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It’s been 11 years since Ruben Studdard was declared the winner of the second season of American Idol. His first album, Soulful, topped The Billboard 200 and his four subsequent albums all appeared on the chart (all five peaked in the top 20 of Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums). His sixth album of original recordings, Unconditional Love, debuts on The Billboard 200 at No. 46 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums at No. 11 this week. When Studdard arrived for lunch with The Hollywood Reporter at the Daily Grill in Studio City, heads turned to look at the trimmed-down Idol, who shed 112 pounds on the latest season of The Biggest Loser.
You’ve been doing live shows with David Foster for some time. Now that he is chairman of Verve Records, is that how you were signed to his label?
Ruben Studdard: We’ve been wanting to do an album together for the past four years but he was with Warner Brothers and they parted ways so the time wasn’t right. Now that he’s with Verve, everything worked out the way it was supposed to. I’m really glad. David brings the best out of everyone he works with and I hope that people will feel the same way about me.
How did this particular album come about? Did you have an idea or did David have an idea?
We agreed while we were on the road what kind of an album we would make if we ever decided to make an album – it would be a collection of classic love songs. When I was on The Biggest Loser I couldn’t have any communication with the outside world from June until the end of September, so David and I couldn’t talk on the phone. We corresponded through snail mail. We sent each other our song ideas. I would receive little cards from Verve with song choices.
What happened when you finally were able to get together with David?
The first time I saw David I was still on the show. They were doing a piece about us having to work away from the ranch. So all of us had the opportunity to do the thing that we do away from the ranch. They took me to the studio. That was a surprise for me and that’s where we wrote the single, “Meant to Be,” that day we were there.
What inspired the song?
I had a lot of time for self-reflection during The Biggest Loser and felt it was my time to get to the place where I’m supposed to be. American Idol was just a glimpse of what my future holds. That song was an opportunity for me to tell myself to keep going forward.
How long did it take to complete the album once you left The Biggest Loser?
This was one of the quickest albums I’ve ever recorded because it was so easy once I learned the lyrics or picked the songs I was familiar with. I was in the studio for 45 minutes on some songs because they just fit me. As far as the recording time, it took maybe three weeks.
Which songs on the album meant the most to you growing up?
Donny Hathaway’s “Love, Love, Love” is a song I’ve been singing since I was 16 years old. Not a lot of people know it but it’s one of his best songs and I had to put it on there. Luckily, David loved it.
I’m glad to see you finally recorded a song I suggested to you way back when you were on Idol – “If This World Were Mine” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, though you were more familiar with the Luther Vandross version.
That was one of my momma’s favorite Luther Vandross songs so to get to do that was great and the song I did with Stevie Wonder, “Close to You,” was just amazing.
Speaking of “If This World Were Mine,” I understand you sang live in New York last week with songwriter Valerie Simpson. What was that like?
Valerie Simpson was one of the first women I ever thought was beautiful. Well, I saw beautiful women before but she was one of the first person I ever said out loud that I think this is a pretty person. As a child I didn’t know what an amazing songwriter she was and to be on stage with her was amazing. I was shocked she wanted to come up and sing cause you know when I get to be a legend I’m just going to sit down and cross my legs and let you do it! But she actually came up on stage and said, “Ruben I want you to sing with me right now.”
I heard you duetted on “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Sounds like there was no rehearsal?
No rehearsal, just straight up impromptu.
When you recorded your first album after Idol, did you ever think about longevity? Did you imagine you would still be recording albums 11 years later?
I never really thought about if I would be around because I love music. Whether I would be performing at a local club or a stadium, I’d still be singing. But I am thankful that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to do a job that I love. I do know how fortunate I am to do what I do for a living because a lot of people have dreams and they don’t come to life and my dreams have come true in such a major way over the past 11 years. I still dream of different things I want to do. I have a lot of goals that I set for myself every year and hopefully they’ll come together.
What are some of the things that you want to do?
I really want to be a music producer. I have a real knack for encouraging young people and that’s probably because I was supposed to be a teacher. My major in college was music education and I love to work with talent and I hope that one day my career will spill over into that rhythm where I can get the opportunity to produce great music for the world to hear, not just you know things that are commercially accepted but great artistic bodies of work for generations to come to enjoy. Working with David has taught me that good isn’t good enough. You have to shoot for greatness and he does that everyday. Being around him gives you that attitude and that’s where I am right now.
Let’s talk about your time on The Biggest Loser. How did it change you?
It gave me the opportunity to look at myself in a real way. Family and friends haven’t given me that opportunity because they love you so much, they’re always positive. But The Biggest Loser really put a mirror in my face and said, “You might want to like take some time to figure out why you are 462 pounds. That’s not cool.” Not that I had any body image issues because I’ve always loved Ruben Studdard, but it wasn’t healthy. To allow yourself to get to a place where you could possibly leave the earth over something you can control is really stupid and so I’m glad that they gave me the opportunity to change my thinking. Hopefully I’ll be strong enough to keep going in the way that I’m going.
Finally, are you watching Idol this season?
I have not seen the new episodes. I did see some clips of the auditions on YouTube and there are some really good people. But I have seen all these people that are on the billboards all over Los Angeles, these random cute people. They couldn’t find regular looking people to put on the billboards? They found all the cute people in the auditions to put on the billboards. Ain’t that a miracle?!
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