Clay Aiken would rather be talking about music. With a new album in stores — a collection of classics near to his heart — he's enthused and almost boastful about his latest.
But still, as he runs the media gauntlet, he's followed — or, more accurately, preceded — by rumors about his personal life. He tries to remain private and on-point throughout, but the questions linger.
Aiken made headlines this week when he called Diane Sawyer "really rude" for asking if he was ready to come out and say he's gay.
"I don't understand why it's any of your business," he replied.
In the same interview, however, Aiken openly discussed taking Paxil to deal with panic attacks. So where does he draw the line?
"I think it's something that can benefit somebody else," Aiken told MTV News on Thursday about the medication. "[Knowing] who I'm dating and what kind of cereal I eat ain't gonna benefit anybody else. That kind of thing is not important. I think there's a distinction."
Aiken said he's never been interested in other celebrities' personal lives, even when the stories came right from the sources, like Lance Bass' coming out, Fantasia's illiteracy or Mary-Kate Olsen's eating disorder.
"Half those things I don't remember ever hearing about," Aiken said. "People have different opinions on that type of thing. I told you what mine is, and I think for each person, you do what's right for you. For me, part of the reason that I have anxiety is the fact that I feel like people are always staring at me. So it's important for me to make sure that I have my friends and vacation, and what I do at home with my family and that type of thing [stays private]."
Aiken said coming to fame on "American Idol," a reality show, has made maintaining privacy even more difficult.
"When you think of a movie star, you don't necessarily think of the person, you think of the character they play," he explained. "Whereas on any reality TV show, you don't think of them as the character. You actually think of them as the person. And there's always that whole 'boy-next-door' quality. You can relate to them because they are the people."
While some celebrities have tried squashing rumors by just coming clean, Aiken's not so sure that's effective.
"Most celebrities, after awhile, get used to the fact that no matter what you say, people are gonna believe one thing or believe another one, so it kinda becomes a waste of your time to even attempt to deal with it anymore," he said, shrugging his shoulders.
What Aiken does want to discuss, and want's brought him back into the spotlight, is his new album.
After busting the "American Idol" runner-up curse (i.e. Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo) with the smash success of Measure of a Man and Merry Christmas With Love, Aiken was poised for his own Breakaway — Kelly Clarkson's aptly titled sophomore album that proved she was a legitimate star.
So how did he choose to entertain his loyal Claymates? With a covers album.
"It's something that a lot of people went, 'Huh? Why would you do that?' " Aiken acknowledged. "But what's interesting, what we found while we were doing them, is not only do they not write songs like they used to anymore, [ones with] really good melodies, but these are all songs that are right for me."
And although A Thousand Different Ways, which dropped Tuesday, lacks the personal accounts of an original album, it's still very close to Aiken's heart.
"If anything, this is the first time that I've been able to do something that I think sounds like me," he explained. "And I've been able to put my thumbprint on it, because I was involved in it from minute one, from the beginning to the end."
It was actually BMG Chairman and CEO Clive Davis' idea for Aiken to make a covers record, but the singer and executive producer Jaymes Foster worked with the mogul on the choice of songs.
"[We each] made a list of songs that we thought were the greatest love songs of the past 30 years ... and we found that there were a number of songs that we all shared in common," Aiken said. "So we went out and did those first, and then we each picked from each other's lists to just try to make sure that we were [covered]. ... And regardless of how different they might be, we tried to make sure that we brought them all together and did something consistent."
Aiken was hands-on through the entire process, even deciding to cut a few of the songs.
"We attempted 'Midnight Blue,' the Melissa Manchester song," Aiken recalled, reciting a line from the song. "I went in and I sang a verse and a chorus of it and I was like, 'Ehh, I don't think this is gonna work.' Same with 'Baby Come Back' by Player."
On the songs that did work, which range from Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)" to Bad English's "When I See You Smile," Aiken tweaked the arrangements and sometimes the melodies to make them his own. With Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings," he added a spoken-word part.
"I can't even remember which song gave me the idea, you know that Evanescence-type sound, but I thought, 'I'd love to do something like that with one of these songs,' " Aiken said. "We didn't know if it would work, so we just went in the studio and we hired a singer to just sing the demo of the high part and we would later maybe hire someone else to do it. ... And it sounded so great that we didn't change anything."
While A Thousand Different Ways certainly has its fair share of big songs — like Celine Dion's "Because You Love Me" and his first single, "Without You" (a 1972 hit for Harry Nilsson that was also covered by Mariah Carey in 1993) — the album also shows a different side of Aiken.
"Most of what people expect from me is 'Ahhhh' [singing operatically], you know, big stuff," Aiken said. "Which I like to do, but people haven't heard me sing just a soft, laid-back, chill type of sound. So certain songs like 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word' and 'Here You Come Again' [show that]. We wanted to make sure that it had a kind of rise and fall to it, at least vocally."
Aiken plans to support the album with a tour of theaters timed near Valentine's Day "when it's cold and people wanna warm up," he said.