David Cook tells us what it’s like to win American Idol

David Cook tells us what it’s like to win American Idol

In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to insiders about the entertainment business to shed light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

American Idol returns this week for its 15th and reportedly final season. As judges weave in and out and some winners top the charts more than others, it’s easy to forget what a juggernaut the show was back in the day, residing at the top of the ratings and considered a shoo-in for success for the young artists who won it. Or at least, a decent path to the charts for some of its finalists.

In 2008, Tulsa bartender David Cook was the dark horse that conquered season seven. It’s remembered as a drama-free season compared to some others, with a group of good-natured, friendly contestants. An early season standout was Australian Michael Johns, who shockingly got eliminated early on because the at-home voters assumed he was automatically safe, and didn’t need their votes. Johns’ elimination helped changed the course of the show, as future seasons gave the judges an automatic save in case that happened to another contestant (as it had to Chris Daughtry, Tamyra Gray, and Jennifer Hudson) with so much promise. Johns died in 2014 following a blood clot.

The final two that season winnowed down to Cook and another David, the teen-idol-esque Archuleta, but you could tell that their hearts weren’t really into any kind of rivalry. Cook even pulled “Archie” up on stage with him to sing the final song after he won. Since then, Cook has faced some personal tragedy—he was close with Johns, and his brother died of brain cancer—while releasing three albums, with a few hits like “Light On” and that Idol capper, “Time Of My Life.” Currently he’s on the road pushing his fourth album, Digital Vein, with new single “Criminals” and a ragged cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” During his tour stop at Chicago club The Abbey, Cook took some time to sit down with The A.V. Club after soundcheck to talk about what it was like to win American Idol. Later he rocked the rabid local crowd, integrating his “Billie Jean” cover from Idol into his set list, and encouraging the crowd to put their phones away for once so they could actually enjoy the music. The Chicago audience knew what the Idol one figured out early on: Cook is a fun, relatable performer, whatever the venue, and deserving of his title.

The A.V. Club: It seemed like your season of American Idol was the best one.

David Cook: [Laughs.] Let’s go with that. I like that. I like that narrative.

AVC: Ryan Seacrest commented on this only about a million times that season [Cook laughs.] but you were a bartender. You went to the audition with your brother, so you weren’t even expecting to get dragged into this.

DC: No, I was not. I was bartending in Tulsa and doing the solo thing there. I put out a record in 2006 that I think maybe sold like 750 copies or something—I’m still stoked about thatbut yeah, Idol wasn’t consciously in my wheelhouse or on my path or anything. But I went with my mom and my brother just as like a little weekend vacation, and it kind of snowballed into this whole thing.

AVC: So your thought, when you’re walking into a room and you’re going to see Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul—

DC: I mean, obviously nervous. I think to that part I still wasn’t sure if I was a quote-unquote real audition, or if I was the audition-round fodder.

There was a guy in front of me in line that was dressed all in, had like a bathrobe and a rubber duckie and one of those bath loofah things on a stick.

AVC: What?!

DC: I was like man, I knew at the time my haircut was pretty damn god-awful, so I was just hoping that I wasn’t one of the joke ones. And they put me through to Hollywood and I thought, “Well okay, maybe I’m still one of the joke ones but at least I’m not terrible?” So, I don’t know. I never really went in with any expectations through any of it, really. I didn’t think about winning until maybe top three.

AVC: Really?

DC: Yeah, because that’s when it was like, “Well, the odds are passable right now.” But yeah, those auditions rounds—they were intense. I think had I gone to Omaha with the intention of auditioning, I probably would’ve overthought it. Not having that time to second- and third-guess everything probably helped me.

AVC: Like everything was just gravy.

DC: Yeah, yeah. Just like, “Well, I’m here, whatever.”

AVC: Where did you guys live while you were in Hollywood?

DC: I remember our season—I can only speak to ours; I don’t know what the deal is on the other seasons—but they moved us around quite a bit, so when we first got out there we stayed at the Sofitel in L.A., like right across from the Beverly Center. We were there for a few weeks and then they moved us to the Intercontinental over in Century City for a little while. And then they moved us to these short-term lease apartments like three weeks after that. So it worked out because every Tuesday night, everybody would pack, because you didn’t know who was going home on Wednesday, and then once it’s time you’ve got to grab your stuff and go. So we were always ready to move, but it was still just like never knowing when it was like, “Hey, we’re moving into a different building.”

AVC: Your group didn’t seem to have much drama; people seemed very nice every week. Were they competitive behind the scenes?

DC: Probably. I’m competitive to a fault, so of course every week I’m just like, “I want to win, I want to do great.”

AVC: Really? You never seemed like that.

DC: I think… I checked it at the door. Knowing the situation I was in and knowing the talent that was on our season, I was just like, man, any of us could go home, so my goal was just don’t take last every week. You know, so as long as I don’t take last, I can stick around. Even at the finale, I remember they came up to us that Wednesday we were doing last-minute prep for that Wednesday night show, and Archie and I were sitting on the stage. And Nigel Lythgoe, who was producing at the time, came up and goes, “So here are the vote totals. I’m not going to tell you who got what,” but he told us the totals, and there was like this 12 million vote discrepancy. I was like, “Oh, Archie killed it then. So I’m cool with second, man. Whatever.” So when they said my name it was just like, “Uh, what?”

AVC: That’s kind of a weird thing to tell you guys at that moment.

DC: Yeah well, there’s a psychological aspect to that show, for sure. Like I remember the Hollywood week they kept us so busy and we didn’t sleep a lot, so when you see everybody crying and super-stressed out, it’s because they got like eight hours of sleep in four days.

AVC: It seemed like they were tried to play up the David-David rivalry, but you and Archuleta were not about to play into that.

DC: We still talk. He came to my wedding. I love that guy.

AVC: Speaking of other people in that group, are you okay with talking about Michael Johns?

DC: Yeah.

AVC: The week that he left, I think I might have cried. I couldn’t believe it. Because nobody voted for him because everybody thought he was safe… He actually changed the rules of Idol so that would never happen again.

DC: Yeah. I said this right after he passed. Mike was the glue on our season. I do remember the vibe changing pretty abruptly when he left. Mike was great about just keeping it light. Mike was always there with a joke, so when he left, that was when it kind of started to feel like a competition. Getting to tour with him over the summer was great; he and I got in our fair amount of trouble with the tour staff, but that’s okay.

AVC: You guys looked like you were having a good time.

DC: Yeah. I remember I was out with family and [Idol contestant] Carly Smithson called me and told me that Mike had passed. I was floored. I think without him I might’ve unraveled on that show quite a bit sooner than anticipated. He was such a huge talent, such a great heart, a good guy. Mike was great about seeing things for what they were, and on that show it was so easy to get caught up in the moment to moment, and Mike was great about just kind of making a joke about the absurd aspects of it. You know the personal shit, that doesn’t matter.

AVC: Right. Because here you are in front of millions of people—

DC: Yeah. I mean, Mike had gone through it, he had been on a label and done the band thing, and so having him there… he got it. He was indispensable to me. So when he left it was like, shit, okay. But I loved the guy and it’s still super shocking to think about.

AVC: Just thinking about the moment when you first go on live: It’s one thing to do the audition rounds or whatever, but that first night where you’re live on television in front of all those people—is your heart in your throat? Can you breathe?

DC: I just remember the first week was I think ’60s week for us, and I wasn’t really too knowledgeable of that era. I kind of knew what I wanted to be doing and a lot of music of that era—it’s a lot more major-chord oriented. It’s a lot happier. So I had problems with that week, so I just remember walking on stage worried about it coming off the right way.

I worried about that every week, but there were weeks when I felt more in pocket with a song and that wasn’t one of those weeks, and I think it showed. But I remember those first two weeks going by and being like, “Well, I’m going home next week.” So ’80s week, it was like, I just did something that I thought would be absurd and fun. I thought, “If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out,” and it ended up being a Lionel Richie cover.

AVC: And you were doing your own arrangements, which not everybody was doing.

DC: Complete necessity. Just being observant of the situation and looking at people like Syesha [Mercado] and Carly and Mike, and David Archuleta and Brooke White and being like, okay, vocally I’m not there. Vocally I still consider myself to be a lot rougher around the edges, so I was like, man, what can I do? And I thought, okay, I’ve been in a band since I was 14, 15 years old. Maybe I can work these songs out in a different way… because how many times do they say in a season, “Make this song your own”? So I was like, all right, here we go.

AVC: And every time you did that—

DC: It worked out, yeah. I mean, there were times I fell flat on my face. I remember I somehow got away with messing up the lyrics on that Duran Duran song. But I just felt like, “All right, if I’m going to stick around I need to do something different,” and that just seemed like something different.

AVC: So did they style you guys every week, like what you wore? There was a big deal about your haircut.

DC: Not in the beginning. In the beginning, each week, each contestant gets a little bit of wardrobe budget. The further you go on the show, the larger the budget gets. But in the beginning they were just like, “Here’s a hundred bucks in L.A. Good luck.” The hair thing, I remember I was kind of fighting it. And then one week, I wanted to get my hair styled for that show, and they were like, “You know, we should cut it, it’s looking pretty ragged.” I was like, “Just a trim.” I think I had what was left over from a mohawk, just this longer little strip that went into a rattail. I was like, “Hold onto that.” I have no idea why. And I remember the guy who cut my hair just goes, “Whoops.” And I was like, well shit, just do whatever you want now. And it worked out, but I just remember being so bummed out, because I’d always wanted to grow my hair out. And now looking back on those photos I understand why I probably shouldn’t have…

AVC: On national television…

DC: Probably not the best moment, yeah. So I don’t know. There were so many serendipitous things with that show. Like thinking back on it, it all makes sense now, but in the moment you’re just like, I have no idea what the hell is going on.

But as the show went on, we got more budget and then the stylists were a little more involved, so by the end you looked like a put-together human being as opposed to whatever I was doing in the beginning.

AVC: And you pick the songs and you’re doing it with the band, so you decide that you’re going to do “Billie Jean” that week. Then what?

DC: Typically you have to work that out, because you have to edit the songs down for TV.

AVC: They’re really short.

DC: Yeah, that was always tough for me because I always believe that every song tells a story, so the last thing I want to do is edit out like the meat of the story. I would pick songs based off a), whether I felt like I could do anything with them, and b) whether I felt like I could keep the story intact. And then you sit in with one of the piano players and one of the vocal coaches and kind of work out your arrangements that way. The key and all that. Then I think it was Monday morning you would go in and you would have 20 minutes to run your song with the band and iron out any details, and pray to God that it all worked out. But I mean, obviously it’s a world-class-caliber band, so if they can’t figure it out, then it’s probably a bad idea anyway.

AVC: Who was your favorite coach to work with?

DC: Debra Byrd was my favorite. She works for The Voice now. But I still text her now and again and just check in. By far one of my favorite people to deal with on the show. And I credit her with a lot of what made “Hello” work. Because I come from a band background where you work the crowd that’s in the room, and she—I mean, it seems like a simple thing now—she was like, “You have to treat the camera like it’s an audience member and make eye contact with the camera.” And I remember consciously doing that in “Hello” and it seemed to click.

AVC: Because that’s something you never think about.

DC: Yeah. I mean well shit, I hadn’t performed in front of a camera like that before, so my whole deal was I’m just going to play rock music and hopefully people get into it, and I think it’s those intricacies in a TV studio you don’t think about that she really helped me with.

AVC: Do you see the judges at all, except for that week? Like, did Simon Cowell ever come to rehearsal?

DC: No. We would do dress rehearsal and the judges wouldn’t be there. They would have sit-ins or whatever. And they would film the dress rehearsals to use at the playback at the end of the episode where they would give like, “Here are your numbers to vote for whoever you want,” and they would show dress rehearsal footage. So if you ever saw the back of a judge’s head, it was actually a sit-in. But yeah they were pretty hands-off, and I’m sure that’s probably by design, to some extent.

AVC: So you’re building up from week to week, and then you’re in the final. And you win American Idol and then what happens? You win a million dollars, right?

DC: [Laughs.] I’m sure at some point that check cleared. No, the next 36 hours after that were just a blur. Because I remember that night you go through press row and then there’s the after party and all that, and then I had like a super early call for press the next morning. We did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. And I wish I could remember the intricacies of that, because I don’t. I mean, the ball’s rolling by the time you start moving. So I remember three days after that was my first writing session for the record, a week after that was my first rehearsal for the tour. So it was write, write, write, write, tour, tour, tour, tour. And then the tour started in July and we were on the road until September.

AVC: And was that your tour, or…?

DC: It was the Idols tour. I had two days off that whole summer. And they were travel days. And then you get off the road with the Idol tour and then you cross the t’s and dot the i’s on your solo record, and then you go through promo. And then we were on the road for all of 2009 for the solo tour.

AVC: That must have been fun to be on the Idol tour to get to hang out with everyone and not have the competition hanging over your head.

DC: It was a blast. To go out on an arena tour right after you’ve been on that show was pretty insane. We did two nights in my hometown of Kansas City, and we finished up in Tulsa, which was nice, and it’s just unreal. To go out on the road for a year with your own record. A hundred and fifty something shows—that were public—so it was a whirlwind. It was a lot of work but I can’t say it wasn’t fun.

AVC: And now you just released your fourth album?

DC: Fourth overall. My third since Idol. This record is called Digital Vein and, by far, the most I’ve immersed myself in a project. Not only did I write it but I produced it and did most of the instrumentation on it. It was a different process for me, but ultimately one I needed because there was some time between this record and the last one where I thought maybe I’ll hang it up and just be a writer…

AVC: You have such a great voice, though!

DC: I’ve always said, if I can’t enjoy doing this the way that I feel I should, I’ll just do something else. Don’t get me wrong, if somebody wants to book me at an arena, I’ll play it, but I love these kind of venues, where I like to say there’s ghosts in the walls. It’s good to come here to The Abbey, to a city like Chicago, and get to play music: This is why I got into it.

And there was a period there where it all got a little heavy I guess. My older brother passed away when we were out touring the first record, and I didn’t stop. I think my coping mechanism was, “I’m going to stay busy.” So we rescheduled one show for the funeral and other than that we stayed out. So got off the road, immediately started working on another record, and I think my brain was like, “Yeah, you gotta deal with this.” So the whole second record, I didn’t enjoy it the way that I should have or could have. I got off the road from that record, and I was just like, “I need to take a break and reassess.” So I started writing for Digital Vein not really sure if I was going to finish. And thankfully I enjoyed it and I surrounded myself with people that really allowed me to enjoy the creative process.

AVC: So you’re still doing this, and I don’t know if you can say that about a lot of Idol people, that years later they’re still in the thick of it like you are.

DC: Yeah. I think Idol is a great platform, and I think in that aspect I’m super sad to see it go. I look at what it represented and did for me and I look at what it’s meant for countless others—you know, [Chris] Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarksonso to see that avenue go away is a bummer. But hopefully it can go away and be missed and maybe come back somewhere, some way, I don’t know.

AVC: Right, like Voice people don’t really become household names like some Idol names.

DC: I think at some point, I don’t think it’s for lack of talent, I think it’s just what those shows represent has changed. This isn’t a holier-than-thou comment; I’ve never watched The Voice, and when X Factor came out I didn’t watch that, but I can name all the judges. But I can’t name all the contestants. And I think at some point the formula got skewed where America’s not really allowed to invest in the contestants as much. So when the contestants come off the show, there’s less incentive to follow them. And hopefully that platform can come back in that regard, because look: I’m out there playing music, and I’d be doing it either way, but I get to do it like this because I had that platform. It’d be a bummer to see somebody else not have that opportunity.