'Idol' vocal coach is never idle as she guides the apprehensive contestants
May 9, 2008
In conversation, Debra Byrd is a whirlwind. A fast-talking force of nature for whom the laws of punctuation do not always apply. But in her role as the first “American Idol” vocal coach, the woman everyone calls “Byrd” is the calm center of a pop-culture storm. The “Idol” contestants have to listen to the judges, but when they are so stressed they can't hear themselves think, they talk to Debra Byrd.
“Often, they will second-guess themselves because the judges will be split in how they feel about a performance,” Byrd said by phone from Los Angeles. “Randy may hate it. Simon may love it. Paula's gonna love it. And if she doesn't love it, she's kind about how she doesn't love it. A lot of times, they'll get mixed signals on Wednesday night, and then on Thursday morning, they'll have to pick their next song.
“On Thursday morning, I will say to them, 'Did you understand what the judges said to you? How did you feel about what the judges said to you?' And we'll open a discussion about it, so they can purge it. It's very important that they don't have it festering inside, and that they have someone who can hear their side of the story.”
Packed with more guest stars than an evening of “Idol Gives Back,” Byrd's story starts in Cleveland, where she began studying opera at 12 and spent her high school years juggling church choirs, an R&B band and a madrigal group. Her first big job came in the '70s, when she was hired as a backup singer for Barry Manilow, a partnership that is still going strong today.
After Barry came, well, everybody. Bob Dylan. Lyle Lovett. The Eurythmics. Roberta Flack. Byrd has performed, toured or recorded with all of them. She has also sung on film soundtracks and performed in “Barry Manilow on Broadway” and in touring versions of “Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk” and “Ain't Misbehavin'.”
But sometimes, a body in motion needs to stop. So when she was offered the job as a vocal coach for a new Los Angeles-based competitive-reality show, Byrd took it. Not just because the job was intriguing, but also because it offered her the exotic opportunity to sleep in her own bed.
“I said, 'Well, I don't know what 'American Idol' is, but count me in,' ” Byrd said with a gravelly chuckle. “So it's been seven seasons of 'American Idol,' five seasons of 'Canadian Idol,' two seasons of 'Military Idol' and one season of 'American Juniors.' It worked out just fine.”
Byrd and the rest of the “Idol” musical team help the contestants arrange their songs to suit their voices and edit their songs to fit the show's time constraints. And once the song is ready to roll, everyone can only hope the singer will have time to learn it.
“There is a mentor shoot, recording of the video for Ford (“Idol” sponsor Ford Motors), photo shoots, interviews, band rehearsal is in there somewhere. There is a group-song rehearsal. I didn't even mention clothing, the shopping and the alterations. It really is heavy duty. That's why Kelly Clarkson said, 'After you do 'American Idol,' you can do anything.' ”
Of all the potential disasters awaiting “Idol” contestants – the missed high notes, the unflattering clothes, the scandalous photos that come back to haunt them – the Curse of the Bad Song Choice is what judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell harp on the most. And because the songs have to fit the weekly theme and have the proper legal clearance, the decision-making can be perilous.
Pick the wrong song – as the judges thought the recently departed Brooke White did with “I'm a Believer” – and your days could be numbered. Pick the right song – as the now-departed Kristy Lee Cook did last month with “God Bless the USA” – and you could buy yourself a few extra weeks on the big “Idol” stage.”
“I always say that finding the correct song choice for you is like shopping for clothing,” Byrd said. “You know if those jeans look great on you, you know if you look hot or if you look horrible. Picking that song is the exact same thing. You need a song that is tailor-made for you, and your mission is to find it.”
And just like everyone needs a friend who will tell them the truth about those acid-wash jeans and those gold stilettos, “Idol” singers need someone who will make them step away from the Whitney.
“I will never B.S. them,” Byrd said. “I tell them, 'If you sound fabulous, I will say so. If you don't, I will say so.' I've had a few contestants say to me, 'Aren't you paid to tell me that I sound good?' What? No. I'm paid to be honest.”
She may be honest, but when asked about the strengths of this year's contestants, Byrd chose to speak about the group as a whole.
“The common denominator is courage,” Byrd said. “Because it takes a lot to stand on a stage in front of millions of people and be ridiculed. It's very heart-wrenching. They are all unique.”
But when she was asked which contestants have blown her away, Byrd was ready to sing the praises of the people who have made this vocal guru stop and listen.
“David Cook stunned me the first song he did. He stunned me in a great way. Fantasia stunned me. Kelly Clarkson stunned me. Chris Daughtry. Carrie Underwood. LaToya London. Elliott Yamin. They were all willing to take a risk, vocally, musically, with their song choice. They are visionaries.”