'American Idol' 2019: Top 14: Part I, The Interviews

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

This year’s collection of top 14 finalists on American Idol returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday, April 2 to get ready for the season 17 live shows and the final phase of the competition. Less than 24 hours later, they followed a tradition that began years ago by sitting down with Billboard in a dressing room at CBS Television City for their first in-depth interviews. As they filed in one by one from early morning to evening time, they answered questions about their earliest musical memories, their influences and their personal histories of Idol.

On tonight’s broadcast, the first seven of this season’s top 14 were revealed. Here are their stories.

Laci Kaye Booth

Born: Aug. 28, 1995 – Livingston, Texas

Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Haley Reinhart

Formative Listening: Stevie Nicks, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks

First Idol Experience: A devoted fan of the show since she was seven, she remembers watching Kelly Clarkson win season one.

Born the daughter of Texas country singer Jody Booth, her earliest musical memory is singing along with him at age three when he was sitting on the living room couch, playing his guitar. Soon after, her parents divorced and eventually, her father passed along his collection of LPs to his daughter. “So I’ve been obsessed with vinyl since I was really young.”

Booth was eight years old when she figured out what she really wanted to do. “My family has a Jubilee every year. We were in Huntsville, Texas, and my parents brought me up to sing. They gave me a mic and I had this frilly little dress on and my hair was up in curls. I was rocking back and forth, I was so scared. I sang ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline and then I opened my eyes and saw a crowd of people clapping and giving me a standing ovation. That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Watching American Idol became a family activity. “My stepdad, my mom and my brother would watch it and eat dinner in the living room. It was one of my stepdad’s favorite shows too.”

Although she always wanted to audition for Idol, there was one thing stopping her. “I feared rejection. I didn’t want it to take a toll on my music career. The night before my open call audition, I told my mom, ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’ She said, ‘This is what you’ve wanted to do your entire life. How could you not want to do this?’ I knew she was right. They can tell me no and I would walk away and still sing, but this is my dream and it’s right in front of me. It was the best decision I ever made and I’ve conquered so many of my fears and I’ve grown so much as a person and an artist during this competition. At every step, I’ve gained more and more confidence in myself.”

Walker Burroughs

Born: Sept. 29, 1998 – Louisville, Kentucky

Favorite Alums: Casey Abrams, Haley Reinhart, Clark Beckham, Alex Preston

Formative Listening: Earth, Wind & Fire, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Jacob Collier, Cory Henry, Becca Stevens

First Idol Experience: I feel like I’ve been watching forever.”

At the age of two, Burroughs would fall asleep every night to the sound of his father playing the piano. “We had this really nice Steinway that was given to my dad by my grandfather and every night dad would tuck us in and then come downstairs and play piano while we fell asleep. He would bring out the old hymnal and play.”

Burroughs was three when his family moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to Birmingham, Ala. When he was in third grade, his father taught him to play “Sweet Home Alabama” on guitar. “I couldn’t do it and I was so mad, I threw a temper tantrum.”

A couple of years later, Burroughs had a different experience of music, performing at a Passport summer camp run by his parents. “I sang and had some fun responses from the people at camp. Moving into high school, I realized I can do this and it sounds alright.”

Burroughs had participated in church choir since elementary school and joined the band in middle school, continuing with choir and band in high school. “I was in the cappella group and I was the drum major, conducting in front of the field for the marching band. I played the saxophone when I first started and in 10th grade, I swapped to the bassoon, which is a very weird instrument, but fun. It’s a big wooden stick pole with a little metal piece, held like a saxophone, but it’s just one long tube.”

Burroughs wrote his first song when he was in fifth grade. “It was about running a foot race. It was super short and very stupid. I haven’t had a huge writing phase in my life. I think I’m going to get to that.”

Burroughs decided to audition at the urging of friends and also because he released a song last summer. “I had a big crush on this girl and she had a boyfriend, so I was super sad and I wrote the song about it when I was at summer camp. We ended up dating for almost two years. I didn’t release it until a few years after I wrote it. It’s called "The Moon Song." I didn’t promote it a lot and it did a lot better than I could’ve imagined. It was on Spotify and I got the confidence to think, ‘Maybe this could be a thing that happens for me.’”

Burroughs is confident about what the highlight of his Idol journey is to date.

“It was the moment Katy Perry told us that we were going to go to Hawaii after we made it into the top 40. I didn’t feel I belonged here until that moment. I was still on the fence about whether or not I actually should be in this competition and should be pursuing this opportunity. Because the truth is I love where I am in life. I love my school and I love the people that I’m with on a day-to-day basis at home. So giving that up for something that’s so uncertain was scary, but when Katy said, ‘You’re going to be in Hawaii,’ I immediately lost that feeling because my sister lives there. It felt right. Idol is going to the one island that my sister lives on. It felt too good to be true.”

Laine Hardy

Born: Sept. 12, 2000 – Baton Rouge, La.

Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Scotty McCreery, Adam Lambert, Taylor Hicks

Formative Listening: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Lionel Richie/Commodores

First Idol Experience: “I remember my mom turning it on whenever the season started. We’d all watch it as a family.”

Raised in Livingston Parish, La.. Hardy recalls riding with his mother down Highway 63, the road that goes to the interstate from his family home, and a song came on the radio that grabbed the six-year-old’s attention. “I asked my mom who that was and she said, ‘Elvis.’ The song was ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and she said that he liked to move his hips.” Thus began Hardy’s life-long love of music from the ’50s.

“My dad always played a classic rock station when I was a kid. I connected with it because it sounded so cool. I have a station on my Pandora now called ’50s, ’60s and ’70s radio, and I listen to it all the time. And I have a big playlist on my phone of old hits.”

Hardy started taking music lessons when he was seven. “It was a year after I heard about Elvis. I quit when I was about 12. I learned enough to be able to teach myself, and I had a good ear for music. I could just listen to a song and play it. I played guitar for another year after I quit lessons, and I was getting bored of just playing an instrument, so I started singing. I would bungee cord my guitar case to the back of my four-wheeler and go out to the middle of the woods and sing my heart out. And then one day, I asked my mom to listen to me and she told me that I sounded good. After that, I sang to friends at the campfire and they liked it.”

It didn’t take Hardy very long to start playing local gigs. “When I was 14, my brother and my cousins were playing at my uncle’s house on the back porch and I was at my house, right next door. I heard them playing so I grabbed my guitar, ran over there across the yard in bare feet and asked if I could plug my guitar in and play with them. And then we started playing bars, restaurants and fairs when I was still 14 years old.”

One fateful day Hardy came home from school and found his mom in the rocking chair on their porch. “She said, “Hey Laine, do you want to try out for American Idol?” Hardy was uncertain but his mother urged him to try. He thought about it for a few minutes and then said he would do it. “A few weeks after that, I did the audition and got to the top 50 last year and then I got eliminated. For a whole year after, I played gigs every weekend. I wanted to stay active. I didn’t want to give up and I wanted to continue my career. I gained knowledge from everything I did, and now I’m here again. The last year flew by.”

Hardy had a full schedule of plans for 2019. “I’m missing fishing right now, because the fish are about to start biting. I was going to play a bunch of shows and there’s a big bash on the river where they bring a big barge out and put a band in the middle of the lake.”

But all those plans were put on hold when Hardy’s friend Ashton Gill decided to audition for the second season on ABC and Hardy tagged along to support his friend. “I didn’t know it was possible to be able to do Idol twice, so I thought there’s no way that anything was going to happen. When I looked at Katy, she looked at me and I knew exactly what she was about to say, and then she said it and I thought, ‘Oh, man.’ So I walked back and I sang. I didn’t know what to do because my mind was just blank. And then I hesitated, because I wanted to just let that be Ashton’s audition. But I ended up taking a [golden] ticket [to Hollywood] and now I’m in the top 14.”

Ashley Hess

Born: March 22, 1991 – Fremont, Calif.

Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, David Archuleta, Jordin Sparks, Brooke White

Formative Listening: Shania Twain, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie

First Idol Experience: At age 11, while packing to leave for the family’s annual camping trip, watched Kelly Clarkson win season one.

When she was three years old, Hess would walk around her house with her My First Sony tape recorder with a tiny microphone attached. “I could pick tapes and sing along with them.” Her repertoire consisted of Disney songs like “A Whole New World” from Aladdin and selections from The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas.

With a mother who could play piano and a father who liked to sing, it was no surprise that Hess’ parents suggested piano lessons when their daughter was eight. Hess told them she wanted to play sports. “Music is fun, but sports is my thing,” she said at the time. “I played soccer and volleyball. So I was really set on that but then I took the piano lessons. The teacher was trying to teach me to have a book in front of me and read it but I play by ear, so I thought, ‘I’m not good at piano. I’m not good at music, because I can’t sit down and read music.’ After two years of taking piano, I said, ‘No, I want to play volleyball. I want to play soccer. I don’t want to pursue music.’”

Hess played sports all through high school and intended to play in college. But she sprained her ankle in a bus accident and plans changed. “I had to take a step back and think, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I worked at an oral surgeon’s office in high school, so I thought I’d be a dental hygienist.” But it wasn’t something she was really interested in, so it was back to the drawing board “That’s when I got back into music. It had always been there and I had never given it a fair shot. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos and taught myself to play guitar. I played piano again and then started singing a lot. “Then I started writing my own songs and after a while, I got more comfortable doing that and then started performing and then moved to Nashville. So it’s been a long, drawn-out slow process.”

Hess took another step into music by writing her first song. “It was called ‘You’ll Miss Me’ and it was inspired by a friend who was dating a guy and he left her for her friend. I had had a similar situation and I was so upset I thought I’d try writing about it and it was this super cheesy ‘You’re stupid and crazy for letting me go.’ But it felt therapeutic.”

Hess first thought about auditioning for Idol 14 years ago. “I remember when Carrie Underwood released her song, ‘Inside Your Heaven.’ I sang it in the bathroom and pretended I was on the show. So watching Carrie Underwood was the first time that I thought I could do that. And then there was a long span of time where I pushed that aside.” Hess first auditioned four years ago but didn’t get very far. “It’s good because I had time to develop myself as an artist and develop my sound, my performance and my voice.”

In her bid to become the next American Idol, Hess had a secret weapon – her boyfriend James VIII (James Gray Dawson) made the top 24 in season 15. “He’s helped me know what to expect but there is no way that you can fully prepare for this until you’re in it. It’s good that he’s gone through it and it’s so nice to talk to him because he really does understand and has been out of it long enough to help me have perspective.”

Riley Thompson

Born: Oct. 12, 2002 – Mabank, Texas

Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Kellie Pickler

Formative Listening: Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Hayes Carll, William Clark Green

First Idol Experience: “My parents watched it and I’d pop in when I was little, thinking maybe I’ll do that one day.”

Thompson sets a record as the youngest American Idol finalist ever, the first to be born after the season one finale aired. Her parents have told her that she was singing before she could talk; Thompson recalls her mother telling her that at age two, she could sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with perfect pitch. And Thompson remembers her first solo performance, as a four-year-old in day care, singing the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” For those doing the math, that would have been the same year that Taylor Hicks was winning season five of Idol.

Thompson says that while she was singing at a very early age, she didn’t become serious about music until two years ago. “That’s when I started taking guitar lessons from John Defoore in Mineola, Texas. He was Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert’s guitar teacher. Then I started taking vocal lessons and that’s when I got really serious about it and started performing at local restaurants and bars in Mabank. I started with three songs as the opener for a guy there. Now it has progressed and I have two sets and I’m doing my own gigs.”

Thompson says her family has always been “very supportive” and adds, “Ever since I was little, they told me, ‘You have a voice. You should use it.’ And my cousins asked me, ‘Are you going to do American Idol or The Voice or something?’ I never thought I would because I never thought this was in the cards for me, but here I am.”

Auditioning for the judges in Los Angeles was Thompson’s first visit to Hollywood. “It’s so different from Mabank, Texas. The population there is a little over 3,000 people, and coming here, it’s the big city. Seeing everything was amazing.” Thompson admits she was nervous singing in front of Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. “Growing up, I was a really shy girl. I wouldn’t even sing in front of my friends and now I’m singing in front of millions of people. Right when I walked in for my audition, Lionel said he liked my bellbottoms, so that settled me down.”

Thompson auditioned with an original song, “Oh Daddy.” “And then they told me they wanted me to show them something that had more range and show off my vocal ability, so I sang “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On’ by Pistol Annies. Katy said, ‘If you want to stay in this, you need to keep growing. You need to mature. You need to really work.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing since.”

Uché

Born: July 15, 1994 – Houston, Texas

Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert

Formative Listening: Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Spice Girls

First Idol Experience: Watching Larry Platt sing “Pants on the Ground” and thinking it should be a hit single.

As a child, Uché visited family in Nigeria and learned how to dance from his aunts and uncles. “Every year we would go back and they’d say, ‘You’re getting better.’ Then, when he was 11, he had an epiphany while watching the Disney TV movie High School Musical. “I was singing along with Zac Efron and Corbin Bleu and learning the dances and I said, ‘I should be on High School Musical. I want to be a Disney kid.’ I went told my sisters Ashlyn and Kim, ‘I have to tell mommy and daddy that I want to be a star.’ And so we went to their room. We stood at the end of their huge bed, and I said, ‘Mom and dad, I have to tell you something. I’ve done a lot of thinking and I want to be a star.’ And I begged them to sign me up for this acting class. It was really expensive. My aunt and the whole family chipped in. We did auditions every weekend. Casting directors from Nickelodeon and Disney would audition us and I would sing and the casting directors would say, “I know you want to be an actor, but you should audition for American Idol.” And that would happen every week. I’m 12 and I’m thinking, ‘Really? I don’t think I can sing for real.’ I was so bad. I don’t know what they saw or heard.”

After living in Minnesota for 10 years, Uché and his family moved back to Houston when he was 16. “I was leaving school one day, and on a whim walked through the theater department. They were having auditions for a musical and I auditioned. I did a monologue and the theater director started crying and her student assistant came out and said, ‘Where did you come from?’ I told them, ‘I just moved here from Minnesota last week.’ And so they put me in The Music Man and I met so many cool friends. Everybody’s so weird and different in theater, so that helped me come out of my shell and be myself.”

At the same time, a music teacher asked Uché to try out for varsity choir. “It was fun. After six months, I was getting annoyed at being in the background swaying left to right. It was so boring. The person singing the solos is having so much fun, singing their heart out, and I’m in the background, going ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ So I auditioned to be the lead singer of the youth group band in my church. That was fun for a while, and then I wanted to do pop music, like I always wanted.” Uché asked the church band members if they wanted to stay after rehearsals and sing pop music and write original songs. “We became a real band, Swiss Mile. We’d be the church band in the daytime and then we’d do a gig at Town Center.”

The first song the band wrote was “Shoofly.” Joe Jonas saw a video and flew Uché to Los Angeles to do a music video. “He’s friends with Demi Lovato, so I opened for her with that song and then I opened for B.O.B.”

Uché graduated from Texas State in August with a degree in psychology. “When I was getting close to graduation, I started having all these existential fears about my future. Do I really want to be sitting at a desk my whole life? With my personality, could I even sit at a desk or would I go crazy? I don’t think I’m built for that.” His life changed when he went before the Idol judges. “All of a sudden I was in front of Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan and Katy Perry. I will never forget Lionel almost saying no and then saying yes after I sang ‘God Is Able.’ I know I would’ve gotten through because Katy and Luke said yes, but I want to do funk music and Lionel is the Commodores. If anybody’s going to say yes, it had to be Lionel Richie for me in particular, because I would love to have his respect if I’m going to do his style of music.”

Madison Vandenburg

Born: Dec. 9, 2001 – Latham, N.Y.

Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood

Formative Listening: Melissa Etheridge, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion

First Idol Experience: At age 13, discovered YouTube and watched clips of Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson.

‘Growing up, I was listening to a lot of older music, because my family liked to listen to Melissa Etheridge and Pat Benatar. I remember hearing them on the car radio and CDs.” Vandenburg considers her first introduction to music the piano lessons she took when she was six years old. She first realized she had musical talent when she sang “I Will Always Love You” and “My Heart Will Go On” at karaoke when she was 10. “That’s when I got my first crowd reaction, and that’s what sparked it and that’s when thought, ‘Ooh, music is my thing and that’s what I want to do.’”

The resident of Cohoes, N.Y. has been playing live shows since she was 11. “I started a duo with my older sister Taylor, who was 12. We used to play at my dad’s restaurant. That was my first introduction to gigging, and now I just love to gig around my hometown.”

Vandenburg’s piano teacher, Ginger Miller, suggested she should try out for Idol.

“Honestly, I’ve always wanted to try for a TV music talent show, and I saw that they were in the area. For the first audition, I had my boyfriend Steven and my dad Skip with me and it was a really long day. It started out outside and it was super cold and then we came inside. It was a really slow process because there were so many people. But the staff was awesome and so helpful. They gave us blankets outside and water. It was the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life.”

The 17-year-old sang Dan + Shay’s “Speechless” for the judges. “It was very nerve-racking. I had thought I had screwed up the beginning, so when I was done with it, I was not really expecting the reaction that they had. They stood up and clapped. It was a really big relief. It was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life, but it worked out.”

Looking ahead to recording her first album, Vandenburg would like to be involved in writing the songs. She wrote her first composition when she was 14. “It was called ‘Drifting Away.’ I used to love the song. I used to think it was so cool. It really wasn’t that good. For a 14-year-old, it was OK. I still love to write and I would love to release an album.