Oliver Steele took American Idol by storm with an unpretentious presence that blends perfectly with a voice that shifts effortlessly between dulcet tones and easy power, Oliver Steele has taken American Idol by storm.
The 25-year-old, who has lived in Mount Juliet since he was four, landed in the elite eight of this season’s competition on the strength of refreshing versions of songs ranging from “Georgia On My Mind” to Radiohead’s pop staple “High & Dry,” Shania Twain’s “Still The One,” and his stunning original, “Too Soon.”
He won the admiration of judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, as well as an adoring public that has watched more than a million of his individual performances on various platforms.
Recently we caught up with him by phone while he and his fellow Idol cast members were en route to Indio, California, to watch Bryan’s performance at Stagecoach Festival.
RIGHT TO THE POINT: HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU PUT INTO AMERICAN IDOL?
We get up at 7:30 a.m. and go to the lot, and we’re there until 6 or 7 at night. A lot goes into it, not just rehearsing and vocal coaching. There’s wardrobe, stage blocking, there’s always something to be done, and it’s seven days a week. The food is pretty good. We’re on our own for dinner, but for breakfast and lunch, we’re treated pretty well.
HOW MUCH INTERACTION DO YOU HAVE WITH THE JUDGES?
Not too much. Occasionally we’ll see them walking around, but we really only see them on the show. Lionel will stop and say high. But we work quite a bit with Kris Pooley, the show’s musical director. We talk about how we want a song to sound. He gives us pretty good latitude creatively. And dealing with the band is an awesome opportunity and a lot of fun.
WHAT’S YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR FELLOW ARTISTS LIKE?
We’re with each other every single day. We love each other, and we’re all very close. It’s hard to see contestants go home. It was tough the day after we cut from the top 20 to 12. It was very quiet on the lot.
But for the longer term, I feel like all these people will be in my life forever. Absolutely. Iam Tongi (Steele’s duet partner on “Save Your Tears”) is like a little brother to me.
YOU WERE SEEN PLAYING A PRS JOHN MAYER SILVER SKY GUITAR. IS THAT YOUR GUITAR, OR DOES IT BELONG TO THE SHOW?
It is my guitar, a PRS SE. I got it at Shiloh Music in Mount Juliet. It may have gotten my attention because of John, but I got it because once I played it, it felt incredible. It’s signed by a few of my heroes: Cory Wong, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Katy, Lionel and Luke. And Tomo Fujita, who was John Mayer’s teacher at Berklee (College of Music).
AS AN ARTIST, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS MORE OF A SONGWRITER OR PERFORMER?
I don’t really believe in dissecting things too much. I write. I perform. I play. I don’t like the idea of one over the other. I never considered myself a guitar player, but I like to play and use the guitar when I perform. I’ve always felt like writing is creative and an outlet to express myself. It feels right to me, probably because I wrote poetry before I wrote songs.
WHERE DO YOU PLAY AROUND NASHVILLE?
Usually downtown at The Twelve Thirty Club (550 Broadway) or in Printers Alley. I’ve played Whisky Jam (at Winners Bar & Grill in Midtown) a couple of times. I was supposed to play recently, but I’ve been doing American Idol.
YOUR FAMILY, PARTICULARLY THE HEALTH OF YOUR FATHER, MUSICIAN TOBY STEELE, HAS BEEN A LARGE PART OF YOUR IDOL STORY. HOW IS HE DOING AND HOW IS YOUR FAMILY INSPIRING YOU?
He’s still on dialysis every day, but he’s in Mount Juliet and doing alright. He’s very excited and proud. Sometimes I can’t tell him things because he’ll spoil it! I’m grateful for my family. My little sister and big brother and my mom as an emotional guidance system. My grandmother on my dad’s side is from Manila, so I’m proud of my Filipino heritage. I haven’t been there to visit, but I want to go.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU FOLLOWING AMERICAN IDOL?
Man, I really don’t know. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know how this thing is going to end. People are wanting me to play, and I can’t give them answers until we’re done with the show, but I think some bright things are ahead. At some point, I’d really like to go back to Hawai’i. We filmed an episode of Idol on Oahu in February, and it was a great vibe and a great time.