It’s been almost a decade since David Archuleta walked onto the stage at Abravanel Hall, shortly before performing with the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic Orchestra, and made the biggest announcement to that point in his life.
Feeling great anxiety, the pop singer and “American Idol” runner-up stepped to the microphone and announced his plans to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He barely spoke the words “full-time mission” before the audience erupted in cheering and applause. The jubilant ovation triggered a flood of emotion from Archuleta, who covered his face with his hand and wiped away tears for several moments.
“I was feeling a lot of nerves that night. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know how people would respond. It was such a relief because it was a really big decision,” Archuleta said. “Then I bawled like a baby. Looking at it now, you know, Utah is probably a safe place to say, ‘I’m going on a mission,’ but I didn’t know. I was so caught up in my anxiety and stress and I couldn’t think straight until finally I just let the secret out.”
It’s safe to say that things have worked out.
Nine years years later, Archuleta is once again performing with American Heritage. He’ll be the special guest for the school’s livestream Christmas concert in Utah on Saturday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. This is not an in-person concert. The cost to view the event is $5 per household. For more on the concert and streaming information, visit American-heritage.org.
While promoting the event, Archuleta spoke with the Deseret News about his decision to serve a mission and how it has influenced his career, along with his love for holiday music, including his list of five meaningful faith-based Christmas songs and why they resonate with him.
Reflections of faith
Archuleta said he wrestled with the decision to serve a mission for more than a year. Was it the right thing for him to do?
From a spiritual standpoint, the same inner feeling that prompted him to try out for “American Idol” was telling him to go on a mission. Yet some in the music industry advised him that leaving for two years would mark the end of his career.
“I was like, I have no idea how I got here. How the heck am I supposed to get back here? I don’t know how I did it in the first place,” he said. “People were telling me, ‘You’re not going to have anything to come back to, you need to keep your momentum going.’ I was afraid of being a failure. At the same time, I didn’t ask for this, it was given to me. It was definitely a spiritual journey where I needed to learn something.”
Ultimately, Archuleta felt it was only fair to continue following the same impressions of “divine guidance” that led him to fame and success in the first place. “Why would I stop trusting that?” he said.
With the decision made, Archuleta then grappled with how to break the news to his fans. His manager suggested he make the announcement at a show in his hometown. The idea initially made him feel uncomfortable.
“I think I was afraid of what people would think of me — that I was this crazy lunatic religious freak who has been brainwashed by his church,” Archuleta said. “I was like I’m just gonna disappear. Maybe I’ll make a video and announce it that way.”
But once the word was out, Archuleta relaxed and felt like himself again.
“It was definitely an unforgettable night,” he said.
Along with getting the full mission experience, Archuleta said it was beneficial to step away from an entertainer’s lifestyle, where it’s easy to get caught up in party scenes, being viewed as popular, ticket sales, your social media following and the evolving size of a fan base.
“It can mess with your self-worth. I think that’s why I felt the impression, ‘OK, you need to go take a break from all that and identify yourself with other aspects of who you are and of life that don’t have to do with what other people think of you,’” he said. “So I gained that. I’ve been able to pull that into what I do now that I’m back, and it’s been so, so good, such a healthy perspective to gain.”
At home in Nashville
While he’ll always love Utah, Archuleta has lived and worked in Nashville since returning home from his mission in Chile about six years ago. He relishes the Southern hospitality of Tennessee and the ability to collaborate with other musicians.
“I love it. It’s Music City,” he said. “They’re all about cheering each other on and lifting each other up. It’s a great place with great people.”
Archuleta’s top 5
Archuleta revealed five of his most meaningful faith-based Christmas song and why they resonate with him.
“The most meaningful to me are some of the most common Christmas songs we hear, maybe because of the frequency of hearing them,” he said. “It kind of puts me in awe that some of the most famous Christmas songs are so simple but so meaningful in their messages.”
- “O Holy Night” — “There’s something about it. It’s a beautiful melody and it’s one that just soars. You can sing it gently or you can sing it powerfully.”
- “Silent Night” — “That’s probably the most famous Christmas song that everyone knows. Just the gentleness, the subtlety, I just adore it.”
- “The First Noel” — “There’s something about the melody that I just love. It touches me. I get emotional hearing that melody.”
- “He Is Born” — “I don’t mean to sound self-indulgent here, but this is one I wrote a couple of years ago. The reason why it is so meaningful to me is because it was the opportunity for me to write a faith-based Christmas song and express what Christmas means to me. I wanted to let people know, ‘Hey, I’m a believer in Christ. His birth means a lot to me.’ The best way for me to say that is to tell his story.
“To describe that in my own words was a challenge. I got some friends to help me write it and in the chorus, I just get to say, ‘Hallelujah.’ It’s not my intention to promote my own music, but that has become very meaningful for me. It’s fun to write fun Christmas songs but it was meaningful to write that one and simply let people know what I thought about Christ’s birth.”
- “Stars Were Gleaming” — “This was one I learned in Primary, going to church as a kid. I don’t know why I don’t remember the words, but for some reason the melody will always play in my mind during Christmastime. I’m a sensitive guy anyway, but it just gets me emotional because I think it reminds me of some of the first moments when I was a kid that Christmas had a spiritual essence to it.”
Archuleta’s favorite Christmas memory is caroling with his family. When he and his siblings were in elementary school, their mother taught them how to sing Christmas songs in a three-part harmony. The Archuleta family singers often performed at hospitals and nursing homes. David marveled to see the effect of the music on patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. It sparked memories and invigorated their minds, he said.
“I loved music anyway,” he said, “but it was a chance for us to give to other people. The songs carry the message of what Christmas is all about.”
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the special feeling of Christmas, Archuleta said.
“There’s something about Christmas that makes people receptive,” he said. “I love that you don’t have to be a religious person to enjoy a Christmas concert, or a Christmas movie, or a Christmas story. It’s the celebration 2,000-plus years later of the Savior Jesus Christ being born. And so you can’t help but feel that special feeling in the air during the holidays. For me, you can’t beat this time of the year. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.”
American Heritage Christmas
Archuleta was supposed to do a tour last spring, along with a Christmas tour, but like many artists, everything was canceled. What he has started trying are online shows.
So when the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic Orchestra and Heritage Chorus approached him about doing an online concert, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s a challenging time to figure out how do we keep moving forward, especially as performers, when we can’t do concerts?” he said. “When they reached out, I thought, ‘That sounds interesting. I think that would be fun to do.’ I’ve sung with student orchestras before and there’s something about the rawness ... there’s an excitement. So I wanted to try something new and appreciate them inviting me to come.”
American Heritage is a private school in American Fork with a student enrollment of about 900 students, kindergarten through 12th grade.
Orchestra director Kayson Brown, who recalls being at Abravanel Hall on Archuleta’s special night in 2011, said the students are equally eager for this unique opportunity.
“This is one of those examples where the pandemic and all those difficulties that have canceled concerts actually became a benefit. He’s a very in-demand performer ... but miraculously this year, his schedule in December was pretty free,” Brown said. “Not only is he a phenomenal musician, but he’s an amazing example to my young musicians. He’s influenced our students in so many ways without even really knowing it.”