After moonlighting in reality TV, a lifelong performer rediscovers her voice

After a successful run on the 2003 season of TV’s American Idol, Texas native Kimberly Caldwell detoured into work as a TV personality with gigs on outlets like Fox Sports and MTV. Now she returns to center stage with her long-awaited debut album, Without Regret, a set of party-starting anthems and pensive, stirring ballads that reintroduces the lifelong performer as a musical force. We caught up with Caldwell after a marathon night at restaurant-and-arcade chain Dave & Buster’s. “I literally spent over five hours there,” she confides.

What was Idol like for you?

I was only 20 when I was on the show. I’ve been performing since I was 5 and professionally since 11, and I was so focused up until I was around 16. But when you’re between 16 and 22 I think you’re legally supposed to be a little unfocused. I don’t know how the 16-year-olds on the show handle it.

Did you feel any outside pressure while making the record?

There was a lot of anxiety and excitement over finally getting the opportunity to make an album, but I didn’t really feel any pressure. Most of the writing took place two years ago, before I even got the record deal—so when I was writing I didn’t feel the weight of somebody hanging over my head and telling me what to write and how to write. It was a nice release to be able to write exactly what I was feeling.

How does your writing process work?

I’ve been set up with big-time writers, and that’s where the pressure comes in. But normally I’m just hanging out with one of my musician buddies who loves writing as well. I have an outside patio with a garden, so we sit around with a couple of beers, pen and paper, and we do it old-school on guitar. I usually have an idea of what I want to write about, and then the brainstorming starts.

What is “Taking Back My Life” about?

I wrote that maybe six years ago about some stupid boy. It was a moment where I was being let down by a guy and I needed a release. A friend of mine, [co-writer] Brett Epstein, had a studio and had offered to get together and write. Anytime you’re going through something like that, you feel the need to get it all out and hopefully do it in a creative way instead of a negative way. When I re-recorded it for the album, I had to take myself back to that place and make sure I was feeling what that girl was feeling when she initially wrote it.

What is your favorite memory from the recording process?

Definitely when [producer] Marshall Altman and I went into the studio with the live band on one of the few days when they were all there. We saw all of these amazing session players, some of whom I’ve also been lucky enough to perform with. I went into the studio, put on headphones and just jammed out with them. It was special, a real “aha!” moment when I heard these great musicians bringing my songs to life.

Do you have any regrets?

No, no regrets. My 83-year-old grandma taught me that everything happens for a reason. That’s made life a bit brighter. If I think like that, it’s easy for me to live without regret. It’s tough to stay focused on that, but 99 percent of the time that’s where my head is.

–Jesse Thompson

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