"American Idol XIII" judge Harry Connick Jr. "American Idol XIII" begins with a two-night, four-hour premiere Wednesday, Jan. 15 (8 p.m. ET/PT) and Thursday, Jan. 16 (8 p.m. ET/PT) on FOX.
(Photo: Matthias Vriens-McGrath, FOX)
Harry Connick Jr. compares the upcoming overhaul of American Idol to remodeling a house. "The bones are there, they're just going to put a new face on some of the elements, figuratively and literally," says the singer, who joins Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez as judges on the show's 13th season, which will premiere Jan. 15 (8 p.m. ET/PT, FOX).
"The producers are smart; they're making changes proportional to the times. It's like a beautiful, classic house that's perfect but just needed some new paint and rewiring. Now it's the prettiest house on the block."
Connick, 46, has been the hardcore Idol fan's dream artist judge, a handsome, articulate New Orleans native who swears allegiance to the song above all else and has been one of the most honest and entertaining guest mentors in the show's history. What finally got him on the show full-time?
"Several things, actually," Connick said by phone Monday, just before the first day of Hollywood Week cuts began. "The first thing was that they asked me to do it." Though Connick often was rumored to be in the mix when the show replaced judges, he says he'd never been asked until this year.
In addition, the timing works well for him now. He released his Every Man Should Know album in June and was able to work in travel dates for Idol around his touring and filming schedules. "They had to make it work," he says, "but they did, and it worked out great."
Connick's defining moment on the show came last year when he grilled Amber Holcomb about the meaning of My Funny Valentine, a song she planned to sing. Holcomb stumbled over her response, revealing that, while she may have had vocal chops, she didn't really understand the song.
As a judge, Connick says he's looking for someone who can sing - obviously - but that's only the start of what a contestant needs to succeed.
"You have to look and listen and respond individually," he says. "How comfortable are you on stage? What kind of sense of humor do you have?
"The work ethic, American Idol's got that built into the program. If you don't have a work ethic, it'll crush you. There's no way to make the Top 10.
"But how do you deal with nerves? How do you deal with stage fright? How intimidated are you by other performers, by the process? How quickly can you think on your feet? If you forget a line, what do you do? These are all things that will surface for these performers."
According to Connick - and, previously, Keith Urban - the chemistry between judges is much better this season than it was last, when Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj were sparring from day one. Urban and Connick seem to be getting along especially well.
"Keith's a really bright guy, a genuine guy," Connick says. "He's one of those dudes you'd go have a beer with.
"I hadn't seen him in a few weeks, but I saw him Sunday night, and we jumped in right where we left off, just laughing and joking. I love being on the panel with him, because he says things I don't think of. That's what you want: three people who have experience, who can come at it from three different angles."
Sunday night, the three judges refamiliarized themselves with the contestants by reviewing audition footage the way football teams watch game tape. "We've been off for a few weeks," he says. "We wanted to make sure we knew who we were seeing."
While many of those hopefuls felt the pain of getting cut Monday and Tuesday, Connick is optimistic about this season's talent pool.
"One thing I can promise you - and this is as a fan of the show since day one - there is more talent this year than I've ever seen on the show. There is some great talent. America is going to have a tough time picking the winner, because these people are bringing it."
Now if Idol can only bring back its audience. At the end of its 12th season, the show had lost much of its lustre - and even more of its audience. Connick thinks the changes this year will bring both back.
"It's like a fighter or a football team that's on the ropes: You know what works; you have to stick to what works," he says. "I don't think it's anybody's fault, in particular, that last year didn't work. But a lot of people are to be credited for putting an entirely new team together that, so far, seems to have the makings of the best year yet.
"I think this year might bring everybody back into the fold."