Ardent observers of American Idol and similar shows often say it is better to make it onto the show, be seen by the masses, and bow out early. The idea is you get the Idol exposure, but then you’re free to go get your own record deal and chart your own path, rather than being locked into the prize.
Mandisa (photo, right, courtesy of EMI Christian Music Group), a competitor two years ago in the season that ended with Taylor Hicks as the winner, took her Idol cred straight to the contemporary Christian market. It’s a strategy that has worked out well for the singer, who comes to Lexington Thursday as part of Newsong’s annual Winter Jam tour. Last year, she released her solo debut, True Beauty, on EMI’s Sparrow Records, one of contemporary Christian music’s biggest labels.
The album was nominated for the Grammy for best pop/contemporary gospel album (Israel and New Breed’s A Deeper Level won) and Mandisa is up for female vocalist of the year and new artist of the year in the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards.
To preview Winter Jam, we got on the phone to talk to Mandisa about her music and Idol’s devilish judge Simon Cowell. Here are highlights of the chat:
Q: I was just reading your blog and bio on your website, and you were talking about going to Kat’s wedding and meeting Reuben, and it seemed like there is this little American Idol community. Is that the case?
A: There tends to be. When I was on the show, we were all pretty close, especially the girls. So I went to Kat’s (Katharine McPhee) wedding and Kellie Pickler was there -- she was a bridesmaid and I sang at the wedding. And everytime I meet someone from a different season, there sort of is an instant comaradarie. I think it stems from the fact that there are only a few people in the world who know what we’ve been through, and we can kind of talk about and compare our seasons.
Q: Who do you keep in touch with the most?
A: All of the girls from my season: Kat and Kelli and Paris (Bennett) and Lisa (Tucker). I also talk pretty regularly to Ace and Elliott (Yamin). I try to talk to all of them and from other seasons, Melinda Doolittle and I were friends before American Idol. We used to do studio work together.
Q: Obviously, there is a new season rolling ahead. Have you been watching it?
Q: What do you think when you watch it?
A: Well, it’s different this year than last year, because last year had Melinda in it. I’m not coming into it with any sort of bias, and I will say I am very impressed with what I’ve seen so far.
The one thing that is difficult for me to watch is the first few weeks of the auditions. Yeah, I don’t enjoy that much, seeing the people on there that are not so great. But I have a different take on seeing people being ridiculed, because I was one that ridiculed by Simon.
I used to think it was really funny.
Now, I find myself praying for the people being humiliated, because I know what it feels like. It’s not an easy thing, especially if you know you’ll never see Simon again.
I was able to see Simon again, and get some closure on it.
Q: There is a controversy about Idol showing people being humiliated at the auditions. What do you think about that?
A: You go into it knowing there’s a chance you’re about to be humiliated. You’re signing away the right for them to use your image and do whatever they want to do with it.
There are people on there where it’s funny to see their performances, but it’s when the judges make the comments about their performances that I have the biggest problem with it. You have to be careful with your words.
I feel like when Simon gets to the end of his life and sees the impact he has had on people’s lives, I don’t think it’ll be worth it, even with all of the money and all of the fame.
Sometimes when they’re really young and not as secure, that can have a big impact on people. I don’t envy the position the judges are in. I get that people are interested in that, but I just think you have to be careful the risks you take with a human life.
Q: So you had closure with Simon?
A: Oh, yeah. They aired it. I told him I forgave him, because Jesus forgave all that I had done wrong, so I could certainly extend that grace to him. His response was incredible, but then, when they aired it for the whole world to see, that was far beyond anything I could have asked for. I was able to stand up to Simon in a way that people might not expect. I felt like I was able to do that for myself and all of the other people that he humiliated. Simon could have gone the rest of his life without having given what he said about me a second thought.
But I had to forgive him for myself, so I would not hang on to the anger and bitterness. I think forgiveness is as much for the person forgiving as the person being forgiven.
Q: What kind of role did faith play for you in the competition?
A: After making the Top 24, the producers said, don’t try to be anyone other than who you are. And I would be a phony person if I tried to hide my faith from people. II would try to start out every day with the Lord, reading his word. It can be a pressure cooker with all that expectation and people talking about you and judging you on the Internet. I feel like if I didn’t have my faith in the Lord, I probably would have gone crazy. So, it played a huge role not just in being on the show, but also in who I am as a person.
Q: Is the contemporary Christian music market where you saw yourself going after Idol?
Before American Idol, I was singing background for a living and leading
worship. The people I was singing background for were mostly
contemporary Christian artists, so it was an easy fit for me.
I had a few options after the show. I grew up on Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston, so I certainly have that soul vibe. But when I saw Randy Jackson on Larry King Live with Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, his advice was to do the music that comes the most naturally for you. That’s what comes natural to me, to sing about Jesus and all that he’s done for me, and encourage his people.
Now, I’m so thankful to have stayed true to what I’m supposed to be. I can talk about the Lord and still have that Chaka Khan flavor in there.
Q: You always hear that on Idol, maybe it’s better to not win, so you can go where you want to go instead of where the winner has to go. Do you think you’ve benefited from that?
A: I remember I was really upset when I was eliminated in ninth place, for a lot of reasons. But in hindsight, I am so thankful, because I think the expectations that are placed on the people that win are so high. We found out recently that Taylor, who won my season, was just dropped from his record label. And when I look at the fact that he sold 800,000 albums, that is not a failure by any means. But because he was a winner of American Idol and there were such high expectations placed on him, he is considered to be a failure. I completely disagree. I love his album.
But the fact I came in ninth place, there was very little expectation placed on me.
And Chris Daughtry, who came in fourth place on my season, didn’t have expectations as high. But the Grammy Awards just happened Sunday, and Chris and I were the only two people from my season that were nominated for Grammys. That’s really telling that you don’t have to win it in order to be successful from it.
Also, being on American Idol gives you a platform, and what you do with it is really up to you. When you don’t have those expectations, you’re more free with what you can do.
Q: How did your deal with EMI and Sparrow come together?
A: I met with four different labels in the Christian and gospel industry. I just loved when I met with Peter York, the president of the label division, and the president of EMI/CMG, Bill Hearn, and when I was able to talk to them about how I saw myself, it was a perfect match.
I just met today with them talking about my next album, and I am so thankful.
Q: Tell us about True Beauty and what you like about it.
A: The fact that it has been received so well is overwhelming. You do music because it speaks to you and you hope it speaks to your audience. The fact that it speaks to the industry with the Grammy Awards, that’s something you never imagine for yourself. It blew my mind.
I’m so thankful when I listen to the CD, it’s a true reflection of who I am.
My fans say what they like about my CD is that every song doesn’t sound the same and the message that you get in the songs. My favorite song on the album is God Speaking, because he hears us and speaks to us. It’s not an audible voice. I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, but he speaks to us in a lot of different ways. That message has really resonated with people and the whole notion of 'true beauty' is huge in my life. That really resonates with women, that we don’t need to be defined by society and what they say is beautiful. We’re beautiful because God created us and paid careful attention in knitting us together. We’re not beautiful because of the supermodels and magazine covers. We’re beautiful because of God, who lives inside of us.
Messages like that are important to me in that they resonate with my audience. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Q: Meeting audiences at shows, do you feel like having had the platform of Idol, people have followed you to Christian music and your message?
A: I do. The biggest highlight of my life is when someone writes me and says, ‘I never listened to Christian music before, but I saw you on American Idol,’ and now that I’m playing these Winter Jam shows, I’ve met several people who said, 'I came here because I saw you on American Idol,' and I love this music. And they love all of these artists.
The fact that I can use this mainstream platform to introduce people to this great music in the Christian music industry is great. When you can listen to music that is entertaining and makes you snap your fingers, but can also encourage you and edify you, that’s amazing. It’s one of the biggest honors of my life to be a part of that.
Q: What’s being on the Winter Jam tour been like?
A: It’s a lot like being on the American Idol tour. You know, we’re playing these big arenas, and the music is just as diverse. You know, I couldn’t be any more different than Chris Daughtry. And now, on this tour, we have a band called Skillet, which is pretty hard rock. But the fact that we’re just as diverse and selling out these arenas is great, and that we’re singing about the Lord is the biggest difference. It’s really great that people want to be a part of that.