There are some things one cannot teach. In David Archuleta’s case, not even the best teacher could have imparted what nature bestowed upon him: his rich voice, his perfect pitch, his natural and deep musical sensibility. From early on in David’s life, it was clear that he was a prodigy. Still, even the most brilliant talent needs the benefit of instruction, which his parents and others provided him in both formal and informal ways.
But there is more than what David has learned from instruction and training, and even more than what his tremendous gifts have brought him: what has set David apart from so many other artists (including prodigies) has been his love for his work. It seems as though David simply loves to discover more and more about music, to the point that he approaches it like a child at play.
David has an enthusiasm for music that is genuine and pure. (See video at 2:25) As listeners, we feel it whenever he performs, or whenever he rambles on about his favorite artists. It seems that he looks at music like a playground he cannot wait to run into, a colorful theme park that has so many exciting places to explore. Part of what draws us to him is how he brings out child-like qualities in ourselves. With each bright-eyed grin, David reminds us that there is much more to discover that is beautiful in the world.
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Always with an iPod at the ready, David is listening to other artists and learning as much as he can: new influences, new styles, new ways of connecting to an audience. He seems never quite satisfied with his own musical production and is always trying new things. He sings a song we have heard dozens of times but puts a new twist on the melody, and the entire experience again becomes fresh and new. It seems that David’s joy of playing and learning allows him to continue his growth in musicality, voice, and stage presence. Just when we think nothing can surpass David’s latest accomplishment, he outdoes himself and we are awed all over again.
This joy of play—this is what makes David Archuleta a musical tour de force. This is what explains his rapid and wide-ranging development as a musician since early childhood.
As with most children, much of David’s early musical education was under the guidance of his parents. With his father’s connection to jazz and his mother’s involvement in salsa dancing, he was exposed to a variety of musical influences. David emerged in his earliest years as a great imitator. At the age of six, his talent was discovered when he memorized and sang much of Les Misérables with a convincing Cockney accent and perfect pitch. If one listens to some of David’s early performances and compares them to previous versions by other artists, one discovers that he uncannily and precisely replicates the exact vocal stylings of other singers: when he is singing “I’ll Always Love You” in the style of Whitney Houston to a group of New York firefighters; when he is growling through Jennifer Holliday’s “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” when he is singing “Joyful, Joyful” exactly in the manner of Lauryn Hill in “Sister Act 2”; and when he is following every one of Christina Aguilera’s runs in “Contigo en la Distancia.”
David was a prodigy with enormous potential. But he had yet to make the songs “his own,” both in a musical sense and in an emotional sense. David himself says that until he was around 12 or 13 that he did not pay attention to the lyrics of the songs.
The turning point for David came in the summer of 2002, when he listened to Tamyra Gray singing “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” during the first season of American Idol. David described feeling chills while hearing her sing the song, and has talked about how he felt the emotions in the song. Perhaps David learned from this performance how music can be a language—a way to express passion and rage and sadness and joy and elicit these feelings in others. Music now opened up to him like a wide, exciting world waiting to be explored. What more thrilling secrets were there to discover?
After this key realization, David began to pursue his musical education on his own. He obsessed about finding new artists to listen to and to discover how they were using music. His prodigious mind grabbed at new musical information to absorb, whether it was through listening or reading Billboard charts. He built up his own list of favorite artists, people he loved and therefore wanted to learn from the most. He was no longer simply mimicking what he was hearing. He was approaching every song he heard, not from the standpoint of a listener, but of a creator. From David’s list of favorite artists growing up, we can speculate on his learning process and how he developed the musicianship he has today.
It could be that from Mariah Carey, David learned how to stylize melody using melisma. From Stevie Wonder, he absorbed syncopation and soul. From Eva Cassidy, he developed a sense of phrasing, dynamics, and emotion. Jazz, once “his dad making loud noise on his trumpet,” now was a shiny new textbook about spontaneity and being “in the moment” that now shows itself in his vocal improvisations. Combined with the technical foundations and natural familiarity with musical styles he developed during childhood, David was now increasingly able to merge these influences and use them to express himself. Now, before each performance, it seemed as if David committed himself first to “go deep” into each song, “get” its message, infuse it into his own being until he indeed embodied it, and share this with his audience. Before singing “Heaven” to Randy, Paula, and Simon, he gleefully said that he would “make them understand it.”
And this is how David ceased being simply an imitator and became an innovator. Musical ideas now struck him and reacted with all the influences and knowledge he had absorbed before and, as if having struck a tuning fork, resonated from him with a purity and simplicity that was both nuanced, natural, and new.
In David’s first performance of “Imagine” on American Idol, we hear David bringing both melisma and soul to Eva Cassidy’s interpretation of the same song.
In “O Holy Night,” we hear David sing the first verse in the traditional manner, while making the second verse his own variation and adding his own dynamics.
In “Love Me Tender,” we hear David bring R&B touches to what was an originally a 1950’s pop ballad, and create a unique flavor of stylized balladeering.
In “Falling,” we hear David abandoning the traditional pop song structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) in favor of a more free-flowing structure. This is similar to the structure of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which David includes in his Amazon “List of Music You Should Hear” and explains: “This song showed me how much you could do with a song, and that you didn’t have to follow the typical route for creating music.”
And now David exclaims his love for John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Sara Bareilles. From now on, perhaps it is safe to say this: whichever artist David declares his love for is someone David seeks most to emulate and learn from at any one moment. These artists now seem to be the guideposts for David’s process of self-education. And lo and behold: David’s New Year’s Resolution for 2009 is to write more music. “Works for Me” already has that witty, laid-back Jason Mraz vibe…
David has the beginnings of a bright future in the songwriting department. In the songs that David has co-penned, we see David display a strong pop sensibility in a wide variety of musical styles, while remaining true to each genre. We are treated to a combination of R&B and boy-band pop in “A Little Too Not Over You,” a piano epic in “Falling,” bluesy soulful pop in “Works for Me,” pulse-driven techno in “Zero Gravity,” and a guitar ballad in “Somebody Out There.” Most songwriters, in trying to capture particular emotions, tend to fall within the same mode. Elton John, a masterful songwriter, tends to stay within the realm of pop rock. Other great songwriters also tend to settle within a particular niche. But David has the facility to jump entire genres.
David has already amazed us with his musical variety and virtuosity, and his ability to bring out the meaning of other people’s songs. But oh what new places will he take us, once he is able to lay down entire songs that bear the stamp of his soul?
Perhaps David does not view his rapid, astronomical, and continuous growth as a musician as “work.” Perhaps he is simply happy to bits that he can share what he learns with us. It seems that music is something that has brought him so much joy that nothing would make him happier than if we were able to hear what he hears, see what he sees. David, like a child who has just received the world’s coolest toy, knows it’s no fun to play alone.
Which brings me to the video that inspired this entire essay. In this interview taken last summer, David beams about his love for music and eagerly shares the process by which he came to music. Then, in the final two minutes, David shares a story…
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