The youngest American Idol winner, singer Jordin Sparks was only 17 when she was crowned champ of the 2007 competition. The obligatory self-titled album followed, and thanks to its three hit singles, it eventually went platinum. Last year, Sparks released her sophomore effort, Battlefield, which debuted in Billboard’s Top 10 and established the R&B/pop singer as a legitimate star. More mature sounding than her debut, it puts Sparks in competition with divas like Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion. Sparks, who makes her Broadway debut this summer in In the Heights, is currently headlining her own damn tour (she plays House of Blues tomorrow night) and has paired with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer to make it at least partly a charitable crusade. —Jeff Niesel
How do you deal with all the interviews and appearances and performances?
It kind of depends on the day. I take things day-by-day. There are definitely days you don’t feel good and don’t feel like talking. But there are days when you can talk forever and days when you can smile forever. For the most part, it comes down to telling people about my music. I have to bring myself back to that.
You were born in Phoenix and grew up in Glendale, Arizona. I know there’s not a huge R&B scene there.
There’s not too much pop and R&B stuff going on. It was part of the plan the Man Upstairs had for me. Back there in Arizona, I knew that I wanted to be a singer. My whole family has been so supportive. My nana is my grand manager now. She helped me out. She booked me in competitions around the state. I sang in church and school and did theater. That all prepared me. One of the competitions took me to “Music in the Rockies” and that’s where Michael W. Smith’s manager saw me perform and we kept bumping into each other. That’s how everything happened. He was like, “Come down to Nashville and we’ll talk.” We spoke and after about a year they asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to try out for American Idol.” The rest is history.
You had participated in contests before American Idol. How different was Idol.
I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for that. With other competitions, you have family in the audience and a few people who want to watch. With Idol, people will do anything to get tickets. You’ve got Simon, Paula, Randy and Ryan who are household names. You are performing in front of millions of people. Doing the other competitions, it helped with being critiqued. It was a lot of fun. American Idol was slightly more traumatizing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had so much fun and made friendships I’ll have for the rest of my life.
During the season you improved. What was the key to getting your confidence?
I still don’t know. I had no idea that I was going to win. Every week I was still getting there. For me, one we all became a really big family. I see everyone still and I miss them. I call them when I get news. For me, I wasn’t in competition with these people. I wanted to get better each week. I don’t know if that was a confidence that came after that but being around to stay around you feel better about your abilities and your talents. I had to make myself better.
What was the most difficult part of making your debut?
The singing part was the easiest part of the whole thing. It was not having any time and having to record wherever we could find a spot. Trying to pick the right songs in the limited time we had was difficult. They had voted for me and needed the music. I recorded a couple of songs on the Idol tour and had the rest of the record to record after that. I wanted to make sure I picked great songs that people could related to on some level. I can’t assume people will want to by my record. I don’t know the formula. I have fans that request my songs and buy my records and download my singles. It was definitely very crazy. Being my first record, there were things where we butted heads with the label. Ultimately I was proud of that record and I still am. Working on the next one, I had more time and had definitely grown and I think that’s where the more mature sound comes from.
You really straddle the line between R&B and pop.
I’ve never been able to describe a genre I fit into. Before Idol, I was singing everything. I would sing a Christina Aguilera song, then a country song and then an Alicia Keys song. I love all types of music and would love to do a pure pop album and total R&B album and then a country album. There are so many things I would love to do. It comes from how I grew up. My mom was into ’80s rock music and my dad listened to R&B and hip-hop like Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Brandy. My own music was Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, and N’Sync. When I sing, it’s a mix of things that comes out.
And you try to keep a positive attitude.
Definitely. I know there are some break-up songs on my albums, but I think a lot of people love to hear a good song that makes them happy. I love to sing songs like that. “One Step at a Time” has been a song that I can’t even describe to you. Fans have told me it got them through tough times. One fan told me that song got her through tough times with her family. She was almost in tears. Music is so universal and everyone can feel it. I love being able to do that. I want to have an encouraging message.
You’ve done so many high profile performances in front of presidents and at televised ball games. Do you still get nervous?
I think there are two ways to describe nervousness. One is nervousness and the other is like an adrenaline rush. That’s how I get. When I have five minutes to get on stage, it feels like a hundred y ears. I don’t get scared to get on stage but I can’t wait to get there. I can’t say I have never gotten nervous. Singing in front of presidents and doing the anthem at the Super Bowl, I thought f I messed up, it would be on YouTube and I’d fall flat on my face. But I love performing and getting out there. Depending on who’s out there, that will affect the nervousness level.