UPDATE: I originally ran this interview in February 2008, back when Blake Lewis still had a fleet of publicists slaving away to promote his rather respectable debut album, Audio Day Dream. Well, gee, what a difference four months makes: According to Rollingstone.com, Blake has already been dropped. Just like the previous American Idol season's first runner-up, Katharine McPhee. And the first runner-up before that, Bo Bice. And Diana Degarmo and Justin Guarini, come to think of it.
Man, this season's second-placer David Archuleta ought to be a little worried by now. And his album isn't even out yet!
Anyway, re-skimming over this archived Blake interview, I can see now that the writing was on the wall. Or the blog, as it were. Someone like Blake Lewis just wasn't cut out for pop stardom on a mainstream major label. Any AmIdol alum who declares "F**K AMERICA!" in an interview (see below)--or says waaaay worse than that about Sanjaya Malakar and Taylor Hicks in other loose-cannon interview for other publications--ought to know his days on BMG are numbered.
Some might say Blake needed better media training. Or better radio promotion. Or a better music video. Or maybe even better songs (I disagree with that last one, personally). But don't worry, Blake will be just fine, whatever label he ends up on...even if it's just BlakeLewis.com. I have a feeling he doesn't really care that much about being dropped.
So here's my old interview with the infamous "rebel Idol." Re-read it, or read it for the first time now, and see what you think...
Not to namedrop here, but the night before I headed over to my Blake Lewis interview at 19 Management's skyrise HQ (where--double namedrop alert--I nearly bumped headfirst into Carrie Underwood AND Scary Spice!), I was out on the town and ran into Drew Brown of OneRepublic. OneRepublic had toured with Blake in the past, so I mentioned to Drew that I was going to be chatting with Blake the following day. To which Drew exclaimed, "Omigod, Blake is the coolest guy. He's like the honorary sixth member of OneRepublic. You will LOVE him!"
And Drew definitely spoke the truth. Blake Lewis is not only possibly the coolest Idol, but is in fact THE coolest guy. And I did love him. Sitting on one of the 19 Management office's plush leather sofas, surrounded by platinum plaques of Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry, Blake and I chatted surprisingly candidly and casually about everything from Duran Duran and The Never-Ending Story to his battles with Idol producers over song selection and the ex-girlfriend that inspired his latest single, "How Many Words." It sounds like a cliche, but it really did feel like I was talking with an old friend.
And along the way, Blake had some sage advice for both this season's Idol finalists and for the people voting at home, and had a lot to say about music in general--proving that the Artist Occasionally Known As B-Shorty is one of the most knowledgable and credible finalists in Idol history. Seriously, by the end of this interview, I was practically demanding a season 6 vote recount. Jordin who?
Scroll down to read how my Blake conversation went...
REALITY ROCKS: OK, I'll say right off the bat that I think you're one of the most unique and non-mainstream Idols ever. What made you even want to try out for a show like American Idol?
BLAKE LEWIS: Um, I didn't, honestly! I'd been a full-time musician in an a cappella group, and then I had my own show, doing more loop-based and hip-hop music under the name "B-Shorty." And then I got a job, but I'd just quit my job to do music full-time again--as me, Blake Lewis, not as B-Shorty. It was then that my friend called me up and said, "What are you doing tomorrow? I'll pick you up at 5 in the morning. We're going to audition for American Idol!" I just said, "Cool." I'm confident, and every time I got past another round, I got a little more confident. It was just like a job interview, really. Like: "Do you want this job? Do you want to be on this show?" And I'd be like, "Yeah! And this is why I'd be good for your show." That sort of thing.
REALITY ROCKS: Were you surprised how far you went on the show?
BLAKE LEWIS: It was all surprising and surreal--until I got on the stage, because that's home to me. Any stage, it doesn't matter where it is, is home. So I had so much fun. People were like, "Oh my God, you must be so stressed about the voting," but I didn't care about all that stuff. All I cared about was the microphone.
REALITY ROCKS: It must have been a challenge to apply your own singing style to songs from so many genres, like country or whatever.
BLAKE LEWIS: Yes, that's where it was tough for me, because I never really do karaoke--or if I do, I toss back a pitcher of beer or a couple cocktails first! I'm bad at remembering lyrics, unless they're my own. I guess it's my short-term memory or something. So on the show I actually had key words written on my arms so I could remember!
REALITY ROCKS: How did you choose the songs you were going to do each week? The judges always make such a big deal about the importance of "song selection."
BLAKE LEWIS: Well, the cool thing about the show is I got to do what I wanted to do, and I told the producers, when they didn't like what I had to say, to f**k off! In a good way. I mean, I'm not really good at conforming, unless there's a compromise on both ends. With music or art, you shouldn't have to conform for anyone.
REALITY ROCKS: One of your most controversial, but ultimately successful, song choices was Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name." What did Jon Bon Jovi really think of that? It was hard to tell from the interview he gave on the show.
BLAKE LEWIS: Oh, he was very skeptical. His interview ended weirdly, because they didn't know him saying, "Blake has big balls." God, I wish they'd showed that part! He was skeptical, but his band wasn't. They knew it was going to be good because they have kids who'd actually seen what I did. I don't think Jon Bon Jovi had actually ever seen American Idol, or knew what I did. I planned it really well. I had the whole entire sheet drawn up, the whole entire arrangement. I basically sang to them what I was going to do, and he was like, "Wow, half-time in a 12-bar break, huh? That's ludicrous!" But Richie Sambora loved it. And I saw them after the show, and they all loved it. I'm not a huge Bon Jovi fan, but to me that song stood out. I'm a huge '80s freak, and that was THE Bon Jovi song for me. So that was just fun. I was so confident going into it, because I had requested that song in February, the minute we got on the show. I was the only person who put in song requests that early, for every week. So when it came to each week, I was the first person to get my songs.
REALITY ROCKS: You took a big risk with "You Give Love A Bad Name." It could have backfired.
BLAKE LEWIS: Well, I changed up "You Just Keep Me Hanging On," too. And Diana Ross loved that. That was huge to me, because that was one of the favorite songs that I did. I wanted to make it even more electronic, but it sucks because you only have a couple days to come up with the whole thing. Me, every night, I'd go home and arrange it, or do it on my computer myself, so I could just go to rehearsal and relax.
REALITY ROCKS: You know, one thing I've always thought was cool about Idol is it actually introduces a young audience to older music they never heard before, like the Supremes...
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, or like the Zombies, the underdogs of the whole British Invasion, who had the best songs ever! I got a lot of response for doing the Zombies' "Time Of The Season," and that was one of the songs I had to fight for. The producers didn't want me to do that song. They didn't like it. They gave me a list of other songs to sing; it was the first time they ever actually talked to me, because they knew I was such an individual. They wanted me to do "Tobacco Road," which Phil Stacey ended up doing and killing it. But I knew that was not a good song for me. I didn't actually swear at them, but when I said I wanted to do the Zombies the producers thought it wouldn't go over well and said, "Well, what about America?" And I said, "I don't give a f**k about America!" Really, here's a British guy telling me what he thinks America wants! Anyway, America is huge, it's everything. I can't do what people want me to do and please everyone. I have to do what I want to do, and if people like it, then we've all won.
REALITY ROCKS: Have any other artists you covered given you feedback?
BLAKE LEWIS: Barry Gibb loved my performance. I made a totally weird, random Barry Gibb choice, "This Is where I Came In," and he loved it. I love that song. It's like three songs in one, which is why I loved it so much. I made it all Jamiroquai-ish, and the judges didn't get it...but oh well.
REALITY ROCKS: Since you took so many risks and still got as far as you did, what advice would you give the season 7 finalists, in terms of song selection?
BLAKE LEWIS: I think if the new batch of contestants sing what they love, it will be a great season. But there was a lot of stuff last year where producers were telling us to sing certain songs. Granted, some of them were great choices, but you're always going to give a better performance if you care about the song you're singing. I know if I'm singing someone else's song, it better be something I'm in love with!
REALITY ROCKS: So, do you think it's a blessing that you didn't win American Idol in the end?
BLAKE LEWIS: Oh my gosh! I did win. By not winning, I actually won, for me. I've never won anything in my life, so getting on the show, getting into the top 24, was a huge win for me. It's a huge opportunity for anyone, and anyone who disagrees with that...some bands don't want to go on American Idol because they think it's lame, but you know, if you want to expose yourself to America, it's the biggest promotional tool you could hope for. So from a business standpoint, it's smart. I mean, what is "art"? To me, art is communication. And I want to communicate with as many people as possible.
REALITY ROCKS: Have you been watching this season?
BLAKE LEWIS: No. I never watched it before, so why watch now?
REALITY ROCKS: Really? Do you dislike reality TV or something?
BLAKE LEWIS: Well, I don't believe in "celebrity." I have respect for certain people, like Jack Nicholson or Jim Carrey, whoever, but I don't believe in celebrity from reality television. Like that I Love New York show--who CARES about her?
REALITY ROCKS: Well, it's one thing to be famous for a reality show that you're on because you have a talent, like Idol or Project Runway, and another if you're famous just for being drunk on The Real World or trying to date Flavor Flav.
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, it's bizarre to me. But I don't consider myself a "celebrity." I do think it's cool that some grandma walks up to me once in a while and says, "I voted for you!" It's cool because there's a connection. There's a communication thing there. But what do you do with that, that's the thing. I'm definitely not a role model: I like to swear, I like grotesque humor, etc. It's like a different responsibility you're automatically assumed to take on because you're supposedly a celebrity. To me, it's all about how people approach me. If you approach me right, I'm going to be nice to you, and if you approach me like a d**chebag, then...
REALITY ROCKS: Wait a minute! Who approaches you like a d**chebag?
BLAKE LEWIS: Man, you'd be surprised by some of the people in this world. Some people are rude just because they like to be rude, I guess. I remember when I was like that, but come on, I was in 7th grade at the time!
REALITY ROCKS: I guess when you're famous, people think they know you and have the right to invade your space.
BLAKE LEWIS: Yes, and I think more so with American Idol people than with other singers. If you didn't know who I was, if I'd just gotten a record deal and my single was on the radio, that's a different kind of fame from being on American Idol. Because people vote for you, they think they have a say in your life or something. They have to give you their opinion. Which is both good and bad. I don't really care if you didn't vote for me, just don't cross that line and come up to me and tell me I suck when I'm out with my friends or whatever.
REALITY ROCKS: Is it a goal of yours to break away from Idol in the long run, and not be as associated with the show?
BLAKE LEWIS: Well, for me, it's about breaking away from the whole "idolatry" thing. I don't believe in "idols," they're false idols, so I don't like that word at all. So that would be the dissociation for me. Other than that, NO. I'm so fortunate I got to be a part of that. Coming from Seattle, I was an eclectic musician doing world beat, breakbeat, trance stuff, so getting to be a part of pop culture and do my singer-songwriter stuff, that was amazing. I can't wait to get back on the show and do one of MY songs. I'll keep riding it, because who knows how long the American Idol train will last.
REALITY ROCKS: There is all sort of gossip that the show is in decline...
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, but it's stuff like, "Only 27 million are watching, compared to 33 million before!" But come on, 27 million people is a LOT! They do need to spice it up a little bit, though, I think. Last season, they didn't really show us doing what we do. The public sees us on TV for five minutes and they're so quick to judge--but we're in rehearsals all week. The producers should show more of that. They need to get a little more personal. They say it's "reality" television, but it's not--it's just a competition that happens to be filmed. So they need to go into a little more detail with each person, each week--especially towards the end.
REALITY ROCKS: What do you think of the disconnect between what makes for good TV and what makes for good record sales? Like, some people get lots of votes on the show, but then no one buys their records.
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, viewers should think more about, "What is this person's record going to sound like? What am I doing when I vote for this person?" It's really the music that matters in the end, not who wins. Like, Chris Daughtry came in fourth, but he's the top-selling rock artist of the past two years.
REALITY ROCKS: So tell me about making your album. I bet you fought very hard to keep your unique style intact on it.
BLAKE LEWIS: Yes, I fought hard, and I would say 85 percent of it is what I wanted. There's one song that I didn't really want on the record, but I understand why, from the record label's standpoint, that they would put it on there. That was the compromise: one song. I'm just not good at the business side of things. I'm just a singer and a performer and a producer. I just want to do music; I don't want to do all the business stuff.
REALITY ROCKS: Who did you work with on the album?
BLAKE LEWIS: I got to work with BT, who's my favorite producer of all time. He's my main inspiration; I got into electronic music because of him. Working with him actually came out of me opening for him four years ago, and him then calling me to get me on his record as B-Shorty. Someone working at Idol told me she'd worked with BT, and I was like, "Oh my God, I met him a couple times, I opened for him in Seattle!" So she called him. He had no idea who I was because he didn't know me as Blake Lewis, he knew me as B-Shorty. So I sent him a DVD, and two months later he called me. I'd just gotten second place. He was like, "Yo, I've been trying to get you on my record! I had no idea that Blake Lewis and B-Shorty were the same person!" So we worked together. He sent me a bunch of beats, and three of them I was in love with. He sent me this beat that was super Prince/Parliament, and I just loved it. So "She's Makin' Me Lose It" is that; I wrote it on the Idol tour bus and in the dressing room right after our show in Washington D.C., when I was meeting BT just two days later to record it.
REALITY ROCKS: That reminds me--why did you not audition as "B-Shorty" for Idol?
BLAKE LEWIS: I always wanted to get away from that persona. It was more of a hip-hop thing, and you kind of need that in the hip-hop world; it's kind of a respect thing. But I always told myself when I decided to become a singer-songwriter, it would be as Blake Lewis. I'm still going to do B-Shorty shows, but it's very avant garde stuff I do; it's like worldbeat, drum 'n' bass, jazz improv. I had an improv show where I'd bring in other musicians and we'd just improv for four hours. Total Burning Man stuff. But I write pop songs, so "Blake Lewis" is my singer-songwriter/pop stuff. And you know, I'm very optimistic usually, but I looked at making this album Audio Day Dream in a very pessimistic way, because I know the way the industry is right now. I was like, "If I get this ONE chance to work with this budget and all these people, then I'm going to make my Michael Jackson Bad record. Because I can right now!"
REALITY ROCKS: "Break Anotha," your first single, hasn't gotten that much radio play. Do you have a theory as to why?
BLAKE LEWIS: Who knows? To each their own. I haven't listened to the radio or watched TV in like 10 years, so I don't even know what people want. "Break Anotha" is one side of me. My next single, "How Many Words," is another side, and I can't wait for it to come out. It's one of the favorite songs I wrote. Since the day I wrote it, I thought, "This has to be a single." I told the record company that again and again. It actually outsold "Break Anotha" on iTunes! So everything's come to fruition now.
REALITY ROCKS: What's "How Many Words" about?
BLAKE LEWIS: It's about my last relationship. I was in love with the idea of this girl, but I didn't like myself in that relationship. It was just unhealthy for the both of us. I love her, I think she's a great person, but it just didn't work out. We kept going back and forth; I broke up with her probably 10 times. It was always me breaking up with her, because I could never make up my mind. So it's a real song that means a lot to me. Her last name is even in the chorus, and my name is in the chorus too.
REALITY ROCKS: Has she heard it?
BLAKE LEWIS: I don't know. Honestly, I haven't talked to her. It's kind of my first relationship where I haven't talked to the person afterwards. Which is sad.
REALITY ROCKS: When did you split up for good?
BLAKE LEWIS: It was right before Hollywood Week. For some reason I knew I was going to get on the show, and I thought, "This is it. I need to end this now." But the best songs come out of experiences like that. All my songs are love songs, mostly. "A Thousand Miles" is another song like that, about moving on. It was organic, it just came out. It's totally like the Police meets "Never-Ending Story"...
REALITY ROCKS: Wait, you mean "Never-Ending Story" by Limahl from Kajagoogoo? That's a great reference. I am so impressed! You know, you're kind of young to have so many '80s influences...
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, but my mom was a singer from the age of 15, so I grew up with music all around the house. Duran Duran, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Prince, and Michael Jackson were always playing when I was growing up, on CD or on vinyl. I can remember listening to Duran Duran when I was 10 and thinking, "This bass player is awesome!"
REALITY ROCKS: So I bet you're excited to do a solo tour now, and show all these sides of you. Because the Idol tour is not exactly the proper showcase for what you do...
BLAKE LEWIS: No, it's not at all. I did luckily get to do my loop stuff, and towards the end I started performing my own songs...
REALITY ROCKS: Really? No one complained about you doing that?
BLAKE LEWIS: It was like the last couple weeks, so it was like, "Come on, are you kidding me?" I just did it. But you know, it is what it is, that Idol tour. I had fun for about the first 40 days, but the last 20, I was like, "God, I am so tired of doing Bon Jovi!"
REALITY ROCKS: Plus the fanbases are so different for each singer on the tour...
BLAKE LEWIS: Yeah, but it's really just what you make of it. American Idol just exposes you to America, and now the world--it's the coolest thing for me to hear that some 5-year-old is now beatboxing in Korea because they saw me. To me, that's the coolest thing about being on TV.