Vocal Coach Debra Byrd Looks Back at a Decade of 'American Idol'
From the battle of the divas to an image-challenged David Cook to the sure thing that was Adam Lambert, 'Idol's' resident vocal coach runs down the highs and lows of America's favorite show.
It’s amazing to think that American Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd (known affectionately to one and all simply as Byrd) was initially hired for only a three-week trial during season one. Nearly a decade later, she’s still behind the scenes walking the contestants through what will probably be the most trying and unforgettable few weeks of their lives, from the auditions through Hollywood Week to the semifinals and beyond, if one is lucky enough to make the Top 12. She’s seen and heard just about everything, and after all this time, Byrd says, “I love the gig and am very grateful for it.” THR’s Idol Worship caught up with the competition’s true taskmaster for a look back at nine years on the show and ahead at what’s in store for season 10.
THR: In all the time that you’ve worked on Idol, what sticks out in your mind?
Debra Byrd: How overwhelming it is for each contestant every season. That's a constant because almost every one is the kid next door, the everyman, they come from obscurity to this huge platform where there are photographers, cameramen, sound people, hair and makeup… and on top of that, they have to sing great. The constant is the overwhelming nervousness that runs through every season. And there are surprises, too. It never ceases to amaze me when I'm surprised a person's going home who should have stayed.
THR: Is there one in particular whose elimination you’re still lamenting?
Byrd: Chris Daughtry. But if you look at the big picture, he won. He's the one with the ongoing career, the record deal, the sales. But it was such a shocker when he was sent home so early. Jennifer Hudson going home was another one. Those three women -- Latoya London, Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia -- were in the bottom three, and as I was watching them, I remember thinking, “I'm okay if Jennifer goes home. She'll be alright.” But I wouldn’t have been okay if Fantasia had gone home. That was a distinct feeling I had. Her sound was so different, it was something we had not heard. And I also remember that during the commercial break when Fantasia found out that they were in the bottom, she burst into laughter, and it helped me that she burst into laughter. That was an extraordinary moment for me as well.
THR: Do you think the kids who train intensely for Idol with vocal coaches and whatnot have an advantage over someone who might be naturally gifted with zero training?
Byrd: No matter what type of singer, the advantage comes if they're comfortable with themselves. The more knowledgeable they are about their talent, the better they do in the competition. If they're freaked out, nervous, if they have no confidence… buh-bye. Those kids go home sooner, they fold faster. But the singers who are confident in who they are do very well on the show, and it doesn't matter their age -- if they're 28 or 15, they’re the ones who have no problem being on stage through all the madness.
THR: The season 9 contestants have taken quite a beating in the press these last few months and haven’t really been able to relish in the post-season glory of Idol. Do you feel bad for them?
Byrd: I think I felt badly for them when they were in the season. [laughs] The thing is, they weren't the only season that people said sucked. There are highs and lows to everything. But let me say this: It's hard to follow the season of Adam Lambert. Like, what do you do next? Do you set yourself on fire? However, my other theory is, if Adam Lambert had been in season one, he would not have survived. Because we weren't looking for that in season one. The show was so new, he wouldn’t have made it.
THR: And Adam’s post-Idol success has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Byrd: I never doubted it. You could see it when he was on Idol -- this is a guy who was prepared. I think he said this was the last chance he could audition, because of his age, and he and other contestants were really smart about how they presented themselves to the planet. Consequentially, he's made some missteps, but I'm very grateful that he's been able to bounce back, so I applaud him. Because he's very talented, very unique, and I think the music world needs him. I really do. Yes, he's had a great year, and I'm glad for him.
THR: What’s your take on the new judges?
Byrd: They have great chemistry. I'm also noticing that Randy seems to be a bit more comfortable. And I love what Jennifer Lopez brings to the show. Even when she was mentoring, she was succinct and her comments were very helpful. I thought that she got right to the point. And when I heard that she was coming on board, I said, "That makes perfect sense." It just felt right. She bring that glamour. And Steven Tyler, I love that he has this thing where he'll sing to the contestant. From what I've seen so far, and I've only been around them for Hollywood week, they seem to have great chemistry, but I can't wait until we get inside the show to see how it evolves even more.
THR: What do you think of the show lowering the age limit to 15?
Byrd: I think lowering the age is a good idea because there are some extraordinary 15-year-olds out there. I can spot them. Even during the audition process in the large stadium, I can spot their age and I can tell when they're comfortable in their own skin. And when they're not, you send them away and say, “You've got time to come back.” It’s not about age, it’s experience.
THR: How has it been working with new musical director Ray Chew?
Byrd: He was very patient and amenable to the requests that were made of him. He always maintained a great attitude, he never looked like he was bogged down, he looked like he enjoyed it! He was in control, so I applaud him for stepping up to the plate because we've had other MDs come through and the total opposite was their first experience where they're uptight or a bit agitated. He didn't have any of that at all.
THR: Another change that was announced is the sudden death round. Does that mean that a contestant can’t have a single off performance?
Byrd: Yeah, because it's an endurance test, too. That's why I say if you're confident in who you are as a talent, you will do very well. And yes, even people who are confident do have an off day, but you don't sing out of tune. You don't crumble. You stand up to meet the challenge. American Idol is a marathon, as opposed to a sprint, so you have to be smart. You must be mentally prepared and have your tools.
THR: What are the tools that every contestant should have?
Byrd: I'm always leery of the kid who comes into my rehearsal room with no tape recorder, or they didn't bring their music, they didn't bring a CD player, they haven't done any homework -- it's like, why are you here? You should never forget to bring your tools: your music, your lyrics, pencil and paper, a recorder, your throat lozenges, tea… It's like if you were building a house, wouldn’t you have a hammer? Where are your nails and where is your wood?
THR: What do you like about your job?
Byrd: That I get to plant a seed of any kind in these people who end up having wonderful Grammy-nominated, Grammy-winning and Oscar-winning careers. I feel very grateful and blessed that I have had some input into all of that.
THR: You once told me a story about David Cook’s early challenges on the show and how he wasn’t telegenic enough, care to share it with the Idol Worship readers?
Byrd: Well, it bothered me that David Cook wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The media didn't pick up on him. David Archuleta was in the forefront, Carly Smithson was getting press, Michael Johns… but David Cook was totally ignored and I love this guy, his voice is extraordinary! So I have a girlfriend in Florida who I call every season to ask her who she likes. She lists all those people I just named, and I asked, "What about David Cook?” She said, "I don't like him, he reminds me of a stalker." Huh?
So I stepped back, and I looked at him from head-to-toe, as I do when I'm on the set watching the contestants and the judges' reactions on the monitor, and really took what she said to heart. He had the goods, I knew he could deliver, but it bothered me that she thought that, and I remember saying to David, "You're not camera-friendly and I am going to make you camera-friendly." He said OK, and when people began noticing him, I said, “Now I'm going to make you sexy." And he said, "I'll take it!" [Laughs.] It just goes to show that vocal coaching goes beyond just checking on your voice, it’s also how you present yourself to the planet.