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Aiken molds his own way

The Baltimore Sun

Clay Aiken knows he isn't cool. He doesn't seem to mind.

He's been fighting to stay that way after being launched into the ranks of superstardom as the runner-up on 2003's American Idol.

The show's quintessential nice guy never wanted to sound like he's in his 60s or like he's trying too hard to be cutting-edge.

"If I tried to be cool," Aiken says, "it would be like your parents using slang and sounding weird."

He's fought with managers over his image and argued over song choices, saying that many of the songs that were proposed to him were great, but they were better suited for Justin Timberlake or Maroon 5.

Aside from an occasional change in hairstyle and wardrobe, Aiken says he hasn't tried to reinvent himself or his music to compete with pop music's edgier leading men.

And he admits that it would be odd for people to bump and grind to one of his songs.

"I'll put it this way," he says, "if I was in a club and Clay Aiken started playing, I would get off the dance floor."

But Aiken, who will perform a holiday concert Sunday at D.C.'s Warner Theatre with the Concert Artists of Baltimore, has stuck to what he knows he's good at - showcasing his vocal prowess rather than his dance moves or beats.

It has worked out well for him. Based on album sales, the Raleigh, N.C., native is the most successful male contestant and second-place finisher in American Idol history.

His first album, 2003's Measure of a Man, went double platinum; his 2004 album, Merry Christmas With Love, set a record for fastest-selling holiday album since 1991; and his 2006 release of A Thousand Different Ways received gold certification.

Regardless of his success, Aiken is still trying to get where he wants to be musically.

His first album, he says, was sort of a "scrapbook" of different producers, which made every song sound different. But now, he says, his albums have some sort of continuity.

"There's a similar arch with anyone that comes out of [American] Idol. On the first album, the record label has control over everything," he says. "Before, the song choice was based on what the label believed people wanted."

Aiken says he has gained more control in the studio. For his fourth full-length album, in pre-production, he has more of an influence when choosing songs and producers, which affects the direction of the album as a whole.

But Aiken is broadening more than his musical horizons by appearing on a different type of stage in January.

Aiken was recently cast in the role of the less-than-heroic Sir Robin in the Broadway production of Monty Python's Spamalot, a critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning musical directed by Mike Nichols.

This isn't the first musical that Aiken has been a part of. Growing up, he was in a few plays and did some community theater after being cut from the high school musical in his senior year.

But Aiken wasn't in the musicals and plays to hone his acting chops.

"In Raleigh, there aren't too many opportunities to sing," he says. "You just have to do what is available."

Aiken accepted his role in Spamalot after being offered a hefty number of roles over the year. He says that although his recording and touring schedule usually prevented him from taking any of the other offers, Spamalot was something special.

"It happens to be one of the stupidest shows on Broadway," he says. "Not in a bad way, though. It's just silly."

Aiken was really intrigued with the idea of doing something a little left of center, and Spamalot certainly fit the bill.

Surprisingly, it took Aiken awhile to warm up to the musical. He needed to see it twice to realize that there isn't much of a plot.

"It has a bunch of skits put together that are all hilarious and different," he says, "but if people are expecting Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray or Les Miserables, they should probably go for something else."

Before Aiken hits Broadway, he will finish the rest of his Christmas tour.

Since releasing a Christmas album in 2004, Aiken has routinely toured in November and December, performing holiday-themed shows with community musicians, orchestras and choruses.

While some may think these shows require more preparation than usual, Aiken says that a lot of times, he'll only rehearse with a few musicians he takes on the road with him.

"Sometimes we'll run through one time and sometimes, depending on whether or not I have interviews, I will go into it blind and hope for the best and leave the rest up to God."

Clay Aiken will perform with the Concert Artists of Baltimore at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $57-$127. Go to or call the box office at 410-547-7328.

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