Katharine McPhee Talks About Her Upcoming Album ‘Hysteria’

on her most “authentic” album

by jenny lee

Since Katharine McPhee graduated from American Idol, she's released albums as a singer, appeared in films and television shows as an actress, and sung on a televised musical series called Smash, which was cancelled after two seasons but still boasts a devoted group of core fans. But now McPhee is unfolding the next chapter in her career—her fourth studio album, Hysteria, releases this Friday, and McPhee calls it the most "authentic" one she's created yet. Her first single, "Lick My Lips," came out earlier in May, and it showcases a McPhee who seems like a much more confident, realized version of herself.

We spoke with McPhee about the process of making Hysteria, the inspirations and musical contributions behind it, and what she has on the horizon.

Can you speak about the preparation that went into making Hysteria?

Sure. It wasn’t just a set amount of a few months where I went into the studio and worked on it and finished it. It’s kind of been an ongoing project for quite a few years. When I was doing Smash, that was when I started working on the album, which was about three years ago, and there were a lot of variables. The record wasn’t getting done, but mainly I think that was because I was set up with a group of people who really wanted me to take my time, and that’s exactly what we did. I just really took my time and I got to really experience how to make a record.

I think that for my first record and even my second record, there’s always this pressure with trying to get it our for a specific timeline, and for whatever reason, I just didn’t have people hovering over me saying, “Let’s get it done, let’s get it done.” But then Smash ended, and I feel like the cost of the work that was done on the record was after Smash and in-between Scorpion. I feel like the time I spent on the album during Smash was preparation, and more of the body of work that’s actually on the album is stuff that was in the last year and a half to two years. I just got set up with groups of people who I really connected with. I got to be a total studio rat, and wake up in the morning and get your coffee, and go to the studio and hang out with people you really liked and liked telling stories to, and then these songs kind of worked from the organic process.

Your song "Lick My Lips" seems to have a bolder and more daring feel to it with lots of innuendos. With that song and with the album, what were kinds of the thoughts and inspirations that went into it?

I don’t know that things are so deliberate. That song just came out of a session when I was with Isa, who is part of Florence and the Machine—Isa Machine. She was actually in writing for other people as well, and that song was another that we didn’t write together. There were a lot of songs that ended up on the album [that we wrote together]. That one in particular, I think I just liked the vibe, and I’m always attracted to the songs that are sexy—fun songs that aren’t so literal. I think that you’ll find some of my stuff is literal and some of it is a lot of sexual innuendos and things like that. I never really liked to get into statistics about “Oh, well, this lyric means that and this.” I did write basically all of this record, so there’s lots for people to dissect, but I don’t want to confirm or deny. I just want people to have their own experience and gather their own information from what they hear. 

You worked with some really cool names for this album like Sia, Isabella Summers, and Ryan Tedder. How was working with all these amazing people in music and getting their input on the album?

I mean, it’s great. There are so many talented people out there in the songwriting world, and so obviously the bigger names get more attention, but I learned a lot from everybody I connected to. You know, it’s really about connecting to somebody, catching good vibes with them. Whether they’re Sia or whether they’re an unknown writer—to me, that's what it’s more about.

Sia and I had two days in the studio, and I loved working with her. I think she is just a really cool chick, and she was on the up-and-up, becoming who she is now. When I was writing with her, she was basically sharing that she wanted to start writing pop songs for pop artists—all of her big hits hadn’t quite come out yet. So, it was kind of cool to be in there with her before she had this huge ascension into stardom. I’ve seen her since then, and everyone generally has nice, great things to say about her. For me, its more about just connecting with writers, whether they’ve had 30 hits or zero hits. It’s kind of like looking for that person who can draw something out of you.    

Would you say that the album—or the new music that you’re putting out—is different from what you’ve done before? And if it is, how would you say that your sound or style has evolved over the years?

Yeah, I mean, I was working on songs for this album for sure, and it’s different. It’s still a pop record, so there’s lots of different sounds in pop music, and it’s difficult for me to say, “Oh well, it's like this artist meets that artist meets this artist.” I don’t know, I hope it sounds like me and I think it does. I think they’re all just kind of like a combination of fun-serious topics, not-fun topics, serious topics, make-believe topics—not everything that I’ve written about is stuff that actually happened to me or something that I actually believe. You use any kind of mentality to get you the lyrics that you want for that feel of the song. Yes, I think it’s a different sound for me but I haven’t really put out that many albums and I know I’ve been around for a while but I guess this one feels the most authentic to me. But I think I actually got to really baby it. I got to be there for the conception of the idea and for the process of helping it and watching it grow, and be there for when they were producing it and mixing it and all that stuff. I think that’s rare that an artist will get that much time to do that because so many artists today are so busy doing other things.

How do you see yourself evolving as an artist from this point? Is there any kind of new style that you want to try or explore a bit further?   

No, I just love being able to perform live. I guess I’d love the opportunity to do more collaborations with other artists and stuff like that, but I don’t know. I’m not very good at the music industry. I’ve never been very good at projecting the future, so I don’t really live in that world with the music industry. I’m just happy to have my core group of fans buy my album and see me perform. Just that in itself makes me feel like, “Wow, I can’t believe it. It’s so cool that they would do that,” so I’m very open to any possibilities. I don’t know whether or not I’ll put another record out after this. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. It really is going to be a matter of whether I feel inspired by something. I think, I guess the best way to describe this album is that I really wanted to make this album because it was the first time I felt like I had inspiration in my life to write about and to say something. But whether or not I’ll do more albums in the future, I have an acting career that keeps me really busy so I just don’t know. 

Since American Idol, what would you say is the best advice that you’ve gotten regarding your career? Whether it was for your singing, acting, or the musical career, what would be a piece of advice that really resonated with you throughout?

Well, I think the most important thing through a career is staying humble, and when you lose sight of things, remembering what’s important. You can get lots of advice from different people—people have agents, managers, and publicists, so the career advice is constant. There is no one set of advice that is gonna guide you straight through your career. Because if advice comes with each challenge that the industry brings, I would say the most important thing is who you are, not what you do. Somebody important told me that. At the end of the day, you’re home from your job, it doesn’t sum up who you are and I think that’s really important because I think it’s easy for people to lose sight of themselves in this industry and a lot of industries. Not just entertainment.

What’s next for you? Are there any projects on the horizon that you might want to share?

Well, I am on a show called Scorpion, which is going into its second season, so that’s my main project because it keeps me busy nine months out of the year. So for people who watch TV, it's on Monday nights at 9 on CBS. Trying to juggle a TV career with music keeps me really busy so, I’ll just hopefully be having lots of touring dates and stuff. For right now, I’m happy being on a successful hit TV show.