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"Idol" alum Katharine McPhee grows as a composer

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When making their first albums, American Idol winners and high-placing runners-up tend to rely heavily on outside material, just like they did when competing on the Fox series.

Katharine McPhee finished second to Taylor Hicks on Idol in 2006, and she released her self-titled debut album the following year. True to form, it was dominated by songs written by others.

Unbroken (Verve/Forecast), released Jan. 5, is a different story: McPhee had a hand in writing half of the album’s 12 official songs (a version of Melanie‘s “Brand New Key” is listed as a bonus track).

When Universal Music Group exec Doug Morris suggested McPhee take a trip to Nashville, Tenn., for a crash course in songwriting, the singer was caught off-guard.

“At first I thought, ‘But I am not making a country record,’ ” McPhee recalls. “But Mr. Morris gave me a couple of examples of songs that came from Nashville that were huge pop hits. Nashville is a place where writers really want to tell stories and write lyrics against real instruments. It is a little different from, not better or worse, but just different from more producer-driven music. I wanted to make a record with a band of musicians: all of us in the studio together, creating together. I did not want to come in and sing to tracks that had been created. Nashville and their writers helped me realize this.”

McPhee admits to being intimidated at first. There she was in the same room with Luke Laird (who has co-written songs recorded by Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw) and Chris Tompkins (a co-writer of the Carrie Underwood hit “Before He Cheats”). Hillary Lindsey, whose material has been recorded by Underwood, Martina McBride and Sara Evans, was pitching music to her.

“Once I settled [in], I realized that we are all human, just trying to tell simple little stories,” McPhee says. “I learned that they work really hard every day sitting at a piano or with a guitar and try to tell stories. I learned that it is OK to fail a lot because every so often something comes out of you that you may not have realized without going through the process. I also learned how to have a lot of fun in a session and that, in the end, [making music] is not brain surgery.”

Unbroken also gave McPhee the chance to collaborate with some notable artists.

As for Rachael Yamagata (a co-writer of the Dido-esque “Keep Drivin’ “), McPhee says, “She was a friend of the producer [John Alagia]. I had written the entire song with Chris Tompkins in Nashville. The entire song was done and the melody and bridge were all there. We had come up with temp lyrics for the verses, and I had come up with the choruses.

“Once I got in the studio,” she adds, “everyone on my team thought it was a great song and that we should go back and try to come up with more lyrics for the verses. That is when Rachael was asked to come in and help. I loved the lyrics she came up with.”

Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson played a key role in writing the ballad “Surrender” with McPhee and Marshall Altman.

“I had met Ingrid at the Hotel Cafe in L.A., and we both had a mutual respect for each other,” McPhee explains. “So with Haagen Dazs ice cream in hand while staying at a friend’s apartment in New York, we got together for a couple of nights and just started fooling around with song ideas.

“She is a lot of fun to write with. On this song, there were actually a couple of different song ideas that we had been working on together and then they ended up melding into one song. It was a very cool process.

“Collaboration is an interesting thing. Some people you can hit it off with and others you don’t. Sometimes there is an existing melody or some lyrics and other times there is not. However, in the end, when something comes out of a session, you look back and for that moment in time, it was meant to be.”

— By Chris M. Junior