David Hernandez on Finding His Voice at Valley Youth Theatre and Embracing His American Idol Past

Former American Idol contestant David Hernandez grew up in Glendale.
Former American Idol contestant David Hernandez grew up in Glendale. Bobby Quillard
With his rendition of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” singer David Hernandez made a lasting impression on American Idol fans.

Ten years later, the Glendale-raised artist continues making waves as an independent artist. He got his start with Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix and went on to perform with the Arizona band Str8Up.

Now, Hernandez lives in California. He's performed at an inauguration kickoff event for President Barack Obama and made trips to Qatar and Abu Dhabi to sing for troops. And recently, he released music videos for his singles “Beautiful” and “Shield (Coat of Armor).”

The pop star will return to Arizona in early April to headline the Phoenix Pride Festival. Before the trip, Hernandez took some time to talk about the evolution of his singing career before and after American Idol.

Phoenix New Times: How does it feel to be one of the headliners at Phoenix Pride this year?
David Hernandez: I’m excited that I can finally come back home. It’s been 10 years since I did Idol. It’s cool to be part of this event, and I’m playing with my hometown band that I started singing with, I want to say, 15 years ago … I was 17 when I started playing with them. They would sneak me into the nightclub. I would play with them and leave right afterward.
How did performing with Valley Youth Theatre prepare you for a career in the entertainment business?
It was cool to be around other people that were like me because I wasn’t that kid that loved to play sports or do the things that the guys were doing in school. It was cool to be around other people who were creative and not feel like an outcast. That prepared me for life in a lot of ways. From that moment, once I got that singing bug, I just kept going with it.

Has your style changed a lot over the years?
I think music has changed over the last 10 years. I’m evolving with the times. You can always hear the soul though. The soul and R&B roots are still there, no matter what I sing. My latest single, “Shield,” is more of a soul-rock sort of vibe.

I saw your videos for “Shield” and “Beautiful.” It seems like they have a similar message of acceptance. Is that what you are going for with your music?
I don’t consciously try to go anywhere with my music. It just kind of happens. “Shield” I wrote after I came back from Qatar, singing for the troops in the Middle East. I wrote that because they are our protectors. It also has a very universal meaning in terms of whether it’s your best friend, your wife, or your husband. There’s a time when you’re always there for somebody that’s too weak to stand on their own. That’s the message that “Shield” has for me, but you can also stretch that to the LGBTQ community or to any community.

I know “Beautiful” has a universal message, too. It seems like it could apply to different couples.
There’s an older couple in there. There’s an interracial couple. There’s just so many different people in that video. I love that video. It’s one of my favorites. I really wanted everyone to feel accepted and equal. I guess “Beautiful” and “Shield” have a very similar message.

Do you feel like with your music, you are trying to communicate that idea of acceptance and tolerance?

I love the fact that people can come together and stand united despite their different backgrounds. For me, when I sit down with a pen and paper, I’m always writing what comes to my mind or what comes through my heart. If that is my default, acceptance and love, then I love that.

I know you’re working on an album. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
We’ve been working on it for a while. I feel like we do have enough material for an album, but I’m so picky, and I obviously change every second. So, I just want it to be a reflective of who I am at that moment when it’s released. It’s coming. It’s just a matter of time. I’m also starting a podcast, and that’s coming in the next month … It’s going to be an unfiltered sort of podcast that talks about anything from politics to entertainment to fashion to music.

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David Hernandez appeared on season seven of American Idol.
Bobby Quillard
What inspired you to do a podcast?
I just have a lot to say, and I can never keep my mouth shut. What better way to reach people than to use my platform? I’m sure we’ll make some enemies because the dialogue is unfiltered, but at the same time, if you’re not creating waves, then you’re not being heard.

It’s been 10 years since you’ve done American Idol. Do you still have a lot of fans from that time, or have you developed a whole new fan base?
There’s some old fans that still follow me. There’s some new ones that I have developed. I love the old-school ones. When I sing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” or “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” they’re like, “Yeah, I remember when you did that I voted for you.” That’s a really cool feeling.

Are you trying to separate yourself or do you embrace American Idol?
I don’t think I ever tried to separate myself. I really do embrace it. It’s the show that gave me my start. Before that, I was signed, but my music wasn’t heard on an international platform. American Idol gave me that with 32 million viewers a night. It catapulted me to this level where I can use that platform to make a difference and create music that’s touching. When I do shows, especially my cabaret shows, I’m always thanking American Idol. I tell stories about the behind-the-scenes moments on the show.

You have your hands in a lot of different pots, as you said. You do a cabaret show as well?
I do a broken-down acoustic. It’s called “Soul Sessions.” What I do is take all of my original music and also do some of my favorite covers, and I just bring my piano player ... We basically just strip everything down, and we play the songs that I wrote with just vocals and piano.

Who have been the biggest influences for you?
I would say my mother is honestly one of my huge influences. I grew up listening to her playing vinyl records of anyone from Prince, to The Temptations, to Madonna. She gave me so many examples of incredible artists growing up. So, while soul and R&B is my roots, I still can sing just about anything because I grew up on a variety of music. She also writes poetry, and I learned how to write my music through her.

What will Phoenix Pride audiences get to see?
I think I’m doing three originals and three covers. I want to keep the crowd upbeat and energetic. I don’t want to lose them with stuff they don’t know, but my passion definitely is my original music ... I’m definitely doing “Shield.” Definitely doing “Beautiful” and one of the first songs I ever wrote “I Am Who I am,” which is relevant to the LGBT community.

It sounds like a lot of your music is relevant to the LGBT community, even though you may not be going for being “the LGBT artist.”
I wouldn’t consider myself “the LGBT artist,” but the truth is I am who I am. I try to create more of a universal message for everybody. I don’t want people to think it’s just for a specific community. It’s uplifting, dope music that I hope people can relate to.

David Hernandez will perform at Phoenix Pride at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 8, at Steele Indian School Park, 300 East Indian School Road. Tickets range from $15 for general admission to $75 for meet-and-greet tickets at the Phoenix Pride website. Find out more about the artist at David Hernandez's website.
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Laura Latzko