Arts & Culture

Iowa's 'Idol' Maddie Poppe bringing holidays home

She's performing around the state, including two sold-out shows in Cedar Rapids

Clarksville, Iowa, native Maddie Poppe, winner of #x201c;American Idol#x201d; season 16 in 2018, is bringing her acousti
Clarksville, Iowa, native Maddie Poppe, winner of “American Idol” season 16 in 2018, is bringing her acoustic holiday show to a pair of sold-out performances at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. (United Talent Agency)

Fans may do a double-take when Maddie Poppe steps onto the spotlight for two sold-out shows Saturday at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids.

The bubbly blonde who won viewers’ hearts and votes on television’s “American Idol” in 2018 has just turned 23 and is now a bubbly brunette.

She said she occasionally gets recognized out in the public, and “definitely” when she’s back at her home base in Clarksville, northwest of Waterloo.

“But now that I’ve changed (to) my dark hair, not as much,” she said by phone Monday. “I just needed a change,” she added with a shrug in her voice.

In a year full of changes, one thing hasn’t. Her relationship with Caleb Lee Hutchinson, her “Idol” runner-up, still is going strong. And on Monday afternoon, they were en route to the Grand Canyon for a little sightseeing — a luxury she didn’t have when she and her season 16 “Idol” finalists were on a whirlwind cross-country tour the summer of 2018.

Fast forward, and this week she was in Arizona to launch her “Acoustic Christmas” tour, which will be swinging through Iowa this month, from Cedar Falls to Sioux City, Davenport and various towns in between.

She loves performing in her home state.

“It’s great,” she said. “I’m just happy we could make it work for this year. It’s been really tough, and I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be able to perform live.”

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Because of the pandemic, she’ll be alone onstage, with just her guitar. Her other musicians are either on lockdown in their states or are busy with teaching and other work-related responsibilities, and weren’t available for touring.

The shows “definitely are more intimate,” she said. “We have to keep the numbers lower to promote social distancing.”

The Paramount seats 1,675, but in light of pandemic safety protocols, has reduced capacity to around 565 for each concert. Audience members are required to wear masks when not eating or drinking, and to practice social distancing when they aren’t seated.

Poppe has released an extended play collection of holiday songs, titled “Christmas from Home,” and featuring her arrangements of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and “O Holy Night.” So expect to hear those in concert, as well as a few songs she has written, and maybe a favorite or two from her “Idol” winning ways.

She has nothing but good things to say about that ABC television competition experience. She’s even upbeat about the take-away from her 2016 audition for “The Voice,” the NBC competition show, where she was eliminated when none of the judges turned around their chairs to add her to their teams.

“Honestly, that was a great experience for me to have under my belt,” she said. “It made me that much more grateful for the ‘Idol’ experience. It really hurt at the time, because I had thought that was my chance, and when it didn’t work out, it was devastating for sure. But I learned a lot from it, and most importantly, I learned what I don’t want to be. I didn’t even know what kind of music I was into — I was just kind of singing whatever. I didn’t really have a style yet. I didn’t really have a style musically or even in my clothing taste.”

That all changed with “American Idol,” where she rocked a retro vibe in her song selections, beginning with “Rainbow Connection” and advancing with such nostalgic favorites as “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Homeward Bound,” “Brand New Key,” “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “God Only Knows.” Those trips down Memory Lane found favor with judges and voters.

“My song choice was a big thing for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to do current stuff, I wanted to do throwback stuff. I think that was enticing to the ‘American Idol’ audience, because it’s a lot of middle aged, kind of a family show, so I think song choice was a big thing for me. And I think also, being from the Midwest, just growing up like 90 percent of America does, people were able to relate to my situation maybe.”

Some of the stars whose hits she covered also reached out to her, including Melanie (“Brand New Key”) and Sheryl Crow (“If It Makes You Happy”), who reached out online. Poppe was thrilled to meet Crow later on, and to sing with Kermit the Frog on “Rainbow Connection.”

She also sported a different look for each episode, from folksy to glamorous in her hair, makeup and clothing.

“That was a lot of fun,” she said of the evolving looks. “I still do that, obviously. My hair is black now, and it was bleached blonde before. I really like change.”

She performed a couple of her own tunes on “American Idol,” as well, and has continued to emerge as a singer/songwriter, with a storytelling style that captured “Idol” judge Lionel Richie’s attention from the very beginning. That style is woven into her first studio album, “Whirlwind.” One of the prizes from her “Idol” win, the collection was released in 2019 on the Hollywood Records label.

Staying true to herself is the biggest “Idol” lesson that’s helping her forge her career path.

“I went into that experience thinking I’d have to change myself in order for people to enjoy my music or in order to make it as an artist,” she said, “and I learned that was not true. That experience definitely taught me that you can be accepted for who you are. You don’t always have to change to conform to what everyone else is doing.”

She’s been at home in Clarksville during the pandemic, where her earliest musical memories revolve around sitting on the steps while her dad rehearsed with his band in the basement. And even though she knows she should be writing and recording new music, she said it’s hard to get motivated with no clear ending in sight. So she’s been painting and doing little projects around the house, instead. But when she does start writing in earnest, don’t expect any COVID-19 or quarantine musings.

“I think everyone’s so sick of hearing about it,” she said, that she’s more inclined toward writing “something new and refreshing.”

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And while she is looking forward to getting back in her groove writing, recording and touring post-pandemic, her fans shouldn’t expect her to collaborate with her country-leaning beau on upcoming albums and tours.

“We thought about that early on,” she said, “but we’ve kind of developed stronger in our independent genres. I think we prefer to keep it separate.”

They won’t be keeping their lives separate, however. When asked if she thinks they’ll get married, she replied with a little giggle: “I hope so, but that’s a long ways away.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

What: Maddie Poppe’s Acoustic Christmas

Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday (12/12)

Tickets: SOLD OUT

Safety: Masks required except when eating; physical distancing; clear handbags; more at Creventslive.com/returntolive

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Information: Creventslive.com/events/veue/paramount-theatre

Artist’s website: Maddiepoppe.com/

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