Season 14 of American Idol finished with a bang, crowning Connecticut native Nick Fradiani as the show’s penultimate winner, drawing comparison to Season 8’s triumph of guy-next-door Kris Allen over the bombastic Adam Lambert—a scene that country singer Michael Sarver remembers well because he was there, fighting it out with the two of them for the title. In the six years since Season 8, Sarver—a Jasper, Texas native with a past in the oil rig industry—has sought to make a name for himself in the country music scene.
I sat down with Michael for an exclusive interview for his new album, Begin Again, which will be released digitally (through iTunes, Spotify and his website) on June 9th, which is also the date that fans will find out when they can grab a hard copy.
When asked about the album’s title, Begin Again, Sarver said that the album shares its title with a song that has particular significance for him. Sarver describes the song as one with “dual meaning.” On one hand, it’s “a relationship song” about “being in a rocky relationship and wanting to try to start over or to wash things away.” For Sarver, he hopes listeners find it applies to any relationship, from marriages, dating, or friendships. On the other hand, Sarver says it’s about his music. His self-titled first album came out in 2010 and since then the singer has been taking time away to reflect. He says he respects the opportunity his first label, L.A. based Dream Records, gave him, but that they weren’t the right fit for him.
Since releasing the first single off the next album, “Miss You Something Crazy,” back in September of last year, Sarver has been conducting his own radio and television tour around the U.S. to promote it, performing it live and answering a few questions about what inspired him to write it a couple of years ago. Sarver confessed that it “isn’t his favorite off the album,” but that it was the strongest of the two songs sent for radio testing, and still a song he believed in. Sarver said it was also one that seemed suitable for season. At the time it was released, it was winter and people were “in the love mood” and looking to “cuddle up on the couch” with their loved ones. Sarver has since released a music video for the song.
Sarver also revealed that his next single, “When I Drink,” is seasonal pick too. It’s a “summer single” and an “uptempo, lighthearted crowd pleaser.” The singer shares that it’s a great song to close his shows and usually by the end of it, the crowd is already singing along. As for the inspiration for the song, Sarver said it’s about “his personality when he drinks.” Sarver describes himself as a “happy drinker,” that he’s “loud, quick with his tongue and a bit of a smart aleck.” Sarver also said that he’s “always in a good mood, but in an even better mood” after a glass of red wine or two. He said “people might be surprised to learn that Michael Sarver drinks wine” and I think he’s right: There’s a lot more to the Texas singer than meets the eye.
For example, I’ve always found the singer to be a storyteller and Sarver, in our interview, said that it has always been one of his top priorities. He admits that he “respects the enormous power music has,” and wants listeners to “go somewhere with him,” hoping that people can relate to the stories and real life experiences that inspire his music. The singer gave me an example of the power music has when he told me a story about a woman who told him over Twitter that a song off his first album, entitled “Tell Me,” about his absent father, made her cry but also helped her heal with every listen. It’s stories like this that Sarver said have made him understand “the impact, both positive and negative, that music can have” and that there is truth to the cliché of music as “a universal language.”
For all the flack that country singers get, Sarver said two things inspired him to travel down that path: First, was the “accent he didn’t know he had,” he told me with a laugh; and said he only realized it was so thick when he got to L.A. for Idol. The second is that in country music, the lyrics are what matter and, for him, lyrics have always been important. There is, however, an undercurrent of other genres in Sarver’s style. I tell him about hearing blues and soul, to which the singer said he’s “never tried to put in different genres” but he “didn’t box himself in either.” His music is just him and as a Christian, Sarver said that he’s always found music to be a natural process and that his music is “whatever God makes it to be.” Sarver said he grew up on Gospel in church and, at age 11, started really taking music seriously. His family wasn’t well off enough to pay for music lessons, so the young singer would listen to music and learn from the best. Their style would, without knowing it, become a part of his own style and he would “challenge himself” to do the things they could do.
So how does a self-taught oil rig worker who finished 10th place on the country’s biggest reality singing competition end up releasing multiple albums and singles when some of the shows classically trained singers who finished higher than Sarver have yet to put out a single original song? (Sarver also has a Christmas album that’s big part of my rotation during the holiday season.) He says it’s because Idol does one of three things for its talented alum:
First, it might be what shows them that they are not cut out for the music industry. Despite the criticism the show’s alum face from others in the industry (e.g. that it’s the “easy way out”), Sarver says that it’s simply not true and that the pressure sometimes gets to otherwise talented singers who decide that they can’t spend the rest of their life doing just music.
The second outcome is that individuals in the music industry sometimes feel that they’re “owed” something and that arrogance and cockiness will hinder them from meeting their full potential. Sarver says that he’s yet to meet someone who has made Idol‘s top ten over the years who has that trait, but says it isn’t unheard of in the industry.
The third possibility is that the show does what it did for him and that is to “just confirm that music is 100% what he’s born for.” Sarver confessed to me that he’s “never had another goal or career choice,” but that “there have been moments” where he’s felt discouraged because of the political and financial hardships along the way. He truly believes that “only the strong survive” and for him, the best way to overcome the difficult days is to “wake up the next morning and believe harder every day.”
When asked how Idol changed him as a person and an artist, Sarver says “it didn’t change him much as an artist” but as a person, the change was dramatic. Sarver rightly points out that his season’s Top 10 was one of the most diverse the show has had and that gave him “different views of the world, himself and his personal life.” The singer admits that people’s differences are something “to be appreciated” and with a slight chuckle, that “if the world was all like him, it would be horrible.” It comes back to the idea of music as a “universal language”; it speaks to everyone because, as Sarver says “we’re all people, we all get hurt, we all get happy or sad.”
The singer also says he can’t criticize Idol and that he’s “very grateful and appreciative of the opportunity” and, “especially for the fans.” Sarver says that “Idol fans are the most committed” even years after he was on the show and first put out music and that “they’ve always been good to him.”
When asked to comment on Idol‘s most recent season, Sarver says that runner-up Clark Beckham was his favorite and, in his opinion, “One of the Top 5 best singers in the show’s history.” Sarver appreciated the way Beckham stood up for himself before and after his Top 4 performance of Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” saying that it just showed that Beckham found it more important to remain true to himself than to win the show. For Sarver, that’s also a priority and one that he thinks the show should emphasize. Sarver feels Idol would benefit from “allowing artists to be original.” He says artists like Beckham “didn’t come to the show never having sung before,” they just want to be “told how to succeed as themselves.” Sarver said that if Idol had a week, or an entire season, where contestants could sing whatever they wanted—original songs or otherwise—the results could be incredible.
The picture of the country singer that I walked away from the interview with was clear: Michael Sarver is determined to continue making music despite the industry’s political and financial hardships. He’s determined to remain true to himself by telling stories through his music that will impact people, and he’s determined to put out an album that will be true to himself, satisfy his loyal fans and hopefully draw in a few new ones.
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I’ll be reviewing Sarver’s album, Begin Again, in advance of its release on June 9th, but until then, check out his hit single, “Miss You Something Crazy” and his self-titled first album on iTunes. Also, you can keep up with Michael on Twitter (@MichaelSarver1), Facebook (MichaelSarverOfficial), Instagram (@therealmichaelsarver), and at his official website (michaelsarver.com).