On Nashville Star, Jeffrey Steele along with John Rich and Jewel has been tasked with not only judging the contestant performances, but with mentoring the acts each week to help with song choice, arrangement, and on how to improve their performance style. Jeffrey Steele is more than qualified to help find the next big country superstar, as he is an award-winning and hit-making producer that has helped produce music for such huge country stars as Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes and Rascall Flatts, among many others. He is even a performer himself, having hit the road to perform with such artists as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley.
Yesterday we sat down with Jeffrey to discuss the current season of Nashville Star, how he felt seeing one of the groups he’s mentoring kicked off the show, his frank thoughts on the remaining performers, and who he thinks will ultimately win. Read on for a full transcript and audio of the candid interview.
Hi, this is Jeff from BuddyTV and today I’m talking with Jeffrey Steele, one of the judges for Nashville Star. So last night, one of the groups you were mentoring was eliminated. It didn’t seem like you were very attached to Third Town, but how was it seeing Pearl Heart leave, especially after they gave such a great performance?
Yeah, it’s heartbreaking. It’s Pearl Heart-breaking. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham, I tell you. [laughs] I mean, I thought for all the complaints the show has been getting about its country-ness, this is one of the most country acts on the show and they’ve just gotten better and better week after week. I really felt like they might be a spoiler if they got to the final round just because you’re going to start to see a really big pool of talent start to develop there, and then kind of getting the bigger picture as it went on.
But you know America voted, so they thought that they weren’t good enough. There’s not much you can do. You get heartbroken because you really see how hard somebody really wants something and you see some of the others who are really are kind of pissing on it, it’s pretty frustrating. But you know what, I took them on my bus last night with their parents and I offered them a deal right there to take them in the studio. So I think they’re huge stars down the road. And sometimes ultimately you don’t want to win this thing, you just take it for what it’s worth. It’s also kind of a first step in the music business, your first big failure in front of the public, and you decide right then and there if you’re going to keep going or not, and I think they’re going to keep going and they’re going to do fine.
Yeah, I’m glad to hear it. This year there is mentoring as well as judging on the show, and you of course are doing the groups and also now Shawn as well. Is it difficult to actually critique the groups that you work with? Maybe you and Jewel and even John seem to go a little bit easier on the groups that you work with as opposed to the ones that the other judges are mentoring.
Yeah, I think you’re right there. But I promise you, like when I was working with O-Town I was not — O-Town! [laughs]
When I was working with Third Town I was not easy on them, and I let them have it. I didn’t think they were right and I didn’t like the fact that they were trying to — I don’t care if they go over my head if they’re making a decision that is going to help them, that’s my job is to try and talk them out of bad decisions. But I think in a way you’re right, because you’re so close to it you may not be — Say like with Pearl Heart, I got to tell you, you can nitpick their stage performance all day long, but there’s not a lot for me to go, “You sang a line flat,” or, “You did this wrong.” I mean there’s not a lot of big issues with them other than just trying to reach the level you want to get them to. So you try to criticize those obvious things. And you know that John and Jewel, like in my case John and Jewel are going to pick up the slack of anything I’ve missed. I think everybody’s pretty true to that.
Same thing with Laura and Sophie, I don’t think I’m patting them on the back. I was proud of the job they did, but ultimately I’m pissed off at them for just the unprofessionalism. You can write it off as them being kids still, but Laura’s 18 and she’s telling me backstage that she’s becoming an adult. I’m looking at her going, just you know what, this is so just amateur hour. And I’m looking at these people that are getting off the show — I mean, even Tommy Stanley, who admittedly is not a country guy, he knows he’s a rocker, but give that guy one more week to figure it out if you’ve got another act here that isn’t even realizing the shot they have. I may be a little bit easier on them, but I promise you, whether it’s right there on the judges’ table or if it’s backstage in the mentoring, I’m cracking the whip on them. I do it in my own way, but I definitely do it.
But I will agree with you that you may slack off a little because you’re a little bit more married to it, but definitely once in awhile a sharp criticism will bite me in the ass and I’ll have to say it, as people have seen, but I’m not really one to just throw arrows if I don’t need to.
Yeah, exactly. So how does that mentoring process work, anyway? I was actually in on the conference call with Tommy and Pearl Heart this morning and he was saying that Jewel let him have pretty much free reign with what he was going to sing, whereas it seems like you are a little more hands on with the choices for Laura and Sophie and Pearl Heart. Do you really get hands on with how the arrangements go and what songs they’re singing? Or do you leave it more up to them?
I think everybody is individual to their own thing, I just know that where I come from that’s what I do. I work with writers, I work with singers, trying to get them famous and trying to get them to be better songwriters. I’m a producer, so that’s what I do. I think Jewel is more of an artist so she’s coming from a different perspective. She’s going to let the artist find himself in his art, so to speak, while I might be like, “You know what, these girls are younger, they can benefit from some of my knowledge of what they need to do on stage.” It’s a different dynamic and I think just by nature I’m more hands on like that, I want to try to help. I think Laura and Sophie, like last night doing “Walking After Midnight,” which they’ll probably get criticized for blasting a Patsy Cline song, I don’t think they could have pulled that off doing Patsy’s arrangement of it. I don’t think it would have worked for them. I had to find a way with them to keep that little sound they have, which is kind of novelty but at the same time it’s kind of cool.
Yeah, yeah, the harmonies.
So I’m looking for a way to accent that. And I may be off base doing it, but that’s my instinct to roll with that from what I know and to see where they’re kind of at in their life. To me they can’t be — “Walking After Midnight” is a really cool song, but it’s actually kind of a pretty weighted, serious, dark, romantic lyric if you look at the lyrics, even though the song kind of doesn’t spin it that way. I don’t think they could pull that off, I don’t think it’s believable, and I don’t think they’re obviously ever going to top Patsy Cline’s version, nobody is, I mean nobody is. So you got to try to find a way to maybe make them shine a little bit in it.
So that’s what I’m doing, I’m just looking for that. You may hit and miss a couple of times, and that’s the risk you take, but I think if we just let them go out there and sing a song like, for an example, the girls wanted to sing “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield one week, just the way it was. They didn’t want to change it, they wanted to do it as it was. I said, “Girls, this is like an alternate kind of pop-rock thing, it’s going to be so awful if you sing this the way it is. I recommend we don’t sing it and we go for an older song.” I may get some arrows for that, but I think everybody is going to do it their own way and I’m probably the most hands on guy, just because that’s what I’m doing every day.
Now you’re mentoring Shawn now as well. Is she different than the other, younger performers? I’m not sure her age, but she seems older to me. She seems a little more sure of what she wants to do and that’s why she left John. Has it been a different experience working with her the past week and this upcoming week?
I’m probably going to learn more today as I’m going to the mentoring thing right now, I’m getting ready to do it. I was not too crazy about taking that on, I think John was dead on right about her. Of course I told her last night, she’s got tears all over the backstage area — and I know they’re filming it all and whatever — and she’s got tears all over the stage when she’s done, but she’s got tears everywhere but in her performance when she’s singing the lyric. I’m just trying to convince her that, you know, you’re used to singing in a bar. I met her at an airport lounge when she was singing in a bar lounge at an airport, I’ve seen her before in Nashville before the show. Then when I saw her on the show I was like, “Oh wow, she’s on this show.” I’ve seen her perform in the bar, and when you’re in a bar you’re trying to get people’s attention, you’re trying to get them to pay attention to what you’re doing, to listen to you for five seconds. They usually don’t. [laughs] So my advice to her has been, “Please trust yourself to let the song take you there and not try to overpower the vocals.” And not to compete with Melissa Lawson, because she can’t.
And she doesn’t listen, she didn’t do it last night. She didn’t do it last night, I worked with her all week on some stuff I thought she could really do to accentuate her performance, but she didn’t listen. So she’s kind of a rebel without a cause to me. If she wants to continue to move on, I think she has to kind of — If she doesn’t want to listen, she has got to prove us wrong. If you’re not going to listen to me, prove me wrong. And I haven’t seen her prove me wrong yet, I haven’t seen her prove John wrong at all. She’s definitely a tough one to work with, she’s very emotional. She wants this thing really bad, but she wants it on her own terms I think. And that’s great, but I just don’t think she can compete on that big level with Melissa or even Ashlee, for that matter. I’m kind of walking on the eggshells now with her and just trying to figure out what I can do to snap something in her and make something turn here in the last few weeks.
Speaking of Melissa, at this point it seems there’s a couple of really clear front runners. Do you think that’s going to maintain for the remaining episodes, or do you think it might get shaken up at some point? It looks like Melissa and Gabe specifically, to me anyway just watching, are getting the most praise.
I’m totally in agreement. I really felt, and this is why I was so bummed out last night, I really felt like Pearl Heart was the spoiler. That they could come in there one week near the end, and even though they probably wouldn’t win the thing, they could probably knock out somebody because of what they rose up to over the weeks. So that really bums me out, because there was a competition factor that was starting to brew that I thought was going to make the show really exciting.
But you know, past tense now. I do think Melissa is the best one on the show, hands down talent-wise. I think Gabe will win the show, that’s my opinion. I think Gabe is probably the most dialed in for what we do. This is just me throwing out an opinion. And I think that Ashlee will have a career beyond if she doesn’t win. I mean these are just thoughts I’m throwing out, Ashlee could win this thing too. It just seems to me that Gabe is the most dialed in to the thing and has the best shot at making it work. But that’s probably all I should say, because I’ve been proven wrong last night. [laughs]
In the last three episodes, are there any specific themes or anything that we can look forward to as viewers as we near the finale?
Yes, there was some talk about the original song night, which is a huge night, I think. Especially for me being a writer and what I know that could mean for maybe an Ashlee or a Shawn, who are pretty good songwriters, they’re actually pretty good. If they can make it to those rounds, that’s going to really up their ante. I think the downside of an original song night is if one of these really mainstay acts like a Gabe or a Melissa comes on with an original song and it’s a clunker, it’s a real turd, it’s going to make their performance look even worse. A singer singing a bad song, there is no worse scenario. You can’t make a good song a great song if it’s not a great song. Even a great vocal performance won’t make up for a crappy lyric. [laughs] Or a melody, or a melody. Something like that could be a real spoiler to these ones that are kind of like really in the forefront and maybe knock some votes off. It’s a little thing out of left field that if it happens, could bring somebody up who’s maybe not in the front running. So, that will be something to see.
They might even have a — We don’t know this for sure, but there might be a theme night where they feature the songs of the judges. They’d actually get us up there to do a fun little medley thing with them and make it part of the show.
That would actually be really entertaining, I hope that happens.
Or it could be where they actually perform the songs on the show that night, that’s yet to be determined. I guess it just depends on how it rolls and John having to deal with a lot more songs with him on the show. [laughs] But that’s probably the one big spoiler thing left for somebody who may not be in the real high vote range, like a Shawn or an Ashlee, that could really jump in front of the competition and possibly get to the top with a really great song.
– Jeff Sampson, BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Photo courtesy of NBC)