From American Idol to The Gray Havens: A Conversation with David Radford (Part 1)

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A couple weeks ago, I introduced blog readers to husband-wife team, David and Licia Radford, who have recently released their first EP - Where Eyes Don’t Go, a collection of six songs that allude to the imaginations of Tolkien and Lewis.

Musically, the style is folk-pop that provides the perfect backdrop to David’s vocal abilities. (Click here to purchase Where Eyes Don’t Go or download it for free on Noisetrade.)

From American Idol to The Gray Havens

David got his start on American Idol. The two of us met in Nashville a few weeks ago, and I thought his story was too interesting to pass up a blog interview about his experience.

Trevin Wax: What kinds of music did you listen to growing up? 

David Radford: I’ve had a pretty eclectic musical upbringing. In younger years, I was more passive when it came to deciding what I would listen to. Most artists that I really liked were found by accident.

Once I discovered someone new, I would only listen to their music for months at a time because of the quality and familiarity. Some of these “discoveries” would include Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Queen, Jamie Cullum, Michael Buble, and anything Rat Pack.

I was also very active in my high school’s music program. This meant being heavily exposed to musical theatre, jazz a capella, choral, and madrigal music (think renaissance singers in tights). As far as Christian music influences, Shane and Shane, Sovereign Grace, and Phil Wickham were the artists I most happily discovered.

Trevin Wax: How long have you had an interest in singing?

David Radford: It’s kind of embarrassing, but I started singing in High School mainly because I had a slight crush on the choir conductor. Shortly after joining, she awarded me with a solo part when we sang “Runaround Sue.”  It was actually in practicing this song with my mom and brother that I first realized how much I loved to sing.

One night, the three of us decided to run through my solo. I sang the melody while they would harmonize. While we were singing I remember thinking what an amazing thing it was to be able to use and control our voices to create the sounds that would blend and echo throughout our concrete basement. The night of the performance was my first real experience as a soloist on stage. I guess I’ve been doing it ever since.

Trevin Wax: What led you to audition for American Idol?

David Radford: A friend of mine actually convinced me to audition with her. She was a talented singer, but she didn’t want to audition alone. After a few feeble attempts in declining her offer, I gave in for lack of a good reason not to go.

There were other factors as well that lead me to audition. Encouragement from other friends and family certainly helped, along with prospect of an adventure that could result in a fun story was appealing as well.

Trevin Wax: Tell us a little about how the auditions work.

David Radford: The auditions are nothing like you would think based on what you see at home.

My friend, my mom, and I arrived at Soldier Field the day before the auditions to stand in a very long line of about twenty thousand people. Pretty intimidating. We were lucky though because the guy we stood next to was there to get on TV as a Chris Farley impersonator. He was absolutely hilarious. After waiting most of the day, my friend and I received our audition tickets and were instructed to come back the following day.

The next day, we were assembled into horizontal lines of four. Four contestants at a time were instructed to stand before two judges inside a tent. There were fifteen audition tents on the field. After the four singers stepped forward, the judges would ask each singer in turn to sing.

When it came time for me to go, I sang “The Summer Winds,” an old Sinatra standard. Apparently that didn’t do the trick because I was asked to sing something else. I gave it another shot with “Moondance” by Van Morrison. I was then told by the male judge that I either needed to “woo” the female judge with my performance, or pack up and go home. So I wooed as best I could as a 17-year-old single dude. Grace prevailed, and I went through to the next round.

When I finally stood before Paula, Simon, and Randy, two weeks after the initial audition, I decided to try Sinatra’s “The Summer Winds” once again. This didn’t go over too well. They said I sounded too much like a Frank Sinatra impersonator and therefore “one-dimensional.” They kept asking me to sing more modern songs. Remember, I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor, and I didn’t listen to the radio, so I was definitely in trouble.

The judges sent me out of the room so I could learn a more modern song to audition with. Desperately, I threw together a version of “I Don’t Wanna Be” by Gavin DeGraw with the help of some fellow auditionees. I gave it my best shot, and I think I just barely scraped by into Hollywood.

Trevin Wax: Tell us about getting to the top 24.

David Radford: After my audition in Chicago, I was sent home for a few months before heading off to Hollywood. I had to wait for all of the preliminary city auditions to finish first.

After what seemed like forever, my mom and I flew out to Hollywood for a week of auditions. This was an incredibly intimidating experience. I had never been surrounded by so many talented people. Wherever we went, we heard a new voice echoing from some corner of each room, each more impressive than the last. All of them were practicing for their first audition.

When it came to perform at each of the three auditions that week, I received very positive feedback from all of the judges. I really couldn’t believe it. In many ways, I feel like I slipped through the cracks in making the top 24.

I am not saying that I was not a talented singer, or that I didn’t perform well. What I am saying is that there were many singers that were much more talented, and who gave stronger performances. The trouble for them was that they were all so similar in style. I was something different. Not too many 17-year-old guys showed up singing Frank Sinatra, so I stood out.

In the end, they selected me as a top 24 contestant and I was thrilled. The experience was once in a lifetime, and I am very thankful for the way the Lord continues to use it in my life.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue David’s story and see how the gospel renewed his heart, and his passion for music led him to begin composing music.

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