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Randy Jackson opens up about going from judge to mentor on 'American Idol'

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Randy Jackson and “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest are the only stars of the show who have been with “American Idol” since its debut in 2002. After 12 seasons as a judge on “American Idol,” Jackson stepped down from the judging panel and became a mentor in the show's 13th season, which features the judging panel of Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. Here is what Jackson said during a recent telephone conference-call interview with journalists.

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Can you talk about what made you decide that you wanted to be a mentor as opposed to judging?

Honestly, after 12 seasons in, as a judge it felt like I’d said and done everything that I really ever desired and needed to and wanted to do as a judge and I just felt like it was just time to do something else. I’m a big evolution guy. So I felt like there’s no other way I could say it and do it and whatever.

So I said, “You know what? I think it’s time to kind of step away.” I’m really excited to step into the mentor role because I get a chance to work more hands on with the kids and help impart some of the wisdom that I’ve gained over my 35-year career to them, you know.

Do you sometimes kind of want to tell what you think to the contestants now since you’re not up there judging them?

No. Listen, I think the judges are doing an amazing job. I think Harry [Connick Jr.], Keith [Urban] and Jennifer [Lopez] are amazing. They’ve got such a natural, great chemistry and they’re all dear friends of mine for a long time. So, you know, I love them. And I think they’re doing an amazing job. Once I kind of walked away, from it I was kind of done with that, you know what I mean?

You’ve got, obviously, 12 years of experience on “American Idol,” so you’ve seen in the live shows that contestants tend to gravitate toward songs that have been done to death, like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” As a mentor, will you try and discourage them from maybe making some of those done-to-death song choices?

Yeah, I will because I think you’re absolutely right and you’re very astute to pick that up because, especially if contestants have really sung it on the show, you can’t help but get that comparison from the audience and from people that are on the show and watch the show. So you always want to try and come off a little unique and a little different, unless you’ve got a really different twist on that song.

In the past, some of the “American Idol” contestants, like Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, David Cook, gave us unexpected arrangements of songs. And it seems like something we’ve had a little less of over the last few seasons. Do you feel like you can help them get back to putting an interesting twist on something?

Yeah, I’d love that and I want more of that. We just had like an intense workshop with them and I talked about that. That’s what I mean, if you take a song; for instance, if you want to do “Hallelujah” do you have a different version of it? Can you do something else different with it?

And I think also what it does for the judges and for the public is let you know the real range of their talent. If they can take something and move it around like that and make it really creative, you go, wow, I didn’t know your talent was that deep. You know what I’m saying? So I love that, yes, of course, I will definitely try and help encourage that.

You talked a little bit about that great chemistry that Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban have on “American Idol” this season. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been feeling when you watch the episodes back on TV thus far?

Oh yeah, listen, what you look for on the judges panel always to me, it’s what me, Simon [Cowell] and Paula [Abdul] and Ryan kind of naturally had. We didn’t even know we were looking for it, but we kind of naturally had it, to be honest with you.

You look for that natural chemistry because you can’t really force that because you know, you are individual judges, but you’re as a team, as a panel so it has to work well that way. I mean, they’ve done sensational. I love them all as people and friends in the industry anyway, but I think they’ve done an amazing job.

The current “American Idol” judges said they have to let some really amazing people go home and we’re seeing that. What do you think of the level of talent this season?

I think the level of talent is amazing. I think they’re very young. It’s a very young pool for the most part and I think it’s a very different pool. And what I’m so impressed about the show, that people just continuously turn out for “Idol,” it’s just really talented kids that this season it’s more different than I think any other season, but some really, really unique kids I love. I love this talent.

It was so great seeing you on “American Idol” again…

Thank you. I made a little impromptu; I was just saying hi to them. Actually Keith and Harry got up and sang, because they’re both so silly and funny guys. It was funny. It was a good time.

What did“American Idol” alumni Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry bring to the table as guest mentors in the workshop?

I wanted to have them there because I’ve been doing the show since it started, so I have a wealth of knowledge, but they were actually in the trenches of people that we were actually judging so they could tell it from a completely different side. And the two of them are so different, but they’re also equally really, really talented and I think both of their seasons, I thought both of them would win. During the season, you just never know and they both have had amazing careers thus far, so I really wanted them there.

So they were able to impart a lot of wisdom on what they go through. We talk about everything in this workshop, because I really wanted to break it down for the kids, like, when the judges say this, are you really hearing what they’re saying? Are you retaining 20 percent, 30 percent, what are you listening to? Because you’ve got cameras in your face, you’ve got 500 people in the audience.

You’ve got all the chatter from social media. You’ve got your friends and family and you’ve got millions of people watching on TV. We really broke it down and went through everything that we could and I think it really helped the kids a lot. And Adam did a great job.

What do you miss most about being on “American Idol” judging panel?

You know, to be honest with you, I don’t really miss it at all. When I walked away, I was really done with it. I had done everything I thought I could do. I couldn’t even figure out another way to say stuff, so I was really happy that I was on for 12 seasons as a judge.

And I’m happiest now about this new role as a mentor because that’s kind of what I do anyway as a record producer, as a manager of artists and a talent manager. What I do is nurture talent, so it’s what I do every day. So this is the most natural fit for me.

Do you see any of the “American Idol” contestants as somebody you’d want to work with someday?

Yeah, you just never know. You’ve got to see how they blossom, but I get a chance to work with them now in this role and it’s really amazing. There are some very uniquely, great talented kids in this batch this year.

We’ve already seen some changes this season on “American Idol.” Can you kind of give us some hints about other changes that are coming up for the live shows that are new to the show?

I think you’ll see some twists and changes in the theme weeks. I think you’ll see a little bit more twists and changes as we go along. I mean, it’s “Idol” 2.0. I think the show needed a refresh, and I think it’s gotten one and I think the judges’ panel is one of those things that’s doing amazingly well. I think me and the mentors are a very different thing. It’s different for me and it’s something that I welcome and love actually. And I think it needed a little bit of a lift, you know what I mean?

Do you see any frontrunners on “American Idol” this year? And what do you see as far as strengths that we see this season vocally?

I think so far I think there are some frontrunners there. I don’t want to name anyone just yet, but I think the edge seems to me to be in the girls’ favor, but I think the boys could come up and surprise everyone. There’s some really very talented unique boys, too.

I think as far as song-wise, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens because I think we’ve put a little bit of a twist on the themes. I don’t think the themes are as narrow as they used to be. I think you’ll like where we’re going with the themes this season.

What do you think about Harry Connick Jr.’s judging style? Some people have called it “harsh.” Do you think he deserves to be given that name? What do you think about him being so blunt all the time?

No, I love it. I said to them, all of them, before they started the season, “As a judge you always have to call it as you see it.” And people, a lot of critics and stuff will always criticize judges, I don’t know if they’re hard enough or are they too hard or this or that or whatever, but you have to call it as you see it. I think he’s doing an amazing job. I think he’s hilarious. He’s funny. I think he’s being harsh when he has to be.

And it’s not really just being harsh, it’s like, what people fail to realize is you walk into a typical audition today in a room and there weren’t cameras in there, you might not even comment. You might just go, next. So I think you’ve got to call it as you see it always and I think they’re all doing it. I think they’re doing an amazing job. I’m loving what they’re doing.

One of the changes we saw on “American Idol” this year was the first openly gay on-camera contestant. Is that something that you welcome, a change that you’re glad to see on the show?

I’m really proud of her and I’m really happy for her and I think, who would have thought in 2014 you’d have to do that. I’m just always surprised. But we should have come a lot further a lot faster, but it is what it is. But I think, yeah, we’ve never said you can’t do this, you can’t do that.

It’s never about who you are or what you do or what you choose and where you’re from. It’s always really about the talent. So she’s a natural, so I mean I’m really happy for her that she’s able to say that. You know what I mean?

Have you heard “American Idol” Season 12 winner Candice Glover’s debut album, “Music Speaks”? And what do you think about her prospects for future success?

I haven’t heard the album, but I just heard a little bit of a single that sounded good to me the other day. I didn’t hear the whole thing. I heard about a minute of it. I wish her all the best and I wish her all the biggest things.

She’s definitely one of the greater singers that we’ve had on here and I hope the record is amazing. If the record is amazing she’ll do well, but the success of contestants after the show is all about great songs. We love her. Her talent is just, wow. She’s a wowser.

You were talking about how you have this wealth of knowledge from being a judge for so long on American Idol. What else can you offer as a mentor that you’ve taken from being a judge?

I think everything from being a judge, you’ve seen when the kids crumble, you’ve seen when, for instance, when you’re judging people it’s a very interesting thing. You’re talking to them and you’re wondering who gets the information that you’re actually giving them in your minute critique because if you really would pull back and listen to, not every time, but most of the time when a lot of the judges speak they’re really trying to give the kid some insight on what to do and where to go.

“The song is too big for you. It’s the wrong song for you. It’s the wrong key. Stop singing so many runs, you’ve got to work on your vibrato.” You’re really giving them coaching advice, but I wonder how much they actually retain of that because you can’t tell. They’ve got so much going on in their minds and in their hearts and in their heads as they’re on that stage that maybe they only retain 10 percent of that.

So it’s also what is really working, what has worked for past contestants, what songs. I mean, there’s just so much. There’s movement help, there are clothing choices, performance help, where does the star meter come for you, the arrangement, is it unique enough? Is it too unique? Is it way too musical?

There are so many things that go into the dynamics on the show that it’s from being a judge for 12 years on the show and also having a 35-year career working with the Arethas, the Eltons, the Springsteens, ‘N Sync, Destiny’s Child, Madonna, Mariah; that’s what I’ve done.

What challenges might you face?

I don’t know if it’s so much of a challenge for me because it’s kind of what I’ve been doing all my life with my own career and my own self as a musician and also I manage quite a few people and I’m a record producer, so when you take on those roles, those are mentoring roles and those are development roles that you’re trying to help become the best of who they can become.

So what I hope is that a lot of contestants try and take a lot of it to heart and I hope that it helps them. The sad part is that when you try and give someone that advice and it doesn’t always work the first or the second time or whatever. I just hope it helps them, you know what I mean?

You’ve been talking about the workshop that you did and working with Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert. How does this come about for you to do a workshop for the contestants?

It’s the first time we’ve ever done it and hopefully it’ll continue for a long time. It’s something I’ve wanted to do. I saw a lot of things being a judge over the years on this show when it started. I thought of a lot of ideas and a lot of things that I would possibly do different and also that I think would help enhance the show and now that we’re in the refresh, the “Idol” 2.0 mode, it’s something that I wanted to employ, it’s one of the things that I talked about when I first decided to be a mentor.

So I think it was something that’s long been kind of needed and I think it’s going to help the kids a lot and I hope they think it’s helped them a lot because it was definitely great for all of us and I wanted to have Adam and Chris come in because they’re really two different guys, but they’re each equally successful and they weren’t the winners their seasons. So they’ve gone on to amass great careers that are still running strong and they weren’t even the winners.

I wanted the kids to see that, see their knowledge, see their sense of self where they are now, where they’ve grown, what they thought when they were on the show, auditioning. It’s such an insight that I think none of the contestants have ever really had. So I’m really happy about the workshop.

In the past few years, Jimmy Iovine was the resident mentor on “American Idol.” Is your approach to being the mentor going to be different to the way he was a mentor?

Yeah, completely so. I love Jimmy and I think he was great and great on with us, but I think it’s just a different kind of thing. I really want to be a little bit more hands on and nurturing and try to really help them a little bit more rather than just the song coach. We’ll get into that in the arrangement. And I think we’ve got a different judging panel. It’s just a different set up this year. I think the whole thing is just a lot fresher, for me.

Simon Cowell’s U.S. “X Factor” got cancelled. Would you ever welcome him back on “American Idol”?

Oh, of course. He helped to born what this show really is. He helped to born what all these shows really are, so he is my dear friend for life. He’s one of the greatest to ever do it. So of course, I mean, are you kidding? It would be amazing.

What do you think about “The X Factor” U.S. being cancelled?

I’m sure it’s something he thought about, or whatever, wanted. I think he’s such an amazing, talented guy and he helped to born what that is. I’m sure he’s plotting his U.S. return in a different, new way. He’s a real creator. Never count him out.

This sounds like a follow-up from the last question, but how do you feel about “Idol” outlasting other shows like “The X Factor” U.S.?

I think the real thing about “Idol,” I say this all the time, I think it’s the best show of its kind on TV. And I’m sure some critics, probably a lot of critics, hate when I say that sometimes. But the truth really is that it is. So when you look at what the show set out to do, to find the next undiscovered star, superstar and we’ve produced a lot of talent.

We’re the only show that can say we have successful contestants from this format. So no other show on TV that’s a singing competition can really, really say that. So that’s the test of how well it’s done. And I think the idea of finding the best undiscovered talent that really needs a shot is what this show has really done and it continues to do it successfully. So I’m really happy about that and that’s made it stand apart and going into its 13th season. I don’t even know if any of those other shows will be on 13 seasons.

We’ve already seen on other seasons that people come in and do very indie stuff or very “out there” stuff. And we’ve seen that on this season as well on Hollywood Week. But do you actually really feel that they can go really far and win? And secondly, can they actually be mainstream popular artists?

I think all of that is welcome. “Idol” was never about choice, it’s never about who you are, it’s never about indie, it’s never about gender, it’s never about color, anything. What it really is about is just great talent. If you’re great, you will go through and you will continue.

And remember, the public will decide, as they decide anyway for anyone that releases any record, anything, they’ll start to vote and decide what your fate is. I mean I love Bon Iver. Of course, I love all sorts of music and I think the indie music genre is one of the best and biggest and brightest spots of our whole thing right now. It’s produced a lot of amazing talent right now.

You’re a mentor to the contestants this year, but what advice you gave to this year’s “American Idol” judging panel?

You know, I just mentor them all. You call it as you really see it when you’re judging and whatever that is because they’re all professionals, they’re all extremely talented people and I’ve known all of them a long time and they’re all dear friends of mine. Harry’s my homeboy from Louisiana. He’s funny, he’s charismatic, he’s silly, but he’s very musically savvy and knowledgeable. Jennifer is the same way and the same goes for Keith.

The thing that I’m really happiest about with them is they’ve got a great natural chemistry, which is what it takes for every judging panel, not a forced chemistry, but a natural chemistry. You want people to really get on. They can have different views and different opinions, which they do and they can disagree, which they do.

But at least they’re all for the greater good, you know what I’m saying, the whole, the greater good of the whole thing. So I love them. That’s the only really tidbit that I gave them and they’ve found some amazingly talented kids this year. They’re very unique, very different. I think the show is off to a good clip, man. I love the refresh “Idol” 2.0.

Would you ever consider coming over to the U.K. and being on one of the TV judging panels?

You know, I love it over there. I love the music, I love the people. Of course, I would, I would consider that. It might have to be with Cowell, though.

Do you think Simon Cowell is going to make a good dad?

I’m still getting over the shock that he’s going to be a dad. Listen, I think it’s really going to help him grow and I’ve just been saying to him, “Dude, let it happen, let it wash over you, come on!” I think he’s actually going to be a good dad. And I’m surprising myself as I say this: I think he’s going to be a good dad.

For more info: "American Idol" website

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