It would be difficult to find anyone in the U.S. who has not heard of Clay Aiken. The 24-year-old native of Raleigh, N.C., was a contestant on the second season of the FOX-TV series “American Idol.” Although he placed second to Ruben Studdard, Aiken has already been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where “This Is the Night” spent two weeks on top. It is the best-selling single of 2003 and has paved the way for the artist’s first album, “Measure of a Man,” which RCA Records is releasing Oct. 14.
In June, Aiken sat down with Billboard’s Fred Bronson for a lengthy interview about his experiences on “American Idol.” Last week they met up again, to discuss Aiken’s debut CD track-by-track in a conversation that is exclusive to Billboard.com.
Your debut album, “Measure of a Man,” is being released just five months after the finale of “American Idol” and less than two months after completing a live tour. How did you find time to record an album?
We were still doing stuff for Fox and for “American Idol.” About a week later, Ruben and I went our separate ways. He had to do some more promotion, being the winner, and they put me right into the studio in Los Angeles. I spent about four weeks recording pretty heavily in L.A. and Miami and then I flew to London to record there. So it was a pretty heavy schedule for about four weeks and before the tour started, with the exception of two songs, I was finished.
Were those two songs added later?
Yes. “Perfect Day” and “Shine” were added later on. I was really happy with what we had finished and the demos came to us. We were on the [tour] bus and I listened to them and went, “Uhhhh.” I didn’t want to go back in the studio. I was comfortable with this tour schedule. I didn’t love the demos. They were not that great, but we decided if we were going to do it, we wanted to get Cliff Magness to be the producer. He’s done some amazing things with some other demos that we had listened to and recorded. So we decided if he’s doing it, he’ll pep it up; he’ll make it something I like. And actually “Perfect Day” has become one of my favorites since then. It was probably my least favorite when we heard those demos, but after he put his little touch to it and I went in and recorded it my way, I really love them both now.
Was there anything about the recording process that surprised you?
I don’t know that anything surprised me. We did the recording thing with [producer] Nigel Wright, [vocal coach] Debra Byrd and [pianist/arranger] Michael Orland back on the show when we’d go in each week and record our songs, so I was used to the experience. It’s nice to have producers whose ears are so well tuned to what they want to hear with a song. Cliff Magness and Steve Mac [were] excellent to work with because they wanted to hear it their way but they also wanted to make sure that they incorporated what I was doing with it too.
So I think that was the nicest part about recording this album, because I did work with so many different producers that I was able to get an idea of how I want to do this when I go into the studio next time. Cliff was the first producer I started with on the album, except for Steve Mac with “This Is the Night,” and [Cliff said], “Here’s what we’re going to do,” and I was like, “O.K.” And then I went back to him at the very end to do “Shine” and “Perfect Day” and I had a different sense. I had worked with Desmond Child. I’d worked with David Erickson and I went in and I said, “You know what? I did this with them back when I was in London and I think that is a great idea. Can we try it?” And, “Desmond does this. Can we try it this way?” And so now I’m starting to try to take a piece of each one of them and get my own style when it comes to recording.
Let’s go over the songs that made the final cut for “Measure of a Man,” starting with “No More Sad Song.”
“No More Sad Song” was the very first song they played at a meeting we had at Clive Davis’ house, and [RCA A&R senior vice president] Steve Ferrera was so excited about the fact that it’s “No More Sad Song” instead of “No More Sad Songs,” and it took me a while to realize what the difference was. Listening to the words, that song’s very angsty, and I loved it when we first heard it, because I was so pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too far away from what I was hoping for. And it was definitely something that I liked in the very beginning.
That song is probably the hardest to identify with, because it’s very angst-ridden. It’s got a lot of “you wronged me and I’m getting rid of you and I’m happy and I’m going to go on with my life and forget you” and I’ve not done that. I’m not very angsty as a person, but it’s a good song. The nice thing about it is a lot of people who’ve heard the album love that song and I’m happy that they like it because it’s a little difficult for me to identify with right now. Hopefully I won’t have to identify with it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing that you’ve never been hurt that bad, but people like the song so I’m excited that so many people are excited about it.
“I Survived You.”
Another one of those songs from the very first meeting. I really like big ballads. I got pigeonholed for singing ballads on the show, but I alternated every single week. I did a ballad one week, an uptempo the next, and no one realizes that. I was very particular about that. But I love that song. It’s very powerful and it has in some ways the same message that “No More Sad Song” does, but I don’t think it’s as angsty. That’s not even a word. I just keep using it. It’s not as full of angst as “No More Sad Song” is. It’s more triumphant really because you’ve survived someone, you’re over it and you’re going on with your life but you’re putting a positive spin on it. And the thing about that song is [that] there’s so many words in it and it’s hard to fit them all into one line. It’s really kind of difficult, but it’s definitely one of my favorite songs simply because it’s got such a great melody.
“I Will Carry You.”
“I Will Carry You” came from Steve Ferrera right before we left for the tour, right as we were finishing up. It was the last song I did in that big chunk. I ended up having to go to New York from the tour to finish it with Cliff Magness. When I first read the words, I thought, “That’s very ‘Up With People’ and very cheery,” and I think that’s one of the great things about Cliff Magness. He can take a song that may sound like one thing on the demo and turn it into something so much bigger and much more radio-friendly. It’s got a good message to it. Successful songs on the radio are about love or sex or somebody being upset and somebody being mad at the other person or money. With the exception of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love,” there are no songs that are about people helping people or about positive topics. So it’s nice that this song can do that and still meet what radio wants to do, and that’s have a good song with a good hook and a good melody and a good sound and still say something nice.
Songs like “You’ve Got a Friend” have disappeared.
You ain’t got a friend any more on the radio.
Let’s move on to your new single, “Invisible.” That sounds like you on the backing vocals.
On “Invisible,” I do a part of the background vocals. Desmond Child had some people that he uses a lot for background vocalists and he put them in there a little bit, but there’s a lot of layers of me. That was a full day-and-a-half on that song and then in Minneapolis, we went back before the tour started and he came back and we worked on it some more. The demo to “Invisible” didn’t come in that first meeting. It came a day or two later, and we played the mess out of that demo. That demo was rocking in the car, on the computer, in the airplane, on the CD player. I went home for a day or two, played the demo to my family and friends.
It’s one of those songs that people know by the second chorus — maybe not the right words but they’ve got the melody and they’re jammin’ with you. And it was such a catchy song. There was very little question as to whether or not it would be the first single. And then about three to four weeks before I had to decide what the first single would be, we got this news that D-Side, an Irish group, had just released “Invisible” as a single in England and it was No. 7 that first week and we said, “Oh no, now what are we going to do? We can’t release that in England. What are we going to do when we go to England? How are we going to work that out? Should we really make that the first single?” But the song itself was too good to not make the first single, so it was a little bump in the road but it was pretty easy to get over because it was just too good a song not to put out first.
Some people have suggested the lyrics are a bit… creepy.
The lyrics are a little bit weird. There have been a few lyrics where I’ve wanted to change a few things because I didn’t think that it was appropriate. I didn’t want to sing it. And with this song, we listened to the demo and we got so into the song right away that we didn’t listen to the lyrics until like the next day and then I was like, “‘Watch you in your room?’ That sounds a little odd. How do we pull that off?” And I still don’t know how. I think it could be worse. I could say watch you naked in your room. It’s a little eerie. I think when we do the video, it’ll dispel some of the talk about it being too creepy. We’re not going to go with that take of it. We’re not going to have a picture of me looking in someone’s bedroom window. I guess that’s just a little much, but regardless, the song’s cool.
And you’re playing a character. It’s not Clay Aiken wanting to sneak into someone’s room and watch them.
I don’t think people think that I’m actually watching somebody in their room. That’s kind of nasty, and I don’t encourage people watching other people in their room. Children, do not do it.
Singing these songs, especially “No More Sad Song” and “I Survived You” where I really haven’t been in that situation, I’ve had to act. Like I said, I don’t know what it’s like to have someone scorn you, and you have to get over that, so I’ve had to act. And sometimes people have asked me who are you singing to when you’re singing, and I say, I’m trying to sing to the songwriter more than I am singing to someone else, simply because I try to act and put myself in that person’s position because they obviously had something in their mind when they were writing it and when they were thinking it and try to play to whatever emotion they were feeling when they were writing it. So it is a lot about acting.
When you heard the demo of “Invisible,” was the vocal by songwriter Chris Braide?
It was. Chris Braide did the demo to that and to “Run to Me” because he wrote both of them. So Chris Braide is actually doing pretty well with this. He’s got three songs on the album.
Including your platinum single, “This Is the Night,” which he co-wrote. Have you worked with him in person?
I’ve never met him. I worked with Desmond and have never met Chris, so I’m looking forward to that because he’s done pretty well for me. My only two singles have been Chris Braide songs.
Where did you record “Invisible”?
At Desmond Child’s compound/studio in Miami. [It was] the first time I’d ever been there. I’m not a big sun lover. I burn, so Miami was spent inside the studio, in the dark studio. Ruben was very upset with me. He said I should have gone out. And then in complete contrast, we finished it up and added a few quick changes in Minneapolis. So we went from sunny Miami to cold and windy Minneapolis.
Alright, let’s move on to another Chris Braide co-write, “Run to Me.”
“Run to Me” is such a good song, and I just go back to what I said about “I Survived You.” The song’s not cheesy or corny, but it’s cheesy and corny to love these big powerful songs and “Run to Me” is just a powerful song, and there’s definitely a longing. Again, it was one of those songs where I had to kind of act a little bit too, but you could really feel in the lyric a complete longing and hope to have this person with you. They’re not ready for a relationship now, but you’re willing to wait around for this person. They’re just such powerful words and Desmond Child and Chris Braide wrote it and they put such an amazing melody with it and then such an amazing hook and lyric that it’s fun to sing and it’s one of those songs that despite the fact that I have not really lived those words, it’s easy to really get into it.
“The Way” is such a good song. One of my friend’s favorite songs. It was in that first meeting with Clive and Steve and [19 Management’s] Tom [Ennis] and Ned [Baines]. It was on the demo CD that I took home and played to some friends and one of my friends just really fell in love with it and she thought it was the best song ever. And at that time, there was talk of me singing at the Miss America pageant and it was the song that initially was in our heads that this would be a great song to sing at Miss America. This was way back in June, and it sounds like that Miss America-type message, something about the way you look tonight. It sounds boy bandy-ish and I’m not so much bandy-ish but I’m a boy so I got half of it, but it’s just a good… oh, I love it. I get into it. I’m so excited about it. I don’t know what else to say. I think it would sound great live. I can’t even tell you why I like it, but that’s kind of appropriate, because in the song it says, “Don’t ask me to describe just what it is that makes me love you,” so I can’t describe what it is that makes me love “The Way,” but I do.
Some people think that the album’s title song, “Measure of a Man,” is a cover of a song recorded by the group 4Him.
Right. I thought that first. There’s a little bit of a funny story that goes with “Measure of a Man.” No one else will laugh but me and Vanessa, my manager. She sent me the copy of “Measure of a Man” to the hotel in L.A. I picked up the CD. It said “Measure of a Man” on it and the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I wonder if it’s that 4Him song?” because I kind of liked that song. So I put it in the CD player and people had been telling me, “Oh, it’s a beautiful song. You’re going to like it. It’s your type of song,” because apparently some other people had listened to it before. I put it in the CD player and I cannot describe to you what came out of the speakers on that CD but it was not something I’m going to sing. It was “boom boom shoomp boom”! It was so loud and it was like this rap-heavy metal mix. It was rough, and I of course had the CD player turned up pretty loud so I could feel the song and it blew me away. I shut it down and I tried to skip to track two and there was no track two and I called Vanessa. I said, “I didn’t really listen to it at all. I turned it off pretty quickly, but I can’t imagine that you guys would give me this song to sing.” And I played it to her through the phone and she said, “Ooh, that’s not it at all.”
I finally got the [real song] and it was definitely a stark contrast and definitely pleasing to my ear. The lyrics are great. They talk about someone telling you that they love you, it’s not about material things, it’s not about anything other than the confirmation of love. Can that be enough? And the title of the song was really perfect. We all got excited about that being the album title really quickly. I think I might have mentioned it to a friend or two. I cannot imagine that I mentioned it to too many people, but Amazon.com had it up as “Measure of a Man” way before we had ever decided that that would be it. We were really still thinking of some other things. We went through a number of different possibilities before we decided on it just a week or two ago. And Amazon.com had it up as “Measure of a Man,” then they had it up as “Clay Aiken” and then they had it up as “Untitled” and “TBD” and I think finally they’ve got it up as “Measure of a Man” again, so I’m sure the programmers at Amazon are very frustrated with us.
They have to be aware of how devoted your fans are. Of course, there’s a good side and a bad side to that.
There’s definitely a bigger good side. The bad side is I feel like I have to be perfect all the time and I’m not.
Your fans are very protective of you.
I appreciate the fact that they are protective and they’re always asking me how I’m doing, are you happy? And it’s hard to answer that question. Yes, I’m very happy, but do you want the half-an-hour answer or do you want the quick yes.
Some of your fans have written to me, saying the next time we do an interview, I should tell you to eat more.
They tell me I’m getting skinny, and I love that. There are a lot of generous, selfless people out there and I appreciate that. I wish everybody were more like that.
Back to the album, let’s talk about the song “Touch.”
I recorded “Touch” in London. It’s the only song on the album recorded in London. Some of the other stuff I did in London didn’t end up making it. I recorded it with Dave Erickson, so I spent a lot of time learning about the Norwegian lifestyle. He was one of the producers who was really cool to work with. He was just a nice guy. I had just gotten off a flight. I had not been able to sleep in the London hotels because people were doing construction. It was horribly noisy and people were walking into my room at eight in the morning to see if I needed my bed made. “No, I’m still in it. Please walk out.” I was so dead tired, I slept in the studio. I recorded one verse, came out just to sit down for a second, ended up falling asleep and an hour later, I woke up and he had let me sleep the entire time, which I thought was so nice.
This was your first trip to London. Did you get to see any of the sights?
I didn’t get to do anything in London. I would get to the hotel and everything would be closed and I would not know my way around, would not know how to use the ATM machine because what’s this funny looking money it’s handing me out? I asked for 20 dollars. Who is this woman on the money?
It’s a beautiful city and everybody told me it was going to be nasty and rainy. It was sunny the entire time we were there. I just didn’t get a chance to experience anything. I asked the cab driver to drive me past Buckingham Palace so that I could see it.
Of course, the album includes your No. 1 single, “This Is the Night.”
I get excited about singing “This Is The Night” every time. It doesn’t get old to me because the words are exactly what’s happened in my life in the past exactly one year. It’s just such a great song. I really feel something every time I hear it. Steve Mac, who produced it, said, “I hope you like it because you’re going to be singing it the rest of your life.” I don’t care. I’ll be happy to sing it the rest of my life because it’s mine now. I don’t care what you say, Chris Braide. I mean, it’s my story really, so I love it.
One song that is not on the album is your version of Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire.” That is going to disappoint your fans who were expecting it.
I know. I think the news has broken to a few of them and they’ve been pretty upset. Steve Mac did a great arrangement of it, a newer arrangement to it. It was really cool.
You have two albums coming out the same day. You’re one of the artists on “American Idol — The Great Holiday Classics.” When were those tracks recorded?
At the same time as my album. I flew back from London, got into the car from the airplane at LAX and rode to meet my manager at the recording studio to do the Christmas album. I was so dead tired.
Luckily James [McMillan] was the producer who did both the “American Idol 2” album and the Christmas album. He was very good at letting me be tired. I was a little bit cranky. I sing “The First Noel” and I did “Silver Bells” with Kim Locke, one of those examples of where she did hers one week and then I did mine the next week. [James was] really good about letting me kind of halfway stand up with my eyes closed while I was singing it. So it didn’t take too long. It wasn’t too painful. We did it in Burbank, and then we went back a few weeks ago to add some stuff to the group songs.
Let’s talk about your family for a moment. How are they handling all of this attention?
It’s become work for everybody. There are 17 boxes of fan mail at the house and when I go home, we go through it because we open every one of them. It’s a lot of work for my mom and my brother. I said to him the other day, “I know you’re sick of me. I’d be sick of me.” Brett’s been so patient with it all. He’s been so good with it all. I don’t know if I could have done it. I feel sad sometimes for Brett and for Jeff because more than anything, I do not ever want them to lose their identity and become “Clay Aiken’s brother.”
I met your mother at the Anaheim concert and she seems to be enjoying the whole experience.
She’s much better at it than I am. She was better at it beforehand than I was as far as public speaking goes. She’s jumped right in there and had no problem talking to people and being interviewed and being in the spotlight.
During the last few months, have you met people you’ve idolized who are now fans of yours?
I didn’t idolize music industry people so much, because I never really thought I would be a musician. I thought it would be a fun hobby. There was a time where I wanted to be a politician. There was a time where I wanted to be a reporter and there was a time when I obviously wanted to be a teacher.
So [there are] mainly two people who I’ve really looked up to for a while. I always idolized Mr. Rogers. I wish I had been able to meet him while he was alive. Tom Harkin, a Senator from Iowa, [has been supporting] special ed. He was one of the authors of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We learned about him in school and I always had respect for him, so it was really big to meet him.
I always watched “Good Morning America” in the mornings when I was going to school and was a fan of the show and Diane Sawyer. I found out she was a fan of mine so there was this big build-up for me getting to meet her, so that was really exciting too. Not just to meet her for “Good Morning America,” when I saw her then because it was really quick, but to be able to meet her when we did our “Primetime Live” thing.
Finally, you’re a self-admitted fan of “The Amazing Race,” which was the reality show you really wanted to be on. How did you feel when that series won the Emmy over “American Idol”?
Of course I wanted “American Idol” to win the Emmy for Best Reality Show, but secretly I am happy that “Amazing Race” did win because I think they needed it more. They definitely need the attention. They definitely need the exposure. “American Idol” has got the ratings. We’re doing fine. Since it didn’t get to win, I’m glad “Amazing Race” got to win.
If they ever produce a celebrity version of “The Amazing Race,” should they call you?
I’m on it. If they ever do a celebrity “Amazing Race,” Jerry Bruckheimer I’m telling you right now, give me a call!