Clay Aiken

08/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken

What's the measure of a man? If you're Clay Aiken, it's more than just a vote tally on American Idol. Ever since his second-place finish on FOX's hugely popular talent hunt (behind "velvet teddy bear" and good friend Ruben Studdard), the big-voiced 24-year-old from North Carolina has topped the charts with his single "Bridge Over Troubled Water/This Is the Night." Aiken is now finishing up work on his hotly anticipated debut album, Measure of a Man.

PEOPLE caught up with Aiken while he was in Washington, D.C., lobbying lawmakers to support the American Film Institute's Screen Education Program. It's a subject close to Aiken's heart: He was on his way to a career as a special education teacher before competing for the Idol crown.

When will we get to hear your album?
Soon. We are very close to being done – almost finished. We're actually waiting on Ruben (Studdard) to finish because his album comes out first. We're best friends, but we want to make sure that we don't compete with each other.

So, you and Ruben actually are best friends?
Oh my goodness, yes. We see each other every day, but when we don't, we talk on the phone.

Is making an album what you thought it would be?
It's a lot of hard work. Ruben and I talk about how amazed we are when we listen to older albums like Stevie Wonder (made) back in the '70s. You think to yourself, Stevie 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. It amazes me.

And that's what surprised me, is how intricate the recording process is today. The microphones 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. When I'm singing one 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."

Who are you working with on the album?
Well, my album is solo, so there aren't any duets, but I'm working with a lot of amazing producers like Steve Morales – who wrote and produced for Enrique Iglesias and Shakira – Cathy Dennis, who wrote and produced Kelly Clarkson's "Before Your Love," and Desmond Child, who wrote a lot of Ricky Martin's biggest hits. I like that fact that every producer I've worked with is unique so they all bring something else to the table, and I learn something different from each one of them.

(But) everything on the album is true to me. There is nothing that is inappropriate. It seems like pretty often I have to turn the radio down when somebody comes on. This is an album that you can play completely through without having to turn it down at all.

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