Last summer, while spending nearly every night singing to sold-out arenas on the American Idols LIVE! Tour, Haley Reinhart landed her first record deal. Although the smoky-voiced singer/songwriter was unspeakably eager to dive into recording her debut, Reinhart decided to hold off until the 49-date, continent-hopping tour had ended. “I wanted to wait till I could put all my focus and energy into the album and be very hands-on with every single aspect of it,” says Reinhart. “It was really important to me that the record have an organic, soulful sound that truly reflects the kind of artist I want to be.”
Immediately after the tour ended, Reinhart (who ranked third in the tenth season of American Idol) moved from her hometown of Wheeling, Illinois, to Los Angeles and began furiously crafting the songs that would eventually grace her debut. The result is Listen Up! (19 Entertainment/Interscope Records), a ten-track fusion of pop, R&B, rock and roll, and soul that’s both timeless and irresistibly fresh. Serving as co-writer on all but one number (“Free,” the album’s sweetly sorrowful, piano-driven torch-song lead single), Reinhart infuses Listen Up! with her strikingly authentic sensibility and, in turn, more than meets her mission of bringing a classic spirit to modern pop.
To help harness that spirit, Reinhart joined forces with a first-class lineup of songwriters and producers that includes Mike Elizondo (Jay-Z, Fiona Apple, Maroon 5), Rob Kleiner (Usher, Flo Rida, Timbaland), and busbee (Katy Perry, Kid Cudi, Kelly Clarkson). “We just dove in headfirst, and it all ran really smoothly because I was feeling so inspired,” says Reinhart of the recording process. “I’d get into the studio with a producer and we’d get going on a song and start laying it down right away. A lot of the time we ended up going with the first take—the mood and the energy were so good the first time around, it didn’t make sense to try to re-create it.”
Not only helpful for building momentum, the synergy between Reinhart and her collaborators was key to the album’s stunning diversity of sound. “Working with all these different people, we got to bring in so many tonalities and play around with different rhythms and techniques from a whole mix of genres—from classic rock to funk to psychedelia to jazz,” she says. “We weren’t even intentionally trying to fit all that in. It just happened naturally once things got flowing.” Still, much of Listen Up!’s strength lies in Reinhart’s devotion to old-school pop simplicity. “The most crucial thing to me is that people hear the album and feel good and just get lost in the melodies,” notes Reinhart.
Right from the opening track (“Oh My!” ft. B.o.B, a horn-soaked stomper that Reinhart describes as giving off “a cool, swampy, James Bond kind of vibe”), Listen Up! reveals itself as a brightly inventive pop pastiche built on contradiction: it’s sultry yet playful, slick yet gutsy, breezy yet endlessly passionate. Songs like the tough-talking, triumphant “Hit The Ground Runnin’” offer the strut of ‘60s soul, while the harmony-kissed “Wasted Tears” and “Wonderland” bear all the wistful spirit of a girl-group hit (“I grew up on Motown,” explains Reinhart, “so one of my goals for this album was to bring that back and give it my own twist”). A swelling, string-accented piano ballad about love gone wrong, “Undone” leads into “Now That You’re Here” (a sunny pop gem that gracefully flaunts Reinhart’s soaring, high-spirited vocals and boasts an infectious handclap backbeat). And on the album-closing “Walking On Heaven,” Reinhart sets her bravely hopeful lyrics about “waiting for the world around me to change” to a scorching guitar riff delivered by her father, Harry Reinhart. “That song’s about how the world can be a beautiful place, heaven on Earth, if we look at it right,” says Reinhart. “It’s got a great message and my dad plays a really sweet lead on it. It was such an honor to have him on the song.”
The first American Idol contestant to perform on the show’s stage with a parent (when Harry joined his daughter for a smoldering rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Should Never Be” during top three week), Reinhart is quick to praise her parents’ influence on her development as a musician. Ardent fans of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin—as well as countless classical and jazz pioneers—Reinhart’s parents are both musicians in their own right: her father played guitar for blues-rock band Midnight, and her mother sang for a group called The Company She Keeps before joining Midnight in 1977. As a result, Reinhart grew up idolizing everyone from the Beatles to Sarah Vaughan to Heart to Tony Bennett (with whom she sang a duet of “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” on the American Idol season finale). “I’m really lucky to have grown up in a house where good music was always playing,” she says. “It’s a huge part of what makes me the artist I am.”
Thanks largely to her parents’ encouragement; Reinhart began pursuing her music dreams at a remarkably young age. First taking the stage as part of her parents’ band when she was only seven, Reinhart started writing songs in her first year of high school. By the end of her junior year she’d joined the high school jazz band, which allowed her to tear through big-band standards onstage at local jazz clubs in Chicago and—after the band won a state-wide music contest—at the Montreux Jazz Fest in Switzerland and Umbria Jazz Fest in Italy. After graduating high school in 2009 (and failing to pass an audition for the ninth season of American Idol the same month), Reinhart enrolled at Harper College and started singing in three different combos. Making a last-minute decision to try out for American Idol again, Reinhart scored a spot on the tenth season and ended up wowing audiences with her fiery performances of songs like “House of the Rising Sun” and “God Bless the Child.”
“American Idol did a lot to prepare me for the next phase of my career,” says Reinhart. “Especially with the tour, where I was singing 11 numbers a night, it really helped build my endurance.” Now that she’s striking out on her own, Reinhart’s excited about merging her tightly honed performance chops with what she calls “that raw musicianship that means so much to me.” “With the music I grew up on, there were all these imperfections that made it amazing,” she says. “It wasn’t about trying so hard; it was all about pure feeling and energy. To me that’s the important stuff. That’s what I want to bring back into music today.”