Idol Mentor David Cook on Judge Antics, Top 8 Performances & Whether the Show Still Matters

David Cook Idol MentorAmerican Idol Season 7 champ David Cook has something to say about the show’s continued relevance, but he’s not sure the Fox publicity department will appreciate his candor.

RELATED | American Idol Top 8 (Redux) Performance Recap: Am I Lookin’ for a New Love, Baby?

Idol‘s fate is in its own hands, Cook says as he takes into account the reality juggernaut’s slipping ratings and the (perennial) questions about how many seasons are left in the tank.

“If you can solidify the judging panel and allow that attention [on the judges’ lineup] to run its course, then the focus will be on these contestants. Because where Idol really hit critical mass was when people like Kelly and Clay and Carrie and Daughtry came off the show and were able to have industry success post-Idol,” argues Cook. “That gives exponential relevance to the show itself.”

And while the “Light On” singer confesses he’s never watched Idol‘s competitors (such as The Voice), he says it strikes him as “weird” that he really only knows the names of their judges, not their contestants. “I would love to see Idol get back to allowing America to focus on the contestants and their stories, and their hopeful ascent to stardom,” he adds. “Having contestants come off the show and not having America really care, that just puts the whole franchise in a weird pocket.”

TVLine caught up with Cook about mentoring the Season 13 Top 8 during ’80s Week, witnessing judge Harry Connick Jr.’s sometimes raucous antics during Wednesday’s show and recording his latest record in Nashville.

TVLINE | Had you been carefully following Season 13 or did you have to do a crash course before you went in to mentor?
I did a bit of a crash course — purely because I’m working on a new record here in Nashville, and recording time conflicted with Idol time. But, I made sure I did my homework. I was fortunate I came along at a point in the season where there’s some catalog, some body of work there, to be able to assess any deficiencies. All these contestants – the talent’s there, it’s just about molding it. I have to thank Idol. They made me look very, very good, but I enjoyed the process.

TVLINE | Did the producers give you any instruction going in?
No. The only thing I told them was that I’m going to be honest. If they wanted me to come in and sugarcoat, I wasn’t the guy for that. And they were great – they were just like “man…whatever.” They really gave me carte blanche to come in and help. And hopefully I did. I didn’t want to be one of 30 million voices in these kids’ heads all telling them to do different things. As far as song choice went, by the time I got there, they had already sorted it out. I didn’t want to push on that at all. [My approach was], “OK, this is the song you’ve got. Let’s make it work for you.” Hopefully, I helped.

TVLINE | Well, at the very least, the blogosphere has deemed you a rip-roaring success.
Oh good, I love the blogosphere. [Laughs]

TVLINE | Getting the blogosphere’s approval is really the most important thing. Let’s be honest.
Of course! [Laughs]

TVLINE | So, you arrived on the scene on Monday — once the Top 8 had already been to the studio and recorded the iTunes versions of their songs. In a dream scenario, would you have met with them earlier — maybe Thursday night right after the results show — to help out with song selection? To me, one of your great strengths as a contestant in Season 7 was your ability to pick songs that were surprising — and yet fit your voice. That’s essential to having a standout moment on Idol, in my opinion, and yet I feel like that’s the one area the Season 13 contestants haven’t quite mastered.
Maybe not Thursday night. It might’ve been a little raw Thursday and Friday. But yeah, I get what you mean. With the ’80s, there are just so many great songs. If it had been a different theme, maybe being involved in the song choice might’ve been a little bit more imperative. But the contestants’ song picks [this week] – I didn’t really have any issues with them.

TVLINE | Back when you were on Idol, the themes were a lot more narrow. But I’d argue that when contestants were occasionally stuck with Dolly Parton or Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, we actually got to see more amazing moments than we’ve had this season — where the themes have been much broader. Is there a benefit to being forced into a genre way outside your comfort zone?
It really depends on the theme. I certainly benefitted some weeks from having very narrow parameters. You know, Mariah Carey week: “What on Earth am I going to do with Mariah Carey week?” You’ve got no choice but to sing a Mariah Carey song, so it forces you to not second-guess. But then there are other weeks where having the broad theme really helps. With ’80s week, man, you’ve got 10 years of songs to sift through. Did anyone make the wrong song choice? I don’t necessarily think so. Were there better choices? Possibly. It’s all kind of subjective. With a great song, it’s all about whether you can sell it — and that’s where I really tried to drive the point home. If you can’t go on the stage and own the stage, then you’re going to get swallowed whole.

TVLINE | It seems like you had very specific things for every single contestant to work on. Are you comfortable saying which singers you felt best executed your advice, or maybe improved the most from rehearsal to actual performance?
I thought Jess made a very concerted effort to do what we had talked about, which was specifically showing enjoyment in her face. I think that maybe came at the cost of stage blocking. It seemed like the way that they had her performance blocked was a little meandering. It didn’t feel like every step had purpose – I don’t know – that threw me a little. I thought Keith Urban said it best about C.J. — something about him just connected. He didn’t make a lot of eye contact with the camera – which we had talked about – but it didn’t really affect the performance so much. I found it to be a powerful performance. And then Alex was another one that seemed to really take what we talked about to heart. I was really, really happy with that performance.

TVLINE | What would be your over-arching message for the contestants going into Top 7 week, considering you’ve now had a chance to get to know them a little?
Just keep honing. Sam struck me as a great synopsis of a lot of the group – the guy has talent coming through the gills, and yet he is the last to know. Just keep honing and be confident — and realize that out of the thousands of people that have auditioned for the show you’re the last seven or eight. Find confidence in that. It’s a big deal.

TVLINE | When you were on Season 7, you were known for creating moments. Whenever I do a “Best Of” list, there is inevitably a flurry of comments regarding my choices for you. “You picked the wrong David Cook song! It should’ve been ‘Always Be My Baby’ or ‘Billie Jean’ or ‘Hello’ or ‘The World I Know’!” In Season 13, I’m not entirely sure we’ve had a moment that’ll get permanently etched into our brains. There almost seems to be a fear of taking huge risks. As you said at the start of last night’s show, Idol is a bit of a chess match, and sometimes risks don’t pay off. With that in mind, how would you motivate the remaining singers to make bigger, bolder moves? And is it too late in the season for those kinds of risks?
Alex seems to be doing it a little bit. I kind of understood J.Lo’s critique of [his “Every Breath You Take” cover] last night, but it’s a weird conflict to tell somebody to make the song their own and then not get into them making the song their own. It is the inherit risk. I suppose it’s never too late to try something. I mean, worst case scenario you’re going to go home — which depending on your outlook, could be the worst thing in the world or be the beginning of something else. For me, I just tried to do things that got me excited, because if you go on stage and you’re not into your song and you’re kind of like “I can’t wait to get through this,” that’s going to show. Maybe they’re just not enjoying every song they’re doing. I don’t know what it is because everybody [in the Top 8] seemed to have at least a sense of their musical identity. So, maybe it [comes down to] just doubling down on that.

TVLINE | So, the current judges’ panel…
The judges’ panel last night was certainly very…energetic. But I think, this season as a whole, I like this panel, and I hope they’re around for a long time.

TVLINE | I’ve liked them all season — up until last night. Then they annoyed the heck out of me.
[Laughs] I know! I saw your tweets last night, man. There was a little silver tongue last night. It was kinda awesome.

TVLINE | Harry jumping around, hoisting that girl on his shoulders. I was like, “Settle down!” It felt a little disrespectful to the contestants.
A lot of energy, which honed is not a bad thing.

TVLINE | Honed. That’s the key. So… if they asked you to come back for Top 7 week to be the mentor, would you do it?
I don’t know. Maybe. Working on my own stuff is the priority but yeah, if I got called, I’d listen at least.

TVLINE | And how is the new record going? Like how far along are we on that road?
I’d say we’re 70% there, which is probably optimistic. We’re probably 60% of the way there. [Laughs] But we have 18 songs. We’re going to try and narrow it down to 12 for the finished product and then find the right avenue for releasing this one. I’ve really doubled down on just enjoying making music. With the last record, the headspace was different. Personally and professionally it was just different. This time around, I want to have fun, I want to try new things and expand — which is the goal with every record. I feel like I’m heading down the right path.

TVLINE | Does not having major label involvement during the recording process free you up?
Well, I enjoy the creative freedom — whether or not it makes for a better product, I think remains to be seen. Not all of the music that I like is going to be on top 40 radio. But I do know this record will have my stamp of approval, and if it gets some other peoples’ stamp of approval on the way that’s just bonus.

TVLINE | If you had to describe in a nutshell  how the new record might differ from your previous work, what would you say?
In a nutshell, there’s more piano, there’s more synth, guitars are still there. I feel like the voice is still there, but it’s a little more outside of what I think people perceive my element to be. That’s a big nutshell, I understand. [Laughs]

TVLINE | You’re being slightly cryptic, but I guess when it comes to art, you don’t want to slap a gigantic label on it and tell people how they’re supposed to be feel about it.
Right, right. And especially lyrically on this new record, I’m trying to leave more up to interpretation and allow people to find what they want in it.

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  1. Kaba says:

    “The panel was very energetic”
    Lol, nicely put Mr.Cook

  2. Tiff says:

    He’s such an intelligent musician, and it really showed in his mentoring, too. I know others complained, but I really thought a lot of the contestants last night took his mentoring to heart. I personally really loved Alex, Caleb, Jessica, and Jena, and I saw huge improvement in Sam after his help. What really struck me was how much he did to help them, and how little Randy did – it was like Randy was learning how to mentor from David.

    Anyway, I haven’t been a fan of David’s stuff post-Idol, but I love his voice, his passion, and his creativity. I hope the next album will get to me more. =)

  3. Ah, I love David. He’s so smart and well spoken. He really knows himself and music. He was a great mentor last night, I just wish the contestants really listened *sigh*

  4. SybilT2 says:

    Great interview. The contestants could definitely benefit from More David and Less Randy.

  5. Czt says:

    David cook was fantastic last night and very insightful in the interview. It would be fantastic if he could continue to mentor!

  6. billnyc says:

    The biggest thing Voice has over AI now is that they take time to mentor the talent … which makes a huge difference in the performances. I mean look what David did coming in on Monday AFTER the songs were picked and recorded. Imagine if the top 13 had dedicated mentors throughout the process. David would be awesome to have next year.

    • TrP says:

      You are so right! I am really thrilled with David’s mentoring, and wish they would use him at the song selection/arrangement point. People can bust on Barry Manilow all they want but when he was a mentor in previous seasons he was a MENTOR down to the last note!

  7. thebrad says:

    so Michael does knowing that your man Mr Cook obviously liked Alex much more than a C+ help you see the light? Go back and watch his performance again and listen t the words he sings and not the original and just enjoy it on its own merits. I feel as if Kris Allen or David Cook had done that same performance you would be referencing it in future season.

    • will says:

      If Kris or David had remimagined the song they would have done it in a way that accentuated its meaning rather than holding it underwater until the bubbles stop while cheery music plays in the background.

  8. Meredith says:

    That was a stellar interview, thank you!

  9. webly3 says:

    Great interview! After reading this, I respect David Cook a lot more than I did when he won season 7 (I think it’s that season).

  10. j says:

    Great interview! I love how David defended Alex’s choice and how he interpreted “Every Breath You Take.” I also thought that was a fantastic take.

    “And then Alex was another one that seemed to really take what we talked about to heart. I was really, really happy with that performance.”

    Cook is being nice about the judges, but I think he made a good point about the show needing to be about the contestants and not the judges. Stability in the panel is vital for the show to be a success, so that the show can be about the singers.

    • Ben says:

      Alex is, for me, one of the few contestants in idol history who does exactly what David Cook did (Adam was another). He knows who he is, and he makes every song he sings fit him, instead of the other way around. I disagreed with JLo on the No Doubt song, and I disagree with her this week as well – Alex making songs his own is what is working for him.

      • Aprilcot says:

        I would add Kris to that list as well.

      • Johan says:

        Unfortunately he’s doing a bit too much ‘predictable Alex’ by taking songs that far off track and crossing a very fine line, as the judges are clearly weary of and Harry warned him about too.
        Too much becomes predictable and instead of sounding like an Alex original, it becomes ‘Alex again’.
        He adds his flair, which is excellent, but has to be careful not to become a one trick pony.

        Lambert did it to with his signature high note, same tone, same note every song. They had him reign it in though and his future performances got better.

        • Mara says:

          I almost feel like he’s *too* unique for Idol, to the point where you either get him/love him, or you don’t. But this is definitely a great platform to put that uniqueness out there, even if he doesn’t go on to win. For me, his style isn’t really my musical preference, but he definitely does what he does very well and just needs more polish and a better ability at editing for maximum punch with his performances. But that will come with time and experience and hopefully having good people around him to be constructively critical.

  11. Mik says:

    Loved the interview! David is such a nice guy!

  12. LIsaK says:

    David Cook was a terrific mentor (as was Adam Lambert) … I agree that The Voice has an advantage because the contestants actually get some help! I loved Alex’s performance. I get that someone could miss the melody but if you just take the performance at face value it was entertaining and sounded great!

  13. Blinged Up says:

    Yay!! David Cook is one of my all-time favorite Idols! Love him, love his music, and he was an excellent mentor.

  14. NyCArole says:

    Thanks Michael Slezak for a great interview w David Cook! You’ve always been one who “GETS” him. David represented!! He reminded the wOrld just what The American Idol is ,,, what it has meant to him to win that crown! I feel he came back showing the best version of himself… polished & accomplished musician/artist/songwriter..And now as the Mentor he was ‘there” feeling and sharing all he learned from his mentor Debbie Byrd. “You have 2 minutes to get out there and own that stage,,, move around,, look into the camera to the millions who are LOOKIN at yOu!~ (Swoon moment 4 David).. He was constructive & encouraging to the Top 8… reinforcing confidence! Sharing his own feelings.. like you’re standing here TOP 8 of thousands!! Be confident for that alone.. you earned being here! David was surely an asset as their Mentor, I wish he had more time w them when choosing their songs,,, he payed it forward as the humble grateful MAN he is…for the short time he had,,, he made a difference to all Top 8! I am very proud to be a David Cook fan for 6 years,,, both him and his music are gifts for ALL ears to hear! Has he raised the bar for all future Idols… Indeed he has!!

  15. Spitey Spice says:

    Thank you so much for the interview! Two of my favorite AI things – a Slezak interview and Cookie!

  16. Tom22 says:

    Great Interview. He’s a really insightful guy and swayed my impressions on a few things too. And a smart guy, and a nice guy…and you asked great question MS.

    • Tom22 says:

      I finally got the relevance of post idol commercial success …. when the human epic saga that makes the show enticing.. even to himself with all his distractions.. more enticing if there is more of a pressumed “triumph” or something after the show (rags to riches drama? sorta ?). Too many times I feel like people compare post show sucesss of other shows as some sort of I’m taller than you sort of thing with no connection to viewing the shows itself .. but I “got” David on that.
      It would take more than my already exceeded pixel allotment to describe why but I got the crtical mass and value of a large audience that related to the _fun_ of watching because of the shared experience with coworkers, neighbors etc, and not just the $ and cents of it for producers.
      His thoughts on how a steady judge panel year to year would be less distracting for the viewers without any material change in face time judges got was really quite an astute thought that wouldn’t’ have dawned on me….certainly they’d make less gaffes that didn’t really go over but distracted the more experience they had …take out the worst moments and it is a lot lot smoother as a whole. Again.. he reshaped my thinking on a few things for sure.

  17. Julie Anderson says:

    Loved it! Love him! And was so thrilled he enjoyed Alex’s performance because I sure did. That was one I felt compelled to replay several times.

  18. Teeny Bikini says:

    Great interview. Great mentor. The kind of mentor they need on this show.

  19. AprilD says:

    Great post performance interview! I wondered what some of his opinions would be. I also agree 100% with his assessment of Alex’s performance. Looking forward to new music from Mr. Cook!

  20. Jessica says:

    Great interview! Good questions and he is also very professional. Wish him all the best with the new music

  21. Adam says:

    It’s too bad David Cook’s career never lived up to the hype of his Idol days. He got saddled with being Mr American Idol and was never able to break free of that. It didn’t when what he did on the show was a lot more interesting than what he did after the show.

    • Sierra1707 says:

      His diminishing sales are proof of that.

    • tealeaves says:

      Cook is a musician and songwriter as well as a singer. He has several platinum certifications under his belt and now has the financial freedom to do write and perform for a living. It’s all good.

    • Jill Moya says:

      Also, don’t forget, the other David that was in the final ( Archiletta or something of that order) with Cook, blew Cook away singing the 3 songs for the final. The kid was robbed. Even Simon gave him all 3 rounds, easily. My husband and I used to laugh at some of Cook’s singing. We felt he never was good! My opinion has never changed about him.

      • Zach says:

        Clearly your memory is faulty and your taste is partially questionable. Both Davids were good singers: just because you think he wasn’t good doesn’t make it so, it just brings your taste into question. Simon said that the finale was a toss-up, and that he would be happy regardless of which David won. And I would think that if you felt so strongly that the other David should have won I would have expected that you’d at least know what the kid’s last name is. If Archuleta (that’s his name, by the way) should have won, he should have outsold Cook the way Clay Aiken outsold Ruben Studdard: and that wasn’t the case.

  22. dcfanjane says:

    Great interview with my favorite AI David Cook! He did a fantastic job mentoring the contestants last night. Can’t wait for his new album.

  23. scorpo says:

    Fantastic interview, Michael!

  24. David is talented musician and we enjoy his music. But we’re kind of disappointed that when he lists other Idols he’s afraid (a wee bit homophobic perhaps) to list Adam Lambert. He and Phillip Phillips made more than Daughtry according to Forbes. Clay Aiken isn’t even close. Jealous? and yeah we know Clay is the “safe” choice. Uh huh he’s gay.

    • Sasha says:

      I think you should get off your high horse.

      Those were the first 4 who “made it” They put AI on the map so to speak.

      I’m sorry he didn’t include Adam but Adam came after. Deal with it.

    • MamaLis says:

      Ya… I’m willing to bet David is anything but homophobic. Give me a royal break.

    • karyn says:

      This comment is as confusing as (what I got of it) is irritating

    • Mara says:

      Not speaking someone’s name =/= homophobia – that goes for *anyone*, not just him. Pick up a dictionary and stop throwing such a polarizing word around so carelessly.

      • Julie Anderson says:

        Ok, Mara. I don’t know you, but this is the second comment of yours I totally respected so I thought I’d say kudos! I agree.

  25. Timmah says:

    Was Cook really that great a mentor? I mean, the proof is in the pudding and that stuff last night didn’t taste very good.

    • Stormy says:

      You can lead a horse to water etc.

    • Adam Fachry says:

      I think it was a case of too little too late this week. You couldn’t do much to fix a catastrophe in only two days. Imo, Cook did his best but he did worry about the outcome, especially when it comes to song choices. Just take a look at this comment “With ’80s week, man, you’ve got 10 years of songs to sift through. Did anyone make the wrong song choice? I don’t necessarily think so. Were there better choices? Possibly.” It did sort of hint at his ambivalence towards some of the songs performed last night.

      • Timmah says:

        So, it sounds like at best he was completely ineffective. Doesn’t sound like great mentoring to me.

        • tealeaves says:

          We saw many direct impacts of his mentoring. Jessica moved around the stage and looked into the cameras and smiled. She is still not a natural at moving around while performing, but it was much improved from most of her previous performances. Sam looked into the camera for most of his song instead of down at his guitar. He told Dexter he needs to work on pronouncing his words, which he absolutely needed to hear. Others, like C.J. and Alex, credited him with helping with some of the musical decisions.

        • Adam Fachry says:

          He did a good job at pointing out what the contestants need to work on. However, given the time crunch, the contestants might not be able to apply his advice into their performances completely. These contestants, the majority of them, need some hard training to do due to their greenness. So he wasn’t really the only one to blame imo.

  26. Lark says:

    That was a great interview and I certainly enjoyed David Cook’s responses and his mentoring. If he were to be the regular mentor, I would definitely watch the show and become invested in the success of the contestants. I could feel it happening last night! But, sigh, he is finished for now and, therefore, so am I.

  27. Kathy says:

    I have always been a “David Cook ” fan. The AI contestants should watch his performance of The Music of The Night! He sings it like no other!!! What AI needs are mentors of his caliber, no less! I also agree, put the focus back on the contestants, and not the judges. BUT PLEASE KEEP THE CURRENT JUDGES! Just tell Harry to settle down (and stay in his chair)!!!

  28. The Professor says:

    *inherent risk

  29. Cookely says:

    How could you complain about the judges after last year’s debacle? Also love David Cook but he doesn’t look sexy rocker with the nerdy look. Some guys can do it but he’s a little Criminal Minds .

  30. tealeaves says:

    Great interview. From what we saw, David Cook was an excellent mentor. He took time with all the contestants and gave them specific suggestions and feedback based on what they were doing. I think we saw the results in some of the performances.
    This seems like a good role for Cook. Even on his season and after his season, he frequently mentioned the other contestants and pointed out who good they are at what they do. It is not a common trait. He is able to appreciate a variety of musical styles and performance styles and evaluate the performance.

  31. Kelly says:

    Love David Cook. Great interview, and he was a great mentor.

  32. TD says:

    Has David Cook gotten plastic surgery? I was shocked at how different he looked. At first I thought maybe it was just the very different hair style and the big glasses, but looking at the picture in this article and other recent articles, there’s something different. I think it’s his eyes. He always had sort of squinty eyes and a bit of bags under them, but suddenly his eyes are big and round.

    • Me says:

      Really??? LOL!!!!! He looks fantastic good grief

    • Mara says:

      He’s in a lot better physical shape than he was on AI, firstly — he runs and does other things to stay healthy. He’s also been in an overall much better frame of mind since moving to Nashville — in fact, after he parted ways with RCA and made the move, he seemed to appear much more healthy and happy (he is also doing well in his personal life from the little bit he’s let on). I think that is probably the biggest difference — stress can definitely cause issues with appearance and the year of AI and the next couple of years after, he was definitely under a lot of it.

  33. WAJ53 says:

    Excellent enterview! Loved David Cook and that has not changed. So intelligent, the self-proclaimed “word nerd”. Pays off well for him!
    That aside, I think Alex’s performance was just incredible. Slezak, you’re nuts! Easily my favorite of the night. Can’t wait to download it.

  34. Sandlynn says:

    I really appreciate American Idol showing us as much of the mentoring process with David Cook as they did. That really helped me understand why the idols were doing what they were doing, as I could relate it back to what they discussed with David and see if they followed through and whether they were successful or not. Frankly, I’ve missed how they used to bring in new guest mentors each week and showed them working with the idols — whether the guests were previous idol contestants or other artists. It was one of the best parts of the show.

    I especially enjoyed seeing them work with different mentors in the past, not just Jimmy Iovine (who had a lot of power since he was also “the label”) for a couple of years and Randy, this year. What if a contestant doesn’t click with the mentor, but you’re stuck with that person the whole season? Having a different mentor every week at least gave them different perspectives and, if they didn’t “get” that mentor or vice versa, never fear — there would be someone new the next week.

  35. Bev says:

    David was a fantastic mentor. Our “word nerd” is smart and funny. Now let’s all line up to buy his record when it comes out.

  36. MAB says:

    Just saw this, great interview. I really like David Cook. He is one of my top favorite idol winners. I voted for him till my fingers hurt.

  37. Mary Godin says:

    David Cook is a great mentor but only the contestants can listen and learn by him. It doesn’t mean they are going to listen to what he has to say. They have to prove there ability that they need to win this contest. So far there’s only a few I would vote to win idol.

  38. nyuntshwe says:

    Kick out from the judges seat those Gang of Four.

    Better make partitions between the judges at their back. Now, it seems they were playing the patience game. I can’t believe their sincerity at all. Some really good ones didn’t get even one approval. The oldest guy was the worst. He was always the follower not to left behind alone and that’s all. I’m Asian and don’t know any of them and I don’t care to know them. I love musics and I adore singers.

    I’ve been watching many shows for 8 years now and found most of the judges were very respectable. I’ve watched Voice for a few times starting this year and most time, the JUDGES embarrassed me so much.

    I suggests the authority should kick their asses out quick.