Performing in Atlanta has been special for singer Clay Aiken. It’s not his birthplace — that would be Raleigh, N.C. — but he feels partial to the city.
“I auditioned for ‘American Idol’ in Atlanta so it’s full circle when I return,” says Aiken, who brings his “Tried and True” tour to the Cobb Energy Centre on Feb. 16.
Aiken was featured on the second season of “American Idol,” where he eventually was runner-up to Ruben Studdard. On the show, he was an audience favorite, never once appearing in the bottom three for viewer votes. It helped him, he feels, that he was able to sing songs he was familiar with.
“I got to be who I was,” he says. “I sang what I was comfortable with. For me, I always sang music that I knew, songs that I grew up singing. The one time I didn’t sing something I knew was the night I got low scores.”
After much speculation about his sexual orientation, Aiken came out as gay to People magazine in 2008. Ironically, another musician, Jonathan Knight of New Kids on the Block, came out recently by saying he was never in. Aiken understands that. He disagrees with the notion that a public figure should come out when people expect it.
“There was this misconception that I was not out,” he says. “I was in ‘Spamalot’ and everyone knew, but I don’t necessarily want to sit at a table with strangers and tell them. When you come out, you do it with people you are comfortable with.”
He admits that coming out has made little difference in his career. A few people might have been surprised, he says, but it has had no adverse affect.
“I definitely do see the liberation and understand the rationalization of people wanting me to be out,” he says. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that coming out has made me happier because that implies I was not happy before and I was.”
Aiken is very comfortable discussing being gay — he even went to D.C. to speak at a Capitol Hill briefing on anti-gay bullying at the end of 2010.
Another major difference for Aiken is having a son.
“It’s changed my life; it changes everything,” he says.
He sang the National Anthem at the recent NHL All Star Game and got a jersey. He planned to auction off the jersey for charity — which he does after these kinds of events — then realized perhaps he should save it for his son.
As a public figure, he says the dating world can be awkward. He is not really dating right now.
“There are other variables,” he says. “Me being known will always make it more difficult.”
In terms of Aiken’s own favorite love songs, he is fond of the ones from the current album.
“I love ‘Unchained Melody;’ I also love Perry Como,” he says. “I also think that ‘I Will Always Love You’ is a great love song.”
He’s currently getting ready to kick off the tour and notes he’s particularly nervous on the days just before he begins.
“But the stress will go down when it starts,” he says.
The tour — largely composed of Southern cities, which the artist says he loves playing — is a live incarnation of his last album, “Tried and True.” It’s mostly love songs and very low-key, says the performer, with ballads such as “Suspicious Minds,” “Crying” and “Moon River.”
A lot of Aiken’s material is from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “It’s not necessarily the era but the singers and the great songs that I love,” he says. “There are so many of them. I feel a real kinship. There were great performers who could practically perform live, with no producer.”
He looks at today as a different time, an age when performers can rely on their producers to make them sound good. “That’s the way it works,” he says. “That didn’t happen then — you could not cut and paste.”
Not long ago he moved back to Raleigh, away from Los Angeles.
“If you leave and go somewhere, it’s nice to come back, to feel comfortable,” Aiken says. He compares that to his musical tastes — returning to what he feels best performing.
While Studdard’s career stalled after “American Idol,” Aiken’s has taken off. He has been on nine different tours, written a book and become a staple on television. He even appeared on Broadway in “Spamalot.” 2010’s “Tried and True” was his sixth album.
He has not had time to watch “Idol” regularly in years, but he understands why skeptics have complained about the show’s demise.
“I did watch one episode last season,” he says. “The stories are not the same. There’s no bond. Back when it started you had the girl next door, the single mother, people like Kelly [Clarkson] and Ruben. These are people who would have never had this chance without the show.
“It used to be about the contestants, now it’s about the show,” he says. “Some of the judges are bigger than the show. It’s flashier and flashier.”
Top photo: Clay Aiken placed second on ‘American Idol,’ then came out in 2008. He says being openly gay has not hampered his career, which has not slowed since his appearance on the show. (Publicity photo)