Katharine McPhee warmly laughs as she confesses she’s been in “artistic hiding” for the last few years.
“It took me a long time to figure out where I wanted to go and be as an artist,” she says. “I needed time to learn who I was as a musician.”
Once she discovered the answer, however, her path was sure and swift. On Unbroken, her Verve Records debut, listeners will discover a glorious side of McPhee previously untapped. Poignant, vital lyrics swell over full, lush melodies. McPhee’s supple, clear voice, resonating with emotion and confidence, caresses each note on this collection of soon-to- be pop classics.
Fans first met McPhee on Season Five of American Idol. The runner-up could seemingly sing any style of music, but especially mesmerized millions with her heart-stirring rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Her first solo album, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 in early 2007, only hinted at the extent of her talent—not only as a singer but as a songwriter—that Unbroken reveals.
Unlike that first effort, McPhee co-wrote the majority of the songs on Unbroken, collaborating with fellow singer/songwriters Paula Cole, Ingrid Michaelson and Rachael Yamagata. “This record is definitely more personal to me,” McPhee says. “I have more stories to tell. It’s more of an artistic look at me as a person. Coming from a reality show, it’s hard to know the depth of somebody. This record gave me that opportunity to show that. That’s what Verve wanted from me: to make a record I was proud of. It was a huge blessing to give me that.”
Her vocals also display a new vulnerability and maturity that make Unbroken compelling listening. “I think I finally learned to breathe,” McPhee says, both literally and figuratively. “I’m grounded in my own body; my voice was grounded. Having a big voice, I had to realize that singing high notes didn’t equal artistry. This is more about how I can interpret a song, the nuances of singing.”
While sounding utterly contemporary, McPhee also drew from the tremendous voices that have guided her throughout her life ranging from Nina Simone to Sarah McLachlan. “I wanted some older influences on here,” she says. “My mom is a cabaret singer; I grew up with the Great American Songbook. That’s why I know all the standards, but I always had a want and a need for pop music.”
McPhee began work on Unbroken in 2008. At the urging on Universal Music Group chairman Doug Morris, she traveled to Nashville several times to write with some of Music City’s top songwriters. “It was a really great place for me to grow as a songwriter; see how it’s done,” she says.
What emerged were tales of resilience, of being bowed but not broken by life’s experiences. “There are a lot of dark stories. I see a lot of sadness in the world,” she says with a shrug. “I don’t always have a rosy picture of the world. That comes out in my music more than I would like it to.”
“How” faces taking charge in a suffocatingly dark time. “The lyric was just so meaningful in so many ways,” McPhee says. “I had to be in a position where I said, ‘This is my life’.”
The devastating, string-laced ballad “Say Goodbye,” received its premiere when McPhee appeared on CSI: New York. Written about the pain that precedes an inevitable break up, “Say Goodbye,” is “the slit your wrist song,” McPhee says. (CSI: New York isn’t her only acting credit; McPhee has appeared on Ugly Betty, also co-starred in the 2008 hit The House Bunny and has a lead role in the upcoming feature film You May Not Kiss the Bride).
McPhee makes the driving first single, “Had It All,” written by Kara Dioguardi, Mitch Allan and David Hodges, completely her own. The tune’s upbeat melodies contrast the often downbeat lyrics of someone who appears to have lost it all: “The song represents a lot of stuff in some of our lives, looking back to the past,” she says. “We can feel like we maybe made mistakes, but it all works out.”
But McPhee is far from a gloom merchant. “Lifeline” is decidedly upbeat. “Surrender,” co-written with Michaelson, is ultimately a self-affirming call to love yourself as much as others do. The breathtaking title track, written with Cole, features one of McPhee’s most stirring performances about coming through troubling times scarred but stronger.
McPhee paired with producer John Alagia, best known for his work with John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and Jason Mraz, to record Unbroken in studios throughout Los Angeles. “Part of John’s charm was that he’s just such a blast to hang out with,” she says. “His contribution was really bringing in the right musicians and taking the vision to the right level.” Among the top-flight players on Unbroken are drummer Victor Indrizzo, pianists Patrice Rushen and Billy Childs and guitarist extraordinaire Paul Jackson, Jr.
The album’s sole cover is the bonus track, McPhee’s sprightly version of Melanie’s 1971 hit, “Brand New Key.” “I’d never heard that song in my life,” she says. “It’s so weird and so cute. People who really know me know that I’m a weird funny girl. I thought it was cute and good to have another fun song on the record.”
Along with her musical rebirth comes a stunning physical change: McPhee recently transformed from a long-haired brunette to a sultry blonde. “I’ve never done anything crazy like this,” she says. “I didn’t think I would cut my hair off or go this blonde, but I’m going through changes. Searching for lyrics and meaning in the record just sort of forced me to examine inside and out.”
And yet come through to the other side, as McPhee does, Unbroken.