Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Chris Sligh: Proud to Be an American (Idol)

  • Kevan Breitinger
  • 2008 28 May
Chris Sligh:  Proud to Be an American (Idol)

Chris Sligh is more than just your next “American Idol” alum. His brand-new album, Running Back to You (Brash), is receiving critical acclaim, and you are more than likely hearing his hit single, “Empty Me,” on the radio these days. But for now, Sligh gets confessional as he reveals his thoughts on the music industry and his picks for this season’s “Idol."

CMCentral:  You’ve had the most interesting career trajectory of anybody I know. What’s been the most surprising element of it for you?

Chris Sligh:  I guess the most surprising thing for me was making it past the first audition of “American Idol.” Here I am almost two years later, after my original audition, talking to somebody from the one website I used to keep up with.

Man, you gotta know you can sing! With the voice and the range that you have, you were that surprised to go that far?

What you guys don’t see from home is that there are 10 to 15 thousand people in the arena. Being there, you see really great people get cut again and again. I went two years in a row and got cut at the very first audition. So when I tried out this last time, I did it just because a friend of mine said, “This is your last year to try out now that you’re 28. I think you’ll always regret it if you don’t try out. I’ll pay for you to go down.” So you know, I thought, “It’s only one day. If I don’t make it, at least I had a good time with my friend. Maybe I’ll get to meet someone who does make it onto ‘American Idol.’” The first year I tried out, I met Bo Bice in Orlando in my first audition. But this time it turned out that I was the guy that somebody met (laughing).

Is there anything that you wish you’d done differently, Chris?

In the semi-finals I wish I had sung songs that people knew a little bit more. If I have a regret, which I don’t know that I do, but if I do, it’s that. But what people don’t understand from watching at home is that every song has to get cleared by the publishers and the artists. I wasn’t really planning on doing the MuteMath song, but it was the only thing, literally, that got cleared. I put a list together of songs that maybe weren’t as well known, but the only songs that got cleared were the most obscure ones. It’s kind of weird the way it worked out.

I can see why you did as well as you did because your range is so huge. What kind of vocal training do you have?

It’s kind of funny how I got involved with music. I was actually—all through high school—a basketball and baseball player. I was kind of a jock, very typical, kind of arrogant and on top of things, made the All European team every year (We lived in Germany where my parents were missionaries). So especially in high school, I never really did anything with music. It just wasn’t on my radar. I had written a couple songs that my dad and I sang in church, but I never sang lead. I always sang harmony with my dad, which I loved.

My freshman year of college I was walking down the hall humming Michael English’s  “Holding Out Hope to You” from that album so long ago. And a guy walked up to me and said “Hey, were you just humming Michael English’s ‘Holding Out Hope To You’?” And I of course said, “No, not at all” (laughing), because at my college you could get in trouble for that. And the guy said “Oh, I’m not trying to get you in trouble. I’m starting a singing group and wondered if you’d like to be in it.” So I tried out for the group, made it and ended up being the lead singer by the end of that first year. And I liked it so much I ended up changing my major to music. I studied classical voice and was the understudy for two operas. I was invited to audition for the Met in New York and was going to go the opera singer route for a long time. But then I discovered rock & roll.

Was this at Bob Jones?

Well, the first college I attended was Pensacola Christian College, but then when I changed my major to music, I transferred to Bob Jones University because they had a better music department.

Their music program is solely classical. … Classical music is OK, but anything with a “rock beat” is considered sinful. I’m sure you heard the story of how I got kicked out with seven credits left to graduate for going to a 4Him/FFH concert.

Yeah, well, it’s part of your story—what made you who you are. And who you are is what won the heart of the audience for you apparently. People really responded to your personality as much as your talent.

I’ve got one of those personalities that people don’t really know how to react to because I’m like the guy next door to a lot of people. I have fans tell me all the time that they can’t believe how real I am. I guess some people have a rock star persona that helps them sell a lot of records, but to me, I’m just a normal guy who happened to be a little bit more talented than normal in one area. So I get to do what I love for a living, but besides that, I’m just a normal guy. I’ve told several people along the way, if I ever start thinking I’m a big deal, just slap me upside the head.

Absolutely, put you out of your misery.

Well, my wife is very much about keeping me down to earth.

Good for her. Now I read that you signed with Brash Music because they’d let you write the record you wanted to make for the church, but you could also reach mainstream audiences? Is that the case?

Brash is a mainstream label run by believers. I actually was looking at a variety of labels, from mainstream major labels all the way down to Christian indie labels. I knew that I wanted to do something for the church, I knew that’s where God was calling me. I feel like there’s this line in Christian music today where you’re either Casting Crowns or you’re Switchfoot, and one of them is cool and the other is not. My heart is I want to be both.

I want to write songs to the church, and for the church, and be very open about my faith; but at the same time I want to write a love song, or a song a little bit more vague lyrically. And I don’t think that God makes that delineation between our secular life and our Christian life. As a believer my life is all the same thing; it’s all worship. I can worship in a love song just as well as when I’m singing, “Holy Is the Lord God Almighty.”

That’s what Romans 12:1 is saying.

I think of myself as more of a songwriter than a singer, and I work so hard at my songwriting and think it’s come a long way over the years. I want to talk about my whole life in my songs. I met with the president of one label, and the first thing he said to me was, “So … how Christian are you?” I said, “I don’t know. I guess I still sin every now and then, so like a 7?” (laughing). He said they weren’t really interested in putting out Christian music.

The more I thought about that the more I realized if I signed with them I’d be cutting off this huge part of my life that I couldn’t then talk about in my songs. On the other hand, as I talked to the Christian labels, they only wanted me to write about Christian things. Brash just really caught my vision for what I wanted to do.

Right now there are a bunch of new artists coming out who are similar to me, like Meredith Andrews. Her new record is just incredible, and she’s just singing about life. Same thing with Tenth Avenue North. I’m hoping that we see more people doing that. Because I miss the days of Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant who were making Christian records but had songs on them that crossed over into other areas of life. I explain it like this:  I did not make a crossover record. I made a record for the church. But I have songs on it that cross over. And when a non-believer buys this record, they are going to get a very clear presentation of my faith, and that excites me.
Good for you. It can only help us as a genre. We need people to help drive us forward into the public arena where we’re supposed to be.

In making the record with Brown Bannister, a legend in the Christian community, I was working with one of the guys who helped formed Christian music as we know it. And I said, “Brown, I really don’t want this record to sound like the typical Christian record. You know, the drums and the guitars sounding like every other record. I don’t think it’s way out of the box, but at the same time, I think there’s an aural hook, to me at least, I think it sounds different than everything else that’s on the radio right now. The drums and guitars are mixed differently throughout the record.

I think you have. I can’t wait to see how it goes for you.

I’ve been a fan of CMCentral for a long time, too. CMCentral was the only public forum I was a part of until American Idol.

What are your predictions for this season of “American Idol”?

I really have enjoyed David Cook all season, though my favorite for the season is a guy I’ve recently gotten to know:  Jason Castro.  But I have a feeling that Cook will take it all.

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**This interview first published on May 21, 2008.

Watch the latest Chris Sligh music videos on his official artist page!