Aiken Has New Look For Classic Songs

Musician Clay Aiken poses for a portrait in Santa Monica, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006.
AP Photo/Matt Sayles
After a year and a half away from the spotlight, Clay Aiken returns with an edgy new look, a far-from-edgy new album and a newly secure sense of self.

"I know it's a new chapter but it's kind of like a whole new book — the sequel to my life before," says a casually dressed and scruffy-faced Aiken, sitting in an office at RCA Records, his label. "It's like we're starting out on something brand new where I'm really getting to be myself."

But not everything is brand new. On his new album, "A Thousand Different Ways," Aiken covers 10 classic love songs and introduces four original tracks. It was a "challenge" issued by music mogul Clive Davis, who oversaw the project — and one that Aiken says he was initially reluctant to accept.

"I don't feel that I had the credibility or the background or just the repertoire to go in and put the Clay Aiken sound on somebody else's song," says Aiken, one of "American Idol's" most successful alums.

"The examples that were given to me were Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand. I said, `Let's look at those names and how huge their careers have been — Elton John was also one — and Clay Aiken doesn't fit in that category."'

But despite his misgivings, he and his team of producers rearranged and reinterpreted each track, from Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" to Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again," to make them Aiken's alone.

A crooner's collection of love ballads isn't exactly on the cutting edge of pop music, says Rolling Stone associate editor Brian Hiatt. But for Aiken and his fans — known as the Claymates — it might not need to be.

"His audience is outside the mainstream of hip, young pop culture," Hiatt says. "By making an album that doesn't even make an attempt not to be cheesy is acknowledging who his fan base is and what he is an artist."

It's an "odd move" to make a covers album so early in a career, says Craig Marks, editor-in-chief of Blender magazine. Marks describes Aiken's fans as "parents and grandparents who think he's wholesome and adorable and sings songs as though rock 'n' roll never existed."