Over the past two years, Harry Connick Jr. has gone from an "American Idol" viewer to a mentor and now a judge, joining Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez to select this year's newest pop star.
We talk with Connick about his new role on the show (8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox), which launched its 13th season Jan. 15.
Q What made you feel comfortable enough to agree to be a judge?
A My whole life has been a lot of interaction with people who are a lot better than I am, whether it's in a one-on-one teaching situation or a clinic or mentorship or master class. As I got older, I started to be on the giving end of those things. I would spend a lot of time talking to kids in high school, college, even professional people about how they can improve. So I feel very comfortable in that kind of environment.
Q Is it the same being a judge as being a mentor?
A When "American Idol" called a few years ago to ask me to be a mentor, it felt like a very natural thing to do. And then they called me back last year to do it again, and I had a great time. I really, really enjoyed spending time with those talented young performers. Then they called and asked me if I wanted to be a judge, which is different than being a mentor because you don't really have the intensity of the interaction. But you get to share your views with a lot more people and try to help them develop their talent.
Q How are you different from the other judges?
A We're completely different. We're different brains, different personalities, different philosophies. I think what I bring to it is I have a lot of experience as a player, as a singer and as a kind of an overall entertainer that's unique to my own life. The movies I've done are different than the ones that Jennifer's done, and the concerts I've played are different than Keith's. So just by virtue of our own experience, I think I can bring something a little bit different.
Q Does the overall male talent look stronger this year?
A There's some crazy guy talent -- for real, no joke. There are some guys that are really good, some great young women, too. So it's hard to say if it's a 50/50 split. It's impossible to know, and we certainly would never try to reach any kind of quota, because that would be biased, I think. We just respond to the people that we see. I guess the feeling is that it's about half and half; maybe two more girls than guys, but I think it's about even.
Q How has adding guitars affected the show?
A I think it's a great thing, because it's very telling. When people pick up the guitar and they're not good players, it shows immediately that: A) they should put the guitar down; and B) a lot of the decisions that they make as singers are not dissimilar to what they're doing on the guitar. If (they're) playing some chords that make no sense ... when they sing, it's obvious why they're making the choices they're making.
Q As a mentor, you put a lot of emphasis on the importance of contestants understanding the meaning of the lyrics of the songs. Will that be important to you as a judge?
A Yes, that's huge. If they're going to sing a lyric, then you have to really start picking it apart. Sometimes, they'll listen to you when you say, "Understand the words," but then they'll over-sing it, or maybe it's kind of one-dimensional. There's a lot of little roads you can go down for improvement: You need to know how to sing a song. You need to know what you're singing about, and, interestingly to me, that is not that important to a lot of singers. They just sing, but they're not connected to the lyrics.
Q What are the chances of finding the next Harry Connick Jr.?
A Hopefully there's only one me, and you'll never find the next one.