After performing solo Wednesday night, the first 12 of season 15’s American Idol top 24 contestants will sing duets Thursday night (Feb. 11), paired with some Idol favorites from the past: Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Caleb Johnson and Nick Fradiani.
Billboard spent a few days at Vibiana, a popular restaurant and event space in downtown Los Angeles, to sit down with the dozen singers performing Thursday night to find out about their earliest musical memories, major influences and why they decided to audition for Idol.
Next week, the second half of the top 24 will offer solo performances on Wednesday and duets on Thursday, with Idol alums Chris Daughtry, Constantine Maroulis, Kellie Pickler, Jordin Sparks, David Cook and Haley Reinhart. Billboard will profile the second group of 12 mid-week.
MacKenzie Bourg, 23
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Phillip Phillips
Formative Listening: Buddy Guy, B. B. King, John Mayer, Jason Mraz
First Idol Experience: Watching season 1
MacKenzie Bourg’s earliest memory of music is tied to a beloved character who had his own TV series. “We have some videos of me clanking on the piano, trying to play the theme song from Barney & Friends. But I didn’t start really taking music seriously until my later high school years.”
Bourg can trace his deeper interest in music to a drive he took with his father and brother to Orlando when he was 12. “It’s about a 10-hour drive and we had one CD. It was Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Legend album. After the first go round, my brother and I were aggravated with it. But after the third or fourth listen, it became part of us. We started to realize four hours into the trip that we knew all the words. There are pieces of my music today that play into that, whether it be a chord voicing or annunciation.”
Bourg isn’t the only musical member of his family “My maternal grandfather played the lap steel guitar and my mother’s brother builds custom electric guitars. He gave me and my brother one. I don’t play electric a lot, but when I do, it’s the best-playing one there is.” Bourg hasn’t picked up that guitar on Idol yet. “I imagine I’m going to have a song with an electric in it and then I’ll bring it on stage.”
Bourg wrote his first song when he was 13. “I was in English class and we had to write a poem and I wrote a song just as a joke.” But then something happened when he was 18. “I had congestive heart failure and I was in a coma.” After his recovery, he coped by composing music. “It wasn’t until then that I took songwriting seriously.”
Emily Brooke, 17
Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Lauren Alaina, Haley Reinhart, Kellie Pickler, Kelly Clarkson, Nick Fradiani
Formative Listening: Taylor Swift
First Idol Experience: Watching season 1
Emily Brooke would sing LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” while sitting in her car seat as a young child and family friends told her she had a lovely voice. “My parents thought they were just being nice,” says the teenager from Florida. At age nine, Brooke told her folks she wanted to learn how to play guitar. She had a life-changing experience when her parents took her to a Taylor Swift concert in Miami. “She started playing and everyone in the stadium was singing along. I was crying. That’s when I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Also at age nine, Brooke and her family visited Nashville for the first time. “I told my parents I wanted to move there, that I needed to be in a city where music was everywhere. Mom said if I wanted to move to Nashville, I should write a song about it.” The result was Brooke’s first composition, “Wild and Free.”
Brooke had another turning point when her parents decided she should compete in the Colgate Country Showdown in Live Oak, Fla. “Mom said we should see what people think in another town, where no one knew me. I won the local and state competiton.”
Gianna Isabella, 15
Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson
Formative Listening: Carrie Underwood
First Idol Experience: Watching season 4
Gianna Isabella’s earliest musical memory is being backstage at her mother’s concerts. As Idol viewers know, Isabella is the daughter of Brenda K. Starr, who had a No. 13 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 with “I Still Believe” (that is not Isabella’s only link to the Hot 100. Her grandfather, Harvey Kaplan, played organ for Spiral Starecase, the group that took “More Today Than Yesterday” to No. 12 in 1969). “My mom taught me everything I know and my dad is also one of my biggest supporters, so both of them showed me how to have great stage presence, how not to be nervous and to have fun.”
Isabella first expressed interest in music when she was four years old and made her first recording when she was six (“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”). That’s when she told her mother she could sing and proved herself with a rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt.” My mom said, ‘You can sing? Since when?’ I told her, ‘Forever, mom. You don’t pay attention to me.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry but if you want to do this, it’s got to be an everyday thing. Practice, practice, practice.’ And from then on, we’ve been together all the time, rehearsing.”
Isabella was eight when she told her mother she wanted to be on Idol. “She said, ‘You’re not old enough. You’ve got 10 more years.'” But it only took seven more seasons, as Isbaella turned 15 on March 30, 2015, making her eligible to audition for the final chapter.
Isabella is a sophomore in a public high school. “I would like to graduate high school and then go to online college, because I can’t really be a musician and have an actual college experience. But it would be awesome to go to college.”
James VIII, 24
Favorite Alums: Caleb Johnson, Clark Beckham, Ruben Studdard
Formative Listening: Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, B. B. King, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page
First Idol Experience: Watching season 1
James VIII is literally the eighth James in his family. “My name is James Gray Dawson. The middle name changes and people get picky that you’re not using it right, but I think it’s cool.”
Born in Tokyo while his father worked for a data storage company in Japan, James moved around the globe with his family. His earliest memory of music is from his time in Hong Kong. “We lived about 45 minutes away from where I went to school and my mom would drive me in her minivan. She was a big Clapton fan and a big Michael Jackson fan and I remember sitting in the back of the van loving Michael. And she would always play Eric Clapton’s ‘Unplugged’ album.”
When James was 10, the family moved back to the U.S., settling in the Bay Area in Northern California. “I listened to a lot of Beatles and a lot of older rock like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and then when I started playing guitar, I learned the classic rock kind of stuff but I lost my driving interest in it. So I stopped playing for a while and then I heard some Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer with his blues trio and I heard B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix and those guys got me into blues. I started listening to all of them and some older guys like John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson. The blues stuck with me and has been the guiding light for pretty much all the music I write and perform.”
James’ audition for Idol was not something he had been planning. “I didn’t know I was going to audition until about six days before. I was dragged down to an audition by a friend who was going, an artist I play for named Amber Lynn. She was scheduled to go down to Denver to audition for the judges. I told her I would play guitar for her if it was allowed and if she wanted me to. She called ahead and asked if there was room for another person to audition and they said yes.”
James was playing guitar at a friend’s show in Idaho the night before and Lynn was singing backing vocals. “We had to drive through the night from Idaho to Denver. Got no sleep. We arrived at 7 am and went through the whole process. It was a long, long day but in the end, it was worth it.”
Jeneve Rose Mitchell, 15
Favorite Alums: Adam Lambert, Phillip Phillips, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Candice Glover
First Idol Experience: “I was 2 years old when I started watching and I’ve never missed a season”
Jeneve Rose Mitchell loves the fact that she was born on Feb. 29, 2000. “It’s fun,” the leap day baby tells Billboard. “When I’m 80 years old, I’ll actually be 20. My fourth birthday is in a month.” Mitchell lived the first half of her life as a city girl, in Las Vegas, Nev. “I moved to Colorado when I was seven years old. I never really liked living in a city because my parents always taught me that I was a cowgirl. So as soon as we moved there, all my dreams of farming came true. I live on a mountain with no electricity and our running water is mountain spring water right from a well and I’m a horse trainer and so I take care of the animals during the day and play music and do schoolwork.” Mitchell is a home-schooled 10th-grader.
Mitchell discovered music at the very beginning of her life. “My dad sang to me from the time I was born and he taught me my first song when I was 2 — the national anthem. I learned my first instrument, the fiddle, when I was 3 years old and I played fiddle and sang during my first performances with my dad when I was 4.” They performed at family gatherings and “in hotel lobbies when they would let us.”
Mitchell’s time on Idol has been the subject of family discussion for years. “Ever since Idol started, me and my family have joked that I would be on it someday. It was totally a joke until I turned 14 and was a year away from being of age to be able to audition. And then it just hit me and I told my dad and mom, ‘I want to audition for American Idol for real,’ and they were not surprised.”
The Colorado cowgirl wrote her first song at age 11. “I still sing ‘Rocky Mountain Hillbilly Girl.’ I’m really proud of that one.” And for those curious to hear it, it’s available on YouTube. “But I’m more accomplished now than when I wrote it,” Mitchell warns.
Stephany Negrete, 21
San Diego, Calif.
Favorite Alums: Jacob Lusk, Jessica Sanchez, Adam Lambert
Formative Listening: Selena, Beyoncé, Celine Dion
First Idol Experience: “I’ve been watching throughout the seasons. Not constantly because life gets in the way”
Stephany Negrete’s earliest musical memory is singing a Christmas song in Spanish with her dad at holiday time when she was three years old. “I sang through a microphone, even though we were just in the house.”
Although she hasn’t watched Idol consistently through the years, she’s been a fan of the show. “It’s so amazing how they take these small town people and convert them into big stars and I have pictured myself in those shoes and thought what an amazing opportunity that is.”
The Southern Californian participated in talent shows and choir in school and studied piano, first with formal lessons and then teaching herself via YouTube. She also loves to dance. “My dad’s side of the family sings and my mom’s side dances.”
Negrete first tried out for season 11. “You see all the auditions on TV and these people with amazing talent and you think, ‘I want to be there too.’ And it just takes getting the confidence and the courage to put myself out there and be judged. It’s a scary feeling.” On her first audition, Negrete won a golden ticket to Hollywood but didn’t advance as far as she did this season. Why did she return? “It was people in my corner saying, ‘Come on, just give it a shot. You never know. It can’t hurt.’ So I thought, why not?”
Jenna Renae, 23
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Haley Reinhart, Jennifer Hudson
Formative Listening: Kelly Clarkson, Keith Urban, Relient K, Miranda Lambert
First Idol Experience: “I watched from day one”
Jenna Renae’s parents had been high school sweethearts and had a long career of starring in theatrical productions like The Fantasticks and Pippin so Renae spent her childhood listening to some of Broadway’s greatest cast albums, as well as Christian music and later, country. As a little girl, she ran around the house singing “church kid songs” into her brightly-colored plastic My First Sony microphone.
“I realized I could sing really well when I was 8. I started getting parts in the church musicals. People started telling me, ‘Wow, you have a really good voice. You should pursue this.'”
The family has been watching Idol faithfully from the beginning. “When I turned 15, I told my parents, ‘I want to go audition for Idol and they encouraged me to wait because they thought I was a little young,” says Renae. “So I decided to finish high school and do some college and I ended up being on America’s Got Talent.” She still wanted to audition for Idol and with the last season looming, did so right after she was on America’s Got Talent.
Now that she’s on Idol, her parents have been very supportive. “They’re freaking out. They talk to me every five minutes. ‘What’s happening?’ So they’ve been coming out as much as they can to see everything and they’re so supportive. Them and my husband.” Renae married her high school sweetheart three years ago. “And his parents were high school sweethearts,” Renae says. “It’s funny.”
La’Porsha Renae, 22
Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Kelly Clarkson
Formative Listening: Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Prince, Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban
First Idol Experience: “I watched from day one”
La’Porsha Renae remembers singing Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'” at the age of 6 in the bathroom of her mother’s beauty shop. “One of her clients heard me and thought it was the radio and then they listened closer and realized it was me. From then on I would sing to her clients and my parents invested in me because of that.”
Renae first thought about auditioning for Idol while watching Fantasia on season three. “She was so strong at a really young age. With everything she had been through, she was so radiant on that stage and she sang what she felt. She sang with a message. She was my role model.”
Renae first tried out for Idol during season eight, when she was 16. “I sang and I got big applause from the stadium and I didn’t make it. But I can say the timing couldn’t have been any better, with this being the final season and me being able to be a part of it. I’m very blessed to be here.”
As viewers have already seen, Renae is the mother of a one-year-old daughter. “Being a mom and being on Idol is a little difficult because I don’t get to spend a lot of time with her. I don’t want to miss any moments but my mom stepped in and has been my angel with that and I can at least see her every night. So I work all day and remind myself why I’m doing this and it becomes a little easier. I’m doing this to better our lives. I want a better future for her and I also want to be her Idol and role model.”
Jordan Sasser, 27
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, David Archuleta, Adam Lambert
Formative Listening: Celine Dion, Whitney Houston
First Idol Experience: Season 1
Jordan Sasser’s grandmother played piano and some of his other grandparents sang in choirs. But Sasser says he came late to music. “I never really considered myself a singer. I just liked music. I would go to my room and listen to people who I thought had amazing voices and I would try to emulate them so I could teach myself how to sing, but I would still try to find my own voice. Eighth grade was the first time I sang in front of people. My mom and dad and my grandparents all came to see me sing ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ by Lee Greenwood at my graduation. High school is when I really started to perform, doing musical theater (“Oklahoma!,” “State Fair”), singing the national anthem and trying to write music on the piano.”
This year was Sasser’s fourth time auditioning for Idol. He tried out right after high school, on a whim. “I definitely was not ready. Then I auditioned in 2012 at a cattle call. It didn’t work out, and then a couple years ago, I auditioned with an online submission. I got a callback for that.” Sasser didn’t make it that time, either. Then he and his wife Alex lived in Costa Rica for nine months. “While we were there, I thought, it’s the last season, we’ve got to go back and audition.”
Jordan and his wife both tried out for season 15 but only Jordan made it through to the top 24. Jordan remembers when Alex went home: “That was a tough day for us. So many expectations, so much excitement and she definitely has what it takes. We believe God is in control of every detail of our lives and so the next day, she said, ‘I’m not supposed to do it and you are,’ and she’s been supportive every step of this whole process. I’ve been gone a lot but she’s a super mom and taking care of the baby is more admirable than singing songs so I say she’s the real superstar.”
Thomas Stringfellow, 17
Favorite Alums: Colton Dixon, James Durbin, Casey Abrams
Formative Listening: Ed Sheeran, Colton Dixon
First Idol Experience: watching season one with his family
As a very young child, Thomas Stringfellow would sit in his car seat and listen to the music his parents played – primarily the Beatles and Aerosmith. When he was in fifth grade, he sang at a school talent show and when his fellow students praised his vocal ability, he realized for the first time that he had musical talent. That became more apparent in eighth grade when he learned to play his first song on a guitar – Colton Dixon’s “What About Now,” a cover of a song by Daughtry. “That’s when I realized I might be able to do this someday.” A year later, in ninth grade, he wrote his first composition, which he describes as a “cheesy love song.” He says, “Writing songs is how I cope with a lot of stuff. All of my music has something to do with what I’m feeling. A song is like a picture – there’s a space behind the picture and there is something behind my songs.”
Now an 11th grader, Stringfellow is getting a lot of support from his friends in school as well as his hometown. “The city made shirts for me and sent me a bunch.”
Sonika Vaid, 20
Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson
Formative Listening: Bee Gees, Elton John, Celine Dion
First Idol Experience: Season 1
“My mom told me when I was born, I was so musically inclined, I would kick to the beat,” says Sonika Vaid. “But my first memory is when I was three years old and my mom told me to sing a little something for my sister’s first birthday. I sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and that was my first time singing, my first performance.” Vaid’s mother is her vocal coach. “Sixth grade is when she really pushed me. I took up piano and I felt really comfortable being behind the piano. It put a wall between me and the audience and I got comfortable onstage doing that.” Vaid’s mother continued to encourage her to sing. “She called my school and signed me up to sing in a show. I was so mad. We practiced Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ for about a month and the day of the performance came and I told her I’m not doing it.”
Vaid changed her mind and now looks back on that performance as one of her fondest memories.
A junior in college with a biology major, Vaid had taken a complete break from music before trying out for Idol. “I was gravitating to the piano in our house and playing and told my mom I really needed to give this one last shot. Then I auditioned in Denver, singing ‘Look At Me’ by Carrie Underwood.”
Avalon Young, 21
San Diego, Calif.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Jennifer Hudson
Formative Listening: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys
First Idol Experience: Season 1. “I was in the second grade”
One of Avalon Young’s neighbors in San Diego played guitar and when Young was seven, she asked her mother if she could take guitar lessons. “But it wasn’t something I had patience for, being such a young kid, and I stopped. When I was a little older, in middle school, I taught myself. In the fourth grade, we were performing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ for our moms on Mother’s Day and they asked if somebody wanted to take a solo and I wanted to. That was around the time I was discovering I could sing.”
Growing up, Young immersed herself in music. “I had all the Now That’s What I Call Music CDs and every road trip, I took along a boom box. There’s a photo of me laying on a hotel bed with a huge boom box next to me and I’ve got headphones plugged in. And then I got my first Walkman, which was amazing. I remember in middle school and high school, I was always the one on break walking to class, always wearing my headphones and singing.”
During that fourth grade year, Young and her three best friends formed a band called Over the Edge. “We wrote a song called ‘Heartbroken,’ which is hysterical to me because what fourth grader knows about being heartbroken? But that was my first song and I wrote it on the ukulele. Later on, I broke out into R&B, which I was waiting for a really long time. And I got my first EP done called ‘The Red Line,’ released a little over a year ago.”
Young confesses that she has never considered a career outside of music. “I could never focus on anything the way that I focus on music. I could get a degree in psychology or business but that would be useless to me because I do not have a passion for anything but this. There’s no Plan B.”