Clay Aiken talks Christmas songs, reality success, enthusiastic fans and Donald Trump

Published Nov. 20, 2012|Updated Nov. 21, 2012

You think your holidays are hectic? Try spending the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas on the road, playing 20 concerts in cities stretching from West Palm Beach to Anaheim. Then see how much shopping you get done.

"God bless Amazon, is all I can say," laughs Clay Aiken, who this weekend will kick off his fifth holiday tour, his first since 2007. "It's saved my life quite a bit."

Ever since Aiken placed second on American Idol's second season in 2003, holiday music, and his semi-annual tours to support it, have been a big part of his career. His 2004 album Merry Christmas With Love has sold more than 1.4 million copies, and with each tour, he adds new songs to his repertoire. And while his ever-passionate fan base of "Claymates" has turned out for every phase of his career - solo pop artist, Broadway star (Monty Python's Spamalot), TV gigs ranging from 30 Rock to Celebrity Apprentice - he says the traditional sound and setting of his Christmas tours is "always where I've been the most comfortable."

"I've had people who've worked for me since the beginning come up to me for the past few years and said, 'Why aren't we doing a Christmas show? It doesn't feel like Christmas unless we're doing a Christmas tour,'" Aiken said.

Aiken's holiday tour will hit Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Sunday. (Click here for details and tickets.) Calling from New York, Aiken talked about Christmas songs, reality competitions and whether Donald Trump is a bully. Here are excerpts.

I have to admit, I'm a little nervous about interviewing you, because your fans are some of the most fiercely, vocally protective of almost any artist recording today.

Oh, what are you trying to say? Are you going to be mean?

I was afraid that if I ask one wrong question, I'd get hate-commented right off the Internet.

Oh, you will! They'll tear you up, and I'll tell 'em to! (laughs)

Do you feel your fans are overly defensive of you?

They can be, can't they? Yeah. And how do you get upset about something like that? You can't. You can't be upset about someone for being supportive. But sometimes I think to myself, "I'm 34 years old now. I'm a big boy. I can handle it." Sometimes I feel like I have a million moms. (laughs)

Is a holiday tour more financially successful for you than a regular tour, or is it about the same?

It depends. At some point, a lot of the overhead's taken care of. The songs do change from year to year, but it cuts down a little bit on rehearsal time. It's not really that much different, but I think the reason we continue to do it is it's kind of become a tradition. It doesn't feel like Christmas unless I'm doing this show. So we have cranked it back up.

How many sweaters do you pack for a tour like this?

(laughs) A whole bunch. This year, though, is a no-sweater tour. It's a suit tour. But we've done a few. It's about four suitcases' worth.

Is your setlist mostly culled from Merry Christmas With Love or (2006 holiday EP) All Is Well? Or do you come up with new songs every year?

I comes primarily from those two projects, but we don't want to do the same show every year, so we'll always change the setlist at least a little bit. We'll throw in one or two different songs and try to keep it fresh. Especially some of the traditional ones, like Silent Night and the Christmas standards, we'll try to put into different medleys or present them in a different way every year. But if people come because they like Merry Christmas With Love, they'll get that, and they'll get All Is Well.

What's your process for picking a new Christmas song?

Sometimes if I know I'm doing a Christmas tour, I'll start listening to Christmas songs in May or June. (laughs) Either it'll be a song that I just like and connect with and really want to sing, or in 2005, we did actually a play, a full production with actors and dancers and a storyline, so I found songs that were in the storyline. I'm not a real big fan of Christmas songs that sound like pop songs. You've got people that put out Christmas albums and it clearly sounds like they have just taken a pop song and put some sleigh bells in the production. I steer clear of those.

Is there a Christmas skin that just gets under your skin, that you just can't stand hearing?

If anything, it's some of the traditional Jingle Bell-type songs, when they're just done in the traditional Jingle Bell-type way. We do those songs, because they're popular for a reason, but we also try our best to do them in a different way. We'll mix them together with another traditional song, or we'll try to mash it up somehow.

Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime? Nothing?

It's not in the show. I don't dislike it. It's not one that has caught my attention, necessarily.

I'm amazed that you start listening to Christmas music in May. Being a holiday performer, like Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Mannheim Steamroller - that's a year-round thing, right?

This year it's only been a little bit different, because I hadn't done the Christmas tour for several years, so it took a little bit longer to get the engines warmed up again. In 2004, it was a yearlong thing, because I put an album out. We did a Christmas tour in 2004 and a special on TV, and in 2005, we decided to do this huge production with dancers and actors and everything. In 2006, we put out All Is Well, 2007 we changed the tour up. When you're singing a Christmas song, if you don't change it up a little bit, it ends up getting stale. The goal is not to do the same show every year.

(Recent albums) Tried and True and Steadfast are both big band-style albums. I've heard more than one person say that the trend of artists releasing albums of big-band pop standards is maybe getting a little stale. So I ask you: Why do you think there's life left in it?

I certainly agree there was a trend for a while of people putting out that type of album and reinventing themselves in some way. But you couldn't make that argument for Michael Buble. That is naturally who he is. That is who he sounds like. For me, the reason we did it was because it really has been always sort of my vein. Tried and True was not really a big band album. We happened to have a band involved, but it was really songs from the '50s and '60s, kind of that old soul-type crooner thing. That's kind of my wheelhouse. So it wasn't trying to be part of the trend for me.

I think you're probably right. If Justin Bieber were to put out a big band album next year - granted, it would sell gangbusters, because it's Justin Bieber. But it would be more of a gimmick. Whereas for us, it wasn't trying to be a gimmick. It was trying to let me put my voice where it naturally fits.

Does that artistic space still feel natural to you?

It does. That's part of the reason that Christmas feels so natural to me. Back in 2003, when I was putting out Measure of a Man, and we were struggling - well, we weren't struggling, but the label was struggling - with trying to get me to dress this way or dress that way, or sing this way or sing that way, I said to Clive Davis, "I'm never going to be Justin Timberlake. That's not who I am, that's not what I sound like, that's not how I dress, there's none of that." So the Christmas album was an opportunity for me to be me, and to sing and sound like me. That sound, that traditional Christmas vibe, that tried and true vibe, is always where I've been the most comfortable.

You've been pretty active in social causes since Idol, certainly in the last few years. We're a couple of weeks past Election Day at this point. What was your biggest takeaway from Election 2012?

I'll tell you what it was: I don't want to be living in a swing state anymore. I've lived my entire life in North Carolina, and we've never been a swing state. I was in New York during the election in 2008, doing Broadway, and never saw a political ad. This year, oh my god, I feel so sorry for Florida. All the time! Three Romney commercials in a row, followed by four Obama commercials! My takeaway is, I'm tired of politics.

One of the causes you've lent your name to is GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), and one of their missions is to eliminate bullying. You're in unique position to answer this, which is something I heard a lot during the campaign: Is Donald Trump a bully?

Oh, gosh. It's hard to answer that, knowing him. To me, he has become sort of like an uncle who you really wish would be quiet when you're around strangers. He's somebody that I know to be a gracious and kind person, and I like him as a person. But then I get home, and he's spouting all this nonsense. I really did feel sad when I got back from taping Apprentice, and he got on TV and started talking about politics, because I grew to know him as someone who's very generous and gracious and approachable. He really is a nice guy. I watched him do political stuff, and I'm like, (in cringing voice) "Oh my god, please just shut up! You're making people hate you in a way that you don't deserve to be hated!" So is he a bully? He certainly wasn't to me.

Do you watch any televised talent competitions on TV?

I don't. I feel like once you know how the sausage is made, you don't really want to eat it.

Do you think that winning, or not winning a TV talent show requires a different skill set today than it did a decade ago?

Oh, wow. I do know that winning doesn't mean the same thing it did years ago. Even being on it doesn't mean the same as it did years ago, because the market is so saturated. I mean, can you tell me who won X Factor last year?

Oh, no.

Okay. I think nowadays, people go on these shows thinking they know how to win -thinking they know what a pop star looks like, thinking they know how to perform. They need to sing this way in order to be successful. I think what made Idol so big and so entertaining in the first, second and third years was that none of us went on with any preconceived notions as to how successful we were going to be afterwards, or what a pop star looked like or sounded like or anything. It was all very organic, and I don't think it's very organic anymore.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*