When Trent Harmon won Season 15 of American Idol, it was clear to everyone that the 25-year-old Mississippi native had an exceptional voice. Not so clear — especially to Harmon — was what he now was going to say with it.
But Harmon has put in the work in the two years since his Idol victory, and his growing skills as a songwriter are today on display in his first full-length album, You’ve Got ’Em All, which debuts Friday.
After earning a name by covering other people’s hits, the artist, now 27, says he’s glad he didn’t rush into making an album.
“I wasn’t ready,” he tells PEOPLE. “But once I started down that process, I realized, oh, I have songs. I have a message. I know what I need to say. I know who I need to say it to.”
Harmon says he’s now “fallen head over heels” for songwriting, and his co-writes on eight of the album’s 11 cuts are the proof. Of those, no message comes through more loud and clear than the title track, a bittersweet goodbye that takes its inspiration from Harmon’s longtime romantic relationship with Arkansas teacher Kathleen Couch. He wrote what is now his current single just after Couch told him last year that she was leaving to follow her dream to work overseas.
Though it’s a breakup ballad, Harmon says the couple is actually in more of an intermission as Couch heads back to Thailand a second time to continue teaching.
“I’d call it uncharted territory,” he says. “We don’t want to be with anybody else. I don’t want to be with anybody else. She doesn’t want to. But I can’t tell her to not go back to Thailand and teach. … She can’t say, well, it’d be nice if you wouldn’t tour … So neither of us are holding each other back from accomplishing anything. Like I said, it’s uncharted territory. It’s weird. It’s a weird place in our relationship.”
That doesn’t make performing the song any easier for Harmon as he relives, on stage, those first raw emotions that followed hearing the difficult news. “You have to go to that place every time,” he says.
“You’ve Got ’Em All” offers Harmon just one of several opportunities to show off his brand of “country soul.” Another one of his co-writes, “Money’s on You,” is particularly special to Harmon. On the surface, the lyrics (“If anyone I know is gonna come through, my money’s on you”) seem to depict deep trust in a romantic partnership. But Harmon reveals his true inspiration: his two proud — and supportive — grandmothers.
“They’re always asking, as a joke, ‘Are you gonna write a song about us? Am I gonna get a song?’” he says. “Well, hey, here it is. … It took a couple of weeks, but I think we got it right. … I’m just very dependent on them.”
Idol fans will be glad to see that, among the three songs Harmon didn’t write, there are two he sang in the finals: “Falling” (co-written by then-judge Keith Urban) and Sia’s pop tour de force “Chandelier.”
Urban, says Harmon, graciously gave up “Falling” even though the multi-platinum artist originally wrote it with the intent of recording it himself.
“I was talking to him backstage at one point,” Harmon recalls, “and he said, ‘You know, I never did really believe that I could cut that song the way that I heard it in my head.’ … He said, ‘Whenever they said they were going to pitch it to you, I thought, yeah, that’d be a good fit.’ He said, ‘I think it’s a better fit for you. You know, I think it fits you vocally, your style.'”
Adding “Chandelier” was Harmon’s conscious effort to give fans “what they want.” The vocal dexterity he displayed during his TV performance is what many believe put him over the top. “There’s no doubt about it,” Harmon affirms. “There was a turning point in the show.”
Putting it on the album, he confesses, is also an attempt to save him from having to sing the exceptionally challenging song on a regular basis. “Physically,” he admits,” it’s not possible to sing every night.”
Harmon is now preparing to launch a summer headlining tour, and he also will be opening several upcoming shows for Rascal Flatts.