Just days before my friend Esther Vandiver died of cancer, she told me that she thought it was funny how nice everyone is at funerals. “I wonder how many people actually get to hear the kind words said about them after they pass,” she pondered.
We’re never promised tomorrow, and that’s a sobering thought, but one that should be encouraging to us if we look at it from the right angle. There’s so much life to be lived, and so many amazing things to enjoy; we don’t have to wait for something tragic to remind us to live well. Maybe that’s why songs like, “Live Like We’re Dying” by Kris Allen really hit home. “We’ve only got 86,400 seconds in a day, to turn it all around or to throw it all away,” Kris sings. “Gotta tell them that we love them while we got the chance to say, gotta live like we’re dying…”
For some people, taking every moment captive means travelling more, overcoming a personal fear, or building better relationships. For Kris, it meant competing in—and then winning—season 8 of American Idol. Kris has continued to play live shows and release new music since his Idol success, and his latest single, “When All The Stars Have Died,” uses up-front vocals and choir-esque synth layers to promise constant devotion to the love of his life. Give it a listen here!
GigSalad: Kris! How are you?
Kris Allen: I’m doing awesome, man! How are you?
GS: Doing very well, thank you! As we start off here, can you give us a brief overview of your career so far?
KA: Yeah! I am a singer/songwriter. I play guitar and write music and I’ve been doing this over the past 9 years. I think a lot of people know me because I came from the great show American Idol, and it kind of catapulted me doing this as a career. And I’ve just been hitting the ground ever since!
GS: Let’s back all the way up, even before American Idol. How much was music a part of your life before you joined the American Idol cast?
KA: It was a lot. I started music when I was 8. I played in orchestras. I played viola. I played that all the way through, until I was like 18 or 19 years old. I still play a little bit. But music was always around the house. My dad had guitars and he sang and played a little bit. At 13 years old, I just picked up the guitar and started playing it. Yeah, it was a big part. I played in bars and stuff in college. Other than, like, classical music, I didn’t play out for anyone or sing for anyone until I was probably 17 or 18 and finally got the courage to get out and do that thing: play in bars for 4 hours, making $25 bucks—you know, just playing a bunch of covers and that type of stuff. Yeah, so it was definitely a big part of what I did for years—my whole life, really. Whether I realized it or not, I think in the back of my mind, I always knew that this was what I should be doing. Whether it was the thing I thought I would do, I think in the back of my mind, I always felt that I should be playing music, because it was the thing that made me the happiest. I played in my room by myself for years and years and years, and I loved every minute. I loved learning music and learning how to play the guitar and learning how to sing, and learning new songs and singing those for people. Yeah, it was a huge part of my life.
GS: If you didn’t make it on American Idol—let alone, win American Idol—what was your plan B?
KA: The plan was never to win. Once I’d gotten through on the show, the plan was to get as far as I could to hopefully get some sort of eyes on me, then let something happen through that. I had heard of that happening. If someone believed in me in the music industry, then I can count on them to sign me or whatever. I didn’t have an education on the music business at all at that time. Before I was on the show, I was playing at my church a little bit, doing that thing. But I don’t think that I realistically saw music as the end-game. It was kind of a dream. It was this idea of, ‘Oh, I love music, but is that really what I could do with my life? I might have to get a desk job and then play music on the side.’ That kind of thing. I will say, I have amazing parents and they always pushed me in the best way possible to play music. They loved that. I think they saw something in me. They never let me believe that I couldn’t do it, which is amazing. I don’t think that’s a lot of people’s stories. Their parents are like, ‘You know, this is fun, but is this really going to amount to anything?’ And my parents were not that. They always wanted me to do it.… it was 10 years ago or more, and it was hard to get your stuff out there at that time. The internet has changed everything: YouTube, and Spotify, and iTunes and all of that stuff has changed everything. You can do so much on your own now. At that time, those things weren’t available. You were counting on someone finding you and believing you and signing you—that type of thing.
GS: So you won American Idol, jump-started your career in a major way, and as you were being thrown into that world, how similar was it to what you expected of life as a full-time musician?
KA: Again, I don’t know if I had any expectations of what the workload or what that life would be like. But it was a lot. I mean, especially something like that—it wasn’t like, ‘Oh I just got signed by a label and now let’s go.’ It’s like, ‘You won a TV show and you won a singing competition and you also get a record deal.’ I’m doing a lot of these TV shows and doing these photo shoots, going on tour for the first time, and the first tour you do is an arena tour. It’s just not your typical ‘get into the music industry’ curve. You get shot [from] a cannon into the clouds. And it was good, but it was a lot. I also had to learn a lot about myself and learn how to make music and learn how to write music and record music, and also try to find what I wanted to do… I learned a ton and I feel like it’s been really valuable to me.
GS: How did you pick up on the skill sets of writing, recording, stage presence, and other things that American Idol doesn’t necessarily touch on?
KA: I think the writing and recording thing was something that I really needed to learn. I think stage presence is something that you learn just through experience. And sometimes you either have it or you don’t. But I feel like for me, it was one of those things where I just try to be really genuine on stage and always have been. And I think that, as far as “stage presence”, it’s grown over the years. But I think that just comes with doing it and getting a confidence in yourself. But the writing and recording process was something that I really had to learn…. And also, when it comes to recording as well, recording is such a huge part of music, and the details and stuff that go along with that: how you’re strumming your acoustic or how you’re singing the vocal. People don’t want to hear you just sing a song, they want to hear you emote and you’re like really saying something. So I’ve learned a ton over the past nine years, just about making music.
GS: If you had to boil it down, what do you think are the common threads between the best songs that you’ve written so far?
KA: I think honesty… when I’m honest with myself and searching in my own life, going, ‘What would I actually say here and how am I actually feeling?’ Not what I think other people want to hear, but what is really going on. And it could be something funny. It could be like a joke. It doesn’t always have to be serious. I think that’s when my favorite stuff comes out is when I’m just honest with myself.
GS: You’ve also done a lot of covers, like on American Idol, when you did a cover of “Heartless” by Kanye. I want to know how you take these songs and turn them into your own memorable version of that other artist’s work.
KA: I try to strip the song down to melody. I try not to mess with the melody because I think that’s what people memorize in a song: the melody and the lyrics. But if I can change a chord here and there, or if I can change the tempo or just the way that I’m singing it or something like that, anyone who’s a fan of the song can relate to it. So usually the songs that I’m covering, it’s not something that I think, ‘Oh, everyone’s going to love this because it’s a popular song.’ It’s a song that I’m a fan of and so I can relate to it in some way. I try to put that into the arrangement of the song—the emotion that I’m singing with while I’m singing the song—and just try to make it my own and make people go, ‘Did he write that song?’ I think that’s what people want! Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time singing covers at bars just to sing them. And it can only go so far. But if you sing a song that is someone else’s and you really make it your own and you put a different twist on it in some way, or something like that, it can really change the way you listen to the song or make you hear the lyrics better, or something like that. A lot of times I hear these massive pop songs, but when you dissect them, sometimes the lyrics are really sad or really poignant, or something like that. And I try to bring those out and bring out the best things about the song itself.
GS: Do you have any advice for someone who’s aspiring to be a performer or just now trying to break into the entertainment industry?
KA: I think first of all, find out what you want to say. I think a lot of people get into the music industry and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m talented.’ But there’s a lot of people that are really talented, and the people that are doing this that I respect and that I love and that people follow, are the people that really have something to say. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you have to search down deep and go, ‘What is it I’m doing this for? Am I doing this to gain fame or am I doing this because I have to do this because this is everything that makes me happy: music and performing and writing songs for people. I think that’s probably first and foremost. Then second of all, don’t rely on your talent. Again, there’s so many people that I hear on the streets that can sing and that can play really well. But you have to work at it. You have to get better than everybody else and you have to work at it every single day to become a better player, become a better singer, become a better songwriter, because it’s in those times that you get better that all of the good stuff happens. All of the great songs come out of like 10 other awful songs. I’ve written so many bad songs that I would be mortified if people heard. But that’s the process, you know! And I’ve learned over the years that it’s everybody’s process—the greats, that it’s their process as well. There’s a lot of trial and error and you just have to work at it, no matter what. It will not come to you. No one is going to follow the person who is waiting for things to come to them. You have to go and get it, especially nowadays. It’s so much easier for people to go and get it now. You can create your own fanbase. You can cultivate that fanbase. You can make your own music at your house. It’s just a different time, and I think a lot of that is happening, which is great.
To hear more of Kris Allen’s music and see a list of upcoming tour dates, just click here.