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An ingenue no longer

'American Idol' runner-up Katharine McPhee shows a sultrier side on her new album.

January 30, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

ON a recent Tuesday afternoon, Katharine McPhee was sashaying through a Valley coffee shop in a red crystal-covered mini-dress. The leggy singer with the cascade of brown hair knocked her hips from side to side theatrically. "I feel like I'm doing what Beyonce does," she giggled, to a small but appreciative audience that includes her boyfriend, her publicist, a representative from Swarovski (which made the dress) and the barrista and kitchen crew.

"This dress barely covers my butt," she said, swinging it vigorously. "Baby, if I'm going to be wearing this -- I'm going to have to get to the gym," she said as she nodded to boyfriend Nick Cokas.

McPhee is at the exact vertiginous moment of her career when she can still change in the bathrooms of coffee shops and not create a major commotion. She's now famous as a reality star -- the winsome runner-up from last season's "American Idol" -- but she's not yet a genuine rock star in her own right, and her new album, "Katharine McPhee" (released today, will largely determine whether McPhee ascends into the winner's circle of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood or joins the crew of "Idol" has-beens such as Justin Guarini.

She arrived at this Ventura Boulevard coffee shop -- a local haunt she's been frequenting ever since high school -- after a long day of publicity. Her farm-fresh features had been meticulously lacquered for photo shoots and interviews, and the famed mane now included hair extensions. Decked out in a slouchy brown sweater and jeans, she toted a white paper Williams-Sonoma shopping bag filled with shirts and cowboy boots that enabled her to change her look between various interviews.

So often on "Idol," McPhee seemed a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice in search of an identity. The "Idols" who win tend to have personas with hooks -- Clarkson the sassy belter, Fantasia the tough single mama with the baby-doll voice. McPhee's most memorable performance was a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz" -- the song was sweet yearning and nothing but. It would turn out to be the second-best selling single of 2006.

Over a sandwich that she devoured, she said, "I think the hardest thing about that show is finding who you are in front of everybody else in the whole world." Especially for her because, "and I don't mean this egotistically. I am a little bit versatile. I can sound like the singer who sings jazz. I could do my little R&B, so it made it difficult for people to pinpoint me."

In person, the 22-year-old McPhee appears more distinctive, and scrappy -- she did, after all, do some starving-actress years, living at home with her parents in the Valley, failing on auditions and making money by singing in local musical-theater productions. She's anchored by an unexpectedly husky speaking voice and tends to be blunt. It's nice to see that her persona hasn't yet been shined to a high-impenetrable gloss.

She thinks her best performance on "Idol" came at the beginning of the season, "when I was the most calm and still kind of in reality. I wasn't absorbed in this bubble."

She got rattled by nerves in the contest, especially as it went on. "When I got into the top five is when I really started to lose it. Just getting like emotional during rehearsals. Just doubting yourself a lot. Having nerves you can't really control. I did the best that I could, but it was the best I could do in that moment. I don't think it was necessarily my best."

The new album appears to be a snapshot of McPhee at this point in time -- recorded in the few months since the "Idol" tour ended last summer. Her image and sound have definitely gone a little more sultry. Forget the innocent ingenue. The cover features a ripe McPhee in a loose but clingy gold-and-black striped sweater dress, her legs provocatively splayed, encased in foreboding thigh-high black leather boots, and her thatch of hair doing its requisite tumbling.

The songs alternate between power ballads and up-tempo girl-power tunes. She and her record company -- part of the Sony/BMG empire, like all the Idols -- had intended to just sit back and see what songs were sent to them by songwriters, but McPhee wasn't happy. "It was stuff that I wasn't identifying with," so the record company packed her off to Virginia Beach, Va., for 10 days to work with Nate "Danja" Hills, the record producer who co-produced (with Timbaland) Nelly Furtado's hit single "Promiscuous" and Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack."

They produced nine songs in 10 days, including three to which McPhee contributed lyrics: "Neglected," about leaving a bad relationship ("I don't like this feeling whenever I'm around you. I want to be respected, but I'm just neglected"), and a kicky ode to shoes, "Open Shoes." "What's the other song I co-wrote on? Why can't I remember it?" she says. It turns out to be "Not Ur Girl," another song about dumping a bad guy.

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