The Musical Puppetmaster Behind ‘American Idol’ on Claudia Conway and a Close Call With Disaster

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Eric McCandless/ABC
Eric McCandless/ABC

On Sunday’s finale of American Idol, there was a slight snafu. Last season’s runner-up and fan-favorite Arthur Gunn was slated to perform alongside Sheryl Crow, playing a medley of her biggest hits. But at the last minute and with no explanation, he didn’t. Yet the show must always go on.

Instead, this season’s contestant Graham DeFranco, who made it into the Top 16, was pulled from the audience to take Gunn’s spot. It was such a “curveball” that even American Idol’s music director, Kristopher Pooley, says he was left in the dark on what happened.

“It’s live TV and all sorts of things can happen,” he told The Daily Beast. “We were told suddenly Graham’s going to do the song. I think he had just a couple of minutes notice. Graham hopped up on live TV in front of millions of people and sang a duet with Sheryl Crow.”

“We threw the lyrics up on the teleprompter,” he added. “It said what his lyrics were and what Sheryl’s lyrics were. I was like, ‘Alright, here we go.’ In our show there’s organic music moments happening left and right, so we have to be on our toes.”

The surprises of live television were one of the more intimidating elements Pooley was bracing for when he joined American Idol in 2018. The Detroit native handles all music-related aspects of the singing competition, including the arrangements, vocal coaches, and music producers. He even cues in the singers, managing more than 50 musicians and contestants and learning up to 70 songs in a day.

Pooley has served as a music director on music tours and performances, including for Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, and Demi Lovato. But American Idol’s broadcast live to millions of viewers is a different beast entirely.

“The unknown can be daunting, but I felt up for it,” he explained. “I have a whole music team and I just felt really confident we could step in and do a great job. There’s a real learning curve to the show, so probably our first couple episodes, our heads were spinning. Then once we kind of settled into season one, it got a lot easier.”

Pooley was able to nab the job after the show’s main producers were impressed with judge Katy Perry’s tours and they requested a meeting. “It was just a good fit, we hit it off right away,” he said. “Then it was right into working on the show.”

His work begins in Hollywood Week, where hundreds of hopeful contestants are flown from across the country to California for an intensive boot camp where they must learn new songs, perform duets with strangers, and dazzle the judges with their solo performances in a bid to secure a coveted place in the live shows. Pooley helps compile a master list of songs that the singers, who cover a breadth of genres, can perform for judges Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan.

From there, Pooley and his team help contestants figure out arrangements and work with vocal coaches to nail their performances. It was during Hollywood Week that Pooley met Claudia Conway, the daughter of former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and her anti-Trump husband George Conway. “She was great,” Pooley offered. “I was really, really surprised by how well she could sing.”

“It’s really exciting because a lot of them don’t really know how great they are yet,” Pooley added, speaking of the influx of industry newcomers on the show. “They know they have a talent. They have ambition, they know that they want to try this American Idol thing, but they come from an environment where they don’t have access to any type of arrangement or coaching. So, it’s really cool to see the artists step into their power.”

Claudia Conway Goes Hollywood, Surprises ‘American Idol’ Judges With Adele and Emotional Confession

Pooley said he had no predictions on who would take home the title this year, explaining his team treats every contestant as if they are going to win. “We put the same amount of energy and effort into everyone,” he said. “I don’t try to think too much about the TV side of it and the showbiz. I’m thinking, ‘How can I make them the best they possibly can be?’ Then we see what the viewers decide. It’s always fascinating.”

It was ultimately Chayce Beckham who was named the winner of Season 19, which wrapped up Sunday. The 24-year-old has already seen a taste of success with his new song “23” securing iTunes’ No. 1 spot for country music and No. 2 for its overall top songs on Monday.

Since its launch in 2002, American Idol has helped produce some notable country stars including Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, and Kellie Pickler. Pooley thinks it’s a result of the audience being drawn to storytelling, which is a staple of country music.

Earlier this month, 16-year-old country singer Caleb Kennedy was let go from the ABC show after making it into the Top 5 when a video clip began circulating online where he’s seen sitting next to someone who was wearing a Ku Klux Klan-style hood.

“Hey y’all, this is gonna be a bit of a surprise, but I am no longer gonna be on American Idol,” the fan-favorite wrote in an Instagram statement. “There was a video that surfaced on the internet, and it displayed actions that were not meant to be taken in that way. I was younger and did not think about the actions, but that’s not an excuse. I wanna say sorry to all my fans and everyone who I have let down. I’ll be taking a little time off social media to better myself, but saying that, I know this has hurt and disappointed a lot of people and made people lose respect for me. I’m so sorry! I pray that I can one day regain your trust in who I am and have your respect! Thank you for supporting me.”

His mother Anita Guy later said the video was filmed when Kennedy was 12 years old and after he had watched the movie The Strangers: Prey at Night, adding that her son “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.”

Pooley was reluctant to say if he felt if the show made the correct decision in regard to kicking Kennedy off the show, saying the issue was “complicated.”

“I also think that redemption is the central human story,” he said. “There’s always hope. He’s obviously super talented and I wish him the best, but as far as you know, a right or wrong decision, I just do music.”

While not officially a done deal yet, Pooley said he is looking forward to the prospect of returning next year for the show’s 20th season. “It’s an exciting time for the show,” Pooley said. “I think we’re coming off a little high, with this finale. So yeah, if they want me back and then we do another season.”

While American Idol is one of his career highlights, Pooley also has achieved some other milestones, including music-directing Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX halftime show in 2015, as well as her inauguration performance for President Joe Biden in January.

“It was very surreal to work on that,” Pooley recalled, speaking of the inauguration where Perry sang “Firework” in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “To see something that goes from an idea that Katy has and then I put music together for, to be part of a moment in history, what felt like a release of tension that day. We wanted to create a hopeful moment that whatever you believe politically, either side, just to celebrate our country. The whole goal of that was to be inspirational and have a hopeful tone.”

“I just feel thankful and surprised at the opportunities I get and all the artists I get to work with,” he added. “I’m just thankful for where I am and I don’t take any of it for granted. I try to acknowledge that the career stuff is a very small slice of life. So, I’m thankful for those moments, but I’m also just as thankful for spending time with my daughter and my wife.”

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