On My Way Here
When Clay Aiken and his executive producer Jaymes Foster began the search for songs to record for Aiken's first album of original material since his 2003 chart-topping debut Measure of A Man, they both fell in love with a song written by OneRepublic frontman Ryan "Alias" Tedder called "On My Way Here." The message of the lyrics - how the lessons we learn while growing up shape us into who we become as adults - struck such a deep chord with Aiken that it wound up inspiring the theme (and title) of his new collection.
"I thought if we could find songs along those lines, that deal with my life over the past five years and what I've learned from my experiences, it would be a great concept for an album," Aiken says. "Since I got into this business, I've learned so much about myself and about life and the world. I'm nowhere near an expert, but this album has taken on the form of addressing how far I've come in those five years and how I feel like I've found myself."
As Aiken's millions of devoted fans around the world already know, it's been a whirlwind journey. Since shooting to stardom on the second season of American Idol, the 29-year-old Raleigh, NC native with the powerhouse voice has become an international pop phenomenon who has sold six million copies of his three best-selling albums: the double-platinum Measure of A Man, 2004's holiday CD Merry Christmas With Love (which went platinum within six weeks of its release), and the gold-certified A Thousand Different Ways - a 2006 collection of 10 covers and four originals that earned Aiken the distinction of being the fourth artist ever to have his first three albums debut in the Top 5 on the Billboard chart. In addition, Aiken has launched eight live tours, made the New York Times best-seller list by co-authoring the inspirational memoir Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music In Your Life, executive produced and starred in his first TV special, A Clay Aiken Christmas, and won several American Music and Billboard Music Awards. In January 2008, Aiken made his Broadway debut in the role of Sir Robin in the Tony Award-winning musical Monty Python's Spamalot.
If that weren't enough, Aiken also donated much of his time to charity, performing at dozens of concert benefits for causes he cares about. The creator of the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which promotes and funds educational and recreational programs for children with special needs, the singer has traveled the world as a National Ambassador for UNICEF. On its behalf, Aiken has visited tsunami victims in Indonesia, villages in Uganda, classrooms and health centers in Afghanistan, and spent this past Christmas in Mexico with children affected by recent floods.
That's a lot of life experience to cover in one album. "It is," Aiken admits, "that's why the lyrics really had to matter this time around. It's the first time I'm singing about things that mean something to me." Which is not to say that every song is about something that actually happened to the star. "What's powerful about a lot of the new songs is that they can mean different things to different people," he says. "It was really important to me that they be interpretable in all kinds of ways, so as not to cloud someone's ability to find their own meaning in them." One example of this is the evocative ballad "The Real Me," written by singer/songwriter Natalie Grant, which is a poignant story about the experience of being in the public eye. "The song really spoke to me about the necessity of having someone in your life who knows you and doesn't really care about the fact that you're a celebrity," Aiken says.
Another track that means a lot to Aiken is "As Long as We're Here," a moving ballad that Aiken chose from a selection of demos he had brought with him to listen to on the plane during a UNICEF visit to Indonesia. "Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was flying over a tsunami-stricken country, but the lyrics struck me as very uplifting," he says. "They're about not waiting until it's too late to tell the people you love that you care about them." Turns out the song had also resonated with Jaymes Foster, who brought it to Aiken not knowing that he had already fallen in love with it. "Out of literally tens of thousands of demos we were sent, she had chosen the same one that I had so strongly identified with, so the song is a great connector between Jaymes and me. We've become really great friends, and it's important that it's part of the album."
Though he's known for his signature ballads, Aiken chose to open On My Way Here with an up-tempo, pop-rock tune, "Ashes," which begins with the following lyric: "Someone told me what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger / Sets you free from all that held you down." "That's a great opening line for an album," Aiken says. "My mom used to say that if things come easy they're not worth having; that there can't be a sunrise with a night. So, to me, that song is about how the most important lessons I've learned in my life have come out of less-than-rosy experiences, and that I'm stronger because of them."
To musically represent the album's lyrical theme, Aiken and Foster enlisted Grammy-Award winning British songwriter and producer Kipper, who has worked with Sting, Chris Botti, and Julia Fordham, marking the first time Aiken has recorded an entire album with one producer. "It's made for a very collaborative environment in the studio," Aiken says. "Every song has been scrutinized by Jaymes, Kipper, and me to make sure it's exactly what we wanted it to be."
It's that commitment that drives everything Aiken does, even if it means recording an album by day and starring in a Broadway show by night. "I guess I'm a glutton for punishment," he says with a laugh. "It's a lot of work, but I've had a great time. Doing both the album and Spamalot at once has kind of been like having two families. I have a family at the theater and we are a family group working on the album in the studio. I wouldn't have had it any other way."