10 Questions with ... Trent Harmon
September 11, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Trent Harmon holds the reigning title of "American Idol." The Season XV victor originally hails from East Mississippi and immersed himself in music from an early age. From singing "Amazing Grace" with his family to starring in various musicals in college, Trent credits life on his family's farm as a major influence on his music career. Already in the studio, the 25-year-old musician is eager to begin recording his self-described "Country-soul" album and recently released his debut single "There's A Girl" to Country radio.
1. What a year! You were named the final "American Idol" in April, and here we are four months later. Thank you for taking time out of your crazy schedule to play us some music and talk to us about everything happening in your life. It seems like you have packed a lot in to the past four months with recording and embarking on radio tour. What have you enjoyed most so far about radio tour? What has been the most difficult about it?
We were just talking about this last night! I would say that with radio, I don't really get the whole - I mean, I know it's tough. But I think I have an advantage coming off of "Idol." It's just like I had been on an extended radio tour, kind of. We weren't traveling, but every day, we had to get up and be on camera, and we had to talk to people. But, for the first ten weeks after the show, I lived in a hotel room, all day and all night, other than maybe going out and writing for a couple of hours. So, the first week that we were with [Big Machine Records Dir./National and Northeast Promotion] Erik [Powell], he was telling me, "You know, this is going to be tough. You're going to have to talk to people all day, and you're going to have to ride in a car and fly." And I was like, "Buddy, I've been living in a hotel room for going on three months." But really, for fifteen months, when you count the time during the show. I really was kind of low-key in jail! So, I told Erik, "You mean, we get to fly places every day and go see people and hang out?!" They didn't really get it. The team was like, "Yeah, he's excited about radio tour, but that will probably last a few days, and he'll be done." But here we are! Going in to week 12, and I really don't mind it. As long as I don't get sick, I'm fine. As far as how radio works, or how the business works, even, I didn't really know. I mean, I knew that there had to be some kind of relationship, as far as - I know that you don't walk in to a studio and say, "Hey, here's my 'Idol' trophy! Play my music!" I knew that's not what happened! So, I was anxious to find out. What do you have to do? And I told my team, "Just tell me what I have to do." That's what I'm always telling Erik. Or even [Big Machine Label Group President/CEO] Scott [Borchetta]. I told Scott last week at the Grand Ole Opry, "I don't know what to do a lot of days. But if you'll tell me what to do, I'll do it." And I'll do it well, if I can! But, I don't know about what to do. I've lived on a farm for 23 years. But if you'll tell me what to do, I'll do it. And I think they've figured it out. They're all kind of like, "Look, he doesn't know. Like, he doesn't know. He really doesn't know." But you tell me, and now I do.
2. While you were on "Idol," you became known for some amazing performances of R&B, Pop, Soul, and Blue songs. So, what is it about Country music that appeals to you? What makes this format the best fit for you?
Memphis is where mom and dad would always take us for concerts, or just to walk around and hear music on Beale Street. You would hear a lot of styles. You would hear everything - truly. I would say the weeks that I got to explicitly pick what I wanted to sing, I always picked Country, because I knew that people who were watching back home - the people that I gig for every week - that's what I played for them. They knew, "Oh, yeah. Trent, he sang in musicals, and he could sing different things." They knew I could sing this, that, and the other, but when I would gig, I'd say 98% of my set would be Country. I might mix some Blues or something in with it, but that's what I always did, if I was out gigging, and if I was making the set list. But I've also always said that, with stuff like "Idol," you have to play a game. And the game is - don't get figured out. Because as soon as they figure your shtick out, they don't tune in. Whether it's consciously or not, if they figure out "Oh, that's the guy that wears the hat and sings Country every week," they're just not as intrigued to listen. They'll go make a sandwich instead of listening to your song. But if they are guessing and going, "Well, last week he sang 'Chandelier,' and this week he's singing Marty Stuart,'" they'll tune in. I just happened to figure that out faster than everybody else. I didn't mean to, but I did.
3. How comfortable were you with diving in to those other genres? Were you well-versed in a lot of material, or did you learn it as you went - playing the game, as you called it?
I was as comfortable as you can be with the other genres. It's tough. It starts at the floor up. You can't go out and sing a Sia song and not have spent the whole week trying to get in to that headspace. It's like, "Okay, I'm singing 'Chandelier.' I have to be in that space. I'm not singing Country tonight." Because they can see fake - and fake being that you don't believe in what you're singing. You can sing "Happy Birthday," and if you mean it, people will be like, "Man, he really wishes me a happy birthday." But if they can tell that you're not in to it, you're going home within a week or two. I literally every week would look at the list of songs to pick from - we would have like 1,000 songs to pick from, and that's pretty easy, because that's a lot of choice. I would, 90% of the time, pick the first three I recognized, then go with the one I knew the most words to without having to memorize it. That week I did "Chandelier," they gave us a list of about 40 Sia songs that she had written either for herself or someone else. And we had to pick from those. I turned mine in the fastest - probably in less than four minutes. I saw "Chandelier," and I just decided I'd do it. Sia came to us that week - there were five of us that week - and she was standing as close as you and I are right now. And she started on one side of the room and said on camera - face out from behind the wig - and she said, "I'm so proud that you chose the song that you picked." And she went to the next person and said, "And I see what you're going to do." And the next two was like, "I get what you're going to do, and I get a good sense of where you're going with this." And then she got to me, and just paused. And I thought, "Oh, man. She's so proud that I picked one of her biggest songs!" But she wasn't. Not at all. It wasn't that she was upset or anything, but she just said, "I don't know what you're going to do with this. I don't know. It's hard to sing, and I wrote it that way on purpose, because I was going through a hard time. I hope you take this seriously, or it will eat you up. You could be going home this week if you don't step up." And she said all that on camera! She really bragged on all the other four guys, but when it came to me, she was almost just like - "Meh." And she told me later on, she smiled and said, "I said that to you, because I wanted you to take it seriously. If you had the guts to pick it, I wanted to see you have the guts to step up and do it the way it's supposed to be done." I said, "Well, you're the judge of that, boss! I can't make that judgement." And she actually gave me the nod of approval the night of the show. That was the hardest one I ever had to work for, though. My roommate, until the night he got cut, he knew I stayed up for six days without going to sleep. I was obsessive. It was Thomas Edison trying to figure out the lightbulb. I was so focused on figuring out how to get every inch of meat off of that song. I had a talk the week earlier where they told me, "Look man, we've looked at the votes." And we had this talk in the stairwell, so you know it was probably the truth since it was sketchy! They said, "Look, we can't say for sure, but the math is just there. You're probably going to go home this week or next week. It's just the math, and that's just the way it's going. You don't have the followers, and the votes aren't coming in." And I just sat there for like ten minutes as they told me all this stuff. And they said, "Well, we're telling you this because we want you to do really well this week and really work your socials. Just keep doing that and take all these people with you. Try to go do something with it." And I just sat there. I finally said, "Well, we've still got a show tonight, right?" And they said, "Yeah, we've got a show." I said, "And, I'm going to sing at that show, right?" They said, "Yeah, you're going to sing." So, I just said, "Okay, well it can be turned around tonight." I just kept saying that, and they kept trying to tell me what I should do after I get cut. They finally asked me what I was singing, and I said I was going to sing "Chandelier" by Sia and "Sharp Dressed Man." They said, "Well, that's great. We're sure you'll do great." That night, at like 1:00a or 1:30a, I was in bed - like I said, I hadn't slept for a week, because I had been practicing "Chandelier" - and I knew it went really well, but I didn't know how well. I got a standing ovation, and that was the only one I had gotten up to that point. So, there I was in bed, and they called me. They don't call - they do not call contestants. But they called me. And they said, "Trent, are you asleep?" And I told them I just about was. They said, "Well, we just wanted to tell you that some things have shifted in the voting, and you should be looking at a song for next week." I just said, "Okay, I'll be there and ready to go." And then now we're here!
4. So, let's go back just a little bit and start from the beginning. You were born in Mississippi and grew up on a farm. When did you discover your talent and passion for music?
I'm from close to Tupelo, Mississippi - a small town called Amory. There's about 12,000 people, so it's pretty small. But we have a Walmart and a Sonic! That's the measure of how small a town really is. It's really close to Tupelo and pretty close to Memphis. All my life, every day, I farmed. I think living on a farm, you look for some kind of escapism. For my dad, he will talk. He'll be on the tractor and have all these conversations. He told me that, and I thought, "Well, that's kind of weird." But he told me once, "I talk to my dad sometimes. I can't really talk to him, and I don't really go to his grave to talk. So I'll talk to him while I'm on the tractor like he's still out there." And I thought that was weird. But, one day - it gets monotonous riding on a tractor if you do it long enough. You're just going up one way, then coming back the other way. Up and back, up and back, all day. So one day, I put some headphones in. I was probably about 13 when he first said, "You can go out on the tractor, even if I'm not here. And if I'm not here, you really better go do it." So, I put the headphones in and thought it really helped pass the time. I had an old iPod I had found around the house that had some of everything on it. It had The Bee Gees, Eagles, Whitney Houston, Marty Robbins, Jackson 5. And I just sang all those tunes over and over out on the tractor. And that was probably just right before my voice changed, so I got to where I could sing all those songs in their keys. And my mom, she would hear me singing. "Are you singing Marty Robbins out there in the middle of the field?" I remember her asking me that one time. And I said, "Yeah, mom! It's great! Have you ever heard of Marty Robbins?!" She just said, "Well, yeah." And I just sang everything all day. All the time. And that's what I still do. I was up at home last week, and while I was out feeding cows, I popped my headphones in and just started singing anything that came on shuffle.
5. Before your success on "Idol," you went through the audition process on NBC-TV's "The Voice." Besides the outcome, of course, what were the key differences in the two processes, and were you at all discouraged from trying again once "The Voice" fell through?
I was kind of a contestant on "The Voice." I always say that. I auditioned, because I was tricked in to auditioning. My best friend told me I was going to New Orleans to hang out with him that weekend. But when we got there, he had printed off a ticket, he handed it to me, and he says to me, "You're going to audition for 'The Voice' today." So, I did. And once I got in to it, I thought, "Okay, Trent. This is it. This is your shot!" It was really weird, because I went to L.A. and was there for a couple months. And not to say anything at all derogatory, but I was completely left out of the mix for everything from the floor up. And I realized that I didn't know why I was there - I didn't know if it was to fill a demo or what it was. But I knew I wasn't going to be shown, my audition wasn't going to be shown, and nothing was going to happen. I could just tell! They would forget me at roll call, or different things like that would happen. And there were several of us out there who realized that - we were sitting around, and I'm still best friends with two of them. They were even here in Nashville for my Opry debut. But we just kind of realized - we don't know why we are here. And so, they decided to just go out and have fun! They'd go out every night. But I did reconnaissance work. I wrote down everything people said on stage and everything I heard. I was kind of like a spy, I guess! I just sat there and took notes. I'd write things like, "Okay, this one went home, because he never would look at the camera. And this one is going to be here next week, because he works the cameras really well even though he can't sing that well. So, if you can do both, that's even better." And that's all I did. I was there for two months, and that's all I did. I don't even exist on paperwork or on file anywhere at "The Voice." I got in front of the chairs, but no one turned around. And they told me, "You weren't going to get a chair turned. It wasn't intended." And that's the first thing Blake [Shelton] said when he turned around, "Man, I knew within a second I wasn't turning." I knew. I can't explain it, but I just knew by the song that I was given and even the clothes I had on - I had no input whatsoever in any of it. And I was one of the few who had that happen. A lot of people got to choose their song, but with me, it was like - "Hey, here's your song." On "Idol," you show up, and you can wear your clothes. You can sing your song. And it is kind of like that on "The Voice" ...for certain people. But I wasn't one of them. There were about eight or ten of us out of about 100. So, I guess ten percent have to be those people, and I was one of them. I never intended to audition for "Idol." Everything with "The Voice" discouraged me, at first. I thought, "Man, the powers that be squandered my opportunity to ever be shown on a large platform." I wouldn't say I was depressed, but I'd say I decided to just go home and work on the farm. It was like, "Okay, I guess I'm not going to do music." But I did. I kept doing it, because it's what I liked to do. I didn't intend on auditioning for "Idol." I go to Belize every summer to work with a friend that I met through school. And one night, I quit music. I was sitting there outside with my guitar and made the decision to quit, and the next night, we flew out to Belize. And I told everyone there I had quit music, because they kept asking if I had any shows coming up that they could come see once we got back to the States. "We'll drive over or whatever we've got to do." And I said, "Nope. I've quit. I'm done. I'm not making any money. I've been doing this for six or seven years." And the guy I was down there staying with seemed really disappointed in me. He got up and walked off. The next morning, I flew back home, and I called my friend to let him know I was home. I said, "Hey, Furlong! I made it; I've landed back in the States." And he said to me, "Across the street, they are having 'American Idol' auditions. It's the last season." And I didn't know what he was talking about. I looked out the window and said, "Oh! I see it. There's a big, blue thing." And he said, "I want you to go audition." I said, "Furlong, I don't even have any clothes!" All of my clothes were Belize clothes. I had shorts and tank tops, and they were all dirty. He said, "Just figure it out, and go audition." So, I did. And I made it through. And I won! And Furlong actually told me when I called him, "Don't call me again until you've made it to the finale. You're going to win. Because, usually, just about the time you decide to give up, that's when things start to happen." He called it! Furlong didn't come see "Idol." It's really weird. When I talk to Furlong, he doesn't really care to talk about music. We talk about making sure that my head is staying on straight. He talks to me about me. He knows me really well, because when I'm there in Belize, we don't really have electricity. You don't have running water; you don't have a phone. So, he knows me for me - really raw, on a day-to-day basis, in the jungle for three months. And I like that version of me! Everyone who goes there - and when we're there - you're away from everything and everyone, so you get to know yourself really well. And Furlong knows that version of me. And he told me, "Now, Trent. You have to come back to Belize every year to stay you. If you don't ever come back, you'll get further away from that person." And that's a good point. I didn't get to go this year for the first time in six or seven years. But I'll try to make it out there over Christmas.
6. You have built a very active fan base with heavy social media users. Do you think "Idol" helped in building that fan base via socials, and do you think having those fans already on board helps you now that you're releasing music? What are your favorite or go-to social media platforms?
It absolutely helps. I don't have the biggest socials - who does? But I can tell you that when I put something out there, the followers that I have are veracious. They're on it! They know. But it's not in a weird way. I don't have crazy, obsessive, dangerous fans. I really don't. Because, I'm not like this mythical person doing all this stuff. Every night before I go to sleep, I get out my phone and go on Facebook Live. I just walk around and do whatever I'm going to do anyway. I don't go to the CMT Awards and say, "Hey, I'm here with these people..." They know I'm doing that! But if I wake up in the middle of the night, I'll jump on Facebook Live and say, "Hey, y'all, I'm awake and going to jump on Facebook Live and sit here and eat some popcorn. What are y'all doing?" And I realized that on the show. They don't want to see us hanging out with JLo. They know we're doing that. They want to see what's in our pantry, or what's in the refrigerator. And that's how I talk to the fans, so they feel like I'm just a normal dude - and I am! But I'm a normal dude that gets to go do these things, and they can live vicariously through me. Periscope is my go-to platform. With Facebook Live, when we first got on the show, our accounts weren't verified - and you couldn't do Facebook Live six months ago unless you were verified. But we had Periscope. I had downloaded it that night - it was February the 12th - and I got on. It was our first night in the new hotel, and all the other contestants went out. I was like, "Well, I think I'll stay here and unload my suitcase and download this Periscope app and see what it's all about." I downloaded it, and all these fans were waiting there for the first person to go live! Everybody was tweeting, and everybody was putting up Instagram posts, but nobody was sitting there talking to the fans. So, just the stars lined up. And that night, I went from downloading the app to having like 3.5 million people jumping on that night. I didn't even know it, because I didn't know how to look at the graph that night. But I looked at it finally and was like, "Holy cow! That's how many people watched that?!" Well, there it is. And I got such a jump on the others, so everybody else saw that and said, "Well, I've got to get Periscope." But by the time they jumped on, it was too late. People were buying in to me being stupid on Periscope, just sitting there talking to my grandma. They loved it! They know me on Periscope still. That's what they know me on.
7. For your finale song on "Idol," you performed a track called "Falling," which you played for us here today. How did that song come to you for the finale? Who wrote it, and who pitched it to you?
The song was supposed to be on Keith [Urban]'s "RipCord" album. And they called me in to one of the executive's offices a week before "Idol" was over. They said, "Hey, man. We've given everyone their songs, but we didn't have a song for you. You've sung everything under the sun on the show, so we didn't know what to pull out. But we've come across a song that Keith was going to cut. But now, he might not. If it can be used for you, he's game for it." And when I heard it, I just thought, "Man, that's a banger. I want to do that." It was really cool, because I think Keith knew we were using it, but he didn't know when I was going to sing it. So, when I came out and sang, I was watching him mouth along with the song. That was a really cool moment. Keith, Brett James, and Dallas Davidson wrote it. I told Keith right before we walked on stage for the finale show, "If I win, it's because I have the best song tonight." It was the last vote. I had heard the other songs that we were up against. And the last song is what is really voted on. So, I said, "If I win, it's because I got to sing your song. It's because you allowed me to do that." And, I figured if I didn't win, I still got to sing a Keith Urban cut. It was a win-win-potential win. And I did win with it! I was completely okay telling him that. I wanted to thank him for that. And he was super cool. He just said, "Man, you're about to go kill that song. Go do it." And I literally walked on the stage and sang right then. What a really neat moment.
8. So, now you've officially release your single, "There's A Girl," which is already seeing radio airplay. How did that song concept come about? How much writing have you done for the rest of the project, and how do you feel you are fitting in to the Nashville writing community?
I wrote it here in Nashville. And I walked in that day with my journal, and I had all these different ideas about how I was going to write a sad, sad Country song. It was going to be about how I had chased this girl all over the Southern United States, and how it just didn't end up happening. I actually drove 600 miles one way one evening to surprise her. I got there, and before I realized it, we had broken up for good. And I just thought, "Good gosh, man! I could have called!" I could have literally just called and saved gas and time. But, I walked in to write that sad Country song, and I realized that this stuff is so - I'm over it. It's not sad anymore. I could still use it all - I did every single thing that's represented in the chorus of this song. But now, it's kind of funny! So we wrote a happy song. And I like happy songs better, anyway! So I'm glad it ended up that way. I've written four or five, or maybe six times, with Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins. I've written with several different people and gotten successful writes off of those, but I don't know - I've always heard people say things like, "Oh, this is my writing space." And I was always like, "Man, write wherever there's pen and paper." And that's not necessarily true. Because I can feel it as soon as I walk in Jimmy's studio. And maybe it's because I wrote "There's A Girl" there, and that's really the first song I wrote that turned in to something - so maybe it's a confidence thing. But as soon as I walk in there, I can feel it. It's like, "Today, we're going to write a song." Whereas, with other places, I walk in and I know that we're going to TRY to write a song. But at Jimmy's I just know. Like yesterday. We wrote a song. We actually wrote a song and recorded it in about three hours. And right now, we're four-for-four, and that's really hard to do. And as of right now, I think at least three of those will be on the album.
9. What do you look most forward to in the coming year? Are you in the studio working on additional music?
Hopefully we'll have an album out next year. I'm excited to put a full show together with a full, six-piece band. I've gotten so used to doing things like this, and we're great at this. We can do an hour's worth of music with just us three, but there's a certain level you can't bring with this three-piece that you can bring to an audience with a full band. There's an electricity in the room that you just can't bring without a full band. I'm also looking forward to touring, hopefully. And a lot more radio shows, if I'm lucky.
10. You recently made your Grand Ole Opry debut. How was that experience? Are there any other venues on your bucket list that you hope to someday play?
Quick. It all happened so quickly that I didn't really even realize what was happening until I got off the stage. Just two songs. No rehearsal, really. You just kind of plug and play. There was a house band, and I got to take two of my players. But that's what was so scary - it wasn't the audience, it was playing with those guys. That's a great band. And I didn't realize until I laid down to go to sleep, and then I was like, "Oh, okay. So, I played the Grand Ole Opry tonight!" I was literally laying down, and I just thought, "Wow. I did that tonight." Because, even my Dad has told me, "Look, everything you do is great. I'm really proud. But when you play the Opry, that is Day 0. The next day is Day 1, and then you can do everything after that." And I kind of get that now. Especially being from the South. People think you haven't really done anything until they either see you on television or they can come see you at some kind of historic venue. And the Opry - that's THE venue. So, I was on TV! But then, it was, "Well, when you play the Opry, that's when we'll buy in that you're not going to wait tables anymore." As far as other places, there's a lot of halls and a lot of venues that I'd like to play. Different places in New York and L.A. Even some clubs that different people before me have played. Even if it's small. I watch a lot of documentaries about music and places like The Troubadour. I'd love to place some places like that. Or somewhere the Eagles played for some of their first gigs - even if it wasn't a big gig. We sold out The Crystal Palace recently. Didn't even know we sold it out until I started looking around and going, "Well, this place looks pretty full." And then they told me we had sold it out. That was really cool. We had a great set that night, and it was a lot of fun.
1. I saw that you tweeted about spending Labor Day dove hunting with family. What are some of the other activities you enjoy doing with your family when you have a rare free moment?
I like to go - my ideal day at home would be - kind of like this past weekend. Except that I almost got shot. But not hunting. So, here's the thing about that. I didn't call my parents to tell them I was coming home. I wanted to surprise them, so I called my dad when I was pulling in to the driveway and just said, "Hey, what are you doing?" It was like 11p at night, which is our usual time to talk, because they've gotten in from the restaurant, and I'm usually heading to bed. So he says, "Nothing, we're going to go hunting this weekend." We go dove hunting every Labor Day together. It's what we do, and we always have. So I said, "Cool." About that time, I walked up to the door. I had him on the phone still, and I just gave three hard knocks on the door. Dad said some stuff that I won't say, and he told my mom, "There's someone at the door. And they didn't knock like they were coming to borrow a cup of sugar." He had me on the phone and forgot, because he laid the phone down. And I'm outside and couldn't see anything, but he went and got a gun! So, I'm hiding underneath the window at the door, and I look over, and he's raising the window up from his room. And here I am with a black backpack on and a black baseball cap. So, I pick the phone up - it was dark - so he could see my face, and I go, "Dad, it's me!" And he just said, "You - need to go - come in!" He was freaked out. I didn't realize how scared he was, but he was terrified! I do that all the time - I'll surprise them at home or just scare them walking through the door. But they knew it couldn't be me, because I was on the phone in Nashville. So they think they know it's not me! So, anyway, I guess just sitting at home. That's what I like to do. I just want to sit at home with them and maybe go eat at my grandma's. I don't really like going out and doing things. I do like to cook when I'm home. We grill a lot of fish and ribs, because those are two things we don't serve at the restaurant. People get excited over steaks, but we eat steak every night at the restaurant. So, I'd go eat at somebody's house, and they'll say, "Yeah, I'm grilling steaks just for you." But we eat that every night, so I'm just wondering if they've got any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! We also do fish tacos at home, because we don't do Mexican food at the steakhouse.
2. Between your time with "The Voice" and your time on "Idol," you spent quite a lot of time out in Los Angeles. As a Mississippi farm boy, how did you enjoy your time there? Would you go back?
I was there forever. Thirteen or 14 months. Pretty much on, not even off and on. But, ya know, I liked L.A. I liked it a lot! I had no beef with Los Angeles, whatsoever. And my family really loves L.A. None of us expected to. I think being a Southerner, you put L.A. and New York City in the same headspace - totally different! And we had been to New York four or five times, but we just don't love it. We always want to, but...my family is going back to L.A. sometime this year.