Not everyone gets a second chance in life, but 10 lucky American Idol contestants from season 18 have accepted an invitation from the show’s executive producers to sing on the big Idol stage and compete for a chance to join season 19’s top 10.
The Monday, April 19 episode will mark the first time last year’s finalists will be performing in the Idol dome at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, since they had to sing from their homes in 2020 because of COVID restrictions.
Billboard interviewed all 10 of the returning contestants in March 2020, just before they were sent home because of the pandemic. In the last few days, Billboard reached out to all 10 again to get an update on their lives, find out how they feel about their second chance and their thought process behind choosing the one song that could change their lives.
“When the judges critiqued me and certain parts of my voice, it was hard to grasp in the moment. But I knew that when [season 18] was over, I had a lot of work to do and I was eager to grow,” Becnel tells Billboard. “If it wasn’t for this show, I wouldn’t have learned how much work I needed to do. I wanted to show my vulnerable side as an artist. I started a YouTube channel after the show to really get comfortable talking to a camera and opening up and showing my true self as an artist and as a human.”
Becnel was in a car heading to a friend’s house when she got the call inviting her back to Idol. “I couldn’t have been more excited because it sped up my process of growth, knowing I was going to California on this date. I got really into God and I just truly dug deep and found out exactly what I need to change and how to do it to become a better version of myself for the show.”
The next step was for Becnel to choose which song she was going to perform for her one shot to join the season 19 top 10. “Last season I chose songs that represented the areas of my voice that I was good in – very soulful, bluesy sounds. I’m from Louisiana and that’s just what I’ve been doing my whole life in this industry in New Orleans. But I learned last season that I need to show I can sing different things. I can sing pretty, beautiful, held out long emotional notes instead of just New Orleans blues style music.
So that was my first thought. I immediately went into the studio and picked songs to sing so I could hear my voice crystal clear with no distractions and work on those beautiful pretty long note tones that I’m not really comfortable with. I wanted to choose a song that had those elements, but I also wanted to keep my soulful New Orleans style and mix them both. I wanted to choose a song that I could deliver with emotion that could tell my story and what I’m going through, so I chose ‘Cry Baby’ by Janis Joplin. I did that song last season during Hollywood Week. I changed my song at 3 am and had to be ready 5 am and I never heard that song before. When I sang it, I forgot all the lyrics. This time I’ll remember the words.”
“Last year didn’t go like any of us were planning, but there were some cool changes,” says Boone. “We couldn’t do live music, but I have a lot more fans now, a lot more messages coming in and people taking an interest in what I do and that has been cool. It’s really encouraging to see. Even the little impact here and there on somebody makes it worthwhile for me.”
The singer from Durham, N.C., says when last season of Idol concluded, he felt, “a sense of unfinished business. It didn’t feel like my experience on the show had been capped off in a way that felt right. When I heard we had the chance to come back, I was excited and it felt good. Idol didn’t have to bring us back. It felt like they were noticing how it felt on our end and were giving us a chance to have some closure and experience something that we missed out on, which I thought was a really cool gesture on their part.”
Boone has been watching the current season and thinks a lot of the contestants would be tough competition if he were to be voted into the new season’s top 10. But he does name names: “Willie Spence is an excellent vocalist. And Grace Kinstler. There are so many unique artists who are really good at being themselves and are doing it well, so I can see any number of people winning this season.”
And what did Boone take into consideration when picking the one song he is going to sing on Idol Monday night? “I have one shot. I want to show that I’m an artist who can handle that stage and can do a song with a lot of high energy and sing well but I also like my music to have a bit of a message to it, something meaningful to me. So I picked ‘Meant to Live’ by Switchfoot. They are a band I’ve been listening to for the better part of my life. When I was young and just getting into playing music, they were one of my influences. I’ve always appreciated how they incorporated their faith in God in such a meaningful way without being preachy.”
DeWayne Crocker, Jr.
“When I was invited for ‘The Comeback’ on Idol, I immediately thought about how huge this opportunity is and my responsibility to the viewers and producers,” says Crocker, Jr. “I knew I had to share my love for Jesus Christ, and that is my number one priority in coming back to Idol.”
Crocker says that this past year has been extremely eye-opening for him. “I’ve watched people close to me and far away deal with suicide, depression, anxiety, racial injustice and so much more. It’s been shocking at times. My goal is to share my faith on this major platform and give people another option to have a little hope in the middle of the storms our country is currently facing.”
Crocker will perform the Dante Bowe song “Voice of God” on Monday night. “This song has been speaking to me and encouraging me over the past year. The song talks about how God’s voice can be found in everything around us. That voice isn’t always an audible human voice but it is everywhere. It’s in the wind, the trees, the movies we like, our friendships – all around us. If God’s voice is everywhere, it means we can find hope and faith wherever we are. I hope the audience feels that as I sing.”
Crocker says he has been watching and enjoying the current season. “All of the contestants are very unique.” And who does he think his toughest competition will be if he’s voted into the top 10? “I am definitely a fan of Willie Spence. He and I are very similar in how we use our powerhouse vocals to touch the hearts of people.”
Elise’s first thought when she was asked to come back to Idol was that she was “super excited” and couldn’t believe it. “It felt like a dream come true. I thought my season was over but they have given us a second chance and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Confessing to have the same kind of difficult year during the pandemic as most people, Elise says, “As singers, we make our money from gigs and because of the lockdown I couldn’t have any gigs.”
For her one shot to compete in season 19, Elise chose “Edge of Midnight,” the mash-up by Miley Cyrus and Stevie Nicks. Her reason? Simply because “it’s a fun song.”
Elise has been enjoying the current season of Idol, but when asked to name her toughest competition she demurs: “I feel like I shouldn’t think of one person being my competition because they are all super-talented.”
Nepal-born Arthur Gunn was the runner-up on season 18. Sharing his first thought about being asked to return for season 19, he says, “I was shocked and excited. It was a humbling experience and I feel lucky to play a song as a comeback artist.” His choice is “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. “It’s one of the songs I grew up listening to so it’s personal to me, which is why I chose it. It’s also a great song from a great band.”
Gunn acknowledges that he’s had the same kind of tough year that most people have experienced. “We have all gone through some rough times. I got to reflect on life and work on music. It feels good as everything is getting better slowly.”
Gunn describes the current group of contestants as “talented individuals with big dreams” but declines to name his toughest competition, explaining, “I haven’t thought about it from that point of view.” He does admit that coming back to the show means a great deal to him. “This is going to be my first performance on a big stage since last year [on Idol] in Hawaii. I can’t help but feel grateful for it.”
Jester’s first thought when asked to take part in “The Comeback” was, “Is this for real? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But I was also grateful and excited because opportunities like this don’t happen every day.”
Shortly after she was eliminated in season 18, she moved out of her parents’ home. “I lived with my grandmother for a few months before moving in with my roommate Ryan Menendez. We foster dogs and we currently have five dogs in the house. I work at a bar and grill called Winghouse. It’s a good job but it’s not where I wanted to be at this point in time. Life was rough for a period but I’m really happy right now.”
Jester has been watching the latest season and says she is very impressed with the talent. “If I make it into the top 10, I think my biggest competition would be Willie Spence, Grace Kinstler and Alyssa Wray. All of their voices are powerful and they are outstanding.”
“I got further on Idol than I ever could have dreamed. I don’t know how I kept going,” says Knight. “Somehow America kept voting me through. I’ll always be so grateful for that. Coming off the show had its ups and downs. It was back to the reality of life.” In this case, a life affected by the global pandemic.
“All I could do was start recording in my studio, because there was no performing or anything. I put out a couple songs and then I ended up doing a road trip tour during COVID. I got in a tiny camper attached to my friend’s truck and we drove across the country stopping outside fans’ houses. We wanted to connect with all the fans who had supported me throughout Idol and bring live music to people.”
Keeping socially distanced, Knight performed from the back of the truck in front of fans’ homes and in Walmart parking lots. The tour took him from his home in Philadelphia to California and then back through Nashville as he did 32 shows in 21 days. “Like Idol, it was the best experience I’ve had to date. It changed me as a person. Being able to share such intimate moments with people from every area of the country and getting to meet them and hear about their lives a little bit was so incredible and that is an understatement.”
When executive producers Trish Kinane and Megan Michaels Wolflick invited Knight to return to Idol, he thought, “This is the biggest opportunity I have for the foreseeable future until we know when some level of normalcy is going to come back.” Then he had to choose the one song he was going to perform on the huge Idol stage for his chance to enter this season’s top 10. “Coming back on the show, it was really important to me to try to do an original song. I love doing covers sometimes but this is the only way that I could show my true most authentic self as an artist.”
Knight will sing “Maybe That.” “It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written and it helped me through a lot about a year and a half ago when I wrote it. One of the lines is, ‘In this hotel lobby and I’m picturing you on me,’ inspired by being in the hotel for my Washington, D.C. audition. I was looking back on a failed relationship as things were moving so fast and thinking about maybe what could I have done differently.”
Knight says he is in a very different place now, a year after his original run on Idol. “I kept letting my nerves and anxiety get the better of me. My goal is to come back and hopefully win this season, even though I love every one of the [season 19] contestants. I want nothing but the best for them and they are so freaking talented. I’m going to do everything I can to work for America’s votes and then hopefully win this season. That’s my dream right now.”
“My first thought after being invited back was, ‘How am I going to give the best possible performance for America and my fans,'” Merico tells Billboard. To that end, he decided to sing an original song, “City Lights.” “I put my heart and soul into it and I think there are a lot of people who need to hear it. I know I’m going to have a great time performing it. I’ll give it my all so the viewers can have a great time with me.”
Merico says his life in the last year, “has been about me improving as a songwriter and performer. I have been using the time at home to dedicate myself to my music, family and my friends, and to really reflect on myself.”
He sees the “Comeback” show as a, “once in a lifetime opportunity. It means I get another chance to show America who I am and to give them a great performance. It means the world to do what I love most and to share my experience with the viewers.”
“I was beyond stoked,” Phillips says of being asked to return to Idol. “I didn’t think I was going to get a second chance but when I got that call I couldn’t contain my excitement.” Describing her difficult year, she says, “No shows, no music, no anything that had to do with what I love doing. I started teaching and getting back into the swing of things, doing the best I could under the circumstances.”
Phillips says she loves this year’s talent. “They are all really cool people so that makes watching this season even better.” She laughs when asked about her toughest competition if she wins the coveted spot in the top 10. “I have lots of answers. Alyssa Wray, Grace Kinstler, Willie Spence and Madison Watkins. They are all very gifted and strong vocalists.”
Speaking of her song choice, Demi Lovato’s “Anyone,” Phillips says, “A lot went into which song I chose. The main difficulty I had last year was song choice, so I wanted to make sure that I connected 150 per cent to whatever song I picked. I feel my choice is perfect and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
“I honestly thought it was a joke,” Ximines says of the invitation to return to Idol. “I definitely never saw an opportunity like this coming my way so unexpectedly. I ran to my mom in complete shock.”
During the year of the pandemic, Ximines started her senior year of high school. “After a couple of months, I realized I was going to spend the rest of my senior year in front of a computer. It took a toll on my productivity and work ethic because I felt so unmotivated with school as well as my singing. But I faced the challenge and was awarded valedictorian for my senior class and this opportunity to go back on Idol. I couldn’t be more humbled and grateful.”
Citing this year’s contestants as amazing talent, Ximines says she loves how passionate the season 19 contestants are about singing and performing. “They are a force to reckon with. I would love to join the top 10 and complement this team with my dance moves.”
Ximines plans to show off those dance moves on Monday night’s “Comeback” show. She will be singing Michelle Williams’ “Say Yes.” “The main lyric is, ‘When Jesus say yes, nobody can say no.’ This line is an assurance that no matter what I face in life, or what obstacles are in my way, if Jesus says yes, then I don’t have to worry about anyone saying no. This song not only has a great message but great beats and I can implement my dancing skills. It wouldn’t be right if I came back to perform and didn’t dance. This is the American Idol stage and my second chance to show America that I have what it takes to stay there.”