Clay Aiken on Christmas, American Idol, and Donald Trump

At one point during our early morning interview, singer and performer Clay Aiken yawned.

It was a deep, expressive yawn. He did not ask to be excused, but he didn't need to: Aiken is among the most affable, pleasant, and charming interviews I've ever enjoyed. Plus, the guy has every reason to be worn out. The former "American Idol" has been making his way across the nation on his "Joyful Noise 2012" tour, belting out selections and standards from his Christmas recordings, Merry Christmas with Love and All Is Well: Songs for Christmas. It's a lot of work, and Aiken notes: "This is my fifth year doing it, and if we count all the times that I've done this show you're up into the hundreds, you know?"

With his upcoming tour stop at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler approaching, Aiken took some time to discuss Christmas music, 30 Rock, Donald Trump (Aiken competed on Celebrity Apprentice this year), and the season a "big black guy from Alabama and a skinny gay weirdo from North Carolina" wooed America on American Idol.

Up on the Sun: You started this tour in the 23rd of November, correct?

Clay Aiken: If you say so! You probably know better than I do. [Laughs]

So at this point, are you sick of Christmas music yet?

You know, for some reason, I don't get sick of this tour. If you asked me on other tours, I'd still say the same thing, but I'd probably be lying. [Laughs] With this one, I don't tend to get that tired. Forget the 23rd -- This is my fifth year doing it, and if we count all the times that I've done this show you're up into the hundreds, you know?

So you generally enjoy Christmas music. You'd have to.

There's something about Christmas music that puts people in a better mood. I had a friend when I was in high school that insisted that she kept a Christmas CD in her car and whenever she'd get stopped by a cop, she'd put it in. Whether it was June or July or whatever, she'd throw in the Christmas CD and get out of the ticket every time. I guess there's something about Christmas music that puts people in a better mood.

What are some of your favorite Christmas albums?

You know, I don't listen to many Christmas records when I'm touring. I am so inundated with my own stuff, we run the entire show one time in the afternoon, and then we do it again at night. But in the off years, the years that I haven't done it: Michael Buble's Christmas album, I think it's really great, Josh Groban had a really good one a few years ago. The ones that everyone else loves, I think. Those are the ones I like the most. Mariah Carey's Christmas album, which should go in some American time capsule, I'm sure.

Do you listen to music on the bus to wind down after shows?

I haven't listened to a thing lately. When I'm on tour, we're on a bus, and we don't listen to the radio. We put the TV on. We put reruns of The Closer on or something. I would be the worst person to ask about current musical trends.

You appeared on 30 Rock, one of my favorite shows of all time. Before you were approached about a guest spot, were you a fan?

Oh God, yeah. I love 30 Rock. That's one of the few things I insist on staying up to date on when I'm on the road. I make sure I get the latest episode. I like the fact that they're wrapping up each character up. A lot of shows end and you don't know where that character is going. But you know Liz is going to be married, and Jenna's going to try to be. I just want to know who this "Jacob" Kenneth keeps yelling at is. He's been yelling at "Jacob" for years. I want to know Kenneth's deal. [Note: Up on the Sun has it on good authority that this is a Lost reference.]

The "Kidney Now" musical number your participated in on the show was a pretty good song.

They totally should have sent that to radio.

You were also on Celebrity Apprentice this year. Is Donald Trump as crazy in person as he is online?

You know, I have to say: He was a very gracious host to us. He treated everyone with respect, and he does not get pleasure in firing people, I know that. He was a very nice guy, and before I went on the show, I didn't pay too much attention to the stuff he was doing in the press. When I was on the show, I gained this really great respect for him. When I got off the show, I would come home and see things with him on the news, and I'd think to myself, "God, I wish he would just shut up." He's like that uncle you love, but he does stupid things and you just wish he'd stop doing them because you know that's not really a great representation of him. That's kinda how I feel.

I have to imagine he's playing up his image in the media. I refuse to believe anyone could be so...

Well, I don't know how much he's playing. [Laughs] But he was a nice guy when I was around him. You got your start on American Idol. Do you watch the singing shows at all? American Idol? The Voice?

I haven't watched anything since maybe '06. It's been awhile.

When American Idol was first the big hit it was, I remember feeling like it was a trend, and that people were going to watch and enjoy these shows for a time, and then move on. You guys were all phenomenal singers, but I never imagined the format having the lasting strength it has.

I think you might have been right. People are not watching the same show today that they were back in '02 or '03. The "singing competition show," where we tune in and we watch contestants sing, and we vote for them, support them, and really invest ourselves in the singers...that's not really what's on TV anymore. Now, I think people tune in and they watch the judges, and the singers are sort of an afterthought. The singers are almost what we sit through, and the filler between when the judges talk.

I have watched The Voice some, I wouldn't say I'm a regular watcher, but I find myself waiting for the person to stop singing so I can see what Christina Aguilera, Cee-Lo, and Adam [Levine] are going to say. To see if they're going to turn their chair around -- that was fun. I want to hear what the judges are saying. I want to hear if they're going to say someone is pitchy when they're not, because that happens a lot. [Laughs]

They give some sort of comment that just didn't happen. That always fascinates me. We pay less attention to the singers now, and more to the judges. We pay more attention the spectacle and the concepts, rather than getting invested in this big black guy from Alabama and this skinny gay weirdo from North Carolina, and become invested in the characters and contestants on the show. To that end, in some ways, that's probably why you may be right. Those shows didn't survive solely on the concept we did. They had to evolve into something else for people to continue to watch, and they don't watch in as high number as they used to.

The Studdard/Aiken season really was a phenomenon. I remember everybody in my family, especially my grandma, just being riveted by your season. People seem to have remained invested in your voice.

It was very organic, back in the day. We didn't have bands. We sang to tracks. I remember asking for a stool this one time, and it was like, "Oh, should we give him a stool? Do we have a stool? Now they're playing in from the ceiling, there are fires on stage, there's a band on stage! But I'm not joking, I asked for a stool one time and they had to look around and see if they had one, or if that was even allowed. It was real talent competition back then, and now, it's a circus in some ways.

Clay Aiken is scheduled to perform Thursday, December 20, at Ovations Live! Showroom at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino in Chandler.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.