On Thursday afternoon in Nashville, Kris Allen is in the middle of his second day of rehearsals with his band.
Kris has just learned of Donna Summer’s death, so it’s time to add She Works Hard for the Money, one of his American Idol covers, back into the set. Clearly, neither he nor his band has performed the song in a while after surfing new bingo sites.
“Second run-through on that one?” drummer Ryland Steen asks, merely saying what the rest are thinking.
On Saturday, Kris and his band — Ryland, guitarist Andrew DeRoberts, guitarist/keyboardist Cale Mills and bassist Chris Torres — will play their first show together in a year.
So now, the five musicians are holed up at Soundcheck, working up live arrangements of new material like Rooftops, My Weakness, Out Alive and Better With You, as well as songs from Kris’ 2009 debut, including Red Guitar and his hit single Live Like We’re Dying.
The Nashville rehearsal space offers a midway point between Kris’ home in Arkansas and Saturday’s destination — the 96.9 WINK-FM Spring Fling in Ft. Myers, Fla. “We kind of wanted to not do rehearsals in L.A., just because I’d been there so much,” he says. “And I love this town.” Besides, Andrew now lives in Nashville, and Cale was in town anyway, doing some songwriting.
On Tuesday, Kris will release his second album, Thank You Camellia (you can stream it in its entirety here). It’s a warm-hearted album that begins with the sound of Kris walking up to a piano, sitting down at the bench, taking a breath and then beginning to sing and play.
“We didn’t know if that was going to be the start of the album, but we liked that it started the song” Better With You, Kris says. “When we were figuring out what to do with the order, we said, ‘Why don’t we just use that? It’s kind of a cool way to start.’ It’s like you’re going to walk in, and this is the start of the record, right there.
Thank You Camellia is full of such charming flourishes — the whistling on My Weakness, a funky electric piano on Rooftops, the gamelan instrument that session drummer Aaron Sterling plays on Monster.
“I latch on to that kind of stuff,” Kris says. “I love pop music, but I love pop music that does something a little bit different. It’s not all ‘this is what we should be doing because this is the process of making music,’ it’s ideas and being creative.”
If there’s a theme to the songs on Thank You Camellia, it’s “What can I do for you?” Whether it’s single The Vision of Love, with its accompanying anti-bullying video, or Teach Me How Love Goes, most of the songs deal with getting out of oneself and into the lives of other people.
“I struggle with that, because that’s who I am sometimes,” Kris says. “My wife gets mad at me, because I’ll worry more about my friends than I worry about myself.
“I think some people hate that about me. They’re like, ‘You need to worry about yourself more!’ But it’s tough for me, when that’s not the kind of person I am.
“I want my music to feel like I’m giving something to someone else and not that I’m expecting something back. I like singing; I like writing; I like making music with these guys. This is all, like, me giving something to other people. If I get something in return — awesome.”
Even a song like Leave You Alone fits into that mindset.
“It’s ‘I’m trying to do this for you, but I’m sucking at it, so I’m just going to go,’” he says.
Monster’s the one that’s different from that. It’s an “I’ll break your heart” song that’s out of character for Kris but becoming a fan favorite — partly for its unusual sound, which features not only the percussive gamelan instrumentation by a static-y crackle.
“I’m so glad the production turned out really good,” says Kris, who wrote the song with Cale. “We were so worried it wouldn’t turn out right. The perspective changed on the song a million times.”
Monster’s one of the older songs on Thank You Camellia, along with Teach Me How Love Goes and Blindfolded.
Kris wrote Blindfolded with Toby Gad and Lindy Robbins during sessions for the first album, but the song didn’t make the cut. “Someone at the record label latched onto it and was like, ‘We have to put this on the record,’” he says.
Teach Me How Love Goes, one of three songs produced by former Sugarcult lead singer Tim Pagnotta, features Kris playing several instruments. “I played most of the stuff on that record, other than the drums,” Kris says. “And there’s a guy who came in and played electric guitar.”
Loves Me Not is a duet with California-based singer-songwriter Meiko. The two recorded the song in advance of a Live in the Vineyard concert in Napa, Calif., then premiered the song there in April. “I really like the way it turned out,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite songs.”
American Idol winners like Kris tend to approach their second albums differently than other singers. Most acts say they have their entire lives to make their first albums, then six months to do the follow-up. Kris, on the other hand, had four months to make his debut, then about two years to make Thank You Camellia.
“It was backwards, a little bit,” he says.
Kris says he set out to be more active in the process of creating the new album.
“I wrote a lot of songs on the last record, but it wasn’t like really writing,” he says. “It was like getting in a room with a bunch of people.
“I had just learned how to co-write; it was the first time I had ever done that, so I was still learning. I’ve learned enough about that now that I’m able to co-write and also write songs on my own that can translate onto a record. Also, I was able to be part of the production process and make decisions about what was going to be on the record, what it was going to look like, what the songs were going to sound like live.
“It meant so much to me, and I put a lot of personality into it, I feel like. I feel like it comes across as ‘Oh, this is what Kris wants to be.’ Not that the last didn’t — this is just a better version of that.”