Elise Testone is on the brink of something new.
Her first CD, "In This Life," will be released this week, and she's celebrating the event by offering back-to-back shows Thursday, first at the Music Hall downtown, then at the Pour House on James Island. An East Coast tour begins shortly and runs at least through March. Her band is well-rehearsed and energized.
Her tunes are all originals and feature that raspy vigor, wide range and stylistic acrobatics "American Idol" viewers came to know so well a couple of years ago.
Testone, 30 years old now, has quite a lot of real-world experience under her belt, along with that good showing on "Idol," yet she feels like she's at an "in-between moment," as if she is set at a new starting line, peering down a path she knows she must run, but which remains largely in the shadows.
"I've been playing so long, it's weird, I'm almost starting out all over again," she said.
Testone is fiercely independent and utterly single-minded about her music. This is evident when she performs. Even at a low-key event, such as the invitation-only "CD Listening Party" she threw at Robert Lange Studios last week at which perhaps a dozen or so journalists and admirers assembled, Testone and her band played a substantial set as if their lives depended on it, and they sounded terrific.
Testone can be obsessive about her shows, visualizing in advance every detail, she said. She will sleep little, refine her plans, work with collaborators and promote her brand.
Owning a song
If she is stressed by all this dedicated activity it doesn't really show. Testone's mind goes a mile a minute, but that's because she's responsible for so much. Her voice, that gutsy, glamorous tone, is remarkably sturdy, and capable of just about anything. She will go from sultriness to scream in a single breath. Vocal ornamentation, so common these days it has become a meaningless distraction, is handled by Testone with aplomb. It never seems to interfere with the sentiment she's conveying or get in the way of the melodic line, said Dan O'Reilly, her former teacher at Coastal Carolina University.
"It's always about the lyric and the song," O'Reilly said.
He first encountered Testone when she was a freshman in his Pop 101 course. He was impressed by her "confident self-awareness," he said.
"It's one thing to feel it inside, but you may not have the technical ability to make those ideas come out of you." Testone, he said, has both the ideas and the goods. "One thing that struck me about Elise, it was something I read about Frank Sinatra years ago: Frank Sinatra is the best friend a song ever had. That's just like Elise, because when she sings a song, she makes it her own, no matter what kind of song it is, and that's what a song wants. A song wants someone to own it."
Testone grew up in Kinnelon, N.J., 30 miles northwest of New York City. Her father, Victor, collected juke boxes, a habit that exposed the future singer to a wealth of popular music. Her older sister, Jenna, could be domineering, and her father stern, so the young Elise had a habit of retreating to her room where she would lose herself in Nirvana and Hole songs, she said.
She tended to be the family mediator, the conciliatory one, but also susceptible to manipulation. A teenage romance that soured badly when she was just 14 set a certain tone, and subsequent relationships haven't gone so well either, she said. These experiences with love have informed her approach to music.
"The whole album started from that," she said. "I was in such a dark place, it still affects every single relationship I'm in. When I'm in a relationship, I feel bad about myself."
Part of the reason, she said, is because she invests a lot. She's an all-or-nothing sort of person, and it can be hard to focus sufficiently on music when romance gets in the way.
"Music is the priority," she said. And her songs often are the result of personal struggle. "I'm taking that and turning it into something beautiful."
So making music is a strategy that Testone employs to protect herself. In high school, she was voted "class clown." She has a reputation for bringing parties to life. She exudes confidence when music is the topic of discussion.
That confidence was apparent during her appearances on "American Idol" in 2012. She made it to the Top 10, finishing sixth. She was much admired by the judges. She sang the way she wanted to sing, which didn't always pay off, but at least she knew she was staying true to herself.
Testone said her goal was to make it to the Top 10 but not to win. Winning could have meant too much compromise, she said. It could have meant getting caught up in the commercial songmaking mill, losing control of her brand and product and giving up too much.
For her, "Idol" was a stepping stone, a means to an end still not in sight and a challenge.
"It was like a test," she said.
She had to learn a lot and quickly; she had to perform with many different band configurations; she had to "embrace the intensity."
By the end of the experience, her vocal chords were swollen and calloused, she said. She didn't make very much money, netting less than $1,000 per show and around $26,000 for the subsequent tour. She was paid a modest flat fee for recorded songs sold on iTunes and promised royalties only after $250,000 had been made per song. In all, she pocketed under $40,000 for a year's worth of intense work, she said.
But she had propelled herself onto a national stage.
In the years since her "Idol" appearances, Testone has quit teaching private voice lessons (though she remains close to some of her former students). She continues to play many gigs and has performed at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, Calif., where she did some networking, made a music video (released last week), put together her album and prepared her stage show for this Thursday.
Mary Williams, 17, a former student of Testone's who will soon enroll as a vocalist at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, is loyal to her mentor. Williams flew out to Los Angeles to watch Testone perform in "Idol" and was even invited to the stage at one point, she said.
"I go to all of her gigs," Williams said.
When Testone performed at the downtown restaurant Fish a while back, the teenager was there, and seized the opportunity to sing during her teacher's breaks.
"I hear a lot of what I like in Elise's voice," Williams said. And like Testone, the younger singer is learning to play multiple instruments: piano and guitar. "I feel like I got a lot of inspiration from her."
Williams, a student at Bishop England High School and a Mount Pleasant resident, will be part of Testone's small choir on stage at the Music Hall this week.
So Testone has come a long way from her coffee shop and talent show days in New Jersey. She said she's still proudest of the concert she put together as a 21-year-old senior at Coastal Carolina. It included a 13-piece orchestra, back-up singers and some fancy staging. The show drew around 400 people and sent a clear message to all listening: This musician is serious and determined.
"I think that she was driven right from the beginning," O'Reilly said. "When she was in my class, she was always prepared, always taking a leadership role in what was going on around her, willing to help out those who were not quite as far ahead of the curve as she was. She had this ability to draw people in and lead them."
O'Reilly the teacher has turned into one of Testone's biggest admirers.
"I was amazed at how far she was willing to push herself to learn more than how to sing a song," he said. "She had such a diverse bag of influences: folk, country, soul, hip-hop, straight-up rock 'n' roll, jazz. I don't really know too many singers who are comfortable in all those areas."
Her new CD, "In This Life," is alternately soulful, bluesy and rockin'. It features some fine fingerwork on lead guitar from Wallace Mullinax and solid playing by the rest of the core band: bassist Ben Wells, keyboardist Gerald Gregory, drummer Daniel Crider, cellist Lonnie Root, sax player Simon Harding and trumpeter Cameron Handel.
Others, such as percussionist Jack Burg and lap steel player Tyler Ross, make appearances on the record. All are local musicians.
A duet was recorded with Darius Rucker, but his lawyer contacted Testone at the last minute, saying the song could not be included on the CD.
The tunes for the CD were recorded at TruPhonic in West Ashley, with vocals laid down at Hello Telescope operated by Jay Clifford and Josh Kaler. Testone mixed the songs at Charleston Sound in Mount Pleasant.
The CD was mastered by Tom Coyne, who has worked on albums by Adele, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Marc Anthony, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and others.
Testone is happy with the results, and not averse to listening to the CD when she runs on the beach, she said. The perfectionist takes the opportunity to learn, to study the mood, to imagine the effect the songs might have on others.
When she's not working on her own material, she's listening to other bands, attending live shows, networking and lending her support to local musicians.
"There is something about Charleston, the people I love, that brings a lot out of me," she said. "It feels like home."
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