Exclusive Q&A: AGT’s Jimmie Herrod on Musical Theater, Scholarships, and His Voice That Won’t Quit

Jimmie Herod (Photo: NBC)

These days, there are probably about three-to-seven people on earth who haven’t shed a tear or grinned widely after seeing singer Jimmie Herrod on America’s Got Talent. He’s touched many and the videos for his recent performances have garnered hundreds of thousands of views and will likely soon earn millions more.

Herrod, who resides in the Pacific Northwest when he’s not wowing Los Angeles audiences, has a voice like a whole Broadway musical packed into each and every note. He’s Annie and Hamilton in a single modulation. These are the qualities that have enraptured audiences since he auditioned on the show weeks ago.

At times, while Herrod is supremely talented, it’s what he sings as much as how he does it that is so striking. We caught up with Herrod, who will next perform for the AGT Finals on Tuesday (September 14) before the winner is announced on Wednesday (September 15), to ask him about his journey to the show, how he’s keeping a level head and how the surreal experience is sinking in.

American Songwriter: Hi.

Jimmie Herrod: I’m here.

AS: Hello

JH: Hello, Jake. How’s it going?

AS: It’s going very well. Thank you for making the time. The last time I saw you sing was at the Columbia City Theater in Seattle with, I think, Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints.

JH: No worries. Yeah, Birch Pereira. I love Birch, and that would have been a couple years ago now, for sure.

AS: Yes, well thank you again for making time. Let me ask, when did you first find music, when did music first enter your world in a significant way as a young person?

JH: My parents are both people who love music. I wouldn’t say either of them ever thought about it seriously, but they both always had music on. So, I grew up in a household where it was a natural experience. To me, that’s second nature. But I know that some people never really grew up hearing music in their house.

Or, you know, maybe for other people, they didn’t go and see plays. They don’t have an introduction to theater. For me, I had a really natural introduction to a variety of music because of just what my parents enjoyed listening to. I ended up realizing I totally also had some sort of a love for music and found it to be all the things you’d hope it would be: enjoyable and therapeutic and things like that.

I ended up doing 5th-grade band track, I played clarinet. Eventually, I switched from band to choir and I continued having music be basically the only thing I know how to do now! [Laughs]

AS: Do you play instruments?

JH: I play piano. Growing up, I played some clarinet. But no I would really just say that piano is the only instrument that I can really communicate ideas on, yeah.

AS: What made you want to invest in music, songwriting, and singing. I imagine some of it was natural talent and love for it but not everyone who has those dives in so fully?

JH: I know for a lot of people, there’s that moment where you’re at the beginning of high school and everyone’s talking about what are you going to do with your life? And I’d say I definitely was unsure as every young person is, to some degree. But what helped was I had this opportunity to apply for this great scholarship that I ended up getting through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation when I was in high school. Really, it just afforded me the opportunity to go study whatever I wanted, within reason, as long as I went to a school in Washington State. I grew up in Tacoma. For the first two years of the scholarship, they ground you to Washington, and for the next two years, you can take it anywhere else. That’s the idea, you’re feeding back into the community if you stay there.

I got that scholarship and it really made the idea of going to school for something I love approachable. So, I went to Cornish [in Seattle]. I had the ability to pay for some of that tuition with that scholarship. I thought I was going to be an English Literature teacher. Those were the classes that I liked the most, growing up. I thought that was going to be the path.

But getting that scholarship, and I got a scholarship from Cornish, as well, made it more viable, the dream or idea. So, I just sort of took the plunge and went to school there, moved to Seattle, of course, for that, too. In being there, it furthered the belief for it, too. A lot of people drop out, also. Or change majors, for that matter. I knew I really wanted to have music in some part of my life. I just didn’t know how much of it could.

AS: Obviously, you have a very good singing voice. I’m sure you’re aware of that, to some degree. When did it pop out of you, and how did you wrangle it, so to speak?

JH: [Laughs] I think because there was always music, I was always singing along with someone. I think some of the singers that I heard growing up—more so from my mother, being someone—for example, Whitney Houston, who to this day is still remembered as just one of the greatest singers ever. I think I just modeled my voice after what I heard, in some ways. You know, imitation. Flattery, in that sense.

I also was a kid who always had a higher voice, that was the stuff I could sing along to. My voice never really dropped. It never had a dramatic drop. So, the stuff I sang in middle school, I still like to sing to myself. It all still works. But I just spent every day in my room, I guess I’d say, after school with my headphones on listening to music and imitating great singers.

Then I ended up going to school for music—not really voice. I went to Cornish and did this hybrid program they call “composer/performer,” which at least half of it is centered on composition and the performer part of that is like you’re more so composition for your instrument. For me, that was voice. I wrote a lot of music for voice. But I think all of these were different ways to “practice” and live within music.

I sang a lot of the pieces that my friends wrote in undergrad, too. Some of which were not easy to sing! Or written well for the voice. But, you know, we’re all getting our footing. It’s all practice. It’s new for everyone to even have someone that you can give a piece of music to and have them perform it. Those whole four years were a refining period.

It’s like, I don’t know anybody who sings or does anything in the arts who feels like they have a complete mastery of everything they could possibly do within that. Even just to speak about singing. Okay, I do certain things really well. But I’m also not pretending to be an opera singer or someone who exclusively does musical theater or does exclusively jazz or rock.

There’s still just so much more to always learn.

AS: Okay, let’s talk about the event of the moment, shall we? Why did you decide to audition for America’s Got Talent and what was it like after you had?

JH: I have auditioned for a number of these shows in the past and was sort of done with the idea. I had been contacted by The Voice twice and never used. And then I had auditioned for Idol twice. All four of those situations were defeating. Because when it came to Idol, I did the “cattle call” thing where you’re one of the thousands of people there and you sing for some no-name producer for five seconds and they’re like, “Next.”

My mom took me all the way to Salt Lake City for that in high school. We drove—it’s definitely de-glamourizing, the whole illusion that people have. So that was like, I’m not interested in this stuff. Then when I first moved to Portland, I got contacted by The Voice and they filmed me. They had me come to an interview and that went nowhere. Then they contacted me again for a season after that. And the same exact situation happened where they filmed me singing a number of songs.

I just was over all of these shows. I thought this was never going to pan out, in that regard. So, I guess, the reality of everybody being at home and so much of the world being digital this past year and a half, having the ability to audition online and send in a video, and to have someone say, “Oh, this seems interesting, you’re doing something different.”

The opportunity was just there for everybody, in a sense, more than ever. I’m sure all these shows have taken online submissions in the past, but there’s nothing like watching someone in person versus a little video. But this last year was all video for everything. People were doing at-home concerts. So, I think it was just the right time and place to audition for the show.

AS: What was it like on stage? And to have Simon say he hated your song choice, “Tomorrow.” It’s surreal seeing it now.

JH: Then you get to the actual moment where you’re on the stage and you’re with the judges. I think the thing I’ve said a couple of times to different people is that it’s just funny to have watched Simon on TV grill people for the past 20 years. I think you’re expecting to hear something funny from him one way or another. Because if you’ve watched any show—like I did, I watched the first few seasons of Idol as a kid.

So, there’s a thrill being in front of all of them, but especially him, just because of the history of watching him on TV in this exact position. So, yeah, in these shows, somebody’s always not going to like something. And he is just the person who would say it out loud. [Laughs] Some people would just hold that inside but he said it out loud. And that is totally fine.

I think at that moment, the best bet is to stick to your guns and do what you’ve prepared. I know tons of songs and what was in my mind, what I have performed more than anything and polished and refined, that was what I was getting on that stage to do. And hopefully, that would override his doubts about it. And that’s what happened! Fortunately. It didn’t all end in flames. It actually went really well.

Anybody in that position, I think, would just feel super grateful just to get to be in that position. So, that’s how I felt about it. No matter what happened, I’m actually in the room with the real people, not Producer No. 7, or something. Like when I did the “cattle call” at Idol. I think then the closest celebrity in the room was Ryan Seacrest in the middle of the stadium. And you’re like, “Oh, I can kind of make out his face.”

It’s so much more real to be in front of Simon and Heidi, who I’ve also seen so much of from a young age, and Sophia and Howie. I remember watching Deal or No Deal with my, sort of, local grandma. The lady who lived next door. I’d spend time with her after school sometimes and we’d watch Deal or No Deal together. And so it was just amazing to get to be in front of all those people that you’ve just seen through the screen. Now, they’re actual real people.

AS: What’s it like to be famous?

JH: [Laughs]

AS: Do you let yourself think about that, and if so, how much do you let it impact the way you think about the future?

JH: Well, being a member of the F-List— like, not even C- or D-List. F, H, G, somewhere way down there in terms of notoriety [Laughs], I don’t think about it really because if it were me or Mariah Carey on the street, you guys better run after Mariah. Because I’m running after Mariah.

But I take the whole thing super modestly because everybody who’s been a part of this has been amazing. I feel grateful to be in the company of amazing people. I think the biggest thing that anybody could take away from an opportunity like this is to be grateful for the chance. So far the biggest difference has been, yeah, there’s a visibility that you couldn’t pay for. The chances of being on TV are so minuscule in life and then to get multiple chances to be on an extremely huge, highly-watched TV show, you know, especially during a season where people are partially stuck at home, it’s quite fortunate.

It does feel like a lot of the work I’ve done has thankfully developed into this opportunity. Because it doesn’t for so many people who’ve done the work and should be seen. But yeah, I don’t really think of myself as famous. I just think of myself as someone who you saw on a video. And maybe you’re like, “Oh, wow, they’ve been good for a long time and it’s amazing to see them get to be seen.”

That’s been the hugest thing, visibility. That’s what I’m most grateful for. No matter what happens. Someone could maybe see me do something on this show and that could maybe lead them to check out the other things I’ve done and they end up loving me as an artist and not just the five minutes of fame that happens. So, I’m thankful that I’ve been given a chance to have people actually fall in love with me—beyond how long I’m on their TV screen.

AS: How do you think about the future? And I ask that knowing your first two songs on the show were very theatrical — “Tomorrow” and “Pure Imagination.” Do they portend perhaps more stage work in the future? Broadway?

JH: It’s been kind of funny because I think the song choices have been more about the words than the world that they came from, which is why maybe my most recent song, the people who didn’t know probably weren’t sure where it was from and it was a surprise, because it wasn’t an obvious relationship in their mind. And to people who did know it, they appreciated it for what it was.

But I think the choices have all been about the words and in one way or another a positive message. The last one to me, the whole chorus does this whole thing of getting from point A to point B. I think that’s where are right now. Even when I think about the song, “Tomorrow,” Annie is in her present but she’s singing about her future and her hopes for the future.

So, any stage that will have me with good sound and nice lighting, I’m happy to be on. Theater is something I’ve done. I’ve actually been taking a break from being in musicals for the last five years because I just got to play an amazing role. In seattle, I did Sweeney Todd at ArtsWest. It just was such a joy because I love the music of Stephen Sondheim.

I’m big into the art musicals. I mean, Sweeney Todd is approachable, as much as throwing people in an oven can be and making pies. But the level at which his music is the kind of stuff I would like to get to do. The roles I’ve been offered since, I’ve just not been interested in. So, when it comes to theater, if Broadway called, I’m not going to say no. The compliment is you’re getting the call.

And I’ve always believed in taking opportunities even if they can be a risk. And to bring that back to AGT, in a sense, this could be a risk in some people’s minds. In my mind, this is one of the biggest opportunities I’m going to get. So, I don’t squander that. Even if there are things about it that are out of your control — you know, it’s a competition and I don’t control votes.

Which is another thing: people please vote!

But I could totally see myself doing theater again, if it was the right show. But music is definitely my focus all around. So, as long as I get to communicate feelings with great words and music, I’m happy.

AS: What do you love most about music?

JH: I feel like my thought is generic. But I do love the idea — and I get to experience this traveling with Pink Martini a lot. We intentionally play music, I think in the years they’ve been a band, and I’ve only been with them for four years, they play music in something around 23-25 languages. And when I’ve gotten to witness is like on the one hand there’s this amazing thing that happens when you sing something to someone in their native tongue and what door that opens for people as an audience.

And then I see the rest of it, which is the rest of the show not in someone’s [native] language. And how much they still just enjoy the music and they can get a sense of feeling from how you are as a performer, what you’re communicating. So, yeah, I guess I’d say the fact that music is just something we can all enjoy no matter the text or if there’s even singing. It’s just something we can all latch onto and have an emotional connection with and get along within those three-and-a-half-minutes the song is playing.

I’ve just gotten to witness that and I’ve gotten to talk to people from a bunch of different places and their experience coming to our shows and what it does for them to hear something they know and something they don’t. Music, for me, feels like a love language. I’ll always love that it’s such a great way to communicate feelings. The words don’t matter, ultimately.

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