Rodney Jerkins: The 'Idol Worship' Interview
The veteran producer talks about 'American Idol,' working on new music with Kelly Clarkson and why Paula Abdul should be a judge on 'The X Factor.'
Producer Rodney Jerkins has worked with them all: ladies who need no last name (Whitney, Janet , Britney), newly minted pop superstars (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry) and now, American Idol contestants. As one of six producers tasked with whipping the finalists into tip-top vocal shape, under the guidance of Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, Jerkins spends nearly half his week perfecting one minute and forty seconds worth of cover songs. It’s a labor of love for the 33-year-old New Jersey native, who was elected “commander-in-chief” by his fellow Idol music makers, and a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly, as Jerkins explains in his Idol Worship interview…
The Hollywood Reporter: The turnaround on these recordings is so fast and the contestants’ time is extremely limited, can you break down the schedule for us?
Rodney Jerkins: Here’s an example: when we did Haley [Reinhart’s] “You've Really Got a Hold on Me,” the call time was 6:00 a.m. I had to have her in the booth by 7:00 a.m. cutting vocals. You only get a three-hour window with these contestants, so I had Stefano [Langone] coming at 10. It's a lot of work. It's not a normal recording shift where you do a song and you get a day to tweak it and the third day you mix it. It’s like double the work in the period of time it would take to do one. Not only that, there’s the music for iTunes, and the music for the performance. It's crazy.
THR: So the amount of work is not exactly what you bargained for…
Jerkins: Well, it's fun. When Jimmy [Iovine] first talked to me about it, he told me it was a lot of work in a short amount of time, but it's actually more gratifying for me because I work on so many songs, and sometimes it takes years for them to come out. Like I did Lady Gaga’s "Telephone" in 2008. It came out in 2010. So you're waiting on the edge of your seat for these songs to come out, but you never know what's going to happen. So the greatest part of this experience is knowing that it’s happening. Like, I did this on Monday and they're singing it on Wednesday! It makes you feel like a musical director in a sense.
THR: And everyone is recording out of Santa Monica, where Interscope basically built a recording complex just for Idol?
Jerkins: We have to. Of course I’d love to work in my own studio, but because of the cameras and the role of the producers and Jimmy, we all have to be close.
THR: How is it to be on the receiving end of Jimmy’s input?
Jerkins: It's amazing to me because I’ve known Jimmy since 1999 but only as an executive. Now I feel like I'm learning him as a producer. The input he gives is so spot-on. I can feel that in the last month, his energy is increasing, he’s becoming more hands-on every week, letting the artists know how it was done back in the day and what he expects as a record company. The whole exercise is to prepare them for how to handle situations after Idol. His thing is: "The reason why we're doing this is because in three months, you all will record songs and you’ll be prepared, so when it's time to make the album, you'll understand how this process works. You won't be intimidated to work with an A-list producer." And that's what it really is.
THR: How would you describe Jimmy’s method for doling out advice?
Jerkins: He’s an encourager to the contestants. He gives it to them straight. He identifies what the problem is and he lets them know: "You really messed up with your song selection.” But he's also encouraging them to get better and to do it fast.
THR: It seems like the show has had a lot of sound issues this year, where what we hear in the Idol studio sounds nothing like the broadcast…
Jerkins: That is the biggest discrepancy right now. You have the American Idol staff, which is used to doing it the way they've been doing it, and then you’ve got us, the producers, and we want to hear it a certain kind of way. It’s getting better. After the fourth week, you saw a big difference because we're having extra rehearsals with just the music to make sure things are sounding good in the truck. But you always have your little kinks.
THR: You’ve now worked with Pia Toscano, Jacob Lusk, Naima Adedapo, Haley, Stefano, and this week Paul McDonald and Lauren Alaina… are the producers rotating so that each spends time with all the finalists?
Jerkins: Yes, I guess it's a fairness thing, and I think it's interesting because it makes you step out of your box. Like what I did with Haley for Motown week, that is out of my norm – it’s old school and bluesy. I'm sure if Scotty's still around, and I get a chance to work on something country with him, that will be cool. I've always wanted to work with someone country, so this is a good opportunity to prove that I can do that.
THR: Are you still able to fit in all your non-Idol projects?
Jerkins: Usually. I’ve had to come in on days when I’d normally be off. Like today, I have to tweak a Mary J. Blige song, and I just got a call from [Chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam and Universal Motown Republic Group] Barry Weiss asking, "Do you have anything for Justin Bieber?" So I'm working on something to submit to him. But a good four days of each week are Idol days.
THR: Are you being properly compensated for your time?
Jerkins: Honestly, for my time, probably not. Some people are doing this just to be on TV. I have a relationship with Idol and Jimmy, and that's really my reason why. He counts on me too and I think he really understands I can deliver.
THR: Could you see yourself as a judge?
Jerkins: I wish I was. I'd be a great judge.
THR: Do you wish you and the producers had more airtime?
Jerkins: Absolutely. I'm not mad about it, but yeah, it would be great to be more involved and to be able to express ourselves a little bit more.
THR: Music executive L.A. Reid was recently announced as the first X Factor judge, do you think that’s a good fit?
Jerkins: It's a great fit. Think of American Idol when it was Simon [Cowell], Paula [Abdul], and Randy [Jackson]. Well, Simon, Paula, and L.A. is just the perfect combination. And knowing L.A., he is really good for this. He has that personality. He's very sharp. He's very real and on point, and he knows stars. He can spot one from a mile away.
THR: You talk as if Paula Abdul has signed on for the show, do you know something we should know?
Jerkins: I just believe she would be a perfect fit. She and Simon have chemistry. It’s like magic with those two. And she needs a job right now.
THR: Speaking of Idol alums, you worked with Kelly Clarkson on her new album, anything you can tell us about it?
Jerkins: A song call “I Forgive You” that me and Lauren Christy did that’s just crazy pop-rock. The first person who came into my head to do it was Kelly Clarkson. So I sent it immediately and got a response that night. She came out to record, the energy was great and I just finished mixing it. She nailed it. It turned out great.
THR: What’s your take on why her album got pushed back?
Jerkins: I think it's a smart decision. With Doug [Morris] coming in [as Sony Music CEO] but not until July, it’s better to wait, get cool with him, understand what he wants do and all that. But I'm confident in the record that we did. And even though the album was pushed back, I think we can get back into the studio to do a couple more things.