Kicking back on a couch with a hot cup of tea, Taylor Hicks looks as comfortable backstage at the “Tonight Show” as he might in his own home. When Jay Leno pops into Hicks’ dressing room to say hello, the gray-haired soul singer is unfazed — a moment that reflects just how much “American Idol” has changed the 30-year-old’s life.
A year ago, Hicks was a struggling musician unknown to those outside the small Southern clubs where he performed. Today, he is a bona fide TV star and major-label recording artist whose self-titled solo debut hits stores Tuesday.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Hicks said before taking the “Tonight Show” stage recently. “This is what happens when you catch a break. I’m very thankful and very gracious for what the show has done for me.”
As a teenager in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., Hicks knew music would be his career. He never even considered another option. The eldest of three boys, he taught himself to play harmonica, then guitar. Next he tried his hand at songwriting and set out to perform “anywhere I could.”
Along the way, he released two independent albums, “In Your Time” and “Under the Radar.”
After nearly 10 years on the road, his music — and the opportunities it brought him — were improving, and his brother urged him to audition for “American Idol.”
“My dad told me that I might as well buy a lottery ticket,” Hicks said.
‘Modern soul man’But the guy most considered a longshot with his mature look, Michael McDonald-pipes and curious dancing style soon became the odds-on favorite. More than 63 million votes were cast to determine the contest, and the majority of people chose Hicks over Katherine McPhee as their “Idol” in May, shifting his music career into warp speed.
He spent the summer touring the country with his fellow “Idol” finalists. When the concert wrapped in September, Hicks began his tutelage with legendary music mogul Clive Davis to craft an album that would be a fitting follow to his star-making “Idol” turn.
It was an “intimidating” experience, Hicks said, describing himself as “stubborn about my artistry and my creative integrity.” But he’s happy with the result. The album’s 12 tracks “a great representation of me as an artist,” he said.
Davis said he helped Hicks “define who he is.”
“He’s a modern soul man,” Davis said. “But we have stretched him a little. He’s getting in touch with other aspects of music and his versatility.”
The album sounds like “modern whomp music,” Hicks said.
“It’s like funk, soul, jazz, blues, a little bit of hip-hop beats and rhythms,” he said. “It’s Taylor Hicks’ modern take on soul music.”
Making the album gave him a chance to learn the recording side of the music business — something new for the singer who considers himself primarily a live performer. Producer Matt Serletic said Hicks brought his live-show energy into the studio, the classic mark of a soul man.
“He has a similar approach to soul singers of the past. They just throw themselves at the song,” Serletic said. “It informs where the record needs to go.”
He encouraged Hicks to embrace “a more disciplined melodic approach” and showed him how to “sculpt” a song.
Now Hicks wants to try his hand at producing.
First, though, he wants to establish himself as a traveling musician with a devoted following like the artists he admires: Van Morrison, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan and B.B. King.
“Those people have touring in their blood,” Hicks said. “I’ve studied (them) and I’m falling into that vein hopefully.”
Anything is possible for a former “Idol,” said Geoff Mayfield, senior analyst for Billboard magazine.
“‘American Idol’ has the luxury of letting you get acquainted with artists from the comfort of your living room,” he said. “By the time they get to the point where they’re putting out an album, you’re already in their club.”
Hicks’ fan club calls itself the Soul Patrol, and the singer hopes to expand its ranks with his new album. He also plans to reissue his two indie albums, giving them new life and new listeners.
The past year was packed with accolades for Hicks. Besides earning the “Idol” title, he was named People magazine’s “hottest bachelor” for 2006, a distinction he said left him “completely flattered and completely freaked out.”
The honor hasn’t led to romance, and Hicks said he would hardly have time if it did. He has been working 12-hour days since auditioning for “Idol” in September 2005.
Christmas will bring him a brief respite before his record promotion kicks back into high gear, with a halftime performance during the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 and a planned nationwide tour to begin in February.
Hicks said he’ll spend the holidays in Alabama, “eating some Southern food and lying on the couch watching football.”
Then he’ll hit the road — and hopefully stay there.
“If I can keep an audience and be a working musician, I’ll be happy,” he said. “I’m like a traveling musical gypsy, which is what I’ve always wanted to be.”