Kathryn McCarney Q & A

What is the most remarkable, awe-inspiring thing about James voice? How does he compare with iconic singers like Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury?

There is so much that is remarkable and awe inspiring about James’ voice. At the top of the list would have to be his natural and creative melodic sensibility, his incredible range and his innate core strength that supports his vocals. I was just listening to Robert Plant sing “Big Log”. I closed my eyes and thought I was listening to James! There are amazing similarities between the two, as regards vocal color, tone quality, melismatic ability, and lyric tenor fach. I see Freddie Mercury in James – creative movements and tremendous performance skills – full use of stage, ease of movement on stage, use of props and costumes. There is less of Freddie in James’ vocals. Although both are tenors, Freddie has more of a metallic (harder) edge to his voice than James or Robert.

How would you describe James’ range? What are the lowest and highest notes he can hit, and in which performances have you heard him hit them? Is there anyone else with a similar range you can compare him with for reference?

James’ range is very unusual – stratospheric in the high register! The highest note I heard was and A above the C above middle C. This is the soprano high A. He sings it open and fully supported at the end of his duet with Jacob and at the end of “Uprising” on tour. The lowest note I heard was C below middle C which he sings in “I’ll Be There for You”. This gives him over a 2 ½ octave range – at least according to what I have heard. That is an amazing range for any singer! Those with a similar range would be Mike Matijevic of Steelheart for the soprano high A, and Steven Tyler, Steve Perry, Robert Plant, Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury for the tenor high A, C, F and E (which James sings beautifully as well).

I’ve come across a lot of comments about James being a “pitchy mess” or that “he can’t sing on pitch”. What do you have to say to people who claim this?

To say that James is a “pitchy mess” is a ridiculous claim! James has excellent relative pitch or perfect pitch. This is clearly shown in his acappella beginning of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. He ends the acappella section in perfect pitch with the band’s entrance. Not possible to do if you have an inherent pitch problem! His operatic vocals in “Uprising” are amazing – especially in the sections where he sings a series of driving unison, repeated notes perfectly on pitch. The most stunning example of James’ terrific pitch is his acappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”.

This is a very difficult piece to sing and James does it beautifully and ends it in perfect pitch. Just awesome! Has his pitch ever deviated – yes – in “I’ll Be There for You”, and “Closer to the Edge” for a variety of reasons (his studio versions are stellar), but having an inherent pitch problem is not one of them!

I have heard some claim that James’ lower register is “weak” or “wobbly”. What do you have to say about his lower register?

James’ lower register is not “weak” or “wobbly”! It is just not where his strength lies. James is a high tenor and although he is supported and fully voiced in all 3 registers, his strength lies in his middle and upper registers. He flows seamlessly through passaggios (passageways) that connect all the registers. Not something that many singers can do! Just as a high soprano will spend less time in her chest voice, so will tenors spend less time in theirs.  A professionally trained tenor/soprano will work to strengthen his/her least used register and to expand the tessitura in either end. The repertoire that each sings will include more of the upper 2 registers and less of the lowest register. Those who sing more into the chest are the mezzo, contralto, baritone and bass.

When evaluating a singer – of any kind – what do you look for and how much emphasis do you place on each area? For example, technical skill, range, depth of emotional resonance, believability? Is a technically excellent singer good if they don’t show emotion? What is important?

When judging, the 3 areas of technique, emotion, and creativity are always in play. A truly complete singer/performer will score well in all 3 areas. A technically excellent singer who shows no emotion will score very well technically, but very poorly emotionally; and will not be considered a complete performer. Let me give some examples:

  • A gifted recitalist will be excellent technically and emotionally in interpreting a song and can use facial and hand gestures in that interpretation, but generally will not move about the stage.
  • Pavarotti was a lousy actor in his early years (he greatly improved over time), but he was forgiven – only the purists really cared. People paid to hear his high notes sung with enormous passion.

James is unusual in that he is innately gifted in all 3 areas. Sometimes you will find a singer who is innately gifted in one or possibly 2 areas, but rarely all 3. James is truly a complete performer and exceptionally so. When Jennifer said (after he sang “Without You”), “He is amazing guys – amazing!”, she was trying to emphasize this very fact!

How important is it that James energizes and engages the audience? Would he be better off staying still and focusing on perfect vocals? What is that perfect combination – that “it factor” that sells the performance?

For me the “it factor” in James’ performances is the completeness of his performances. His soulfulness and boundless energy are infectious. He is an energetic, creative vocal tsunami on stage – even when still or singing a ballad. He sweeps in and grabs everyone in his wake – especially live – and lifts them to amazing and unexpected heights. Unlike a natural tsunami, James affects those in his wake in a very positive way! The music sings James. This is a rare thing in someone so young! The music and James become inseparable from the first note to the last! This keeps the audience engaged and wanting more.

I believe the live audiences at the Idol performances experienced what everyone at the tour performances is now experiencing – James’ energy live. We at home could see James’ energy during the competition but not experience it live – totally different to live it in person with a performer like James. That’s why the live audience was so stunned when James was eliminated. They had gotten used to his live energy. And they knew that when he left the spectacular level of passion and creativity would be gone along with him. It left them all speechless. Apparently for 10-15 minutes not a soul moved. All disbelieving that James was actually gone!

When James was sick for the Californian leg of the tour how did that affect his voice?

I wish I knew the exact nature of James’ illness. It appears to have started out as a stomach virus and then possibly moved into the lungs. Purely speculation on my part. For a number of weeks he had difficulty sustaining his breath and some of the vocals on both the high and low end, and his movement was sometimes more limited. I notice that he is frequently hydrating on stage and he is wearing clothing that will prevent him from being chilled. His illness may have been more serious than anyone let on. I give him high praise for hanging in there and performing through it all. He needs to continue to do the things that will strengthen him! Difficult to do on the road. Thankfully, he finally seemed to turn a corner in Nashville!

Will James be able to sustain singing the high octave in the last chorus of “Uprising” throughout the 50 date tour without damaging his vocal chords?

As long as James’ health continues to improve and he is able to maintain his core strength he will be able to sing the high octave in the last chorus of “Uprising” just fine. He sings effortlessly in all of his registers when healthy!

 If you could talk to James and give him advice on maintaining his voice or constructive criticism on how he can improve his singing, what would you tell him?

If James were to ask for advice, I would encourage him to find a highly qualified vocal coach. Peisha McPhee comes to mind. She is in L.A. and works well with James. He seems to have tremendous respect for her. Her credentials are stellar and she can help to strengthen his technique, give an objective ear and help him to avoid the formation of counterproductive habits.

I would encourage him to follow his heart, but keep an open mind. I would also caution James that although the voice is internal it is very fragile and is subject to a variety of factors: health, emotion, environment, sleep, nutrition, technique, and overuse. During the times that he is sick or exhausted it is all right to pamper the voice – to tailor the melodic line, dynamic level, tessitura (range), and vocal embellishments in order to protect and preserve the vocal folds long term. There is a saying – “Use it or lose it”, but I would also add, “Overuse it and lose it” as well.

James is young, healthy and extraordinarily gifted. He will learn to walk a fine line between the healthy use of the voice and the overuse or abuse of the voice. He will learn to recognize the signals that his body will send to him. Hopefully, he will also learn to heed these signals and pace himself accordingly. If he does these things he will glorify his talents and bless us with his voice for decades to come!

James is fortunate to have a loving family to support and bless him through the good the bad and the ugly. With their love and our support his cup will “run” over and the deep well in which his marvelous gifts dwell will never run dry!

When James talks to the audience, asking for participation, counting the beat (1, 2, 3, 4), and even his “whoos!”, seem musical, as if you could go to the piano and find the note. Is this planned and rehearsed or part of his innate musicality?

It is James’ innate musicality that comes into play when he interacts with the audience – his “whoos”, and counting the beat for example. I can tell you from experience that one of the biggest challenges is to sing the same repertoire over and over again and still maintain focus, passion and creativity. James is experiencing this for the first time. He is singing the same 2 solo numbers for 45 performances! He is learning that the audience is the key. An enthusiastic performer inspires the audience and vice versa. It is a very symbiotic relationship! James will have more control over the playlist when he is touring on his own, but there will always be the standards and the hits that the fans want to hear over and over again for months and years to come. It is just part of the deal.

Because James has more experience singing with a band than on his own, I get the impression that he’s very reliant on the musicians he performs with. Could the few times he was off key during the show be largely due to the band and sound mixers? How important is it for the musicians to be in tune in order for the singer to also be in tune?

James had only 2 performances in which there was pitch deviation – “I’ll Be There for You” and “Closer to the Edge”. It is certainly possible that in both instances it was due to the inability to hear the band or to an improper feed of the sound through his earpiece. James sang beautifully in all the other performances while moving, jumping, bending, use of steps, etc. If the band “veers” off course pitch wise, the singer with perfect pitch or very good relative pitch will “stay the course” for that period of time and both will be out of sync.

Which performance, whether pre idol, idol or post idol, was James’ strongest vocally, and which was the weakest?

I believe that James strongest performance is “Uprising” by Muse on Idol live and his weakest is “I’ll Be There for You” by Bon Jovi on Idol live (his studio version is terrific).

There has been much comparison over James and Adam Lambert. The stylistic differences (both music and image) are apparent to all but how do they differ vocally? From what I can hear they actually use different singing techniques, is this true?

The comparison of James and Adam is so highly charged. That is unfortunate and unnecessary. There is room for both in the world of music, and ultimately preference is in the eye/ear of the beholder. Each of us connects with or is drawn to an artist for a multitude of reasons- some superficial and some very personal.

I was very supportive of Adam in season 8 and was very surprised and disappointed that he did not win. However, he and James are very different artists. Their similarities are few: both are lyric tenors, both are gifted showmen and both are tall – that’s it! As far as I can ascertain, Adam has been formally and classically trained. James has definitely been coached through his young Broadway performances and during Idol, but I do not believe that he has been classically trained. Both Adam and James have excellent core strength, breath support and pitch. Adam has very good range. James also has terrific range – stratospheric in his upper register – few can equal it! Adam’s delivery is controlled and polished. James’ delivery is spontaneous and organic and his melodic sensibility is extremely creative.

Please remember that through the centuries there have always been comparisons of very talented artists. Fans on both sides have argued relentlessly as to who is the best.  Bach had Handel, Mozart had Beethoven, Verdi had Puccini, Sinatra had Crosby, The Beach Boys had the Beatles, Pavarotti had Domingo, Connick has Buble, Underwood has Swift, Reba has Dolly, McGraw has Paisley, and Madonna has Lady Gaga.

We should be grateful for and send blessings to both James and Adam, as they should to each other and move on!

I’ve noticed that their performance styles are different too. James is very spontaneous, raw and wild, whilst Adam is very controlled, polished and choreographed. What do think?

Their performance styles are very different. Adam opened the door to true showmanship in season 8 and James blazed right through it in season 10. Adam’s performances are more polished and choreographed. He also incorporates make up, hair style and costume to a lavish degree. James’ performances, although very creatively planned, take on a life of their own live. James gives a master class in spontaneous performance. He is raw, real, soulful and free.

James and Adam Lambert performed the same song on Idol (Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”). Can you give detailed evaluations of both performances, how do they differ?

Adam and James give 2 stellar performances of “A Change Is Gonna Come”.

Adam’s version is polished, vocally controlled, technically outstanding and emotionally dynamic. He presents a very confident and professional appearance. Simply wonderful.

James’ version reminds me of “Musical Night” in New Orleans’ French Quarter – emotionally free, vocally melismatic, soulfully melodic, spectacular range, spontaneous and wild. It’s as if the spirit of the music takes residence in his body and James is just along for the ride. Simply amazing!


11 thoughts on “Kathryn McCarney Q & A

  1. Thank you so much for answering the questions. Your right on A change I never connected James sounding like New Orleans sound but that is what I hear. While I like Adams interpretation it was to polished for me and didnt reach me deep in my soul where James interp did. When I was young I had the advantage of being in the Army and stationed in same post that Elvis Pressley was stationed a couple years later but there was alot of great singers at that post. I would follow an acapella group that practiced every day walking to the mess hall and I had a concert every day I was very lucky to have this pleasure and when James sings A Change is gonna come it brings that memory back and the pleasure I had walking behind that group. I didnt connect why till you said this. I also think Sam Cooke would really appreciate way James sings it as it sound very close to way he sang it not quite but it is close. That post I was introduced to Etta James, Stevie Wonder his first song (finger tips) at the age of twelve, Diana Washington, and many more I already loved music but when these great artists were introduced to me my soul opened to many genres of music and my love of music grew.

    • Vanilla,
      What a wonderful introduction to the world of soul at such a young age! James taps into those memories for sure. He is sooo gifted. I cannot say it enough. Can’t wait to see his young life unfold!

  2. Thank you, Kathryn, for answering these questions. In listening to both James and Adam’s renditions of ‘A Change” i’d just have to say this. Adam is a fabulous singer, with a beautiful, beautiful voice, and James is a rockstar. I love the way you describe James performances– free, melodic, spontaneous, and wild– the songs sing him. That’s the real difference to me, and one isn’t better than the other, in my opinion, they’re different– and I see that more clearly now.

    • I meant to add- that the new Orleans reference to James rendition of “A Change” really fits with my first impression. I posted in You Tube comments for this performance by James “It’s like white gospel music” which really jives with the thought that the music sings James, as that’s what gospel music does. It’s pretty spiritual (and not in a religious way).

  3. Yes I seen a comment that James can sing soul almost as good as a Black person in you tube I agree to this its just what you said. I knew what you meant and its how I finally connected to why I always go back to the singers I mentioned and my first introduction to them. That is the memory I have of them they were so spiritual when they sang (the accapella group) I James is to.

    • Vanilla,
      Having sung in acappella groups for several decades , I can tell you that doing so requires excellent relative pitch. Having that ability and that experience is also so freeing in performance of the music- freeing to allow for the melodic and melismatic sensibility that soul, scat and embellisment require. That is something that James has innately , in spades. Steven picked up on that during James’ first audition.

  4. Kathryn, I always appreciate your insight and the descriptions of James’s voice, performance and person. Thanks so much!

  5. Kathryn…thank you for explaining clearly why I and so many others connect with James.
    I am a concert goer… and only watched AI for Tyler. In a few days I will be seeing James at the concert…my only reason for attending although I am sure the others will be interesting. I find myself searching for news on James at least monthly… Normally I see the big guns of rock concerts.. pink floyd, roger waters, aerosmith, even ella fitzgerald and many others. Your comments regarding pitch, range, creativity, tehnique and emotion is exactly why James Durbin blows me away. Your comparison to Plant is so clear…. and your mention of Freddie Mercury who was my absolute favourite performer warms my rocking heart.

    • Thanks so much. I have been away for a while and just read your response. Can’t wait for the new album . It will set our rockin’ hearts and souls on fire!!

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