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The Real Skinny on Pals Aiken, Studdard

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While swinging through Washington, D.C., this week, popular “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken stopped to speak to PEOPLE on several topics, including his eagerly awaited first album.

“We are very close to being done,” said the beanpole Carolina crooner, 24. “We’re actually waiting on Ruben (Studdard) to finish because his album comes out first. We’re best friends, (so) we want to make sure that we don’t compete with each other.”

Are they really best friends? “Oh my goodness, yes,” Aiken insisted. “We are really best, best friends. We see each other everyday but when we don’t, we talk on the phone. Even though our albums are coming out around the same time, and they will be in competition, we didn’t want them out the same day. That would put us in direct competition, and we don’t want that.”

Aiken found recording an album to be “a lot of hard work. … A lot of what Ruben and I talk about is how amazed we are when we listen to older albums, like Stevie Wonder from back in the ’70s, (when) Steve Wonder had to sing that song all the way through from beginning to end, with the band, in one take, with no mistakes, because they couldn’t cut and paste.”

In contrast, he says, he’s amazed by “how intricate the recording process is today. The microphones they use pick up any little difference between takes, so you have to go back and record things over and over again. And you know, sometimes it gets a little old, especially when you’re not singing the whole song. If I sing ‘This is the Night’ all the way through, which I do every night, I still enjoy it. I still feel the song, but when I’m singing a line at a time, seven times in a row, I’m thinking, I’m sick of that line, let’s move on to the next one.”