“Ooh, I’m sorry, guys,” the American Idol season 16 winner told the crowd as she choked back a sob. The 20-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist had just finished telling a story about a special moment with a young fan while taping a Christmas special in Orlando, and the anecdote was making her emotional.
“I looked out into the crowd, and [saw] this little girl who had like buns in her hair, she was probably like 7 or 8,” said Poppe at a panel moderated by Billboard on-air host Chelsea Briggs. “I made eye contact with her and we smiled at each other, and she turned around to her mom, and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Maddie Poppe! She just looked at me and smiled!’ … And I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the reason that I’m doing this.'”
Poppe has every reason to be emotional. The native of Clarksville, Iowa, (population 1,500) became a star nearly overnight after winning the latest season of the rebooted singing competition series, leading to a contract with Hollywood Records and a management deal with Jonathan Shank of Red Light Management. Shank, who joined Poppe on the panel, told the audience that even if she hadn’t won, he would have quickly snapped her up.
“I had walked into … the artist’s lounge [at American Idol] one day where everybody’s just kinda hanging out,” said Shank. “And Maddie was playing ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel. And I just kinda snapped my head up … it just was very pure and real. And I approached her and said, ‘Hey, even if you don’t win the show, I definitely want to work with you.'”
For Poppe, the sudden rise to national attention has been a whirlwind.
“I tell people all the time, it’s crazy because somebody like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, you know, they worked up through several years,” she said. “But for me — not that I’m on that level — but I’m saying it all happened overnight for me. I was with a management team and with a record label and doing all of these appearances and it just happened overnight…. I’m still adjusting to it.”
She’s going to have to get used to it, at least for the foreseeable future. In addition to her work on a forthcoming debut album, since winning Idol Poppe has released two singles: the Idol coronation song “Going Going Gone” (which reached No. 13 on the Billboard Digital Songs chart) and now “Keep On Movin’ On,” a country-inflected singalong written by Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood), Brandon Lowry (Britney Spears, Elle King) and Jarrad Kritzstein (Kate Nash, Weezer).
“I always told myself like, ‘I don’t want to release anything that I didn’t write myself,'” said Poppe after performing the song on stage. “Well, then Hollywood [Records] starts showing me these songs and they’re like, ‘Do you want to cut this one?’ And I’m just like, ‘Man, these songs are so good, I can’t turn them down. I could never write anything that would beat this.'”
Despite reneging on that earlier promise to herself, Poppe is determined to retain the unique spirit and point of view that made Idol viewers fall in love with her in the first place.
“I was so scared [to win Idol], you know, because you got signed to Hollywood and my idea of Hollywood at that time was like … they were with Demi and Miley and Selena. You know, the music that those girls make is awesome, but it’s not what I wanna make,” said Poppe. “So I was really worried that if I were to be signed with these people, they were gonna want me to be pop. And I was worried about what kind of freedom I would have. Because you hear all these stories all the time about people — you know, people like Kesha, saying things happen that she was forced to do.”
At least so far, Poppe’s fears haven’t come to pass.
“I can say [now] I’m so happy I won, because it has been nothing like I had thought it might be,” she said. “It is so awesome. Everyone gives me so much freedom, and Hollywood has given me so much freedom to be who I wanna be.”
As for her long-term goals, Poppe notes that while she knows she should be putting gigs like the Super Bowl and Madison Square Garden at the top of her list, she really just wants to meet her favorite TV talkshow hosts.
“Really, I just have such an infatuation with like Jimmy Fallon and Ellen [DeGeneres],” she said. “And I don’t even know that I want to play on those shows, because that’s like nerve-wracking… I just want to sit on that couch of Ellen’s and talk to her.”