Didi Benami does not plan on crashing and burning post-’American Idol’
Unadulterated chanteuse Didi Benami is best known for competing on the ninth season of 21st century pop culture juggernaut American Idol. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Benami sang as a child after being encouraged by her uncle, who often awakened her with the sounds of soothing piano chords and eventually took her to her first voice lesson.
While attending Belmont University in Nashville, Benami befriended roommate and fellow songwriter Rebecca Joy Lear, who motivated Benami to pursue songwriting in earnest. Lear perished in an automobile wreck in December 2005, nearly shattering Benami’s spirit.
The singer made the tough decision to relocate to Los Angeles in hopes of securing a record deal. The change in scenery prompted her to pick up an acoustic guitar, and she found a new avenue for composing music. A troubadour at coffeehouses who waitressed during the day, Benami leaped on faith and auditioned for Idol in memory of her late friend and guardian angel.
Possessing unique phrasing enhanced by a robust vibrato, Benami chose the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as her audition song. In an emotional interpretation, the songbird’s vocal had a jazzy, laid-back vibe. Benami’s “Hey Jude” was fresh without copying the iconic Paul McCartney arrangement. Snippy judge Simon Cowell and guest Avril Lavigne were impressed, and Benami, influenced by Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, and Dave Matthews Band, earned a spot on the show.
During Hollywood Week, the trim strawberry blonde became a front-runner with her acclaimed take of “Terrified.” Armed with a trusty acoustic guitar, the song was a ballsy choice, as songwriter Kara DioGuardi was then an Idol judge.
Benami’s lilting cover is the perfect example of her dynamic range. It has amassed 2.3 million views on YouTube. A beautiful pop song about the uncertainty of falling in love for the first time, “Terrified” remains her best-known recording with “Hey Jude” a close second.
Inexplicably, the singer’s momentum slowly but surely evaporated with ill-advised covers of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, a 1966 Top Ten hit for gritty R&B artist Jimmy Ruffin. After making it to 10th place, the singer was swiftly eliminated from the competition.
Struggling to find her identity, the then 23-year-old Benami may not have been ready for national scrutiny. She also abandoned the guitar, an integral part of her distinctive persona, for most of the later covers. Benami never quite fit into the homogeneous pop artist category the show glorifies.
A 44-show trek across America with her fellow Idol Top 10 mates ensued during the summer of 2010 but was met with lackluster ticket sales. While Idol is a stepping stone for greener pastures, Benami failed to capitalize on her new-found fame in terms of unleashing new music.
Instead, she took acting lessons and modeling gigs. In a shrewd move, she maintained her close ties to Idol by becoming an official correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter during the series’ 11th season.
Why, you might ask. In an exclusive interview, Benami sets the record straight. “I opted to perfect my performance craft as much as I could, since I could barely speak after Idol — I had practically blown out my chords during the show and after tour,” says Benami.
“I took vocal lessons with the amazing Ron Anderson, who has trained such luminaries as Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, and Brad Pitt, as well as acting classes to learn how to sing through and perform amidst the pain I was dealing with in my throat. I don’t know what I would have done without Ron, since he practically retaught me how to sing correctly.
“My vocal chords were on the verge of hemorrhaging so I couldn’t record anything that would have been of good quality or that represented my artistry properly until about seven months after tour. Now they are healed and we are back in business but I had to heal first, and then get through some business deals which ended up putting my first release as late as it was.”
Benami’s first official music release post-Idol came in November 2011 as a guest artist on “If I Hadn’t Forgotten”, a digital duet with singer-songwriter Keaton Simons heard during an episode of ABC’s Private Practice. Around the same time Benami starred in Canadian rock band Theory of a Deadman’s “Hurricane” video —incidentally co-written by DioGuardi — as a down-on-her-luck Idol winner. Definitely in on the ironic twist, Benami had worn the same dress during her Idol elimination performance of “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted.”
Benami’s debut single, “Gasoline”, saw online distribution in May 2012. Reverie, the songwriter’s premiere long player of original material — “a fusion of soulful, rock-pop with organic roots” — was dropped quietly two years later. Without the support of a major record label, the confessional songwriter is navigating uncharted waters. But Benami’s combined 58,000 Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram followers should alleviate matters. Give her music a chance — you won’t be disappointed.
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