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'American Idol's' Haley Reinhart Talks New Album, Guest Stars (Exclusive)

THR got an early listen of the season 10 finalist's debut which is due out in May.

Haley Reinhart publicity 2012 P
Haley Reinhart

There’s an age-old saying on American Idol that countless contestants have heard. It’s about staying true to oneself, even in the face of intense pressure to bend – be it to the producers’ whims, your parents, newfound fans or followers. The trick to surviving America’s most intense singing competition is to deliver originality without seeming fake, put forth personality without posing, and, most importantly, be likable.

Wheeling, Illinois’ Haley Reinhart lived this philosophy to the fullest up until to her last moment on the Idol stage – third place on season 10, so close yet so far. Of course, by the time she was sent home, the 21-year-old Reinhart (then 20) had made a lasting impact on Idol viewers. She had introduced her jazzy style to millions, helped catapult songs like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Lady Gaga’s “You and I” to hit status, and, yes, she growled, and we loved it.

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Now nearly 10 months later, she’s getting ready to release her first album, with a single, “Free,” due to drop March 20. She also will appear as herself on the CW's 90210 on the March 27 episode, performing a part of the song. The Hollywood Reporter got an early listen at the yet-untitled full-length (due out in May) and all its retro goodness -- songs like “Oh My,” a mid-tempo number featuring big horns, tambourines and echoing drums, “Keep Coming Back,” with its sexy vocals distorted ever so slightly, and “Undone,” a teary ballad worthy of “diva” designation, what with its piano-led melody, soaring vocals and strings. But perhaps the song that best serves Reinhart’s soulful sound and vibe is “Wasted Tears,” which, with its groovy bassline and girl group-esque “woos” sounds like it came straight from another era.

To hear Reinhart tell it, her goal was to make an “organic” album. “I want it to be real and to have substance,” she said on a rare break from studio time at Hollywood’s Record Plant. “Depth on different levels is so important to me. You look at a band like The Beatles, all their material has so much depth to it. And I want people to be able to run away with my melodies and get lost in them and take the lyrics and be able to relate to them.”

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Indeed, for an album that has elements of R&B, soul, rock, pop, jazz and funk, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into. Reinhart revealed more about the process -- and fantastic end result -- in an exclusive sit-down with THR.

The Hollywood Reporter: When we first started talking, you seemed surprised at the support you received from Interscope Records and 19 Entertainment, were you expecting a struggle?

Haley Reinhart: Well, you never know how it's gonna work out. And they kind of act surprised when they're dealing with me. They're, like, “Things don't usually go this smooth” or “people don't usually come in knowing exactly who they are and what they want.” With the songwriting process as well -- I've always been a songwriter, I’ve just never really had the chance to get in a studio and execute it. So the more I go in and say, “I want this vibe this and this to be the topic,” then the more it comes out sound like me.

THR: And while Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina had very successful debuts that were released within months of the tour ending, you got to take your time. What was the thinking behind that?

Reinhart: It’s been this ongoing saying in my head: I'd rather get something right than rush it. And I really stuck to that statement because it's such a huge opportunity that they've given me, so why screw it up just for time's sake? I'd rather have people really be able to step back and get their money's worth and look at me as a true artist than somebody who is just regurgitating other material.

THR: You sang Adele's “Rolling in the Deep” on Idol and the album definitely has a sense of retro-soul, which she most certainly popularized in 2011…

Reinhart: That's so true, and it’s great! If I get compared to Adele or the organic-ness of a singer like Amy Winehouse -- she had this raw passion. The fact of the matter is, we all grew up with the same stuff. With Amy, like me, it was jazz, and Adele, these ladies are so talented and have paved a way. They slipped through the cracks and made it happen.

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THR: You recorded at many different studios with producers and songwriters like Busbee, Mike Elizondo, David Hodges, Sam Hollander and Luke Laird and Rob Kleiner, the latter who produced most of the tracks. What was the studio experience like? Did you feel comfortable? 

Reinhart: Yeah, and what's funny is that I would write these songs and then record them all in the same day. So they'll be, like, fourteen-hour sessions. But even if I go back in to try and rerecord those songs and make them sound better, I can't recreate the moment because I was so in the vibe, in the mood, in the tone of the song and what I just created. A lot of the times there's nothing that can beat that. It can't duplicate it. There's just a magic that happens when you're in there. And thankfully enough, most of these songs are just heart and soul and something I'm proud of.

THR: What’s a lyric you’re especially proud of?

Reinhart: I remember when I wrote this one in “Wasted Tears:” "Feels like this chemistry / Might be the end of me / If love is my enemy / Don't set me free / Now that you're here there's no one else for me." These lyrics, they make me feel so good!

THR: So you're a romantic?

Reinhart: A hopeless romantic, yes. [Blushes]

THR: B.o.B. provides a guest rap on “Oh My,” how did that come about?

Reinhart: The label hooked it up. We went through some fill-ins and then they asked me, “Who's your dream rapper?” So I thought, I love Andre 3000, he would be the coolest ever. And then there's people like Lupe Fiasco or Common who have this very sultry vibe. B.o.B. was new to me, but the more I hear him and from everybody I talk to, I think he's so cool. Right when I heard it, I was like, “Geez, this is perfect.”

THR: It must be asked: Will Casey Abrams make a cameo on the record?

Reinhart: There was a tune that I wrote about four years ago that I wish could make the album. Casey played all the instruments on it and helped me figure out the arrangement. But it's not going to be on this one. We're definitely going to be doing stuff together. And he has asked me about his album as well so if time permits, we'll be mixing and matching.

THR: Any other surprises?

Reinhart: My dad, I'm getting him on one to four tracks, playing guitar. My parents have been with me every step of the way. They're in Chicago but I ask them about everything. I like to get everybody's opinion, just like [on] the show. You can't take all of it in, but take what you can from it and grow.

THR: You auditioned people for your band, almost like you were the Nigel Lythgoe that day. How was that process?

Reinhart: It was fabulous. I had them learn the Allman Brothers’ "Whipping Post," Sly & the Family Stone "Sing A Simple Song" and then a little bit of "Freddy Freeloader," a jazz tune. So they got to show me complete opposites. Like, I wanted to know that they could do rock and funk and jazz. They killed it. There were an incredible amount of amazing musicians there, but it was really hard. So that's why I had my folks to help. I’d be, like, “Sorry, if I look like I'm rude, it's just because I need my parents on the line.” So I had some good feedback, but all in all, you have to go with your gut. I went with my instincts and I think I have a really tight group of people, including a girl on keys.

THR: You recently had a photo shoot for your album art, anything you can tell us about the look of it?

Reinhart: It was a really cool mash-up between a kind of pin-up look that’s somewhere between '50s and '60s. So I have the psychedelic patterns and vibrant colors, but also the cute '50s, classier look -- because that's what I've grown up with and what I've always loved and admired.

THR: Do you feel like you were born in the wrong decade?

Reinhart: Totally. But there has to be a reason for me to be here now – to bring it back, slip through the cracks and get people to listen.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin