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As far as the independent singer-songwriter is concerned, her stint on American Idol ended on a perfect note, setting the stage for her biggest moment yet & the release of her self-produced debut album, due out this month
It’s Memorial Day, but Elise Testone isn’t lying on the beach or heading to a cookout or sipping frozen cocktails by the pool. Her day began with a run, and her own voice provided the soundtrack. At the moment, she’s listening and re-listening to the rough cuts of her debut album, obsessing over the nuances of the collection’s 12 original songs that she’s been honing since completing her stint with American Idol last fall.
There’s a catch involved with becoming famous via a nationally televised talent contest. Unlike many of the teenaged contestants on American Idol, Testone (30 years old this July) was a professional musician long before casting her lot to the whims of judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson and the votes of the show’s fickle viewership. For the foreseeable future, however, Testone will carry a label. From this profile to the national press that she hopes to garner for her new album—titled In This Life and scheduled to be released this month—it’s inevitable that the word idol will follow her wherever she goes.
A Seasoned Professional
Testone’s personal idols aren’t divas like Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson, but grittier blues icons like Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. A signed card from the latter is framed on her Mount Pleasant kitchen counter, while Raitt’s latest album plays on the stereo while we chat.
A native of Kinnelon, New Jersey, Testone migrated south to attend Coastal Carolina University in Conway. After graduating with a music degree in 2005, she moved to Charleston, quickly building a reputation as the front woman of bands like Slanguage, The Freeloaders, and James Brown Dance Party. Just two years ago, she regularly performed 10 gigs a week; it wasn’t uncommon for her to finish a three-hour show at Fish only to run across King Street and set up her equipment at Juanita Greenberg’s, where she’d play until closing at 2 a.m. During the day, she’d teach five to eight vocal lessons, meaning that nearly every waking moment was spent preparing, performing, or teaching music.
It’s no wonder that she’s a bit taken aback when fans approach her and ask, “So what are you doing now? Are you still doing music?”
“Am I still breathing?” she’ll volley back. “I guess if they don’t know me, people think that my time on the show was just a test, or a trial period in my life, to see if I could do this,” says Testone, now showered from her run and relaxed on her porch with a plate of General Tso’s tofu from Whole Foods. “I breathe music. If I can’t do it, I shouldn’t be here.”
That sentiment existed long before her January 2012 debut on the top-rated FOX reality competition. After nearly every gig the singer played for years leading up to her time on the show, some person in the audience would inevitably approach her with the line, “You should be on American Idol.” She finally caved and proved those folks right. She should be on American Idol, but, Testone says, that experience doesn’t define her. Instead, it has provided her the confidence, fan base, and financial breathing room to record the album she always knew she had within her but never had the time to make happen. “I hope that people will identify me as an individual, independent artist versus someone who was a contestant on a show,” she says. “Idol made people aware of my existence, and now I’m ready to show them who I am and what I can really do.”
A New Chapter
Most onlookers who watched Testone’s journey on Idol (where she placed sixth out of 150,000 hopefuls) would be surprised to hear that she’s funded the recording of her upcoming album without label support. There was no venture capitalist backer or even a Kickstarter campaign. And she didn’t get rich singing on TV—even after her pay from the subsequent world tour, she walked away from the experience with less than her previous year’s salary, earned teaching and performing in Charleston.
The money she did save is gone. She spent it this spring, recording instrumentation at West Ashley’s Truphonic Studios and vocals at downtown’s Hello Telescope, then mixing the record at Charleston Sound. Most importantly, she used the extra cushion to avoid playing 10 gigs a week, allowing her time to slowly refine the collection of songs that will shape her career moving forward.
In the end, the Idol experience will have left Testone with 80,000 Twitter followers and one heck of a debut album. That’s not to say that labels haven’t come knocking, but her time on the show taught her that if you want to do something right, the only gut to follow is your own. “I don’t think a label would have let me put such a varied collection of songs onto an album,” she says. “Ultimately, I think it’ll give me more respect within the music industry when they see what I can do by myself.”
Testone wrote all of the songs (she co-wrote one with Aaron Levy of White Rhino and another with her guitarist, Wallace Mullinax), drawing from the inevitable relationship trauma that accompanies a traveling musician’s lifestyle (the deep blues number, “Lucky Day,” for example) as well as the imagery she surrounds herself with, like the countless winged sculptures and paintings that fill her home (“Never Gave Me Butterflies”). The title track, “In This Life,” speaks to her self-determination from the song’s opening lines: “I foresee what I want here in this life,” and continuing, “I am giving all I have in this life.”
Some of the tunes were rounded out with input from her band, which includes Mullinax, Ben Wells (bass), and Daniel Crider (drums). Having performed with each before going on Idol, she chose them from among her many musical friends in Charleston for their common vision for the band. “My goal was to find a group that could be together for a long time,” Testone explains. “These guys are emotionally invested in this project, as a band and as a business.”
They entered the studio last February, everyone having cleared their schedules for eight long days fueled by funk, adrenaline, and when the nights got late, a little bourbon. She brought in a Who’s-Who list of local musicians to fill out the sound, including pianist Gerald Gregory, cellist Lonnie Root, and even hometown superstar Darius Rucker for a duet on the song, “Better Than.”
“I want the album to represent Charleston as much as it does myself,” says Testone.
Had she chosen to go with a Los Angeles producer, the result wouldn’t have been nearly as reflective of her home or have the original sound she wanted to convey without the pressure to meet anyone else’s standards. The singer’s DIY approach has meant that she’s largely self-managed, along with help from a few close friends. “You don’t want to sacrifice trust for connections,” she says.
“This is a new chapter, and I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m going to learn from each relationship along the way.”
Despite all of her success, an international fan base, and a voice that commands a room, Testone still has her doubts. Even now, in her living room with a reporter-friend she’s known for eight years, including dozens of gigs performed together, she gets nervous and self-conscious playing the rough tracks from her new album.
Still, the Idol experience has clearly boosted her confidence in her ability to choose for herself what sounds best. When she followed the advice of the show’s mentors and sang Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” instead of the song she preferred, she found herself lambasted by the judges and the public. It’s not that her performance was at all bad; it’s that she knew it wasn’t the song she was meant to sing. “I think that’s why I eventually did ‘Bold as Love,’” says Testone of the song that ended her tenure on the show. “Jimi Hendrix was the exact opposite of a cliché or a sell-out artist. I thought of that as a test: Could I play a song I really believed in and keep going? Obviously it didn’t happen that way, but it couldn’t have worked out better.”
Had she performed a more contemporary hit song, Testone might have survived another week. Later on, she may have even been picked up by Idol’s management company, where she would likely have recorded an album that would garner national attention. Instead, she walked away with pride, having resisted those naysayers who encouraged her to sing a song that “everybody knows.” That’s one thing everyone should know about Testone—she’ll never be molded into anything other than herself. In the end, what she says she learned most from the experience was to “be open to criticism and guidance, but don’t limit yourself or step away from what your intuition is telling you.”
After being voted off the show, Testone says she felt immediate relief. Her next week was spent on the talk-show circuit, including interviews with Jay Leno, Anderson Cooper, and Kelly Ripa. A favorite moment came when Ellen DeGeneres revealed that Testone always had her vote. Those uplifting instances, however, were countered by Tweets and Facebook posts that were less than supportive. For every 10 notes of encouragement, she claims she’d read one such as, “You sucked tonight,” or even the ridiculous, “My dad says you look like a dog.”
“People can be brutal,” says Testone. “If you’re going to be in the spotlight, you have to be thick-skinned. No one is successful without having haters.”
Testone speaks of moments during her sessions for the new album when she’s sung with such abandon that her vision has gone black. Pouring every ounce of her spirit directly into the microphone, she’s literally floored herself with her own voice. “My whole body was shaking,” she recalls of one occasion. “Every note wasn’t perfect, but it’s the take we’re using, because it’s pure emotion.”
Trumpeter Cameron Harder Handel, who performs on several of the album’s songs (including “Lucky Day” and “Never Gave Me Butterflies”), recalls Testone falling into her arms after one session. “She’s not in the studio when she sings,” says Handel. “She goes back to whatever place she was in when she wrote the song, even if it’s sorrow or passion or an unpleasant emotion. If you can do that as an artist, it makes the music so much more powerful.”
It’s clear to those close to Testone that she was born to sing. Even on this holiday, she isn’t taking the rest of the afternoon to relax after our interview. Her band members are on their way over to rehearse, preparing for two showcase concerts in Nashville later in the week. Since last fall, she’s performed a high-profile gig at the Major League Soccer Cup in Los Angeles, opened for B.B. King here in Charleston, and sung along with Hootie and the Blowfish at the House of Blues.
Throughout her travels, she’s considered relocating—New York, L.A., Nashville, and Austin have all been options—but nowhere has pulled hard enough to draw her away from Charleston. “When I’m here, I’m so inspired by my musical family,” she says. “I love everyone who I work with in Charleston, so living here just makes sense and feels right.”
The challenge for Testone will be to take an album recorded and released in the Lowcountry and spread it around the globe. Despite the fact that musicians like Steven Tyler and Stevie Nicks bestowed accolades upon her during her Idol tenure, they didn’t part ways with a promise to keep in touch or so much as an e-mail address. “I’m kind of starting over again,” says Testone. “There are no handouts. I never expected to go on American Idol and then everything’s set. When you’re a musician, you work until you die. You do something great and then you’re expected to do something else great after that. It’s a constant, and it’s never going to stop.”
And when music naturally flows in and out of you with every breath, that’s a very good thing.
Styling by Ayoka Lucas, hair by Mac McAbee of Studio M, makeup by Jonny sherwood of JOnny Cosmetics, & plenty dress by Tracy Reese from Gwynn’s of Mt. Pleasant
Photographs (14) Courtesy of Elise Testone