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Kris Allen talks Tom Petty, Kanye West, rock docs, returning to ‘American Idol’ and more

By Jay Cridlin
Published: December 18, 2017

It's December, which means we're in that weird window between when singers audition for American Idol and when their show actually airs. Kris Allen remembers it well.

"They tell you, don't tell anybody," the former Idol champion said by phone recently. "You have to keep this hush-hush deal going on, which is probably increasingly hard every year with social media and everything. But it's also an exciting time, because you feel like something good is happening. For me, I just wanted to play music and make that my life, and this felt like, Oh, this might be the step towards it."

Sure enough, while Allen hasn't become quite as famous as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino – or, for that matter, Adam Lambert, whom he bested to win Season 8 – he has carved out the life he wanted before the Idol cameras found him, living in Nashville, writing music and touring the country with his band.

Eight years after his victory, Allen is back in the Idol fold, sort of. In August, he came to Orlando to help publicize the show's upcoming ABC reboot, and he's not ruling out a return when the show premieres in March.

Until then, Allen is on a holiday tour that comes to the Attic in Ybor City on Thursday (click here for details). It's his second-to-last show before Christmas – after this run, he heads back to pick up his family in Nashville, then drive down to his native Arkansas.

But first, Allen took a few minutes to chat about American Idol, Tom Petty, Kanye West and his love of a good rock doc.

Are you shopping on the road? We're right up against Christmas.

The great thing about us being on the road is that we get to go to a lot of these different places. Sometimes you get a little bit of downtime to look around for stuff, especially now. Cracker Barrel's always a great place to go shopping for random gifts, especially for the kids.

Is this tour fully Christmas music, or do you splice in other songs or covers that you're known for?

So here's the deal: It is a Christmas show. We play a lot of Christmas songs. It is definitely geared towards that. There are some songs that I play that are not that. And we've kind of tinged those towards fitting in with the rest of it. So far, it feels like people are excited and surprised at how much they like that much Christmas music.

We're coming up on a decade from your appearance on Idol. Do you still feel married to the covers that you sang on that show? Do you still do, like, Kanye West's Heartless?

Every once in a while. In Boston, someone shouted out, 'Sing Heartless!' and so I did. It wasn't on the setlist, but I'm always glad to play those songs. I enjoy the arrangement that I came up with for that song anyway.

Next year is the 10th anniversary of 808s & Heartbreak. Is that the best Kanye record?

It's probably my favorite, because that's when I was really introduced to him. It's just so much melody and great lyrics and songs on. The one that came out right after that one (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) was really, really good as well. Think about him however you want to think about him, but I do respect him as an artist and as a songwriter and producer.

You came to the Orlando auditions for the new reboot of Idol.

I did, yeah. They flew me down to be a part of the tryouts. There was a lot of press. It was me and Jordin (Sparks) and Ruben Studdard.

Did it bring back memories?

It was very hot that day, as it usually is in Orlando. But it's interesting, being in Disney and Idol stuff at the same time. I did one thing with Idol and Disney right after I was on the show, but this was like a full immersive thing, and Disney's very much a part of what they're doing because of ABC. Getting to see some of the producers and crew that have been working on the show since I've been there – and probably way before that – it's just been really cool to chat with them and hang out with them. I didn't really get to see any auditions. I would have loved to. But they had us kind of running around.

Do you know if you'll be part of the new season as it continues on TV?

I don't know, exactly. I would love to. But I feel like those decisions happen by the week. They've hit me up before and been like, "Do you mind being a part of this?" I've been on tour, and I'll be like, "This is next week; I don't know if I can make that unless I cancel some shows." So I don't know, exactly. I would love to, though.

You were a songwriter when you auditioned. But Idol gets you in a room with songwriters like Greg Kurstin and Toby Gad. How do you react to being thrown into that situation, where, through the magic of TV, you're working with some of the best songwriters in the world? How do you want to fit what you want to say inside the weird, humbling responsibility of being in their company?

That has been the hardest and craziest thing about this whole piece of it for me. Because I realized really fast that I had a lot to learn.

My first writing session was with (former Evanescence pianist) David Hodges, who is an amazing songwriter, producer, artist, all these things. We're both from Arkansas, and so I'm sure someone thought, This'll be a great thing, they have something in common. Then I go to his house and there's Grammys, there's all these songwriter awards everywhere, there's a ton of platinum plaques, and I kind of froze. I didn't know what to do. What am I going to say that he's going to think is good? What melody am I going to come up with that he's going to think is good? Not that I'm not confident, but this is another echelon of songwriting skill and talent.

I learned really fast that all these amazing producers and songwriters, they need you. They need you to tell them what you want to say. What's the melody that comes out of you? For me, I need people to help me with songs. I don't need people to write songs for me. And I had to learn that over the years. When you're in a writing session with someone, and you go, Should I say this? Should I say this? You should always say it. Because whether it's good or bad, it at least gets the juices flowing and lets people know that you're here to try to make something great.

On Wikipedia, your discography has a list of 50-something unreleased songs. And there are songwriters on there like David Hodges, Hillary Lindsey, Eg White, even Mary Steenburgen. It's an impressive list. How did it come to be that you have so many unreleased songs?

I wrote for my second record forever. There was like a year and a half of just writing. It's not that they're bad or anything like that; maybe they just didn't fit, or maybe I just thought the ones that I put on there stood up to the other ones. I think with Eg White, I spent two days with him, we wrote two songs, and one of them ended up being on the first record. It's just kind of the way it works.

After Tom Petty died, you went on Instagram and you said a few things that I want to ask you about. The first is that you said Tom Petty was the soundtrack to the last eight or nine years of your life. Why is that?

My bass player that I've played with for eight or nine years is next-door neighbors with Ron Blair from the Heartbreakers. I've gotten to hang out with Ron, play music with Ron, and it's always surreal when it happens. Getting to know him and getting to hang out with him and kind of become friends with him has given me an insight into the Heartbreakers and Tom Petty. When I'm on the road, that's the music that I want to hear. When I think about American music, that is what I want. When I'm driving around West Texas, or I'm driving through Florida or through somewhere on the West Coast or something like that, that's the music that I want to hear.

That's the other thing — you said you'd seen Runnin' Down a Dream about 15 times in the bus or the van. It's a great documentary, but it's also like four hours long.

(laughs) It's so long! I'm not saying that I've turned it on that many times, but people want these rockumentaries to be on on the bus all the time. There was this Wilco documentary that was on all the time. The Eagles one was on there. When you're on the road, you're just hanging out with music nerds, and that's what they geek out to. And I do, too. I love  that stuff.

Can you recommend any good rock docs you've seen lately?

I don't know if this is a new one, but it's new to me, and I just saw it recently: The Muscle Shoals one was really cool.

You mentioned getting to hang out with Ron Blair. Can you share any of his stories?

He's told me stories from his days being on the road with Tom Petty. But I don't know if I can share those. I'll let him share those. He came to my bass player's wedding and we were the band for the night, which was so fun. He was playing organ, I was playing guitar. We smoked some hookah in the tent together; that was fun. We've spent so many nights at my bass player's house, just playing music and hanging out with family. Maybe a margarita or two.

Sounds like the life.

Yeah, he's got a good one.

— Jay Cridlin