Sophia James grew up watching “American Idol.” Now, the UCLA undergraduate is in the top 20 of the show’s 18th season — and her poise and talent may take her much farther. 

The show’s live competition episodes, with contestants and judges all appearing from their homes, begin Sunday, April 26 at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central time) on ABC. 

James — her birth name is Sophia Wackerman — is a singer, songwriter pianist and global jazz studies major, and she describes her music as a mix of rock, soul, pop and fusion. In an interview with UCLA Newsroom, she discussed her singing pursuits at UCLA, her family’s musical background and an unexpected compliment she received from Katy Perry.

How did you react when you heard “American Idol” was interested in you?

I honestly think I chuckled at the time. Never in a million years did I think I was skilled enough to compete on a show such as “American Idol,” but I went because I figured I had nothing to lose. Gosh, I’m glad I went.

One of this season’s episodes was recorded in Hawaii. How did that add to your experience?

We filmed the episode back in January. It was one of the best weeks of my life. I became so close with all the other contestants. We got to swim in the serene ocean, eat fantastic food, and jam [and] make music together. Performing there was an incredible experience; I got to have fun on stage while singing in front of an electrifying crowd. Everything about it just reignited my passion for what I do. Hearing feedback from the judges was bewildering as well — never in my life did I think that I would hear Katy Perry tell me that she was impressed with my performance and my outfit.

How old were you when you started singing, and when did you start to think you could pursue a career in music?

My late mother was a professional singer, so I picked up singing pretty early on from hearing her sing around the house all the time. I think as soon as I was conscious enough to form my own thoughts, I knew I wanted to sing for the rest of my life. It sparked something in me that nothing else could. Luckily my parents shared my passion [James’ dad, Chad Wackerman, is a drummer who has toured with James Taylor], so they were quick to sign me up for piano and singing lessons when I was around five.

What role has music played in your life since then?

Music is a lot of things to me: Family, expression, discipline, art, curiosity, war, peace and everything in between. It’s kind of all I’ve ever known, and I’ve always looked at life through a musical lens. It has both wrecked me and mended me, both overwhelmed me and calmed me. There is a soundtrack for every moment I’ve ever experienced. If I were to sum it all up, I’d say music and life are synonymous for me, as cheesy as that sounds.

What drew you to study music at UCLA?

People often ask me why I chose UCLA over a music conservatory and I simply tell them that UCLA is filled with the best and brightest across all subjects. As an artist, I want to be able to keep my mind open to all different perspectives and learn a whole different array of things — not just music. Plus, we have a renowned jazz program.

How has it been juggling the TV show with your UCLA courseload?

It’s definitely been difficult juggling school and American Idol this year, but fortunately I’ve had really understanding and supportive professors that have been willing to work with me around my crazy schedule. I’m really grateful for that. 

► Video: A UCLA Studio 22 profile of Sophia James

You’re also a member of the UCLA a cappella group ScatterTones. What has that meant to you?

Singing with the ScatterTones has been one of my all-time favorite things about college. Not only are they a highly talented group of individuals, but they are by far some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. They’ve been a core family unit for me ever since I entered UCLA, and they’ve pushed me to be the best musician and person I can be.

Is there anything else you would like to say to your UCLA audience?

Yes! My No. 1 influence is the incredibly gifted Sara Bareilles, a UCLA graduate. I doubt that she knows about me, but I am one of her biggest fans!

Also, I may need your help when voting comes around, so keep an eye out for me on “American Idol!” I’m forever proud to be a part of the UCLA community. Go Bruins!