Say it like Yamin it!

By on June 30, 2008

Photo © Martin Hladik

American Idol’s fifth season was arguably its best, having garnered its highest ratings yet. This was possible largely in thanks to a strong, diverse pool of talent in the top 24. In this crowd, the world caught its first glimpse of Elliott Yamin, a young man from Richmond, Virginia singing Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway hits flawlessly, which reduced Paula Abdul to tears. “Elliott, you move me,” she wept, after his rendition of ‘A Song For You’. His distinct singing style moved even the harshest of judges: Simon Cowell declared Elliott a “vocal masterclass” and potentially the best male vocalist of the show’s entire run. Not bad for a guy who never had any formal vocal training! Despite all the praise, Elliott has always maintained a confident yet humble attitude, a quality that his fans (known as the “Yaminions”) admire. Elliott finished third place in the show, in one of the tightest races in Idol history.
Elliott has since made a name for himself. He released his self-titled debut album in March of 2007, which gave him his first international smash hit single, “Wait For You.” He has used his fame for various causes dear to him: in addition to diabetes-related charity work, Elliott visited Angola for  a recent segment of “Idol Gives Back” as part of the “Malaria No More” campaign, to distribute mosquito nets to villagers. This year, Elliott is making his Japan debut with the release of Wait For You, the Japanese version of the album which includes bonus tracks. In Tokyo, Elliott takes some time from his busy schedule to speak with Tokyo Families.

How has your life changed since American Idol?

It’s definitely more interesting these days. [Laughs] I’ve just learned a lot about myself, I’ve become way more responsible, and I’ve developed a greater sense of ambition. Now that I’ve been able to capitalize on so many different opportunities that the show’s afforded me, so many doors have opened, and I’m just trying to walk through as many of them as possible. You know, while I’m still young! I’ve always wanted to travel and see the world, and I’ve always wanted to play music, so I get to do both of those hand in hand these days. It’s amazing.

How has success changed you as a person?

As I said earlier, it’s mainly given me more drive, it’s made me more responsible. Before I tried out for the show, I wasn’t being too productive with my life, and I certainly wasn’t using my talent. Music opened up a whole new world for me. I always had a musical world within my world, but now I get to see the world and all it has to offer through music. It’s such a beautiful thing, it’s a great equalizer. It brings so many people together, and… I’m just really blessed.

How did you overcome the negative reviews made by the judges, in particular Simon Cowell, during the early stages of the competition?

In one ear, out the other! [Laughs] I didn’t get too caught up in the criticism. Of course, I listen to everything they had to say, and I was lucky enough to stay out of Simon’s wrath most of the season. He didn’t really have too many negative things to say, but when he did, you have to take it with a grain of salt. With Simon, he’s kind of tricky, because there’s always some underlying advice within that criticism that he’s giving you. It never really shook me. It’s a TV show first and foremost, and a lot of people fail to realize that. It’s a popularity contest second, and lastly, it’s a singing competition. I just tried to make sure that I focused on my performances and my singing. I kind of let the rest of the chips fall where they were gonna fall. Some of the contestants drove themselves crazy before and after the performances. “Oh my God, what’s Simon going to think?! What’s he gonna say?!” [Laughs] You can’t go out there worrying about that! You just have to focus on yourself and your performance – that’s all I really tried to do – and have fun! It was always fun.

Since the show, you’ve become more fashionable. How would you describe your style?

What are you trying to say, man? I had no style or anything?! No, you’re right! I didn’t, I had no sense of style. I really… [Laughs] See, my manager over there’s laughing. Yeah, that’s one of the other things I really learned. I learned a lot about fashion, and how to dress.  I wasn’t used to wearing tight-fitting clothes. You know, I’m a little guy, and everything I had was oversized, ‘cause I always felt like I needed to compensate for my small frame. So it’s funny, man, when I went home during the top 3 week on Idol, I went to my closet, and I had to look at all my clothes. I was like, “I can’t believe I used to wear these big, big ol’ clothes that never fit me.” I have developed a certain sense of style and fashion, and become more aware of it. It’s an intrical part of being in the music business, and being in the spotlight. You have to be conscious about how you look and how you dress. It’s part of the whole gig.

All the finalists on Idol’s fifth season seemed remarkably close. Who do you still hang out with on a regular basis?

I still hang out with Ace [Young] a lot. Ace and I live really close to each other, and we were good friends during the show. He’s a great guy. The person I hang out with the most because I see them the most is Jose “Sway” Penala. He was in the top 24, and he was actually one of the first guys to go. He actually joined my band. We were really close from the jump. Bucky [Covington] is a good friend of mine. Same thing with Mandisa and Kellie Pickler. Taylor [Hicks] and I are good friends, we speak all the time. Most of the people in the top 10, I still keep in touch with, just because we spent all that time on the road after the show was over, on the whole Idols tour and everything. We got a chance to get closer.

What has been your most embarrassing moment since the show?

Ah, where do I start? I’m always embarrassing myself. [Laughs] I don’t know, that’s a good question. Hmm. I’m just gonna ask Monet [Corso, my manager]. Hey Monet! What’s an embarrassing moment you can think of? Since you know me!

Monet Corso: Yeah, the two I’m thinking of I don’t think are appropriate for this magazine, since it’s family-friendly. [Laughs]

What was the experience of recording your new album, “Wait For You,” like?

It was awesome, man. It was a dream come true. I’ve always dreamed of having my own record, my own music. It was awesome getting to work with as many different people as I did, and I’ve established so many amazing relationships just from that one experience. It was really cool. I didn’t know what kind of record I was going to make, and we certainly didn’t go into the studio with a well-devised plan as to how we were going to cut the record, what it was going to sound like. But I knew that I wanted to have different sounds on there. I wanted to make music that the younger folks can enjoy, and then the middle-aged folks and the older folks can enjoy, and I think we definitely accomplished that. That’s what I’m really proud of. A lot of the time, you see records made from one producer. Especially rock albums, you have that one producer that does the whole record, and you start to hear this repetitive kind of sound, and I just wanted to have an eclectic mix of sounds on it. It was fun getting to be in the studio and getting to be creative, to build a song from start to finish, to put all your emotion into it. There’s no greater feeling than to hear that finished product, and say, “That’s me! That’s my voice!”

You must be on the road a lot these days. What do you miss about home?

Home-cooked meals. Yeah, I miss home-cooked meals, and I miss my dogs.

What kind of dogs do you have?

I’ve got two Shih Tzus now. I have two Imperial Shih Tzus. My first-born, his name is Buster, and I just got a little puppy – a little girl – who I named Kobe, after my favorite basketball player, who’s named after Kobe [City] here in Japan.

Having been to many different countries, what do you find unique about Japan?

What I find unique about Japan and [its] culture is the respectful nature that everybody has for one another, and themselves. People here are very considerate, very helpful, and very polite. I mean, my back is killing me from bowing too much! I think it’s so neat how everybody really respects each other, and there’s really no crime here. Everybody’s just so mild-mannered. You don’t get in the cab in the States and see the cab driver wearing a suit and white gloves. Right? That doesn’t happen in the States! I saw a guy cleaning up the street with a dust-pan and a broom. I guess he was a street cleaner, right? He was wearing a full suit, from head to toe. That’s unheard of! Usually the people cleaning the streets [in the States] are in prison jumpsuits, you know what I mean? It’s a high level of respect here. People who have colds are so considerate, they wear masks. I know a lot of the time, it’s so they don’t give their colds, spread their germs, and people just don’t do that in the States. I really admire how respectful people are here.

You have overcome a lot of obstacles to be where you are now, and are an inspiration to many singers around the world. What would you advise them to get started on realizing their dreams?

Just to go for it, man. Take advantage of any kind of avenue to expose your talent, whatever it is. I always like to encourage people just to work on their craft everyday, whatever it is. I certainly wasn’t trying to pursue a career in music, so I really wasn’t taking advantage of everything that I could have, but I can’t recall a day that has gone by in my life that I haven’t sung a note. Whether I’m sick, tired, or whatever the case may be, every day, at some point, I’ve managed to sing a note. Sing something, just ‘cause that’s what I grew up doing, and that’s what I am: I’m a singer. Something as little as that is still working on my craft, it’s what I do. Put yourself out there! No one’s gonna do it for you, and things certainly aren’t handed to you, you have to go out and take things for yourself. Enter contests, showcases, whatever you can do to expose your talent. I just so happened to do it on probably the biggest scale possible. [Laughs]

What would you say to moms and dads whose children want to make a career out of singing?

To be that role model and support them, whatever it is they want to do, even if it’s not music. My mom, she never encouraged me to sing or really got me involved in lessons, or never pushed it on me at any point. But she certainly supported me in whatever it is I’ve ever decided to do, good or bad. Parents are supposed to be the last people to really judge you. They’re supposed to be there for you through thick and thin, good or bad. I think oftentimes people look elsewhere for role models, but I think, to me, it all starts in the home. I certainly had that, growing up. Just support your kids in whatever it is they want to do. That’s what you’re there for.

For the last question: how would you like to be remembered as an artist?

As an integral, hard-working, emotional singer. I definitely want to polish my writing skills, and become a better songwriter. I’d love to write for other artists someday, too. But man, I want to do everything I can in the entire entertainment field. There are so many different things to do. I’d like to work on Broadway someday, and I’d like to establish my own diabetes camps, and I’d like to establish my own record label. There are infinite possibilities. I guess when you have a hit song, those doors open for you. I just want to keep making hits, and stay true to myself and my music. If I can appreciated for that, then that’s all I could ask for.

About Martin Leroux