One of the driving forces behind the success of “American Idol” is not someone you see on camera every week. Vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd acts as a vital guide and mentor to the young contestants, and leaves an indelible mark on them once they embark on their careers. Byrd – as she prefers to be called – has had a prolific and successful career in television, film, theater and concerts including a longtime association with Barry Manilow. Her approach to her work on both “American Idol” and “Canadian Idol” has a definite spiritual bent because she sees herself as a vessel that’s being led by God to to help others. Here’s an excerpt from our recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here):
TR: You are the vocal coach and arranger for “American Idol.” But you don’t see that as just a job; you look at it as a ministry. How come?
Debra Byrd: I love that it’s a service job. I remember the first tour – we were on the road, Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol winner and so there was a tour afterwards…I was singing backup for all the contestants that I had just mentored. Band members would say to me, “How can you do that? How can you sing backup for these people? You know more than they (do).” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m here to show them how to do this because it’s a huge undertaking. I get to pass on so much information and I’m grateful to do it.”
…When contestants are stumped and overwhelmed, when they’re in a puddle of tears…when they’re saying, “I’m so nervous, I don’t know what to do,” I stop and I look them in the eye and say, “Do you believe in God?” And they say, “Of course I do.” And I say, “Well you have to let God do His job. You have to let go and let God and trust that you will be led to do the right thing.” Then they’ll look at me and it all kind of goes away. And that’s when my ministry kicks in – when I talk about trust. People always ask me what is the most important part of my job. I believe the most important part of my job is that they trust me. I try to explain to them that there’s a higher power and they can be led by that power.
TR: Last week, Brooke White was here in New York doing a promotional appearance for her new album “High Hopes and Heartbreak.” I went to see her and I asked her about you. She said, “Byrd is a bright light and I love her very much.” You obviously leave an impression on contestants even after they leave the show, so when you’re working with these young artists – take Brooke for instance – how do things start out and how do you see her and others evolve by the time the show is over?
Debra Byrd: There’s a huge evolution. I didn’t notice it when I began the show the first season because I was trying to figure out what the TV show was, what am I doing, why am I doing it. As the show has evolved, I’m able to step back and really have a good look at the person in front of me…Brooke White is a magnificent young woman. On the small stage – that’s the second stage of being in Hollywood, it’s when you’re in front of the camera - we were on the small stage having band rehearsal. Brooke had her guitar on and she was speaking with the music director Rickey Minor. I was watching and listening to their conversation and…the music director wanted her to make some changes. God love Brooke White, she stood and said, “This is who I am. I play guitar and I sing. I may not be the best singer, I may not be the best guitarist. All of you can play circles around me. But I’m going to play the guitar.” And she stood her ground and did her band rehearsal which was going over the song two or three times.
When her portion of band rehearsal was over, she thanked the band, she thanked the music director, she walked to me and I said, “Let’s go for a walk” because I knew it was overwhelming. I knew it was very emotional for her. We walked outside and she began crying as we walked outside. I said, “Number one, I applaud you. I applaud you for not breaking down in front of the band. I applaud you for holding your ground, for knowing who you are, for standing by what you believe.” We walked all the way outside to the parking lot and it began raining. And I said, “See, God didn’t want anyone to your tears. He wanted them to see how strong you are and I applaud you.” Of course we both began crying at this point. And she said, “Byrd, I just love you, thank you so much.” So that was huge with her, we had a huge moment with her standing her ground, knowing who she is, trusting God. It was just a magnificent moment. I love Brooke White.
TR: Do you have to take a different approach with different contestants depending on their personalities or is there a common thread you practice with all of them?
Debra Byrd: Unconditional love is my common thread. On “Canadian Idol” there was a contestant that no one liked. Clearly, this young man had huge problems that came from his upbringing...Consequently his perspective on life is incredibly different. He didn’t get along with anyone at all. One of the judges on “Canadian Idol” said, “How do you deal with this kid? How can you talk to this kid every day? This is a horrible human being.” And I said, “Through unconditional love. That’s the only way you can get past him, what he brings to the table. I have to deal with him with unconditional love.” And it worked. I’m a living testimony that unconditional love works because that kid – he realized he could trust me, that he had someone he could speak to. And I would bust him if he made an incredibly wrong turn. I’d say, “Now you know that’s incorrect, don’t you?” And he’d say, “Yeah I do.” I said, “You know you can’t do that.” I would just bust him; not (like) being a parent but I just wanted him to realize you can’t walk through life and treat people that way…looking at life through your negativity and responding (even though) no one's done anything to you that’s negative. So I guess that would be the common thread – it’s unconditional love.
(To hear the full interview with Debra Byrd which features more insights about “American Idol” and what she calls “the sun and moon theory” in relationships and work situations, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast.)