American Singer: Dani McCulloch
Each year, a lot of talent comes in and out of the American Idol audition room doors. Some make it all the way to the big show, and some don't. In the wake of the whirlwind, we're introduced to many different talented people. That's part of the blessing of the show: you get to meet and experience people that you might not have had the opportunity or inclination to get to know before.
One of those is Dani McCulloch, a self-proclaimed "Memphis chick" who lives and breathes music on most days. In case you've forgotten Dani, here's her appearance from this year's show:
Dani and I caught up with each other EARLY on a Saturday morning, and we talked about Idol in depth, as well as the upcoming Reality TV Convention 2007 and her new projects!
J.D.: I was just listening to your songs on Myspace right before the interview, and I could barely stop listening to them. You're actually really good.
Dani: Awww, thank you so much! I really appreciate that.
J.D.: A lot of people may not remember you from this year's show, since it's been a little while, so could you remind us a little about your appearance on American Idol?
Dani: Well, I auditioned in the Memphis auditions. And I made it all the way to Paula, Randy and Simon. I was on there for about maybe five to ten seconds, y'know, of the actual audition. They showed my interview and everything. Maybe it was longer than that. It seemed like hours to me, but it was in Memphis, and Randy was the one who said no to me, but Paula and Simon really liked me, so that's where my TV appearance was.
J.D.: When I saw you, something clicked in the back of my mind, and I looked through my Myspace friends list, and I was like, wait a minute, she's already on my friends list! I have a lot of Memphis artists on my Myspace friends list, and it was really interesting to see you there. I was like, "oh, Dani!" I know who that is. okay! But you did audition in our fair city of Memphis. Can you tell us a little about the audition process and what it was like for you?
Dani: Oh yes. Um, well, most people don't realize how long of a process the audition process is. It's like 14 hour days. It's a lot of "hurry up and wait." You go through three rounds. Well, really two before you get to Paula, Randy, and Simon. It's so grueling, and your nerves are going 90 to nothin'. And every audition, you're just hoping for a "yes." You're hoping for that yellow piece of paper. When you get it, you're just like so thrilled, and your emotions are just like very very strung out. So when you do get it, you're just like so overwhelmed, you just don't know how to react. Except for, apparently for me, to cry. It was a really neat process. It's definitely not what people see on TV. Y'know, they actually showed me going on the first day, and I went the second day in Memphis. Yeah, it was like round two, I believe. At the end of the day, I think I was the second to the last person to be picked out of that whole day, after all the auditions in Memphis. And this is after all the cities had been processed. Really I was second to last to be picked to go to Hollywood, period, out of the whole audition process for the cities. They didn't show that on TV, but it's just a very...I can't explain it, unless you go through it. It's just a grueling process, but you learn a lot.
J.D.: How old were you at the time?
Dani: I think I was 18. Woo!
J.D.: How much experience had you had in the music industry before American Idol?
Dani: I was about 15 when I started writing with some people out of Nashville. I was actually doing country at the time. I released my first album at 16, and it was mainstream country, but it was very outside the box for country. I formed a band so I could go and pitch the project to labels. I did go have meetings with labels and everything. A lot of them said, y'know, "you're too young." At that time, a lot of people were really terrified to sign any minors after the whole LeAnn Rimes deal. She had a big lawsuit with Curb Records. She was a minor. It was just a big ordeal in Nashville. So I think all of the labels were pretty scared of signing minors, but it kind of worked out for the best for me, because I ended up realizing that country was not what my heart desired at the end of the day. I love country music, but I'm a Memphis chick, and I like rock n' roll, blues and soul, y'know? (laughs.) I've had a band, professionally, for the last four years now. I've played all over festivals, clubs, and anywhere that I could play. I love playing live. I've been doing a lot of song-writing within that time, for the past three and a half to four years, for the next project as well. I'm hoping to release that by the end of this year, 2007.
J.D.: How fair did you find the auditioning process to be on American Idol, prior to appearing with Paula, Randy, and Simon?
Dani: Y'know, I honestly didn't think... Hmm. They do the best that they can for so many people that audition in each city. I mean, it's incredible amounts. I can't imagine being a judge and saying "yes no yes no" all day. I think they try to make it as fair as they CAN. But a lot of times, it's not. A lot of time they pick some people for just good TV, because first and foremost it IS a TV show. Which is great. I mean, y'know, I love to watch all the bad auditions as well. I think they do cut some really good people. Plus, for your first couple of auditions, you have only so many seconds. You have like 30 seconds, up to a minute, and you really don't get a minute to really wow them. And sometimes that's a really hard thing to do. I think, give and take, they do the best that they can, but it's not always fair.
J.D.: Did you actually see Randy, Paula and Simon in Memphis? How many days later was it?
Dani: I did see them, and it was about 30 days after round two. They were my third audition. So that was really cool.
J.D.: Randy didn't like your initial audition very much, which I can't understand, because I watched it and was completely blown away by it. Did he change his mind later on?
Dani: I think he did. Round 4 in Hollywood, I came out, and I auditioned with a Norah Jones song. Actually, Melinda Doolittle was in my group. It wasn't like the groups you see on TV. It was just a group of people who would individually go out and audition one more time in front of Randy, Paula, and Simon. And Randy, I think he really liked it. The judges, the whole time, they're pushing to see these artists who just really do their best. I think they see potential in some people, and sometimes when they say "I don't know, I don't know if I like it," they're doing that to push you. Because they want these kids to go through with this. So I believe that the judges are looking out for the contestants. When I auditioned the first time in front of Randy, I did kind of a risky thing. Most people don't know this either, but I first chose to sing a different song. I was gonna sing "Oh Darling," which was Paul McCartney's song. I guess they have an approval list, and it wasn't on there, and so I couldn't sing that song, which was the song that I really wanted to sing. So my second song was "Baby I Love You" by Aretha Franklin. I think you do a very very risky thing when you try and pull off an artist such as Aretha Franklin or Mariah Carey. Randy is a musician himself and has worked with those people, so for him, I think it has to be either meet it or beat it. I think that's why he didn't really care for that audition. I think he grew onto me later on.
J.D.: How weird is it for Randy NOT to like you, and then for Simon to be a big fan?
Dani: It was really weird! I was like uh, alright... I honestly thought that if anybody's vote I might be able to get, it would be Randy's. They switched on me, and I was just like well THIS is interesting. It was kind of exciting to have Simon's vote, so that was really cool. I really liked that.
J.D.: How much time elapses between the auditions with Randy, Paula, and Simon and Hollywood week?
Dani: I think it was one month.
J.D.: During Hollywood week, did you interact with any of the finalists from this year? What are your thoughts on them?
Dani: I did! Stephanie Edwards was in my group project. I think it was the third round, or maybe the second round in Hollywood. So she was in my group, and then she was also in Memphis with me. She was actually the last person to be picked in Memphis. I got to be really good friends with Stephanie, and she made it to the Top 12.
J.D.: Did you run across any particularly difficult personalities?
Dani: Y'know, honestly, I didn't. I think mainly it was because I tried to stay away from that. I was there, professionally, to be an artist. I wasn't there to get in the middle of a bunch of drama and stuff like that. A lot of people think that there's just a whole lot of drama and catfights when you go to Hollywood, but there's really not. People were just really stressed out, and if there are any catfights, it's because they're TIRED and they want it so bad. So I was lucky not to run into any kind of conflicts. Somebody was lookin' out for me there.
J.D.: No Brittenum twins this year, then. At what level were you eliminated from the competition?
Dani: The second round, after round one in Hollywood. Round one in Hollywood is where you go and audition in front of Paula, Randy and Simon one more time solo. And then they bring you out and they tell you if you make it through, and I did. Melinda and I both did. We were the only ones out of the six that made it through that first round. Then the second round is when you had to be in a group, and you got to choose from four songs. You pick which song you want to do, and you have to also--people don't know this either--you have to pick your own group. A lot of people think that it's assigned to you, but it's not. You have to pick your own group. And you're up all night. You have to learn the words, and you want to do choreography and do harmonies. By this time, you're really really really really tired. Your nerves are going. Your anxiety is going. You're just hoping and hoping and hoping everything is gonna turn out great. But I got cut that round, so...(laughs) I got up there and I totally forgot my words, which I think didn't really work out either. Because two of the girls in my group already knew the song. It was "Be My Baby." Two of the girls, I believe, knew the song, which is great. I mean, it's a good song. But we were up all night going mainly over harmonies and choreography. You think that that's what you're judging you on in the group projects, and it wasn't. They wanted to see how you're going to do in your SOLO. Because even some people that DID know the words, they still didn't make it through, because they didn't wow the judges. They were just going through the motions on the solo just trying to get the words right. That was a VERY hard process. You only have one night, the whole night, and you are so tired and delirious. And you had to audition early the next morning. So, it was unfortunate, but you do your best.
J.D.: I think a lot of people don't understand, but it really IS hard to remember what seems like absurdly simple lyrics after you've been up all night and practicing and practicing and practicing. Would you agree with that?
Dani: I totally agree with that. Plus, y'know, you also have cameras. There is a camera crew always in the halls in the hotel. They knock on your doors. They want interviews. They're constantly watching you. Not only do you have to learn the words and have to be prepared, but you also have camera crews coming up and bugging you and interrupting the groove. It's hard to stay focused, because they are so many distractions when you're trying to learn all this stuff. It's a lot harder than it looks on TV.
J.D.: As the competition has gone on, who were you pulling for to win the most?
Dani: I've been completely all for both Blake and Jordin. I have said from Day One that I really really like them. I liked most of the contestants up there, but they just seem to have stuck out to me personally.
J.D.: It broke my heart to see Melinda Doolittle go. How did you feel about that?
Dani: It was very hard. Melinda Doolittle is some kind of talent. She WILL have a career. That's the thing most people don't realize. Even though you don't win American Idol. I mean, look at Chris Daughtry. Well, I guess they do realize it now, since it's becoming more known every season, but y'know, I believe last season, the Top 8 or 9 all got record deals, which is really cool. So, Melinda is SET. She's gonna have a career, and I can't wait to see her just really get out there and do what she wants to do. It was really hard to see her go. She's very very very talented.
J.D.: When Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks were left, who did you pick?
Dani: I picked Jordin. I think she had both the older votes and the younger. She's just a very very sweet girl. You can just see it on TV. She's very genuine and very very talented. She captivates her audience every time she gets on stage. I mean, I love Blake too. I would've been happy for either one to win. But I just personally think that Jordin was the best choice.
J.D.: Now that the competition is over, what have you been up to?
Dani: I've been doing some heavy duty song-writing. I've been getting in the studio quite a bit and recording the originals that I've been writing. I'm trying to release the next project. So hopefully that will be by the end of 2007. I'm just playing shows and festivals, and I'm enjoying this. It's made me appreciate, after doing the American Idol thing, how lucky I am to have a talented band that plays for me. I get to go to some of these festivals, and the people there respond so well. I'm having fun, but at the same time, I'm trying to get my own thumbprint out there in the music industry. I've grown a lot since my first album, so I'm really trying to work on that right now.
J.D.: Have there been any unique opportunities that have presented themselves to you because of your appearance on American Idol?
Dani: Mostly in Memphis. I've been on TV locally. TV shows, morning shows, stuff like that. I've been doing a lot of gigs in Memphis, and some out of Memphis. Nothing that was just "wow, I can't believe it." I mean, but now, I'm talking to YOU, J.D.
J.D.: Well, I wouldn't know if that were a step up or a step down!
Dani: Oh, it's a step up. You know that!
J.D.: I know that you're going to do the Reality TV Convention this year, correct?
Dani: That is correct!
J.D.: Can't wait to see you there! I do see that you have a ton of shows coming up over the summer. Can you tell us about where you'll be appearing?
Dani: Yes! I have a couple of shows here in my hometown, Collierville, TN. It's right outside of Memphis about 30 minutes. I got the fourth of July fireworks show. And then I've got the Sunset on the Square. I mean there's tons of people. Pretty much the town of Collierville comes out for that. It's a really neat thing. I'm playing the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, which is really exciting. I've played the Horseshoe before, but I've never gotten to play the Gold Strike, so I'm pretty excited about that. I'm going to Hampton, VA in September. I'm opening up for Sammy Kershaw. And then, I'm going to Gulf Shores in October. I'm gonna do the Shrimp Fest. I've been doing that for the past couple of years. I've got some really cool and exciting stuff coming up, and I'm really looking forward to it.
J.D.: Would you say that it's fair to say that your music is sort of a blend of country, rock and blues?
Dani: Honestly, the newer stuff that I have done, no. I would say that for my first album, Outside the Lines, but I've really evolved now to where it's mainly just Memphis roots music. I'm not doing country anymore, oddly enough, because I'm opening up for a lot of country artists. That's really cool, but I'm doing mainly Memphis roots music, which is basically rock, blues, and soul.
J.D.: What kind of message or style do you hope will be on that album that will hopefully be in my hands by the end of the year?
Dani: I think it's gonna be mainly rock, not pop rock, but more of a modern day classic rock sound, which is really exciting, but it also has my Memphis influences, blues and soul, which just comes naturally from just growing up in Memphis. That's pretty much the sound that I'm going for.
J.D.: When you talk about musical inspirations, obviously with Memphis you've got Elvis, B.B. King, and Sun Studios' stable. Who do you draw on the most as a musical inspiration?
Dani: I think recently...well, not really recently, for a good while now, I've really drawn in a lot of influence from the Beatles. I've actually recorded a couple of Beatles covers like "Oh Darling" and "Old Brown Shoe," for a Memphis compilation disc called Fried Glass Onions: Memphis Meets the Beatles. I did the first two albums and hopefully will be on the fourth. So the Beatles are definitely a big influence for me and tons of artists. Bonnie Raitt, of course, oh my gosh... As far as rockers, I've had a lot of respect for people like Zakk Wylde, and people might think that's surprising.
J.D.: I find that surprising, actually.
Dani: Zakk Wylde's Book of Shadows, I think he was just awesome on that album. There's a band called Muse that are mainly popular over in the UK, but they're starting to come out here in the states. I think they've been here for a while, but more people my age are starting to figure out who these guys are. They are so talented. I've always had a huge respect for Gwen Stefani in the No Doubt days. Janis Joplin... I could go on and on. There are so many people that influence me, but those are the ones that really stand out.
J.D.: If you could pick one person in the music industry that is established right now that you would like to work with, who would that be?
Dani: Oh gosh! Man! Just one?? Y'know, honestly, something that I think would be really fun and cool, I would love to work with Gwen Stefani. I think that chick is just the coolest person. I would just want to hang out with her, even if I didn't get to work with her, I would just want to hang out in the same room with her. She's like a really cool and hip chick.
J.D.: Would you recommend Memphis, as a city, as a great place for a musician to begin their career?
Dani: That's really hard to say. I think if you grew up here and that is what you were exposed to. I am so thankful for that, because there is so much history in Memphis, musically. As far as getting your career started, I don't know that I would say that Memphis is the best place. Memphis is not really growing as far as getting music and artists launched into the industry itself. But I think as far as learning, you can learn a lot musically from Memphis, just because there is so much history and influences there.
J.D.: Maybe if you're a burgeoning rap artist or in Three Six Mafia, maybe. Are you eligible to audition for Idol again?
Dani: I am!
J.D.: Do you think you'll do it?
Dani: You know, I'm actually kind of undecided right now. I think I'm kind of keeping my options open right now. I am not really sure. I'm not against auditioning again, because I think it's great for what it does to put artists out there. But I'm just not really promising either. I think I'm just gonna wait and see where I am at that time when the auditions come back up.
J.D.: What advice would you give for those who are auditioning this year, or even people who are just trying to break into the industry?
Dani: Well, okay, if you ARE going to audition for American Idol, be sure and KNOW that that's what you want to do. Don't go in there with any question. I think a lot of people go in there thinking "well I don't know, I don't know," but you have to be all or nothing throughout the whole process of American Idol, because it is a very hard and stressful audition, at least of any audition or competition I've been a part of. You have to be very focused and just serious about it. Completely serious about it. And you also have to be unique. You have to be ready. Be prepared, because if you're not, you'll be wasting time on yourself really. So I would say that would be the best advice for anybody that goes in to audition.
J.D.: So we're going to be seeing you at this year's Reality TV Convention 2007. What are your thoughts on the upcoming convention.
Dani: I'm excited! I can't wait. It's gonna be neat to meet some of the other people there. I just want to have fun. I want to go in there and have a good time and interact with other people and just get to know some people.
J.D.: Is it exciting to you that you're going to be appearing with some of the more famous ones?
Dani: Yeah! I want to them about their experience on American Idol, because I know that it has changed, and it has evolved every season. So I would love to see their take on their auditions and their experience. I'm excited!
J.D.: It's entirely possible we may have other guests from Season 6, and we're looking forward to what might come in the next month.
Dani: Yeah, it's awesome.
J.D.: One more question, and it is this: if you could impart only one word of wisdom to the world, what would that be?
Dani: Love. Just love. Everybody needs it.
J.D.: That's about as simple as it gets, and that's about all you need!
Dani: It's a powerful thing. Love is the most simple, but it's the most powerful.
Thanks so much, Dani. Hopefully many of you will come out to meet her at the Reality TV Convention 2007. And don't forget to check her out on her Myspace profile and on her website at www.danimcculloch.com.