When Elise Testone graduated from Coastal Carolina with a vocal performance degree in 2005, leaving Myrtle Beach to land some paying gigs in Charleston was the next logical move.
Now, as she packs up her home on James Island nearly a decade later, the singer said her next career move to New York City feels a bit more profound.
"I never really set out to make it big, but I am setting out on a journey and a new chapter in my life," she said. "Feeling really comfortable here is great, and I'll always come back to Charleston, I love it here. But I'm not going to grow if I'm comfortable."
Of course, Testone's venture to New York is not the first time she's left Charleston to find her footing on the national stage.
Her ascent to the top six round of "American Idol" in 2012 landed her in front of cameras on programs such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and a few others.
But for all the spotlights that have shone on her in recent years, Testone's career has always tracked back to Charleston. In the wake of "Idol," she returned here to record her first album "In This Life" at local studios Truphonic, Charleston Sound and Hello Telescope.
Local musicians, such as her longtime friend and guitarist Wallace Mullinax, weaved through the album, and began traveling with her to play big venues in cities like New York or Nashville.
"I felt like I had really strong roots here, and I felt nervous to change too much. I wanted to stay true to who I was," she said. "I believe in so many musicians here, especially Wallace, and I wanted to be with them, share my experiences with them and try to take it to the next level with them."
That hasn't been working out recently, she said, because many of her core band members started focusing on separate projects. For instance, Mullinax and other members of The Freeloaders, one of Testone's bands before she left for "Idol," have joined the rock group Dead 27's.
"Everyone just kind of wanted to go their own way because, you know, they're really talented ... and now it's time for me to go and take my own path. And I felt like I was just trying to hold onto everyone so tight," she said, adding that she plans to do things differently with her next group in New York.
"I learned how to be a better leader, and what not to do to have a group that stays loyal to each other, and to make sure you're playing with people that want the same things as you so you're not forcing the direction," she said.
Part of the reason she's heading to New York is to reconnect with Adam Fallen, the guitarist of a former band she sang with in Charleston in 2008. Fallen has lived in New York for several years, and Testone said they've stayed in touch. They recently co-wrote her latest single "Help Me," which was also recorded live in downtown Charleston.
"We inspire each other so much, and that's something I've wanted for so long, as far as writing goes," she said.
Testone plans to immediately begin recording a new album with Fallen and other New York musicians. She hired a new publicist based in the city, and she wants to work her way into the local music circuit by performing and attending as many shows as possible.
Mullinax said New York seems to be a better city for Elise's type of "game plan."
"Charleston is a great spot to run a band out of if you're going to tour a lot, but if you're not trying to do that whole Shovels and Rope, Sol Driven Train, Dangermuffin type of philosophy and you're really just looking to be in one place and do big shows in front of important people, Charleston isn't the place for that."
While New York may hold more opportunities for Testone, she said she plans to come back to perform in Charleston whenever possible.
"I think it's a great feeling to know I can go and be lost as a little fish in a big pond, and then come back and feel really big in Charleston," she said.
Her last official show in Charleston, at least for now, will be on Feb. 14. at the Charleston Music Hall.
But the unofficial farewell show was held in Testone's living room at her house party over the weekend, when local musicians, longtime supporters, venue managers and many others from across the music community crowded around as she performed a full set of Led Zeppelin covers with a rotating cast of former band mates.
"Elise has definitely built strong relationships with ... all the different genres in Charleston," Mullinax said. "To have everybody come out and want to say 'goodbye' like that was really cool and very appropriate."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail