For some, it’s a guilty pleasure; for others, it’s a weekly ritual; and for pretty much everyone, American Idol is the source of water cooler conversations and dorm gossip. In the first few weeks of the show, a range of contestants walk through the doors to audition, and sometimes truly talented artists are discovered. We talked to recent golden-ticket recipient Sean Michel whose foot-stomping rendition of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” wowed the judges. In last night’s episode, Sean Michel was sent home from Hollywood, but his music career is still just getting started.
Was it surreal to walk into that audition room in front of those three famous judges? Were you freaking out?
Yeah, I don’t know if I was freaking out as much as—I mean, it was kind of hard for me to freak out at the point because, for one, I was super tired. We had to wait about 10 hours or so before I even walked in the room.
And I don’t really watch the show—I’ve seen a few episodes; I know what it’s about, but I wasn’t just enamored by the people because they weren’t like stars to me. If they’d had somebody else in there that I like to listen to a lot or something, it might have been a different story. So I don’t think I was as nervous; I mean, I had the nerves like anyone would initially have just because you’re singing, doing something musically in front of people you don’t know, but I had a lot of time. Right before I went in there, they had what was supposed to be a five-minute break, but it turned into like 15 minutes, so I had a lot of time to just kind of pray.
Now, you’ve said you weren’t a big fan of show. What was your motivation for giving it a shot?
Well, we didn’t hear about the tryouts until the night before from a friend that we hadn’t seen in a while from college, and he had called us about this couple that my friend Jay and I had known from college. We hadn’t seen them in a long time, and she sings at a show in Branson, so we really just wanted to go see them and hang out. We knew that they were going to be in there for a while, so my friend Jay, just spur of the moment, was like, “Hey, why don’t we go to Memphis, and we can go hang out with our two friends, Rob and Tami, and then you can try out for American Idol, and we can eat barbecue on Beale Street?” Whenever we play shows and stuff, when we’re coming home, if we’re passing through Memphis, we always stop on Beale Street. So that was kind of our original motivation for going.
But as we were going, I was having thoughts like, “Oh, man, if something does happen, God help me, Jesus for You, and [help me to] not just joke around about it or just be foolish with the opportunity.” So I didn’t really know what to expect. But I had to do two tryouts before I even got to Paula and Simon, so by that time it was more about, God, help me to be who You made me to be, and help me to just be myself and sing in front of them with the same motivation that I’d sing in front of anybody—and that’s just to share the truth, and that’s what I was trying to do there.
Which was kind of difficult to keep in mind, because the show’s got totally different motivation, so it was kind of weird to me; like mentally, how do you bring the two together somehow? And maybe they don’t fit together. But I figured since I had that opportunity, I’d at least give it a shot.
Did it hit you that this was going to be a bigger platform to share the good news with these people?
Yeah, obviously. I mean, the further you get in the competition, the more interviews they do with you, so you kind of have to be prepared—how am I going to answer things intelligently and in a way where I’m not giving away too much information about myself that they could use to … you know what I’m saying, to make me an idiot in front of the camera? Because that’s a pretty easy thing to do sometimes when the camera’s on you, and so my friend Jay and I, we try to really be aware of that and be like, “How can I portray the fact that God and Christ are the main part of my life, but not do it in a way to where it’s going to turn people off like, ‘Oh that’s that obnoxious Christian guy,’ but in a way where it’ll really make people think.”
But that just kind of came out before the interview. I knew they were going to ask me things about my look because they’d already asked me questions about that before. That kind of just came to me before I even went into the interview, and so they captured it well—I think—on the camera. And so that’s why I was sharing that, which is the whole “poor in spirit” thing that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5.
For someone who has a background of really authentic music, has the show been hard to really be a part of?
Yeah, for me totally, I mean just mentally and emotionally. It was kind of a toll because I’m just like, how do I …? These people at the show, they give you songs to choose from the further on you go. Because normally, if I’m going to be playing music with the band, it’s kind of like the concept, “if you don’t feel it, don’t play it,” and so it has to be something from our hearts that moves us, whether it’s to worship—not necessarily praise and worship music but just music in general —how do I do that with some song from the ’50s or ’60s or some ridiculous song? How do I worship God even though it’s not directly about Him or used for that purpose at all? And so that was kind of a hard thing to deal with mentally. I guess just sing it to the best of my ability. I don’t know, maybe God digs on ’60s music sometimes.
I’m sure He does.
Yeah, maybe I can sing Him a ’50s love song, and He’s cool with that.
Did you get any behind-the-scenes chances to talk to judges or other contestants or other people from the show?
Yeah, there’s a lot of that actually. A lot of the contestants shared their faith with me! Being involved with that show humbled me in a lot of ways and opened my eyes. I kind of went in there—not completely like this, and I wasn’t trying to be like this—but like, “this show is really fake, and so I’m sure all the people involved in it are really fake.” I didn’t have much respect for the show initially because I hadn’t really watched it that much. That was my fault, pre-judging everything.
But then, being there and sitting with the people for 10 or 12 hours at a time, when we were trying out—these people are real people with real lives, and a lot of them were believers. I even came across several contestants who would just be like, “You know, the only reason I’m here is because I want to share God’s love, I want to share the Gospel through this experience. And so I was just really humbled, like, man, why am I even out here? These people could probably do a lot better job than I could of doing that.
That’s a long period of time, and you just grow pretty close together; it’s kind of like summer camp. Because you’re stuck with those people all day long, it’s kind of a cool time to just lose barriers and get to know people.
You’ve sort of become an overnight celebrity. Has that been weird?
Yeah, it was really weird and kind of stressful at the same time because I’d hate to experience what it was like for a lot of those people who were “stars,” whatever that means. I can totally understand why those people would try to live in seclusion, because two minutes on the TV, and we had so much to deal with, like on our MySpace and stuff—which was great, and we totally enjoyed that—but at the same time it was great to be able to have that exposure with just two minutes on the TV.
It did add a lot of responsibilities that we weren’t really expecting. It made us have to step up our game, and it gave us a lot more added responsibility of staying in touch with the people on MySpace and just future shows that people want to do with our band now because of that exposure. We’re thankful for it for sure, but it’s also added a lot more responsibility and more stress. But stress is good sometimes, I guess.
I read that your band got started as a way to fund a missions trip to Africa.
Originally the first recording I’ve ever really done—besides a cheesy high-school band I was in—was a solo thing because I wasn’t really in a band at the time, but I had a lot of friends that I played music with, and they were in other bands. So I had [the idea to put] these songs together. My friend Jay and I were invited to go to Namibia in Africa for six weeks to do some discipleship out there, and he just had the idea, “Why don’t you put these songs on CDs so we can sell them to raise money to go overseas?”
I had a friend from college who had some recording stuff, and it turned into a two-month ordeal. We thought it was going to be pretty quick, but it ended up being pretty long, but it was cool, and I think God really used that in a big way to help us get over there. We raised a lot of money from selling those CDs. And because of that, I would play shows.
Is that still something that’s a passion of yours? Using music to do social justice and missions work?
I would pretty much play for anything or for anyone. But mainly right now it’s become more of a ministry for us as a band. This is what we do: we get in our van, and we go places, to whoever wants us to play. But if we could play shows for causes like that … we’ve done that before. We’ve played at benefit shows for Invisible Children, and we’ve done other shows to help raise money for missions trips and stuff. Yeah, it’s definitely something that’s a part of us that we want to help support too.
What’s one thing that wasn’t featured on the show that you’d want people to know about you and your faith?
They did a pretty good job of portraying the kind of person that I am. And it’s kind of weird, just through the music they chose on that little two-minute clip—kind of airy, nice, soft music. And it’s like, “Hey, here’s this dude who’s trying to think deep about stuff,” thoughtful, you know? And they portrayed that really well. I didn’t really go too in depth about my faith or whatever—the faith God’s given me. I tried to stay with their questions and not veer off too much from that. If people have gone to our MySpace, which a lot of people have since that portion aired, then they pretty much know what I’m about and what we’re about as a band—trying to follow God on a daily basis, just trying to take things one day at a time.
Jesus said, “Don’t get worried about tomorrow, don’t get all wrapped up in what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to wear. Just seek first My kingdom, and I’ll provide everything else, and you just do the work of the kingdom.” And that’s what we’re hoping to do, just spread His kingdom more. That’s onstage while playing music and ultimately a lot more offstage, because if we’re not living what we talk about, then we’re pretty much doing an injustice, and it’s kind of pointless. The biggest thing is just keeping in line with what we say we believe.
And if there’s any way God wants us to do that, we want to be able to do that—whether it’s feeding the poor or just hanging out with people who are handicapped or that other people don’t usually hang out with. And they didn’t really get too much into that, but I thought they might have because they knew that I was a caretaker—I work for an organization called Friendship, based out of Arkansas, and it’s an organization that reaches and helps with the mentally and physically handicapped. My roommate’s handicapped, and he and I first met and started hanging through music. He likes to play drums a lot, and he knew I liked guitar, and we went to the same church, so he would come over to my parents’ house a lot and ask to jam out. So we started jamming out, and eventually he needed to move out of his house, and they needed someone to live with him and help him with independent living skills, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past almost three years—living with him and playing music. He’s a big part of my life right now too.
Is that another passion that you want to continue to pursue?
Well, it’s kind of like a thing that God just put in my lap; it wasn’t that I sought it out, but just through certain events … I used to substitute teach at this high school, and I was friends with a couple of the teachers who taught special ed. When they would be out, they would need a substitute, and so I had subbed in their classrooms a lot, and that was cool—just getting to know a lot of those students because they were great, and God used them to teach me a lot and is still teaching me a lot about myself and how to relate to people just by hanging out with these people who have Down syndrome or had some sort of mental handicap when they were children—getting to hang out with these people who were completely real all the time. Who they are is what you’re going to get. They’re not going to try to dress themselves up or be somebody they’re not because they don’t know how to do that. Getting to see that in such a simple way was a huge encouragement to me, and a huge help to me.
Even my roommate, he’s on pretty low learning levels, but one time, this was probably like two years ago, when the band first started rolling, we were practicing at the house in the living room, and I was getting really frustrated about something—something wasn’t sounding right or I wasn’t sounding right. I was just getting really frustrated—and he was just lying on the couch listening. Then, all of a sudden, he told me, “Just be yourself; just play the music.” And that was all he said, and he got up and went to his room. I couldn’t argue with that! And this is coming from someone who’s supposed to be on not as high of learning levels as everyone else, and I was just like, man! Little things like that I would just keep in mind for a long time. If we’d be at a show and I’d be worried about something, I’d think of him just lying on that couch, saying, “Just be yourself; just play the music.”