David Archuleta was barely old enough to drive when he made it to the finale of “American Idol” in 2008. He was the runner-up in Season 7, and this Utah idol has been topping charts and hearts ever since. His verses have included billboard highs with “Crush,” personal lows with difficult publicity, serving a two-year mission in Chile, and winning over saints and sinners with “Glorious.”
But it’s Christmastime that feels the most comfortable for this pop singer who feels like he’s in a partnership with God to bring light to the industry and to the world. During a long talk young David had with heaven while sitting on a rock in the Uintas, he was prompted to stay close to God through prayer and scripture study. And that has been the steady force during his unsteady journey as a performer who doesn’t use skin or profanity to draw attention.
However, he did use a spray-painted wig to turn heads as a 10-year-old when he and his siblings sang songs by the Jackson 5 during their holiday tour through nursing homes and neighborhoods. David’s childhood Christmas memories are more about service than gifts. And now his music combines both as he gives a hope-filled message and serves with his vocal chords.
David sat down with Utah Valley Magazine during a visit to Utah to see his family and his physical therapist. He shared Christmas memories made in Chile, the time his parents stopped giving their children gifts under the tree, and why he recently bought an InstaPot on Amazon.
Utah Valley Magazine: What does Christmas mean to you?
David: It’s my favorite season and my favorite holiday. Not every Christmas has been happy, but it has become a very special time because I’m usually singing and going on tour. At Christmas, hearts are open and I can sing and talk about Christ. I feel like myself when I’m able to sing about my beliefs.
UV: What do you remember about Christmases as a child?
David: We used to go to hospitals and assisted living centers where we would sing. Honestly, my parents stopped giving us presents pretty early on. It was exciting to open gifts, but shortly afterwards we didn’t appreciate it. And they knew it. So my Christmases as a child weren’t about unwrapping gifts. They were focused on visiting people while wearing Santa hats or performing Christmas songs as the Jackson 5 — wearing clown wigs my mom had spray-painted for us.
UV: You have a fun, creative mom!
David: She’s always been that way. She’s passionate. She teaches basic performance to kids at Archuleta Performing Arts. She got her start teaching her kids Christmas carols in three-part harmonies. Those were my first experiences seeing how music brings joy. Music heals. It makes people laugh. It brings back memories. It was super touching for me as a 10-year-old boy to realize we could stir souls through music.
UV: What part has music played in your holidays?
David: It’s been a tradition the past 11 or 12 years to perform. I sang on my mission at Christmas, too. My tour finishes in Logan this year, and then I’ll spend Christmas with my family. I’ve always spent Christmas with my family except for the two years I was in Chile. The Christmas after “Idol” we were in Vegas because Utah was crazy for us right after the show.
UV: How have Christmases evolved for you? What do you value in a holiday season?
David: Now that I’m not home as much, I value being home and keeping traditions. My mom is from Honduras, so on Christmas Eve with our Latin family we dance until midnight and then hug and say Merry Christmas. On my dad’s side, we would have Christmas dinner with orange rolls and funeral potatoes — and there would be a talent show. My stepdad has brought his traditions. My step-siblings brought 11 new grandchildren to the family, so we get to experience Christmas through children’s eyes again. My mom tells the nativity story and puts her whole heart into it. She shares what it means and gives her testimony of Christ’s power in our lives. It’s super touching.
UV: Do you have holiday dishes you like to make?
David: I don’t cook, but I did just buy an Instapot because it was the Amazon Deal of the Day. I haven’t been home yet since I bought it, but I’ll try it out. I am a simple eater. I make eggs for myself just about every day. And other than that, I eat granola and yogurt.
UV: What was Christmas like on your mission in Chile?
David: We spent one Christmas with a family that was getting baptized the week of Christmas. It was the first holiday they didn’t drink wine, which was a big deal to them. I remember singing for them. I was amazed that people look at missionaries who taught them as part of their family.
UV: What do you recall about calling home at Christmas?
David: I loved it. I checked up on everyone. We weren’t much of phone talkers. It was like a little interview to make sure everyone was doing OK, getting along and going to school.
UV: What are some of your favorite Utah locations?
David: I love Big Cottonwood Canyon. I love to go snowboarding at Brighton. When I bring friends to Utah, they are like, “This is Narnia!” The mountains are so beautiful, and you don’t notice them when you’re here every day. Utah is such a beautiful place. I grew up right by Wheeler Farms. I love Murray Park.
UV: What sticks out about Utah crowds?
David: On the Idol tour, the other contestants said the best audience was in Utah. Here, people know when to be energetic and when to listen. They get pumped! They save energy for the moments you need it. They are quiet when you want them to listen, and that has to do with the church culture. People still shout, “I love you” in a quiet moment, but for the most part they are attentive.
UV: As Utahns, we feel especially close to your song “Glorious.”
David: The version I sang that is used in “Meet the Mormons” was recorded in a studio in Chile. That’s the only professional recording I have of myself as a set-apart, full-time missionary with my companion there in the studio “within sight and sound.”
UV: A few years ago, I interviewed Stephanie Mabey who wrote “Glorious.” She told me how she was talking to you on the phone while you were in Chile driving to the studio.
David: Yes. It was so crazy. While we were talking, the back of the car flew open. (laughs) It was cool to get called in by my mission president and told the church needed a faster version of this EFY song. Within a week, I recorded it. Then later I re-recorded it for my Christmas album.
UV: How does that song rate in terms of significance in your career?
David: That song is so much a part of me. I didn’t write it, but I’ve been able to add significance to it and bring it to a place where people can connect to it.
David: In Utah, I feel like the guy next door. Everywhere I go, people say, “I know so-and-so in your neighborhood.” Or … “My brother went to school with your dad.” Everyone is connected, but nobody understands the career of a musician. People ask, “What do you do now?” And I’m like, “I do music.” They ask, “Aren’t you going to school? Are you going to get a real job?” I feel like a foreigner here in that sense.
UV: Do you get treated like a celebrity in Nashville the same way you do in Utah?
David: In Nashville, I get stopped a few times a week. Here in Utah, it’s several times per day. I don’t like all eyes on me all the time. It’s OK on stage because I’m there to perform. But when I’m off the stage, I want to blend in.
UV: Do you get asked to give firesides and perform at youth conference? How do you handle that?
David: I get about 10 requests a week, and it used to be more right after my mission. I do love the chance to show people that it’s possible to be in the music industry and have standards. In this business, people don’t even know what standards are. It takes effort to put a priority on religion, faith and God, but it can be done. People are usually looking for music to give them a high or an intense feeling, and usually those things don’t match up with standards. They see religion as holding you back, but I want to make more room for people of faith and people with standards to say, “If he can do it, I can do it, too.”
UV: Where did you get the strength to say that and feel that it’s possible to be you?
David: I may not like myself or everything about me, but I’ve made a decision to be brave enough to be me. Pink has lyrics that say, “LA told me you’ll be a pop star, all you have to do is change everything you are.” I have to be willing to fight the battle and be “me.” In the industry, we’re told to get a good body and then to go shirtless. The darker and edgier you are, the more you appeal to both guys and girls.
UV: How do you handle that?
David: I want to be hip and have some sort of edge but stay close to God. I need to have Him guiding me, and my mission really taught me that. My parents taught me to listen to the still small voice. I can still have good fashion, cool videography and be good.
UV: What are things you do or don’t do to maintain your goodness?
David: I start everything with a prayer. We pray before every video shoot and every songwriting session. I tell people straight up, “I try to keep God in everything I do.” I figured I’m paying everyone so I can do it my way! Everyone is cool with it, and it opens up conversations. Religion is often seen as exclusive and judgmental, and I don’t want to be labeled as that. In LA, someone told me they got goosebumps from my prayer and they hadn’t felt that in the 20 years they’d been in the industry. At times, I’ve invited people to pray. They often don’t know how, but I just tell them to say what’s in their heart right now. Prayer brings everyone together. Religion is seen in the industry as separation, but I’ve had times when prayer unites us and connects us to something bigger.
UV: How have you handled the criticism that sometimes comes with the limelight?
David: People who are part of your tribe like to test you — whether that’s a religious tribe, an ethnic tribe. They start to ask, “Are you really still part of us? Do you really belong? Because you’re also in this other tribe now.” For the most part, people are positive. But in the limelight, people feel like they have more of a right to judge you. People expect us to be perfect. But we have struggles, too. If we have a dip or make a mistake, it’s like we’re a disappointment and have let people down. But are those people holding themselves to those same standards?
UV: Do you feel like this is more intense in Utah than other places?
David: It is challenging in Utah because people are watching. And sometimes people mimic you because they look up to you. And I take that seriously. But at the same time, I’m not perfect. There was only one person who was: Christ. The rest of us are in the same boat. We’re all going to make mistakes. But criticizing me isn’t going to help me.
UV: How grounded were you before you headed into Idol as a 16-year-old?
David: Before I went to LA, a couple of brothers and their dad invited me to go backpacking in the Uintas. I was away from everybody. I spent hours sitting on a rock, hoping I wouldn’t see a bear or moose. I talked to God. And it was awesome. He basically said, “Stay close to me. Be honest. Be good. Be kind.” He didn’t say, “Sing this song. Win people over this way.” It was simply, “Pray and read every morning. Do the things that will help you have the spirit.” That’s what I did. I would get up 15 minutes earlier to read. I needed something to keep me steady, and my spirituality and God was something I could keep consistent when everything else wasn’t.
UV: I’ve heard you say that the criticism and microscope of being on Idol was harder than your mission.
David: There’s nothing harder than Idol. Everyone expects you to be so grateful and happy because that’s how you’re supposed to behave when a camera is in front of you and people are voting for you. But it’s such a roller coaster with so many people involved in your life. People are judging you, and they are telling you what kind of person to be. You’re introduced to a cut-throat industry where you think people are your friends, and suddenly they’re not. This includes people in the industry, but also friends and family. They think they need to humble you, so they start saying you aren’t that great. And you’re like, “I don’t need that from you right now. I need comfort and support.” It’s very isolating. It’s an amazing experience, but it’s very lonely.
UV: Did you have people to talk to? Who were your go-tos?
David: The biggest people were the other contestants. They are the only ones who understood. We were all having anxiety, panic attacks, hyperventilating and crawling into a ball to cry. Every contestant on my season had a nervous breakdown at one point. Everyone. The pressure is huge. It’s more than singing songs. It’s videos. Interviews. Photo shoots. Events and parties. Schmoozing with people. It was boot camp.
UV: You also dealt with family pressures.
David: There was pressure from my dad, and then pressure from the media because of my dad. Everyone wanted to talk about my “stage dad.” What I was most upset about is that the show let it happen because drama brings in more viewers. They allowed it and encouraged it. They care about ratings at any expense.
UV: How did you get through that and what toll did it take?
David: I kept distance from my family for a time because I didn’t want to be associated with them when all everyone wanted to talk about was problems with my family. My parents were going through a separation. Nobody wanted to help me — they just wanted to expose me and my family. My family didn’t need the attention. I didn’t think it was cool.
UV: What role did your dad play in guiding your path?
David: Even though my dad was overwhelming for me and for everybody else, he was the one who stood up for me when I was tempted to be a “yes man.” He didn’t care what the Idol people thought of him, so he would tell them I wasn’t going to sing certain songs. When you have convictions, you annoy people but you also get respect. My dad would say, “David, have you listened to those lyrics?” And I would be like, “It’s fine, Dad. I don’t want to get on their bad side once again. They already hate you. Dad, don’t mess this one up.” And he would say, “David, those lyrics aren’t who you are.” At times I was annoyed with my dad, and he can be intense. But he saved me. They wanted me to be a white Chris Brown. They would tell me I wouldn’t have as much of an impact if I didn’t do what they said. My dad cared what I stood for.
UV: Did you have a first big splurge after you became successful? A fancy car?
David: I still drive the same Ford Escape they gave us for the finale of American Idol. But the AC isn’t working, so I need to get a new car because I’m tired of sweating. My splurge at first was to come home. I would fly to Utah to be with my family and take my sisters to church. Sometimes they would only go if I was there.
UV: What do you feel is your mission in life at this point?
David: I want to make room for more people in this industry who want to stay true to who they are. People need more light. But most people are used to the dark. I don’t want to be used to the dark. I am seeking for more light. I don’t have it all figured out. I mess up. I get confused. I want to throw things out the window. I need to go to therapy. I get mad in traffic. I’m just like everybody else. But I’m going to keep looking up. I’m going to keep trying. And at Christmastime, it feels like everyone is trying harder to find the light. And with my music, I get to share light. It’s the best gift I could give or receive. It’s the perfect time of year.