Life After American Idol: The Evolution of Sanjaya Malakar

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Back in 2007, when American Idol was a more formidable force than it is these days, season six Idol finalist Sanjaya Malakar took the nation by storm. Then only 17 years of age, his Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals were sometimes upstaged by a series of outlandish hairdos and, in one memorable instance, an emotionally overwhelmed young girl (Ashley Ferl, who was later inspired to audition for the show herself).

Sometimes being a pop culture icon isn’t an easy business. Seven busy years later—with more reality TV (I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), a published memoir (Dancing to the Music in My Head), and lots of singing under his belt—you may be wondering what Malakar has been up to these days. We had the opportunity to chat with “the people’s Idol” as he preps to record new music and perform in support of a special organization, the non-profit cancer support community Gilda’s Club Seattle.

Sanjaya Bandcamp 2 (380x380).jpgYou made a whole bunch of recent home recordings available on your Bandcamp page. Is this part of a plan to record new material?

The Bandcamp recordings are basically intended to help move towards my goal of recording an album independently. My main focus for the near future is writing, recording, and finishing the album. Making sure it comes out right.

Have you been thinking about embarking on a Kickstarter or other similar crowd-funding campaign?

Yeah, that’s something I’m in the process of doing. I want to be sure all the kickbacks for the backers are worth it and that when I launch it, everything is all lined up.

Paint a picture of your musical vision and how you plan to present yourself stylistically as a singer.

This is kind of ambitious, but I want to reinvent how people approach a genre. My general genre of music is heavily blues-influenced R&B and soul. But there are so many influences within that; there’s jazz, there’s rock. I want to make it a comfortable melding of all these influences, with a main foundation of R&B/soul, almost neo soul but not quite as far as an Erykah Badu or a D’Angelo. I want to keep it tight and focused, but bring in as many influences as possible.

You’re a full-time New York City resident these days, how does the music scene there compare to what you were used to in your native Seattle-area?

It’s very different from Seattle because most of the connections I had there were friends or people that I met through friends. The people I play with in Seattle are more immediately personal. In New York, it’s not necessarily better or worse, but I’m able to expand my musical relationships and really challenge myself. Every musician that I’ve met in New York, they’re part of this awesome community.

You’re performing a benefit show on August 24 in Seattle for the cancer support charity Gilda’s Club, the second time you’ve supported them. How important is it for you to use your talent to give back?

That’s one of the most important things you can do, anyone who’s someone recognizable. It’s my responsibility to give back. I’ve done several benefits recently. I’ve done a couple for the wildfires out in Brewster (Washington State), and one in Centralia (also Washington) for the Chehalis Moose Lodge. Those kind of shows are productive and can make a viable difference.
Sanjaya Songs for June 1 (380x207).jpgYou can do lots of shows that are fun and entertain a lot of people, but when you’re doing shows like this you’re directly affecting a person’s life in a positive way. Also at a lot of benefit shows, they offer a greater chance for interaction with the audience. At non-benefits, you’re more likely to be shuffled away after the show and hidden in the green room. I always love the personal connection more.

With waning ratings, is American Idol still a viable way for a young singer to get started?

I think the power that the show had at one point has diminished significantly. It’s kind of hard to say. There are so many other similar shows now that not all the winners go on to be a Kelly Clarkson. The power of winning a [singing competition show] has been diluted with the oversaturation of the market.

It’s interesting because I’ve talked to a lot of people who ask me if I’d do American Idol again, but I can’t because I got too far [as a finalist] the first time. So then they say, “Would go on The Voice?” Yeah, I could probably do something like that, but at the same time, I was on Idol at a time when it was really a phenomenon.

Back when the ratings were still huge.

Yeah, I mean it wasn’t fresh anymore, but it was well established. But it still had that notoriety where people would say afterward in certain situations, “Oh you’re from American Idol, you must just be a mediocre pop singer.” That made it hard, but at the same time they knew who I was. It’s still a great way for artists to learn about the industry and be mentored by all these people, but I think that it’s kind of overplayed its stay. They’re kind of beating a dead horse. It’s not necessarily dead yet! But it needs to be put out to pasture. Leave on a high note, before it breaks its leg and you have to make it into glue.

What do you think about the new judges panel?

Sanjaya Songs for June 2 (169x280).jpgI like that the judges are all performers. I like Harry Connick, Jr. He’s talking about music in technical terms, words and terms you wouldn’t necessarily know if you weren’t a musician. I think that’s a great addition. There’s a great sense of credibility that comes with the ability to break things down like that for people. It’s more like The Voice, your advice is coming from people who are working musicians. But at the same time you’re not getting the producer’s and executive’s perspectives you were getting with Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell. It’s more artist-friendly now, but that might not make for better TV. It’s interesting.

What do you think about the fact that this year’s American Idols Live! tour is not using a live band of the first time? It’s more like a big karaoke show, with the singers performing to a recorded track.

That takes a lot away from the experience the contestants are able to have. For me, one of the best things about the Idol experience was being able to say, “I’ve toured with a backing band that had some of the industry’s best musicians.” During the tour you’re working with this band for, like, at least a month, maybe two, before the tour starts. Then there’s the tour itself. You get to learn how to communicate with a band without confusing the musicians. You can go up to the musical director and say, “My voice is shot today. Can we bring my songs down a half-step today?” And they’re so musically-sound they can adjust it for you. Those are really valuable lessons these kids aren’t learning anymore since they don’t have a band behind them.

For more information about supporting Jamming for June, the August 24 Gilda’s Club Seattle benefit headlined by Sanjaya Malakar, visit the official Gilda’s Club Seattle website. To help support Malakar’s near-future recording plans, visit his Bandcamp page.

Performance Photos: Matthew David Photography

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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