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'Idol' Musical Director Ray Chew Reveals His Approach to the New Season

Ray Chew
Edwine Seymour/Getty Images
Ray Chew

American Idol musical director Ray Chew has his work cut out for him this season.

Not only is he starting a new job, which is stressful enough (picking up where Rickey Minor -- who joined The Tonight Show as bandleader in June 2010 -- left off), but he has to please several bosses (including Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, exec producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell, among others), contend with a tricky sound mix and provide proper backing to 24 contestants — now 13, who will perform tomorrow night for their chance to advance to the Top 12 — and direction to his band of seasoned professionals.

How is he approaching the TV gig of a lifetime? Chew spoke to THR’s Idol Worship at the Top 13 party last week. 

THR: Did you give your band a pep talk at the start of the season? What did you tell them?
Ray Chew: My pep talk was to always be ready for the moment. Because especially with the live show, there’s no tweaking it; there’s no way of going back and fixing it. So I told them, “We’ve got to make sure we hit one out of the park every time. Every at bat has to be a home run.” That’s my analogy. Also, we’re there to support the talent on stage, and we make sure we do everything we need to do. We give each one of the kids the same amount of time and preparation and we want to make sure they do well.
THR: How many hours per week do you spend working on Idol?
Chew: All the time. Every hour. Because we’re also working on the musical product and with the team of Jimmy Iovine, Ron Fair, and Interscope Records. We’re interfacing their ideas and the presentations going forward.
THR: How is that going to work?

Chew: Jimmy will sit down with the contestants, and they’ll choose a producer who’s going to work with them. I’m at that same meeting, and while they’re starting the musical product, I’ll take some of the ideas back into the live presentation. When you have great producers like Ron Fair and Rodney Jerkins, they have a lot of ideas of their own, and so they’ll be providing some of the tools of the presentation. It’s still a live show and a live band, but we’ll enhance that with some of their stuff.
THR: Is there an Idol alum that’s really impressed you?
Chew: I’ve worked with Jennifer Hudson, and she’s always impressed me. She seems to keep getting better. I’ve also worked with Fantasia, and I’m very happy to see both of their careers moving steady.
THR: Did Rickey Minor give you any pointers before you started?
Chew: Rickey Minor has been a wonderful friend of mind, and we’ve always talked over the years. He didn’t give me any specific advice for this show, but we’ve been communicating, he congratulatied me, and I congratulated him on his Tonight Show gig. I’ll catch him at lunch sometimes.
THR: Give us your thoughts on some of the favorites so far. Scotty McCreary?
Chew: I love his authentic country thing. I think he’s got a wonderful career ahead of him.
THR: James Durbin?
Chew: He’s rocking out! Oh my goodness. I enjoyed playing the Judas Priest song.
THR: You knew the song?
Chew: Come on. Of course, I knew it. I’m experienced. I say to these guys, “Young man, I’ve worked with Jerry Garcia. My country music experience has been hanging out with Willie Nelson and working with Jessica Simpson in Willie’s studio. Of course, with R&B and jazz, I’ve played all those things over the years.
THR: Lauren Alaina: she’s had so much attention coming into the competition, could that backfire?
Chew: I don’t think so. She shows so much composure, and she’s ready for this.