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Jordin Sparks: Life after winning Idol

Jordin Sparks vividly remembers where she was last year at this time: buried in the pack of American Idol finalists.

Jordin Sparks vividly remembers where she was last year at this time: buried in the pack of

American Idol


"Blake [Lewis] was the super-favorite," she recalls on the phone from Los Angeles. "Other than him, it was between Melinda [Doolittle] and LaKisha [Jones]. Sanjaya [Malakar] was getting all the press. I was like, 'I still can't believe I'm even here.' "

Yet, the dark horse from Glendale, Ariz., went on to win the singing contest, becoming, at 17, the youngest Idol ever.

A year later, Sparks's eponymous album and its two singles, "Tattoo" and "No Air" have all gone Top Ten on the charts. The singer, now 18, is opening for Alicia Keys on a tour that comes to the Liacouras Center on Monday.

There's no way to prepare for that kind of gale-force success, although several former Idol winners tried to coach her.

"Last year I got to talk to Kelly [Clarkson] and Ruben [Studdard] and Taylor [Hicks] and Carrie [Underwood]," Sparks says. "They all said the same thing: 'It's going to go by so fast. Enjoy the ride. It will be 2010 before you know it.' "

First came the Idol tour. Being an instant headliner is a formidable learning experience.

"I was the last person to come out," she says, "It was kind of hard. I've never been on a stage that big. I had to learn to get my energy way up and to keep my voice in shape and not scream. I definitely learned about the audience and what they respond to, what will keep them on their feet, how to make sure your set flows by intermixing the slow with the medium and the fast."

But those crowds were dwarfed by the mob at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Sparks' hometown in February for the Super Bowl, where she sang the National Anthem.

"I remember after I was done they wanted me to do all this press." Those requests did not sit well with the football-loving daughter of ex-NFL player Philippi Sparks. "I was like, 'No, I cannot miss the kickoff. I'm sorry.' "

Then it was time to record her debut album. Like most Idol winners, she entered into the experience as a blank slate.

"I really wanted to be able to sing songs that I related to," she says. "I didn't have a specific sound We would listen to the songs and I would pick the ones I liked. 'OK, Ok I can relate to that. I wouldn't mind listening to that a few years from now.'

"I wanted to have a little bit for everybody," she continues. "I have ballads, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of acoustic pop. No matter who buys the album, they're going to find at least one thing to like."

Sparks came to really enjoy the recording process. "I never understood the people who said they loved the studio more than performing," she says. "Now I understand. It's so cool. You start the day with nothing and at the end of the day you have something great. You're not singing the song in order. You're doing little bits and pieces. But once you put it all together, you're amazed at what comes out of it."

You may have caught her return to Idol last week, performing "No Air" with Chris Brown. Believe it or not, it's the first time the two have sung their hit duet together.

Because of a schedule glitch, Sparks was across town in another studio when Brown came in to record with her. So they sang "No Air" separately and had their vocals entwined by a producer.

On the day of this phone interview, Sparks was auditioning guitarists to fill out her band and contemplating her show-opening set. (Ne-Yo is also on the bill.)

"I might have 30 to 45 minutes," she says. "I know I'll sing 'Tattoo', 'No Air', "Permanent Monday,' one of the the ballds and I might do some cover songs."

For Sparks, Keys' As I Am tour represents another opportunity to establish her own identity.

"You're always associated with American Idol, which I have no problem with," says the singer with notable maturity. The only hint of her age is the sheer velocity at which she speaks.

"The more stuff you do - you release your songs and people see you in concert - it's 'OK, that's Jordin. She's this kind of artist. She sings that song'," Sparks says, "It's another step in making a name for myself."

And when was the last time you heard anyone talking about Sanjaya?