The clue packages for Sun hinted at a performer who started early, along with lots of references to the color blue and Disney. But it was her peerless voice that really made fans think that the woman behind the mask might be a legendary country star whose unmistakable sound has been in our ears for more than 25 years. And after guesses ranging from Madonna to Idina Menzel and Gwyneth Paltrow, when the solar dust settled, it turned out that the odds-on favorite to win this season was none other than “How Do I Live” singer LeAnn Rimes.
The child star, who first rose to national attention at age 8 after appearing on Star Search and broke through at 13 with her multiplatinum debut Blue, was an unstoppable force on the show, and with a win under her belt, she’s back in our ears today with her new single, the uplifting pop anthem “Throw My Arms Around the World.”
Billboard spoke to Rimes before her coronation on Wednesday night to find out how she got her shine back and why Singer was the perfect vehicle for her to burst back into the spotlight.
Choice of costume is key on this show. Why the Sun? What did it mean to you?
The costume team brought some other ideas and they were kind of earth-driven and then we started talking about the moon, which was a bit too on-the-nose with me because of [2000 single] “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.” I thought, “Why can’t I be the opposite and be the Sun?” I loved the idea of being the opposite of what people connect me with with “Moonlight.” It was also part of this huge message I feel is coming through in my music and my chant album [this year’s Chant: The Human & The Holy] and my new song “Throw My Arms Around the World,” this beautiful power of hope and grounded wisdom that has been channeled through my music at this moment. It felt so connected to my message and what I want to bring out and put into the world at this time.
A lot of your clues were about the difficulty of being a child star and how you’ve had a rough time in the spotlight. Did performing anonymously help you relax?
I don’t know if relax would be the word. My favorite piece about being in costume as a woman was there was no hair and makeup and I came on set in sweats with wet hair, I put on my costume and then went back to sweats after. I think it helped for people to hear me and to feel me and especially as a woman we’re judged so much on what we’re wearing and what we look like people sometimes don’t stop there and don’t truly take in what’s coming through. That’s what was so powerful about the costume for me. I felt so connected to what I was doing and what was coming through and I didn’t get stifled by the rest of the package that needs to be presented in this world. That felt really powerful. I’ve joked so many times about doing a sweats tour, because if you’re showing up for anything besides my voice and the music, you’re showing up for the wrong reason.
How did you feel about the guesses, which ranged from Madonna to Anna Kendrick, Gwyneth Paltrow and Idina Menzel?
I was definitely surprised by some of them. At first I didn’t want to do the show, because isn’t the whole point that people don’t know who you are? I felt like people grew up with me and I’ve been in the business for 25 years and there’s no way people don’t know who I am. … I have a very distinctive voice. I thought there was no way the judges didn’t know! After the first performance, I saw my Twitter blow up and I felt like people did know!
You got your start on a reality singing show and you’ve hosted a few, and here you are three decades later winning a show. Is this a full-circle moment for you?
Yeah! I was 8 and I hadn’t been in that kind of competition thing like this for so long. Someone said to me the other day that I owned the whole galaxy now: the stars, the moon and now the Sun. The competition piece was interesting because I don’t love competition, though it lights a fire under me.
The competition was pretty stiff near the end.
I know! The people next to me were so talented and one is a dear friend of mine and I didn’t know it until the very end. Aloe Blacc is a dear friend, we’ve done a duet [“That Spirit of Christmas”] and he was next to me warming up and I thought, “God, I know that voice but I can’t quite place it!” I was singing along to his Stevie Wonder song and I thought, “We should do a duet!”
How much did you want this win? Did you think you had a chance?
Yes. I think I wouldn’t go into it without thinking I had a chance, but you never know with these things. It’s not always about who’s the best singer because some people can be incredibly entertaining and you never know what people will gravitate towards.
Did you have a game plan? What was the story?
I had a specific arc of songs I wanted to perform and a way I wanted to lay it out. I wanted to do the Billie Eilish song almost all a cappella and the music department was so supportive of my ideas. I really thought it out. I thought, “If I put my heart into this I’m really going to go for it.” For me, music has always been boundary-less. As an artist, I’ve never stuck to one thing and you can’t keep me in a box because then there’s the more I want to claw my way out of it. I wanted to hit on every different genre and pay homage to my whole career. Lizzo was the perfect thing to kick that off with… “this will confuse people a bit.” And I love Janis Joplin and I wanted to be able to go there. “Praying” was so beautiful and I love the lyrics to that song. With the Billie Eilish song, there was an intimacy that I really wanted to bring across. And before tonight’s song, “The Story,” I toyed with doing one of my own songs — “can I do something I covered or recorded?” — but I ended up choosing “The Story” because it’s such a powerful song that speaks to my personal story and the power of love.
The judges thought you were a favorite from your opening performance of the Lizzo songs and then fans uncovered a video of you doing it earlier. Were you afraid your cover was blown?
Yes! I cover songs all the time and I had done the Billie Eilish cover and put it up on YouTube, so we had to pull that video down so people couldn’t find it. The only time I did the Lizzo song was during an Instagram Live thing on my bus with my guitar player and someone recorded it, a fan on their phone, and they put it up. We went through everything to make sure there were no videos of me doing anything and I was bummed out about that.
You were literally a ray of sunshine during these dark COVID days, was that part of what drew you to doing the show, knowing that it would make people smile at home during lockdown?
Absolutely. That was one of the main pieces. I don’t think there’s another show on TV that is this joyful, that is truly this fun and you can tell by the fans that they really tune in for the joy of the show. I really took that in and thought about being the sun and bringing light into this world in this dark time, which connected with the message of what I want to put out into the world.
You’ve won your fair share of awards, so where will the golden mask go on your trophy shelf?
It has to go right beside the Grammys. There was as much work and thought that I put into this performance and character as anything else I’ve ever done.
Tell me about your new single and the message behind it.
I’ve never been more excited about music in my entire career. There are so many ancient percussion sounds on this record… it makes me dance and cry at the same time because the message is so powerful. I know I am only one on my own, but we are so much more as we and we have so much power if we just open our hearts up to love. It speaks to so much of what’s going on in our world right now and what’s possible. I can’t get through the song without bawling and I don’t know how I’m going to sing it live! If it can make you dance and cry at the same time that’s a great thing.