WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA--Now in its ninth season, American Idol has broken some of the most recognizable names in pop music the world over: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson to name a few.
But when each season ends, there are more losers than winners. Some decide they've had enough. Others, like Anoop Desai, decide to keep pursuing their dream and get to experience first-hand what it's like to be a struggling--and, hopefully, working--artist in Los Angeles.
Over a bowl of soup at the Urth Cafe on Melrose, Desai spoke with me about what it's like to be part of the American Idol juggernaut, what it's like when it's over and the lessons the 23 year-old singer from North Carolina learned along the way.
What was it like for you to be on American Idol?
It's funny because when you're apart of the show, you don't really realize that you are. Part of that is because you're in such a bubble (and) people that you're with that are other members of the show. To you, they're your buddies, so you don't really have an idea of how big it is until you go on tour. And that's when you go to every city in the United States. It's a 52-city tour, and you see 10,000 people come out every night and you realize the scope of it.
While you're on the show, it's amazing. I was telling a friend that the first time I was in LA without security was in October. You have security with you every minute of the day and so you really feel like you're hot shit. (Laughs.) The challenge is when you come back to LA, to try and make a career out of it. You're not being driven around anymore, I'm driving around in my Camry. And you don't have security because you don't need it. It's an amazing experience but it doesn't really prepare you for life after because you assume that that's how it is and you get out here and no one cares. The challenge is always to get back to where you were.
Do you think that having been on the show helps or hinders you?
I haven't ever run into anyone who said, "Oh, I'm not going to do anything because you were an Idol kid." People are always waiting for the next thing--people are always waiting to see what we're gonna do next--and the fact of the matter is that some people go home and they're content to get their free meal at the Cracker Barrel and that's how they're gonna be remembered--as that kid who was on Idol once. And I was never really satisfied with that. I don't wanna be the kid that was on Idol once. I wanna be, you know, the Carrie Underwood, the Kelly Clarkson, the people that--the Jennifer Hudson, you know.
Did you think that when you first did the show? Was it your ambition to make a career in entertainment?
It might have been an ambition, but I always looked at it as an unrealistic possibility.
Just because I--you know, you don't have to be in the record industry to know that the record industry is in trouble and that the people that are coming out now are not the good voices necessarily, they're the pretty faces. And that's pop music. And that's what I want to do, I want to be pop music. I don't wanna do showtunes. It's pop music on the radio.
What were the opportunities presented to you after the show was over?
Um, not to many. Honestly.
So, why did you decide to come out to L.A.?
Because I had to for my own sake. Because no one walked up to me and said, "Hey kid, I wanna give you a record deal." That would make sense. What I never got about this is, alright, you have ten people, at least, who were on TV in front of 30 million people. They went on a major tour, toured the biggest arenas in the country. They're faces. They're faces and they're voices that people know and they're comfortable with. But somehow, only two or three of those people get immediately signed to a major label. I never got that. That seems like a bad PR move.
For the labels or for you?
It's a missed opportunity for them. I mean, labels spend so much money on promoting these new artists and they don't know whether they're gonna succeed or fail. I mean, why not save some money on breaking an artist when they've already sort of been broken?
Wouldn't that go against the grain of what Idol is, which is that there's one person who gets the record deal and the fame?
I'm not saying that Idol should sign everyone, or Sony --who's the label that gets first dibs--but it seems like someone would recognize that potential. You don't have to worry about name recognition. You don't have to worry about face recognition. I mean, I think it says something that the spot on Idol that artists get to perform on--the guest spot--that's a coveted spot in this industry. We have that spot every week, you know? Anyway, I didn't realize that when I first moved out here.
So, what happened when you moved out here?
I moved to L.A. and tried to get back in touch with a lot of the people who'd led me through the Idol process and some of them were very helpful, some were not.
Would they just not return your calls?
Yeah. Um, the thing you realize very quick(ly) is that this is a business. Even the people you meet at parties and they're like, "Oh, give me a (call)." One of the first weeks that I was here, I met (an exec) at a party and I said, "Listen, I would love to come into your office and play some stuff and discuss my future. And he said, "Sure, yeah. Give me a call." Didn't hear back.
You get shunted off so quickly and that's what I experienced. It was frustration and I wanted for a little while. I waited like two weeks for people to come calling and then when that didn't happen, I'm not the sort of person that sits idly by while life is passing by so I was proactive about it. I started making calls. I started going out so I could meet people and it didn't happen for me immediately.
Well, the first step was I hired a PR firm and they really sort of got me back in the public eye a little bit. I was spending so much time trying to immediately go with the big boys and what I realized was that doesn't make sense. You gotta go where you're needed. You gotta go where you're wanted.
And where was that was?
With a smaller management firm. With a smaller public relations firm, JS2 Communications. And through those people, I'm a priority so I was able to get my agency back working for me. I was able to be in the public eye again. I was able to start making music on my terms (and) get the process rolling of getting this music out. I'd been writing since I moved to LA with different writing partners and I'm really proud of it, the result of which is the album coming out in May. And quite frankly, going with a major label right now would be great because of the promotional money. But financially, you're making pennies on the dollar.
Yeah, for every 100 points on an album you would get like two or something?
Yeah. So, this approach that I'm taking right now was forced but the more and more I'm a part of it, the more I realize I have creative control. I have a lot of business control. Everything has to pass through me and I feel comfortable with that. At the end of the day, I am being rewarded for it.
If it is a successful release, it's more lucrative for me. Also, I'm able to bring my friends along with me for the ride. My friends are some of the most talented people--they're my band. My friends are my band. This approach allows me to retain some semblance of life-- not just being a face, but you're a working artist.
But the great thing about Idol--and this is why I said I've never run into a negative thing about Idol--is that Idol has given me the opportunity to do an independent release on a major scale.
Part of my problem when I first moved out here was (that) I didn't have a pit-bull. I didn't have a manager. I didn't have an agent that was necessarily working for me--daily--so it was just me. Just little old, nice Anoop, making phone calls. "Hey, I'd love to..." And I'm not someone who's in your face at all. And so it was me trying to do that and I needed someone to open up the doors. But once the doors were open... I can't tell you how many meetings I've had with labels in the last two months that have asked me the question, "Why didn't we sign you?" And I said, "I don't know."
What is the most bitter lesson you learned about the industry coming off the show. I mean, I imagine that the day you leave the Idol house and go back to your regular life must be actually shocking.
What was that like?
It was weird. It was weird to go home the first time.
Did you feel the same?
I felt the same but other people didn't treat me the same.
It was one of those things where, you know. When I left Idol, I was actually thankful. I was relieved.
It was one of those things where I couldn't deal with the stress and I didn't see the finish line. It was just stress and stress and stress and that's what it was to me. And I didn't necessarily feel like I was being appreciated.
Doesn't that come part and parcel with reality television?
I don't think Idol is really reality television. It's not scripted but we don't have cameras in our house. If you think about how much a viewer sees of a contestant on American Idol every week, at maximum it's two minutes. Two minutes a week.
So when I went home I was hoping I could--like, home is home is home. And I was shocked when I went to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk. And I didn't leave the grocery store for about an hour. And I didn't leave with my milk.
Because I couldn't walk down the aisle. So, I left. I went to Atlanta for a week. I'm someone who really treasures life--you know, having my good friends and I love them and I know that they love me. I'm all about reciprocity. Part of it, I feel guilty when I can't reciprocate fan--or, when I couldn't. Because I didn't know how to deal with it. I've since gotten used to it and I appreciate it because I know that those people are the reason I have a career.
Has it died down?
A little bit. But I was in London a week ago. I got off the plane, I was tired, it was a seven-hour plane trip. I went to the customs officer and she looks at my passport and looks up and says, "It's you!" Like a total fan girl, you know? So, that sort of stuff still happens, but I've never wanted to rest on those laurels either. I think one of the reasons I had trouble with the notion that I had fans before now is because I didn't think that I necessarily deserved them.
How do you make the mental adjustment from a year ago to today?
Part of it is the fact that it's real life for me. I think the first question that you asked was what does it feel like to be on American Idol? And you don't realize that you're on (the show).
That sounds counter-intuitive.
Sure, but think about what American Idol is. It's a TV show that's talked about everywhere. It's something that's harnessed in pop culture, and it forever and ever will be. Even if people don't watch American Idol, they know what American Idol is. So, when you're on that show and you're a part of it and you're living it, it doesn't feel like you are part of pop culture. It feels like you're living your life and you have a studio audience of 350 people every week and you make phone calls and you talk to radio stations but you never see the results of that.
Well, only when you get off (the show). All the press we did was being on the show. Someone would take a picture but we didn't ask where the pictures were going. That was just our routine. But it's hard to explain. I understand the confusion. You're hidden. We lived in a house that was hidden, no one knew our location. Our families weren't allowed to talk to anyone. It was like being in the C.I.A. for the time you're on the show and then once you were off, you were on a three-hour radio tour one morning, and Ellen and Regis and that's when you realize. That's when you realize. When you're on a subway and you have people coming up to you. When you're in London and there's the customs officer.
What do you think when you watch the current season? What's your first visceral reaction when you watch now?
First of all, I feel empathy toward them. There was a long time I couldn't hear the (American Idol theme song).
It brought back this fear. Because we'd be sitting back there and we'd hear the music and it was like, "Shit, I've gotta sing in front of 30 million people." And not even the 30 million thing, that didn't even matter. It was the judges. Like, "Shit, I gotta sing in front of the judges now."
So yeah, I feel empathy for them now. I know exactly where they're sitting and the building and the room. I know who's sitting next to them and the route that they take up there. I know the person that hands them the microphone. So, it's like, "I feel for you." And when they get ripped apart, I feel for them. I've been there.
What did it feel like to get ripped apart on television?
It was--it made me irate, actually. I mean, I signed up for it. I definitely signed up for it. But nothing quite prepares you for that.
Can you elaborate a little bit?
Well, it was a heat of the moment thing too. When you step on that stage, you're going to fight, you're going into battle. And so when you get ripped apart up there, it's kicking a defenseless person, really.
You're not really given an opportunity to respond, as such.
No, and if you do, you're branded as "the cocky one," which I did. There was one time where I said one sentence back--I said one sentence back--and even now people are like, "Oh, that Anoop kid. He's cocky." And that's not my personality. But when you're in the heat of the moment and someone's telling you something--
What was the worst thing that was said to you?
The very first week Simon (Cowell) said, "You don't deserve to be in the competition."
How did you take that?
I thought I was going home. I went backstage and I was crying and I was angry. But I channeled that. It's all about channeling stuff so you can do better, and the next week, he apologized to me on national television. He said, "I was wrong." So, for every valley there's a peak, I guess.
I mean, no one takes that. You're not going to take someone telling you that you don't deserve your dream. So, you fight, and I would say that's what I'm still doing. Every single day is a fight. You gotta make people recognize you, you gotta make them realize that you're gonna do something. You gotta fight yourself sometimes; you gotta fight yourself when you think, "Oh my gosh, I'm in over my head," or, "I don't think I can do this."
In addition to thinking about (a) conversation I had with my best friend about us telling each other we'd like to play music for the rest of our lives I think, "If that kid could see me now complaining about anything, he would kick my ass." So, what right do I have to tell myself that I can't do anything?
Anoop Desai's first single, "My Name," is now available for download from the iTunes Music Store.