"American Idol's" Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips… (Christina House, For The…)
Phillip Phillips clutched his guitar as he worked through a bluesy version of "Superstition." In rehearsals for the upcoming "American Idol" Live tour, he focused on the band and offered little more than whispered vocals.
Satisfied, he jumped from the Stevie Wonder classic — it opens his segment on the tour — into Usher's bedroom burner "Nice & Slow."
At North Hollywood's Third Encore studios, Phillips and the rest of Season 11's top 10 finalists rehearsed just before the annual postseason trek, which opened Friday in Detroit and plays Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, where the "Idol" finale is taped, July 23.
PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at the Live! tour
When Phillips took the title in May, he earned a majority of the 132 million votes cast but some critics wrote off the 21-year-old troubadour as just the latest "white guy with a guitar" to win — a trend that's dominated the show for the last five seasons. Phillips acknowledged the challenge, and that post-"Idol" success has been hard to come by for the boys, but he hopes to break the mold.
"If they paid attention to each person's artistry, then they would know the difference between a lot of us," Phillips said. "Kris [Allen] is different from David [Cook], David is different from Scotty [McCreery] and I'm different from all of them. I feel like I play the guitar and approach music a lot different than they do."
Last year's winner, McCreery, made history when his debut, "Clear as Day," bowed at No. 1 on the charts, the first time a winner launched their career at the top since Ruben Studdard in 2003. But McCreery is the exception.
VIDEO: Jessica Sanchez vs. Phillip Phillips
The debut of Season 9's Lee DeWyze, "Live It Up," logged the lowest first-week sales for a winner from the franchise, including Taylor Hicks, and was only the second, after Allen's self-titled debut, to not score a top 10 debut.
DeWyze was subsequently dropped from RCA; Hicks lost the support of Arista Records after one album; Allen's latest disc, "Thank You Camellia," didn't make much noise; and Cook parted ways with RCA after two albums.
The franchise had a nine-year partnership with 19 Recordings and RCA's parent company, Sony Music. Now, however, contestants broker deals through Universal Music Group.
Each season begins the same, with an early favorite stealing hearts and votes. Season 10's Casey Abrams was one of those, but finished sixth, even after the judges used their lone save on him. "To be honest, it worked out perfectly.... Finally, I get to go into the real world because that's where the journey begins," Abrams said. "I was stressed at the save. But as soon as I got voted off, I couldn't care less. I was just excited to start making music."
Debuts from former "Idol" contestants have been dismissed as record-label-issued blandness, and Cook, Allen and DeWyze found projects criticized as "generic," "uninspired" and "vague."
Jimmy Iovine, in-house "Idol" mentor and chairman of Interscope/Geffen/A&M, said the show's platform could place finalists at a disadvantage. "The first album, you're entering a different place than most artists," he said. "It's hard to go on TV in front of 20 [to] 25 million people … and then go make your first album. That's a tough trick."
Season 11's Colton Dixon, another early favorite, says finalists should take advantage of the show's massive reach — even with a sizable dip in ratings the finale garnered 21.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures. "The year after the show is the most important year. You've got to get something out that's good and current," he said. "And you also have to stay true to who you were on the show."
"I've seen artists that I love come out with something that's completely different than what they were on the show, and I'm wondering why would you do that," he continued. "You've got a huge fan base from the show, and not that you've let them down but you've confused them a bit. For me, I've made it very plain and clear who I was and I'm going to put out an album that's like that."
Back at Third Encore, more finalists spilled into the rehearsal space. Dixon hugged Phillips, and runner-up Jessica Sanchez pulled up a stool alongside the man who kept her from being the first female victor since 2006. The band cued them and the pair dove into a stunning take on Damien Rice's "Volcano," with Phillips at full voice and Sanchez more than keeping up.
Phillips acknowledged there are jitters about his debut album, which he hoped would have a November or December release.
"A lot of people that have come out of 'American Idol,' it's a lot of poppy stuff, there's some country stuff but I really wanted to show the world what I was trying to do with my album," he said. "I like writing my own stuff. Hopefully people recognize No. 1 hits aren't always the best songs in the world."
PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at the Live! tour