American Idol alum releases new CD of cover songs




Matt Sayles/associated press


Clay Aiken’s new CD, A Thousand Different Ways, is now available.

After a year and a half away from the spotlight, Clay Aiken returns with an edgy new look, a far-from-edgy new album and a newly secure sense of self.

“I know it’s a new chapter but it’s kind of like a whole new book — the sequel to my life before,” says a casually dressed and scruffy-faced Aiken, sitting in an office at RCA Records, his label. “It’s like we’re starting out on something brand new where I’m really getting to be myself.”

But not everything is brand new. On A Thousand Different Ways, Aiken covers 10 classic love songs and introduces four original tracks. It was a “challenge” issued by music mogul Clive Davis, who oversaw the project — and one that Aiken says he was initially reluctant to accept.

“I don’t feel that I had the credibility or the background or just the repertoire to go in and put the Clay Aiken sound on somebody else’s song,” says Aiken, one of American Idol’s most successful alums.

“The examples that were given to me were Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand. I said, `Let’s look at those names and how huge their careers have been’ — Elton John was also one — `and Clay Aiken doesn’t fit in that category.’”

But despite his misgivings, he and his team of producers rearranged and reinterpreted each track, from Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is to Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again, to make them Aiken’s alone.

A crooner’s collection of love ballads isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of pop music, says Rolling Stone associate editor Brian Hiatt. But for Aiken and his fans — known as the Claymates — it might not need to be.

“His audience is outside the mainstream of hip, young pop culture,” Hiatt says. “By making an album that doesn’t even make an attempt not to be cheesy is acknowledging who his fan base is and what he is an artist.”

It’s an “odd move” to make a covers album so early in a career, says Craig Marks, editor-in-chief of Blender magazine. Marks describes Aiken’s fans as “parents and grandparents who think he’s wholesome and adorable and sings songs as though rock ‘n’ roll never existed.”

Though he’s just 27, Aiken’s audience and appeal has always been more Barry Manilow than Justin Timberlake.

From his first appearance on TV’s Idol to his improbable, second-place finish in 2003, Aiken had a geeky, boyish, sanitized charm that recalled a crooner from the 1950s.

So perhaps a covers record, suggested by Davis, wasn’t so far fetched. When the album was completed, Aiken celebrated with a makeover. He’s sporting a new shaggy-haired, more stylish look, a marked departure from the college campus look he sported before.

“We took so much time to make this album that we thought, 'Let’s come back with a bang and do something different,’ It’s really a drastic change ... but it’s kind of exciting.”