been afraid to reveal your emotions on camera. Do you consider yourself to be a very open person?

To a fault. It's challenging for me because when you're so vulnerable, it's difficult to have thick skin. Sometimes you feel like you have no protection around you. It's just out there for everyone to see and feel and that can be hard, especially on this show where we have 30+ million viewers.

I stay far away from the media, from blogs, even from TV. I don't read anything, good or bad. I'm very appreciative of kind comments, but want to stay grounded and focused.

When you were growing up in Arizona, how did you first become interested in music?

My parents are obsessed with music -- not necessarily playing it but listening to it. It's our passion as a family. Instead of watching TV, we were really into listening to music. My dad played the trumpet for seven years and was in the marching band. He can play anything by ear and when we first got our piano, he sat down and played a couple of songs that he knew. That's what really sparked my interest. I sat down at the piano when I was seven and picked out a song that I'd heard on the radio and that was the beginning.

What was that first song?

'Right Here Waiting' by Richard Marx. My fingers knew which keys to hit... It was like recalling something I already knew.

My mom has a lovely voice. She doesn't really sing. We bought a drum set for her when I was in fifth grade. She started taking drum lessons and then my younger brother Tyler sat down at them and went crazy. He knew how to play them right away. My sister Katie has a beautiful voice. We sound very similar. When she answers the phone, people always think it's me and vice versa, but she doesn't sing very often. She's still afraid, which I can understand. I went through that for a long time and I still do. My youngest brother Quinn plays the cello and the trumpet as well, because my dad played and so he wanted to play. He's also taken to the guitar and he's pretty good. So we're all into music. We're self-taught musicians, not very technically savvy when it comes to music, but we feel it in our hearts and our souls.

What happened after you played the piano that first time?

It became my escape. I would be at the piano as much as possible, and my parents noticed right away. My mom said, 'Where did you learn that?' and I don't remember. I said, 'I just heard it in my head,' so they automatically thought, 'Well, we need to get her piano lessons.'

I remember getting my first piano book and it was a generic song and the teacher wouldn't let me look at my fingers and I had to look at these little black notes on a page and it was terrible and instantly I was so discouraged. I wanted to be playing really advanced music and we were working on 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' All of a sudden it was like, 'I can't play the piano. I'm not good at this,' and so I quit after two lessons. My parents were great. They didn't push me. Part of me wonders, 'Should they have?' I don't really think they should have because look where I'm at now. It was a very organic thing that happened. So for many years, there were no lessons. It was just for my own enjoyment and for my family. They always liked to hear the songs that I would learn to play and I came up with lots of different ones from 'Music Box Dancer' and 'Somewhere in Time.'

And then I started playing cello in the fourth grade and I had a very similar experience. I couldn't read the notes but I would listen to what the teacher was playing, go home, learn it and come back, play it for her. One day she realized I wasn't reading the music and she gave me a piece of music and said, 'Play this' and I couldn't and I quit playing the cello as well.

I still remember the day in 1971 when 'Tapestry' was released. I was working in a record store and our shipment arrived and I put the LP right on the turntable. But you weren't born when Carole King recorded that album, or when Carly Simon and James Taylor first appeared on the Billboard charts. How did you discover all of these musicians?

My mom and dad grew up in the '60s and '70s and that's the music they listened to. When we were in the car, it's what we listened to. I liked some of the more contemporary stations as a kid but I think my parents didn't like a lot of things that were on there, like it wasn't appropriate for us and we would spend a lot of time listening to the oldies station in Arizona, KOOL 94.5. We would take trips to Las Vegas to visit my grandma, trips to Disneyland and we were listening to Carole King's 'Tapestry.' We were listening to Carly Simon's greatest hits, James Taylor's greatest hits, America, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, Chicago, the Carpenters and then country music as well and then also a lot of Motown. We used to not like it and I'd say, 'This is boring. I want to listen to Power 92.' And little did I know it was completely shaping who I was musically, helping create this foundation for me.

When did you realize you wanted to make music your life's work?

I was very shy. Being on the stage was not something I wanted to do at all. My cousin went to the same high school and he and his dad were going to the audition for 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' My uncle had heard me sing just for fun and he and my dad always thought that I should sing. I was definitely against the idea. I hated my voice. They came by my house and said, 'Brooke, we want to take you with us,' so I went with them. I had no background on the play, had no idea what it was about. I went and auditioned with my cousin and we sang 'It's a Jolly Holiday With Mary' from 'Mary Poppins,' which was my favorite movie growing up as a kid. When I auditioned, I really got into it. I ended up getting the lead role. I went home and cried and told my mom and dad I didn't want to do it and that was the beginning. That was right before I turned 16.

Then I started working with a vocal coach later and the first time I sang for him, he said, 'Have you ever heard of Carole King?' and he started playing 'It's Too Late.' I had worked with another vocal coach who was great but much more classically trained and she couldn't figure out how to work with my voice. It was so scary, I'd given up again on singing, so when I went and started working with him, he took me into this whole new world. I thought all the good singers had high voices with strong vibrato and I had this low raspy thing, like five notes, and I remember singing 'It's Too Late' and feeling like, 'This is it!' He said to me, 'What do you want to do with your life?' I was going to beauty school at the time. I was in 11th grade and I remember saying to him, 'I'm going to be a cosmetologist,' and he said, 'I think you should consider music.' At first, I laughed and said, 'No way.' Even though I really enjoyed the music, my brain hadn't really wrapped around the idea yet. And he started writing songs for me and I started going to L.A. to record in his little studio and that was really my first experience. It was very rapid. I graduated from high school, dropped out of beauty school and moved to L.A. when I was 17 years old.

On your own?

On my own. My parents think, 'Oh, that makes us sound like terrible people.' But I wasn't alone. I lived with a wonderful family who took great care of me. I worked with this vocal coach/singer/songwriter guy and you know, we worked for a couple months and then it was just kind of evident that I wasn't ready. There were so many things that just didn't come together. Being away from home and musically I was just beginning so it was hard to know who I was. Especially at 17 or 18, how do you know who you are? That's why I have to give props to David Archuleta. He's so young and doing such a phenomenal job. I moved back home and for two years, I just completely stopped doing music all together. As soon as I started, I stopped.

Was it difficult to decide to audition?

Last year my manager had said, 'You should try out for 'American Idol,'' and I said, 'No way. Not for me.' I watched the show for years. Never thought that I could hang with it.

I entered a contest here in Los Angeles through Star 98.7, submitted a music video for an original song I wrote called 'Free.' People voted on it. I ended up in the top five and performed at the Key Club for Kiefer Sutherland because he owns a label with Jude Cole. I performed two original songs and didn't get the deal. That was the middle of August (2007). 'American Idol' had already passed through San Diego and my brain wasn't there quite yet.

There was one more audition left in Philadelphia, in two days. So I talked to my husband about it. He did the math. The odds were like .1 percent of getting in. I went to Arizona for my cousin's wedding and knew in my gut, 'You've got to get your butt on an airplane and get to Philadelphia.' I got on a red-eye flight alone. I waited 20 hours the first day and finally auditioned at 11:30 at night. It was one of the most difficult and wonderful weeks I'd ever had.

Did you envision that you would be in the top five?

I'd hoped that it would happen, but every week was a great fight for me. Being that I'm a sensitive, soft person, it's been really difficult to muster all the mental toughness and confidence that I can. But I'm grateful for America being able to see the whole picture and sense I've always given it my best. I look forward to having a career where I can sing songs that mean something to both the audience and to myself and I'm grateful for the time I've had here. And now I'm going on tour, which is a thrill because I love the contestants. We're like a family. It'll be a great learning experience (because) touring is something I have not done yet.