Monday, Feb. 23, 2009

Q&A with Idol Front-runner Danny Gokey

By Evan Rytlewski
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A Milwaukeean is now the "American Idol" front-runner. Deeply Christian, boyishly handsome but sexually non-threatening, with a powerful, vaguely schmaltzy voice that evokes his sad backstory (his wife died last year), Danny Gokey is one of the most interesting, broadly palatable "Idol" contestants this year, and it's been lost on no one that the show's producers have been paying him special attention.

This is huge news for local media: Danny Gokey is the new Brett Favre, and the coming weeks will see a full-on onslaught of local coverage. Drive-time radio personalities, tv and radio columnists and general assignment reporters will be interviewing his friends, family and students (he teaches music), and visiting his church (did I mention that he's deeply Christian?)

On a conference call last week with the first three "Idol" contestants to make the top 12, national journalists also paid special attention to Gokey. Here are some excerpts from that Q&A session:

I really hope you don't take this as insensitive, but it definitely isn't, but how are you going to try to sort of balance how much the background story of your wife plays into your future process on the show so that people don't think that it's a whole sympathy kind of thing?


People coming in from an outside view probably won't think it's too much, but it's only been seven months since she's passed. This is who I am. It's not that I throw it in people's faces, but I get asked about it all the time, especially like right now. I'm talking about it at this point. In a previous interview that I did today, everybody wants to hear what I have to say. It weighs on my mind a lot though because honestly, this is a sob story I don't want. I don't want this story, but it is shaping my life and it's causing hope for a lot of people knowing that it's causing hope for my life. I didn't want to live any more after she passed. So now, I have my mission set in stone of what I want to portray myself as and just who I am. I don't have to portray myself as anybody, but as far as being me, but there's a fun side to me that's going to come out. And so, people have to stay tuned in. I apologize to everybody if they feel like it's shoved down their face, but it's so fresh in my mind.

What do you think of this whole new process of the top 36 and having nine people go in one group? It's pretty brutal. Did it feel that way for you guys there?

Yes, it really is. Here's how I feel about it. I've been saying this since day one. It's never been harder to get into the top 12, but yet also, it's never been easier because of the fact that you don't have to go from 36 or 24 even all the way down to 12. I mean you get from 36 right to 12. So, you skip all that. But, the thing is that makes it so like gut wrenching is that there's amazing talent that is being sent home and it's almost like an unfair shot. It makes sense, but it doesn't make sense. It's so hard to explain.

I wanted to know how you feel also about the reaction that Jamar [Rogers, Gokey's friend and a failed 'Idol' contestant] has gotten. I don't know if you see too much online or anything, but he's the one who didn't make the top 36, who people seemed most attached to and most disappointed by his absence in the top 36.

As you can see from the show that aired it, I was mad. I had a pretty upset look on my face because I expected him to go through. I don't know-- If you pay attention carefully to the tapes, I even said, "I'll see you in the top 36" after I made it through and we were talking. I mean I was just so confident that he showed his ability and what it takes to get there. And so, disappointment was completely in my mind and heart, but the thing is he received such recognition. I know it's not the end of the world for him. He has a bright future ahead of him and it doesn't stop here. It only gets better from here.

I'm just wondering, Jamar was a great support to you and we know that he's been a great support for you in the past. How is not having him here now to sort of go through this process with you?

Well, I really can say this, and I hope you will take it the right way. At this point of the game, it's easier now. Even though I want him to be here, but I feel more emotionally stable. I wanted him to be here, but I'm glad he was in Hollywood. I'm so thankful he was in Hollywood because in Hollywood, what people don't know is that Hollywood was very, very tough for me. I put on this face, but I was miserable on the inside. Only he knew that because I poured my heart out to him. But since Hollywood, as crazy as it sounds, but I've let go of some things that I was gripping on to so deeply. I think letting go of the toxic emotions tied to the situation has really set me free to be able to start enjoying this. It just so happens that even though he's not here, I'm at that point. I never forget the memory of my wife, but the hurtful emotions that were really tying me down, especially during Hollywood week with all the pressure, the producers, and all the pressure that's put on you from the show because you're herding all these kids around and all that talent there.

I noticed last night that there was a tribute paid to your wife because they showed a photo of her; one of your friends had one. Do you keep a memento with you when you perform of her?


No, I really don't. But the thing is, she's in my heart. You can never take that away. I really don't hang on to charms or anything like that or any mementos. I have, obviously, pictures at home, but she's so deeply engrained in my heart and mind that she's a part of who I am.

I just wanted to mention that the judges have seem to shower you with praise ever since your first audition. I was wondering if there was anywhere you think that you can improve going forward.

Oh, absolutely. I know I can improve. I want to improve. I want to clean up my vocals. That's what I want to do. I notice when I'm singing I sometimes get a flat and sharp here. That really bothers me because I know that I can do a clean performance. But on the other hand, I like taking risks when I'm singing. I don't like to just be in the safe box, singing a song, but I want to, so to speak, jump off the bridge and somehow land on my feet. Sometimes, I kind of lose my footing when I'm coming back down.

Danny, a lot of people who have been blogging about the show in the media seem to think that you're getting a lot of attention in terms of the way the show is editing, like more than every other contestant, like the producers are really trying to push you forward. In watching back the shows, do you feel like you're getting that amount of attention?

Honestly, I do feel like that I was highlighted. There's no getting around that. I didn't do anything to get that. I can say this; I'm grateful that they would do that. I have no control over it. I know everyone's not going to like me. That's goes without saying, but it's a bummer when people are just real mad about it. I had nothing to do with it and I hope people can see past that and just see that I genuinely just love to sing and that's what I want to do.

Well, as a follow-up to that, say you advance far enough in the competition that you did get a record deal and you made an album, do you think you would be a Christian artist because it's so important in your life, or do you think you'd go for a rock pop thing?

Honestly, I don't know yet, but the answer I'm leaning towards right now is it would be out in the mainstream market. That's where I want to be. I think I can have a lot of affect on it. I mean there are a lot of good Christian singers, but I think I would like to go out and do something with my box. I can just be a Christian who sings mainstream music instead of having to be a Christian who has to somehow just sing Christian music. I believe that I can just be a singer who is a Christian.

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