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'American Idol' Alum Returns as Backup Singer: Allison Iraheta Pulls Back the Curtain (Q&A)

Says the season eight alum of the current crop of contestants: "It's a lot of pressure and I feel for them."

Allison Iraheta 2014 L
Courtesy Allison Iraheta

If Hasbro ever produces an American Idol edition of Trivial Pursuit, we have the perfect question. Who is the only Idol finalist to appear on two complete seasons of the Fox television series?

The answer is season eight alum Allison Iraheta, who has also been on stage for all of the season 13 live episodes. The magenta-haired singer turned 17 while she was competing on Idol. Today, she is 22 and has spent another full season on the show, this time as a backing singer in Rickey Minor’s band.
Iraheta sat down with The Hollywood Reporter after a Thursday results show to talk about her return to Idol.

Who called and asked you to be part of season 13?

Rickey Minor. He was doing The Tonight Show. This guy has been paying my rent. He's really helped me out so much with work and the ability and opportunity to work with these incredible musicians. He called me up and said, "We're going to do Idol again. We're going to get the family together." I said, yes, please, thank you.

Since you're working on Idol every week, is your band Halo Circus still active?

Yes, they are. It couldn't have come at a more perfect time -- this journey to sing background vocals with the band for American Idol. We're wrapping up the record with Halo Circus. The band is the rest of my life and is my career. I've been working too hard on it to just stop. We're really excited. There's a lot of stuff that's going to be happening after this.

With your Idol schedule, when do you have time for Halo Circus?

At night, when I get home. I don't stop. On my days off we're getting masters in for the next single and recording the video for the second single. And rehearsing for our upcoming shows.

Tell us about your weekly schedule with Idol.

It's Monday through Thursday. On Monday, we get here and we go through the songs before the contestants [are on stage] and then we run through the songs again with the contestants.

Is Monday morning the first time you know what the songs are for the week?

No, we get them on Saturday because we're doing the iTunes sessions as well. Then we have Sundays off.

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So, Monday -- first you rehearse without the kids...

Yes, at 8 a.m. and then the kids come up and we do the songs with them. They do them two or three or more times. We do them as many times as they need to in order to get their versions and make sure they are comfortable. It doesn't matter how many takes it takes -- whatever it takes!

And then what happens on Tuesday?

On Tuesday, we start getting more of a blueprint down for everyone as far as what the kids will be doing onstage, where the cameras are going to be – it's like the skeleton starts forming for them. They go through the songs twice.

There’s a live show on Wednesday but what is your day like before you hit the air at 5 p.m. west coast time?

Wednesday, we have the rehearsal right before the show. We go through the entire show as timed and try to get through it with no mistakes or anything, then we have a break, then it's the show.

Thursdays are the results show, and you are still on stage.

And just like everyone else, we don't know what we're going to be singing until we know, until you guys know, until everyone knows.

Have you rehearsed all the songs? Because everyone has prepared a goodbye song.

Right, but we don't rehearse them. If it's a song they did weeks ago, then we better hope to remember it, because we don't practice.

You have a lot of songs to learn every week. Is that easy for you?

Once you get a rhythm down, it starts to get easy. You find a place in your brain for that kind of stuff. It was hard at first when there were 30 contestants. But something you don't see when you're watching American Idol is that everyone in the band has this connection. I haven't been with these guys as long as they've been with each other. When you're surrounded by these people that have this schedule and rhythm, you either get on board or you get left behind. I'm very lucky that I've been able to follow them and keep up.

How many of the songs do you already know and how many are new to you?

Some of them, I've sung on the show. I know about 50 per cent of them because there are a lot of theme weeks. When we did the '80s, I knew a lot of those songs. So that makes it easy and even more fun.

You're used to being a lead singer -- in terms of ego, how is it to take on this job?

I don't have a different relationship with being a lead singer and being a background singer or being with the band. I'm with a band now, so I think that's maybe why I see it as we are all in this world together. As long as I'm supporting myself and supporting others in any way or growing in any way and growing with others in any way, then I'm good. And I find this to be one of the biggest opportunities anyone in this industry can have.

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How do you interact with the other backing vocalists? Do you sit down and go over the songs together or do you do them by yourself and then get together with them?

First we get them down as close into our brains as possible and then we go to the studio and we just nail them. We have such an awesome relationship. We're already like family. We've done gigs outside of Idol together with Rickey Minor. We did the Clive Davis Grammy party together and The Tonight Show. We listen to each other, so it's really easy.

In terms of harmony, do you each have a different part or do you decide that song by song?

It's song by song. Whoever sounds good with this person will do it. That's the other thing about this that you don't realize -- how you sound with another person, how you listen to their techniques and the way they sing. I've never been able to listen like I do now and I love it.

What are some of the performances that have featured your voice?

I did one with Caleb Johnson, "The Edge of Glory." I did "One Mississippi" with Dexter Roberts and that was a lot of fun. And then Jennifer Lopez [on "I Luh Ya Papi"]. On Sam Woolf’s "Time After Time," people confused Nayanna Holley with me. She was actually singing with Sam. And I think that's cool because it shows how spot-on she is with blending and being incredible. She's amazing.

Having been a contestant yourself, do you interact much with this season's contestants?

Not much. They all seem like awesome people. I'm rooting for each and every one of them. I know exactly what they're going through.

What's it like being up there onstage and knowing exactly what they're going through?

Besides reminding myself that I'm not going home that week -- it's not you this time, I swear! -- I feel for them because there's a thing that happens after this is all over. You wake up and snap out of it and think, I wish I could have had more fun or I wish I could have remembered all of this. Because there's no way in hell you can actually stop and say, this is happening right now, let me stop and take it all in. If you stop, you'll get stepped on because everyone is going so fast and it’s a competition. But I can feel how they are very tired and confused at times. I'm sending them love and whenever I have a moment with them I say, "Once this is over, that's when it really starts. Just have fun now."

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What's it like on Thursday nights for you when you're on stage and someone goes home, and you know exactly what that's like.

It hits me right in the heart. It's so sad. I was sad that I was leaving my family. It's a lot of pressure and I feel for them every Thursday.

What's it like for you being back at Idol?

The first day, I had to sit in my car for 20 minutes and take a billion deep breaths and say, "You're going back. This is happening. What does this mean? Why are you going back now? And how are you going to go back as who you are now and with what you're representing in your life? You're not the same little girl and you've tried different things and so how are you going to take this?" I love everyone here. They're family and I love the people I work with but there was a lot of emotional stress in this place for me.

Are you now observing it at a distance?

Yes, observing myself as I go through the hallways, as I talk to people and the way they talk to me and remember the 16-year-old girl. Then I catch them up on my life because a lot has changed. A lot of good and a lot of bad happened after the show. And I think that that makes all the difference in the world. I find it to be an incredible and huge gift in my life to come back and to be able to see it for what it was and for what it is now.

What it's like to work with Rickey?

We all know how exceptional this person is and how much history he has in those fingers and in that brain of his. To even sit down and talk to him is a huge opportunity to learn. He only has incredible and trustworthy and respectable and respectful people around him. And they're family. To be able to say that I work with this man is beyond anything words can express.

This is a completely different panel of judges from season eight. What do you think of the current judges?

I love them. Harry Connick Jr. is hilarious but at the same time you have to listen to what he says. He gives incredible advice. And J-Lo, I mean, how do you beat that? She knows the ins and outs and she works so much. She has full control of what she is and who she is. I have so much respect for that. And Keith Urban, same thing. These guys are no joke. Idol always gets the best. To be a part of it is really great and humbling.

Finally, I have to ask you about Jessica Meuse. Have you noticed her hair?

Has anyone not noticed that hair? How can you miss it? It looks so good. We've complemented each other. "You have great hair." "No, you have great hair." Whenever I see a person with bright-colored hair, it's usually special effects, but I'll always talk to them.

Twitter: @Idol_Worship