Elise Testone is well aware that the past couple of years of her life have been a bit of a whirlwind. There was American Idol, of course, followed by the inevitable Idol tour. And then for a short time, she stayed in L.A., but then returned to her adopted hometown of Charleston. She also threw an all-star show last Valentine's Day at the Charleston Music Hall. Since then, she's put the finishing touches on her debut, recorded a song with Darius Rucker, cut a video for the single "I Will Not Break," and filmed a promotional clip for the Charleston Area Visitors and Convention Bureau. Now, she's finally set to release her self-produced debut, In This Life, on Feb. 16, albeit without the much-ballyhooed Rucker collaboration. As if there's any doubt, Testone runs hard, plays to win, and is quick to pick herself up no matter how hard she hits the ground.
During a recent In This Life listening party at Robert Lange Studios, we met up with the one-time American Idol contestant and repeat Charleston City Paper Music Award winner. Outside of Robert Lange, Testone is more than happy to talk about her new disc and the sometimes rocky road that led her to this moment. Standing tall in combat boots, she has a welcoming smile, gold-gilded eyelids, and strands of feathers in her hair. Although she now looks like a rock star, Testone is still that same girl that left the Holy City for Hollywood.
"It's very real for me," she says of In This Life. "I tried to take all my life experiences — a lot of it is obviously derived from pain or letdowns in business and love."
The raw ballad "I Will Not Break" was written during a particularly somber time on the 2012 Idol tour. "I was really sick in the hotel room and feeling hurt by something that had just happened. I started listening to 'Anna Begins' by the Counting Crows. The bridge always makes me feel something," she says. "I started finger picking on my guitar. I opened my mouth, and 'I Will Not Break' just flowed out of me."
Testone is no stranger to music industry disappointments. Most recently, there's the song she cut with Rucker, "Better Than." "We recorded the song. He loves it. And then his label reached out and said I wasn't allowed to use it commercially," she says. "I never really heard from Darius again." We got a chance to hear "Better Than" at the party, and it's a shame the track can't be publicly shared. Not only would the collaboration have given Testone's album a commercial boost, it would surely have made their fans in Charleston proud. The melding of their voices is really something to hear.
During the recording of In This Life at Charleston Sound and Hello Telescope, Testone used primarily local musicians. We're talking about Ben Wells, Lindsay Holler, Jordan Igoe, and the Dead 27s' Daniel Crider and Wallace Mullinax, who also co-wrote two songs, "Lucky Day" and "I'm Running."
Along with Shovels and Rope and Band of Horses, Testone is a high-profile asset to the Holy City music scene. "We're tight knit, and we're growing together," she says of her local compadres. This month, she even has a few road dates with two of Charleston's favorite jam bands, Sol Driven Train and Dangermuffin.
When the time comes for Testone to head back inside to perform, she starts off with "Lucky Day," a blues number that oozes sex appeal. The track also finds Testone's at her belting best. The mood is softened with "Can't Get Enough," a pretty R&B number, and she brings it home with "I'm Runnin'," a soul-rock hybrid that showcases her untouchable vocal range and Mullinax's excellent guitar work.
Testone is clearly comfortable with creative independence, and she appears to be handling her post-Idol career with grace and confidence.
Elise Testone will hold an earlier show on Thurs. Feb. 13 at the Charleston Music Hall. Tickets are $20/adv., $25/door, and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. For information about VIP and dual-show packages, visit charlestonmusichall.com.