In 2006, Katharine McPhee was Adam Lambert minus the black nail polish -- a California-bred contestant who made it all the way to the final two on “American Idol” and lost (to Taylor Hicks). Three years later, signed to Verve as a newly bleached blond, the Sherman Oaks native is set to release her second album, “Unbroken,” a metaphor for McPhee’s own undeterred will and a back-to-basics approach to pop music.
While working on “Unbroken,” you took co-writing retreats down to Nashville. What is it about that city that inspires good songs?
It’s still a little working town undistracted by the glitz and glam of Hollywood. You would never know some of these people wrote huge country hits -- they’re in their little pickup trucks, nothing fancy about them -- and I think being humble helps them keep telling true stories about the average American, because the average person doesn’t live like we do in L.A. I was really hoping I’d like Nashville. I’ll always be a California girl, but the idea of being able to buy a huge home versus the 1,400-square-foot condo you can afford here. . . . Plus, I’m a huge animal lover, so having a farm with cows, horses and chickens has always been a dream of mine.
Would you consider moving there?
I wouldn’t mind having a house there to nest away in but probably not for a couple years. I’d like to figure out where I’m going with my career. I also don’t want to be away from my family. But it was funny, when I first landed there, I was expecting this L.A.-like, cosmopolitan feel, but where we were staying, I was, like, “Yeah, this isn’t gonna work.” Then I stayed with Kellie Pickler a few times, and she showed me the insider’s Nashville -- the great hidden restaurants in town -- and I was, like, “OK, I can deal.”
The album’s first single, “Had It All,” was co-written by Kara DioGuardi, who is not only an “Idol” judge but has penned her share of schmaltzy finale numbers. Why can’t they come up with a winner’s song that’s as good?
Like your song, “My Destiny” . . .
Oh, that was horrendous. I couldn’t even sing it! It was so low, and then it was super high and, of course, my vocal cords were fried from [competing] for 24 weeks. I was like, “OK, I’m not going to win this show, do you really have to make me sing this?” And it doesn’t surprise me, but nobody ever asks for that song or really remembers that moment.
While we’re on the subject of “Idol,” can you imagine the show without Simon Cowell?
No, I can’t. When I heard [that he might not return], my initial reaction was that the show was over, but we’ll see. I’m excited to see Ellen DeGeneres on it. I think she’ll bring a different element of humor. No one really does it like Ellen. She’s so clever.
What did you think of Adam Lambert?
I think he probably got a little ahead of himself as far as the American Music Awards. I’m not knocking him for what he did, I just think he should have done it a year down the road when he’s more established as an artist and not just an “Idol.” You have to be cognizant of your place in the business . . . but it’s hard when you come off that show and you’re the biggest thing since sliced bread, and everyone’s doing everything for you. You lose perspective, so you have to be careful.
You’ve been acting quite a bit between albums, appearing on TV and in movies. In 2008’s “The House Bunny,” you play a pregnant sorority sister who’s kind of a loser. That’s about as far from Katharine McPhee as it gets, right?
[Laughs] Adam Sandler, who was one of the producers, actually made a comment that I still looked a little too clean. But what are you gonna do, draw in a unibrow? We all had to play these down-and-out parts, and it was a little far-fetched, but it worked. People loved the movie.
Your recently became a platinum blond. What prompted the new look?
Expressing the feeling of starting over with a new record, a new label and a lot of changes. I think it’s a phase in my life. When I was in my teens, I never did fun, outrageous things like dye my hair, so maybe there’s a little bit of a rebellious side. I feel like I’ll always be a brunet, that’s just who I am, but I love that I can switch it up and be whatever I want to be.
Halperin blogs about “American Idol” at latimes.com/idoltracker.