Elise Testone was back in Charleston last week to shoot a new music video for her upcoming single, “Now,” so we met for coffee to catch up on all the things she’s been up to since she left the Holy City for the Big Apple about five months ago.
Overall impression: She’s onto something good.
So far, she’s done most of the things she set out to. She’s networking with New York musicians, challenging herself and exploring new styles and ideas.
“I’ve been doing a handful of shows, but you know, New York is huge, and I’m still trying to develop my presence there, like any new place you move,” she said. “I wouldn’t say anything is super fast-moving right now, but I’m headed in a really great direction and I’m making a lot of connections.”
She’s performed a handful of shows with Ryan Montbleau, a fairly prominent singer-songwriter who’s known for piecing together stellar backing bands. They played recently with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, a Brooklyn-based funk band, at Brooklyn Bowl, one of Testone’s new favorite hangouts.
“I love that venue, and I think it’s kind of the music scene I want to be a part of,” she said. “So like, Soulive, Sister Sparrow, Robert Randolph, Snarky Puppy. Like the funk, jazz, jam band scene is what I’m really into.”
With her soulful, powerful voice, Testone is well-suited to that sort of highly trained collection of musicians, especially in the funk genre. Before she went off to compete on “American Idol,” she wowed many a Charleston crowd in James Brown Dance Party, a cover band for the king of funk.
She started that group with guitarist Adam Fallen and keys player Matthew Chase. It has been revived in the past few months in New York with “all-star lineups,” Testone said.
Soul singer and keys player Nigel Hall as well as players from bands such as Trey Anastasio Band, Dopapod and Snarky Puppy have all played with the group recently. Testone is fronting the next three in Baltimore, New York and Washington, D.C.
“I’m just so pumped about performing with them,” she said.
But Testone seems as equally excited about the music she’s been seeing in New York as she is about the music she’s making.
“Being in the city, I have been open to seeing all different types of music ... some stuff I’ve never thought of doing, like electronic mixed with live. I am really influenced and inspired by everything,” she said, adding that she’s been going to a hip-hop improv show, sort of an open-mic thing, on Thursdays at a place called Arlene’s Grocery in the trendy Lower East Side. Many times, she’s gotten on stage herself. “You just make it up on the spot and it’s a lot of fun,” she said.
With so much inspiration and creativity around her, Testone said she feels at home in New York. But it’s also just as difficult as she thought it would be.
“Financially, it is hard,” she said. “It’s a huge investment and I knew it would be hard. I wanted ... a humbling experience.”
To sustain herself, she’s taken on a few young students for voice coaching, something she also did in Charleston for many years. Even that has turned out to be a networking opportunity, unintentionally.
One of her students’ parents own a high-end art gallery on Madison Avenue, which is frequented by Mick Jagger.
“He’s been there once before for like two hours like looking at all the artwork and the books, and talking to the owner, my student’s dad,” she said. “So one time we knew he was in the building and I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to have a really long lesson today until Mick Jagger walks in the room.’ He walked in finally where we were teaching and I met him and his daughter.”
They talked for a while, but Testone isn’t sure whether it’ll be a connection she can use in the future.
“I don’t know, maybe if I run into him in the future, he’ll remember me,” she said.
Back in Charleston, Testone is playing two gigs, one at the Charleston Music Hall on Saturday and the Pour House on Sunday. The first show is actually a live taping of “Live at the Charleston Music Hall,” a television series on PBS produced by Mark Bryan, guitarist of Hootie and the Blowfish.
“They invited me to do it, and I thought it was great exposure and a great opportunity to kind of debut where I’m at now with the new music coming out,” Testone said. “These things are really cool. I went to something like this up in New York with Warren Haynes ... and it’s a really intimate thing. They do a little interview with the artist and it’s like a 30-minute performance. I’m excited about it.”
The 300 free tickets that were available to the public for the TV taping have all been claimed, so if you haven’t already gotten tickets, you’ll just have to catch her next headlining performance at the Pour House with Slanguage and Myth of an Atom.
She’ll be showcasing her recent singles, including “Now” and “Time,” with her latest backing band that includes Adam Fallen, Trey Cooper, Dmitry Gorodetsky, Sami Stevens and Avishai Rozen. Christian Hannon will produce the set with 3-D audiovisual light projection.