This year’s collection of top 14 finalists on American Idol returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday, April 2 to get ready for the season 17 live shows and the final phase of the competition. Less than 24 hours later, they followed a tradition that began years ago by sitting down with Billboard in a dressing room at CBS Television City for their first in-depth interviews. As they filed in one by one from early morning to evening time, they answered questions about their earliest musical memories, their influences and their personal histories of Idol.
On tonight’s broadcast, the second seven of this season’s top 14 were revealed. Here are their stories.
Born: Aug. 11, 1994 – Pomona, Calif.
Formative Listening: Aphex Twin, the Clash, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails
First Idol Experience: At age nine, watched Clay Aiken during season two.
Aranda always looked up to his older sister, and as an eight-year-old loved to listen with amazement when she played classical music on the piano. “That’s why I was always afraid of trying to play the piano. I thought, ‘Man, she’s playing piano. I could never do that.’ Listening to my sister play got me into classical music, and then I ventured out to the library to listen to music. I didn’t have much of a collection of music at the house.”
His interest continued through his teenage years but he didn’t become serious about being a musician until he was 20. “It was because of the jobs I was working. Growing up, I always wanted to be a chef or a baker. I almost got really hurt at a warehouse job. I almost got my hand stuck in a conveyor belt. So I had this urge to play music and I kept working at it, writing a song a day. Practicing, practicing, practicing. Trying to adore music and fully accept it.”
Aside from some piano lessons he took as a child, Aranda says he taught himself to play guitar and sing. At 20, he was listening to Chopin, Bach, Liszt and Rachmaninoff as well as British acts like the Maccabees, Bloc Party and Burial. “A lot of different styles of music,” he acknowledges.
Even though he is now on American Idol, Aranda admits he hasn’t seen much of the series. “I don’t really watch TV.” He was playing a lot of backyard shows when he was asked to audition. “I played two original songs and it was great. It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. You can see I’m very awkward in the episode. I’m not used to cameras.”
Aranda says the judges helped put him at ease. “Being in the room with them was great. Understanding that they’re artists and songwriters and musicians leveled the playing field. They let me play them some songs.” And what did Aranda think when Katy Perry told him he could win the whole thing? “I took it as a compliment. It was honestly very sweet of her to say that. There are amazing people on the show this season and I feel like the whole thing about winning is just being a part of such a very massive amount of talent. I feel that’s winning at life.”
Born: Dec. 15, 1998 – Claremont, N.H.
Favorite Alum: David Archuleta
Formative Listening: The Cure, Lana Del Rey, the Cranberries, Jimmy Eat World, Crowded House, Dinosaur Jr.
First Idol Experience: Started watching at age six and thought she might some day be on the show.
“I was a very outgoing child and I’ve always been fascinated by music,” says Cormier. “I was singing and dancing and I would do the hand motions of playing the violin. It was just something that really intrigued me and my mom described it as being an ‘adult baby.’ My earliest musical memory is listening to violin music when I was three years old. I started taking violin lessons immediately.”
Cormier describes her family as being very musical as well as supportive. “My brother plays piano. My dad plays guitar and we all write music together. We listen to a lot of classical music as a family. Ever since I can remember they wanted to support my dreams so my family got me a violin. There was a middle school violin teacher who didn’t normally take young students, but she made an exception for me. That’s how I got my start in music.”
Cormier studied violin for seven years. “I was the absolute worst violinist in the entire world,” she confesses. “Deep down, I always knew that I was going to be a singer. That was my dream. As a kid I would watch the Disney Channel. I watched Hannah Montana and I thought, “Someday I’m going to be a singer like Hannah Montana.” I told my mom, ‘I want to sing. I don’t want to play violin.’ And she said, ‘Why are we going to waste money on vocal lessons? Stick with the violin.’ And I said, ‘No, I really believe that I’m going to be a singer.’ My [second] violin teacher happened to be a vocal coach, and she said, ‘Why don’t we try it out?’ We did some vocal exercises and a song and she said she believed I had talent. That was the first time I felt like I was affirmed as a singer and it gave me the encouragement to keep going. She’s still my vocal coach right now.”
For the past few years, friends have been telling Cormier she should try out for American Idol. “That was never something that I was super passionate about because I felt scared that maybe I didn’t have a place. I do have a different sound that is not the typical American Idol sound. So I felt I would get cut immediately and I would tell people, ‘I don’t think that’s my path.’”
This was the first season that Cormier auditioned. “My husband came with me. My dad, my mom and my brother, also came to New York City because I’m from New Hampshire and that was the closest place. It was really great to have them there to support me. It’s a scary, nerve-racking thing to go out in front of these judges with something that’s so personal to you and be so vulnerable, but knowing I’ve got my family back there, it’s going to be good.”
Born: Aug. 26, 1991 – Phoenix, Ariz.
Favorite Alums: Phillip Phillips, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson
Formative Listening: Stone Temple Pilots, Faith No More, KISS, Prince, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden
First Idol Experience: Felt starstruck watching season one at age 10.
“I found my first guitar in a dumpster,” Cota tells Billboard. “It wasn’t tuned. It was broken but I played it and it was my escape. I never took a lesson for guitar or for vocals, because the money was never there in my family. I never really picked up any other instrument. I can play bass and I can keep rhythm but guitar is definitely my main instrument.”
For one semester in eighth grade, Cota sang in his school choir. Then he went in a different direction. “I sang metal music. I screamed for ten years until I figured out how I could sing and now people ask me, ‘How do you make that sound come out of your mouth?’ and I think it’s because from such a young age, I was ripping out my throat. So now when I sing, it comes out with this grit like sandpaper. Everyone thinks I’m faking it. No, it means that I probably need surgery.”
Cota recalls his first time playing in front of an audience: “My friend Tommy Gibbons was 13 and I was 12. My mom was a judge for the Guitar Center’s Armageddon contest and Tommy won it and he just shredded. He’d been playing for just a couple of years and he was a prodigy, so I instantly wanted to be his friend. I started singing for his band called Koama, for ‘Korean American Metal Assault.’ We did one show and that was it. It was a music festival my mom had helped put on called the Way Out West Metal Fest. I wish I had a video of it because we were comically bad. But that feeling of being up there is nothing that I had ever experienced and I got addicted to it. From there, I started my own metal band with friends from school.” Cota says his parents were “totally encouraging” about his venture into metal. “My mom managed heavy metal bands for 10 years and that’s how I got into the metal scene myself.”
Cota first auditioned for Idol nine years ago, right after he graduated from high school. “I stood in a long line. There were thousands of people there.” Cota was told it was a “no.” “I was heartbroken, because I’d driven with my aunt and uncle and with my girlfriend at the time all the way to San Diego. I didn’t want to do anything cool afterward because I was so bummed. But I’m here now and I’m not going to stop.”
Why did he wait nine years to try out again this season? “When they took a year off, I thought I missed my chance. So I tried out for The Voice and I made it to the judges, but all the slots got filled up before I could even audition. I’m so happy that it did not work out, because when I saw that American Idol was starting up again and I saw the talent that year and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. That’s the one. I’m not going to get discouraged.’ I never would have imagined myself getting this far, but here I am, top 14, and I’m performing for America’s live vote and that’s crazy because I grew up watching and voting with my family and screaming at the TV. It’s magic. American Idol creates superstars and no other show can say that.”
Born: June 8, 1991 – Brooklyn, N.Y.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Todrick Hall, Maddie Poppe, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Michael J. Woodard
Formative Listening: Prince, Beyoncé, Pavarotti
First Idol Experience: “I loved Kelly Clarkson.”
“My earliest memory of music is me misbehaving at church as usual and the pastor took me and sat me in front of my mother while she was singing a gospel song. I remember being in awe and looking at her, thinking, ‘I might want to do this. This looks like fun.’”
Graham says there was always music in the house. “I had five brothers and sisters and when it was time for us to clean the house, my mother always made me wipe down the stereo. She would be playing her music – usually Prince because she was such a big fan – and I would be sneezing, because I had horrible allergies.”
After seeing his mother sing in church, Graham joined the children’s choir. “They gave me my first solo with ‘The Shepherd’s Song’ and I remember I killed it, smashed it. Everybody was going crazy, standing up. The whole balcony was standing up. And that’s when I thought, ‘I really must have a gift and this is something that I should do.’ After that, I stayed with it and was singing and singing and you couldn’t shut me up.”
Graham considered following in his stepfather’s career path as a police officer and thought about becoming a teacher. Thankfully, he had a mentor. “His name is Thaddeus Price and I owe him a lot. He saw me singing one day and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ My grades were not good. I didn’t like going to school and he helped me change my entire life around. I graduated with a 3.0 in high school. To me, that’s a big deal. So he just got me on the right track. He introduced me to Pavarotti and gave me secret lessons. And when I first started singing classical opera, my friends were laughing at me. And then once I got it, everybody fell in love with it and they all wanted to do it as well. I have a big voice and I love all loud music, like heavy metal and soul. Once I got a chance to see Pavarotti and Renée Fleming conquer an entire orchestra, I fell in love with their music.”
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon
Born: Oct. 9, 1992 – Alexandria, La.
Favorite Alums: Vonzell Solomon, Melinda Doolittle, Katharine McPhee, David Archuleta, Adam Lambert
Formative Listening: Jeff Buckley, Sufjan Stevens, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, John Denver
First Idol Experience: Taping season four on VHS.
Harmon has one of this season’s most compelling stories. A pastor’s son, he came out to his parents but they were not immediately accepting. Supported at his audition and on subsequent episodes by his boyfriend John, Harmon has also received support from the judges, especially pastor’s daughter Katy Perry. But has there been progress with Harmon’s parents that we haven’t seen on air yet?
“Yes,” Harmon answers. “I’ve been on this journey with my family for years and everybody’s getting a glimpse of these moments. I’m really excited to show everybody we’ve been through the struggle together and we’re coming out on the other side of the struggle together. I’ve said it from the beginning that I hope we can grow and walk through this and that has been true. They’ve gotten their tickets to come see me this month. I think it’s going to be such an impactful story because I’m not the only one going through this. My parents represent so many other parents who are grappling with things. So I’m really proud of them, and I’m so excited how we’ve grown together through this. I think no matter where we land on our differences of opinion, at least we’re there for each other and we love each other no matter what, and that’s the most important thing.”
Harmon’s earliest childhood memory of music is singing in church with his mom and the rest of his siblings. He was four years old. “I specifically remember the song, ‘El Shaddai’ by Amy Grant and for some reason that chord progression has always stuck with me.”
Despite that early start and the fact that he always enjoyed singing, Harmon didn’t think about a musical career path until years later. “It didn’t really hit me that this was something I might consider as a career until high school. I was really into basketball in high school, and unfortunately ended up injuring my knee pretty badly and sat out for a whole season. That gave me more time to do music and that’s when I developed a passion for writing my own songs. One of the first ones I wrote was called ‘Sweet Green Garden’ when I was 16. At the same time I sang in the school choir in high school I had a little band called Setsail. We got to perform at a couple local, small festivals and at and a couple of churches in the area. After that I went to college and sang in a scholarship choir there.”
Harmon had thoughts about auditioning for Idol during his school days but since he was writing his own songs, he didn’t think the show would be interested in him. “But this season they are interested in singer/songwriters, and to me, it was an opportunity to showcase my music. They encouraged me to audition with my original song, ‘Almost Heaven.’ So that was exciting.”
Born: June 24, 1993 – Fairfax, Va.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, William Hung
Formative Listening: Elton John, the Killers
First Idol Experience: Watched the year Kelly Clarkson won (season one).
How’s this for an earliest musical memory? “I saw a rerun of Nirvana’s Unplugged MTV performance. I was really young, and the video we sent in [to American Idol] was of me with the little guitar after I saw the video. I was mimicking Kurt [Cobain]. I was so enthralled by what I saw on the TV.” There are more early musical memories: “The only station my parents and I could agree on was Big 100, the oldies station. So picking all these [older] songs, I love them.”
Eddie’s Uncle Kevin gave him a guitar as a Christmas gift. “I tried playing. I couldn’t focus on it and got frustrated so I put it in storage. In middle school I was feeling all these emotions and needing to let them out, I dug out the guitar. I started writing my own songs because I couldn’t learn anybody else’s songs. And then the first record I ever bought was Hot Fuss by the Killers. Loved that and got into music in that way.”
Eddie has shown different facets of his personality on Idol this season, from funny to serious. It’s not the first time he has done this. “I played my school’s talent show in my senior year. I was doing an original song called ‘It’s Been Good.’ I wrote about the school year, and everyone thought it was going to be a funny song and I sang it and everyone cried. People ran up and hugged me after and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this as a job.’ Then I went to Cedarville University in Ohio in the middle of nowhere. I loved it. They had a huge worship program. I did marketing communications and then a minor in business and played shows.”
In his junior year, while seeking an internship, he looked around the room and saw his Nike shoes and a copy of American Songwriter magazine and he was on Twitter. He applied for gigs at all three. He got a call from American Songwriter in Nashville. “You’re the only person from out of state that we want,” they told him and he quickly decided he would move to Nashville that summer. “I drove to Nashville and worked at the magazine by day and at night I worked at this audio branding place that an alumni owned. I fell in love with the city and then I went back to school in Ohio and was missing Nashville the whole time.”
So it was back to Music City, where Eddie formed a band called Paid Vacation with some friends. “We still hang out,” he says. “We wrote some great songs together and we didn’t go separate ways, but different things happen in life and Idol happened.”
Born: March 2, 2002 – Orlando, Fla.
Favorite Alums: Adam Lambert, Jordin Sparks
Formative Listening: Leona Lewis
First Idol Experience: At age three, watched with family while eating dinner.
Raghu was three months old when American Idol premiered, so you can understand why she doesn’t remember season one. Her earliest musical memory is from when she was two years old. “My father is holding me in his arms and he is singing to me. It was either a slow song by Boyz II Men or Backstreet Boys. I grew up on very classic music from the ’80s and ’90s.”
Did that music come from her parents’ record collection? “My grandparents actually had a record collection. Fun fact: I have a record collection myself now. I have tons of vinyl. Lots of Fleetwood Mac, Amy Winehouse, all different sorts of music. Growing up with two different cultures, hearing Indian music in the house and then also hearing Mexican music in the house in Spanish, gave me a lot of perspective that there are so many things to listen to.”
Raghu says she never had an “aha moment” that she would want to sing for a living.
“I’ve always had this idea in the back of my head, since I was four years old. I’d stand in front of the TV with the screen off so I could see my reflection in it, singing ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight.’ I would upload YouTube video covers. It was my daily routine. I thought I have to do this because I’m going to do this as [as my career] someday. I’m going to make it. I had no connections to the music industry whatsoever. It was just me hoping and dreaming.”
Raghu took guitar lessons for a short period of time. “The instructor was doing it from a book, so I bought the book and taught myself. She wrote her first song in the seventh grade. “I think it was called ‘Table For Two.’ I have a leather book full of songs I write and it’s my first one on the very first page.”
Raghu gave her first performance when she was in sixth grade. “I was very, very shy. I loved music so much and I was in choir. Somebody asked me if I would stand in line with them while they auditioned for a solo. I’m always very supportive of my friends. I said, ‘Sure. No problem.’ And then she pushed me in front of her and I’m in front of this entire class of girls in choir in middle school. The pressure! And then I sang and words and notes came out of my mouth and everybody applauded. That’s when I knew something good was going to come from this.”
Raghu auditioned for Idol’s first season on ABC. “I got eliminated. That was heartbreaking for me because I wanted it so bad. But then I got back up a couple days later after being extremely sad, because that’s the process. I realized I can’t sulk all day. I wasn’t discouraged at all.”