The Iowa native has been a fan favorite with her folksy vocals and became this season’s winner of the reality singing competition revived by ABC in March.
“Whirlwind” doesn’t even begin to describe Maddie Poppe’s last 12 months.
After dazzling the judges with her smoky, raspy vocals and left-field song choices, the Clarksville, Iowa, native was crowned the winner of “American Idol” last May. She narrowly bested her boyfriend, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, who placed second on ABC’s singing competition. Since then, she’s toured the country with her fellow Top 8 contestants and traveled back and forth between home and Los Angeles, where she hit the studio with songwriters including Johan Carlsson (Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”) and Drew Pearson (Kesha’s “Woman”).
The resulting 10 songs make up her debut album “Whirlwind,” out Friday, which arrives just three days before the “Idol” reboot’s second-season finale Sunday (ABC, 8 EDT/PDT). Poppe, 21, talked with USA TODAY about her new music, relationship status, and who she’s rooting for to win this weekend.
Question: A year after winning “American Idol,” how does it feel to finally release this album into the world?
Maddie Poppe: It’s really exciting. I think I started to find my sound more along the way of making it. It was really inside the whole Americana/folk (genre) at first, but then I got experience writing different songs, stepped out of my comfort zone and found things I enjoyed even more.
Q: Are any of the new songs inspired by your relationship with Caleb?
Poppe: For sure. “Take It Out on You,” “Not Losing You,” and there’s a couple references to him in “Postcards from Me.” You know, I had a short amount of time –about two months – to write about my feelings. I tried to write about other things, but the only things that were on my mind were my relationship and also just my lifestyle this past year, how it’s been really crazy and hectic. I think the best songs come when your emotions are high and you can really feel it.
Q: Do you guys ever give each other feedback on songs, or do you try to keep your work completely separate?
Poppe: We definitely share our songs with each other. Caleb is writing every single day so I hear his songs all the time. I think we are both very honest with each other and that’s really nice. I always told myself I never wanted to date somebody who’s a musician because I thought that’d be difficult, but it’s been the best case really.
Q: Two of your fellow “Idol” contestants, Gabby Barrett and Cade Foehner, just got engaged. Have you and Caleb talked at all about taking that next step?
Poppe: I think we’re really young: I’m 21, he’s 20. We’ve only known each other a year. Of course, I know I want to be with him, but I want to do it when the timing’s right. Right now, we’re not really settled down and everything’s kind of up in the air, so I think we both need to focus on our careers. We see each other a lot and everything’s going great, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s going to be a little while.
Poppe: You know, I can’t really say a lot. I think the situation speaks for itself. I really don’t want to comment because I don’t want to get into too much trouble, but I think if you put the whole thing together, a lot of people are on the same page with how I feel about it.
Q: So will you be appearing at all during the episode?
Poppe: I believe so. Nothing’s totally confirmed yet… It’s crazy. Nothing’s ever confirmed until like, an hour before. We’ll see what happens.
Q: What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about the music industry this past year?
Poppe: Be yourself, but also stand up for yourself. Not everyone sees your vision and people will try to make decisions for you. If you don’t agree with them, it’s important to say, “I’ve got to do it this other way,” or you’re going to get into a trap quick. (The music business) is so overwhelming and gets stressful sometimes, but it’d be so much harder if I was unhappy. If I hated this album, if I didn’t like the singles, if I was forced to make super-pop songs, I would be miserable and I wouldn’t even want to do it anymore. Not that I’ve ever been pushed in any direction, but it’s important to let your voice be heard and express your vision.
Q: Who are you rooting for to win “Idol”?
Poppe: I’d truly be happy for anyone because they’re all so unique in their own ways. Madison (VanDenburg) has a voice unlike anybody this whole season. Laine (Hardy) brings an old-school Elvis sort of thing, and people really love that. And with Alejandro, it’s so cool that he gets to be himself and play his original music, and people are loving it. But yeah, I can’t really say who I want to win – I’m torn between these three. Early on, I really loved Jeremiah and I wanted him to win.
Q: Me too! I was so upset when he got eliminated two weeks ago.
Poppe: I know, I never saw that coming! I thought he could win the whole thing. He was my favorite and just has something special. But you know what I think happens? (Viewers) think their favorite is everyone else’s favorite, so they’re like, “Oh, he’s going to get enough votes, I don’t need to vote for him.” That might’ve been what happened with Jeremiah, because there’s no way he should’ve gone home that night.
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