When Elise Testone says, “I’ve always followed my instincts and they’ve always led me in the right direction,” she isn’t kidding. Even when she was a little girl, growing up in New Jersey, Elise knew she was a singer. She followed her instincts to college in South Carolina where she learned the ropes and polished her performing chops, then developed her style and stage presence in the local Charleston clubs. She ultimately made it onto&amp;nbsp;American Idol, where she was a high-finishing finalist. Now, with the release of her debut album, In This Life, Elise Testone’s instincts—and her trust in herself—have once again taken her in the right direction.
“I really believe strongly in my ideas,” Testone says. “I’ve been carrying around the ideas for this album for years now. It’s the first album I’ve ever done, so it was important to me to get my vision out”.
Growing up with a dad who collected jukeboxes exposed Elise to all styles of music. Early on she absorbed a wide variety of sounds, from Motown to the Beatles to Queen and, later, Nirvana and Tori Amos—her love for multiple genres is manifested on In This Life, which offers a cross-section of Testone’s myriad influences. “My brain would turn off and focus on sounds,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a curse because I can’t not hear everything around me.”
A friend’s mother first noticed Elise’s singing ability when she was 5 years old. Elise took singing lessons while also learning to play instruments—percussion and clarinet were her first—and performed in school and in local coffeehouses as she reached her teens. When it came time to choose a college she decided on Coastal Carolina University. A course she took there, Pop 101, taught by Dan O’Reilly, helped seal Testone’s fate. That’s when she knew she could make it as a singer/songwriter.
Elise became something of a star within the Pop 101 world and utilized the school’s resources to expand her craft. “I asked the school to sponsor me and let me use their facility to throw a concert,” she recalls, “and I produced a show where I did 21 songs, which included a 13-piece orchestra, dancers and back-up singers. I also performed a duet with [jazz bassist] Steve Bailey”
She still wasn’t sure whether to turn professional, however, because, Elise says, “I was scared to use my passion” to earn a living. But that fine-tuned instinct told her it was not only OK, but that she had to pursue her dream. Playing with local South Carolina bands, including one jazz group, Elise built a reputation as a powerhouse vocalist and dynamic stage performer. Whether singing rock, blues, funk, pop or combinations thereof, her singular personality always rose to the forefront. “I opened for Snoop Dogg and B.B. King,” she says, and, to further demonstrate her eclecticism, “for Kevin Costner’s band too. Sara Bareilles opened for me once.”
Then one day American Idol came to Charleston. Tellingly, Testone didn’t approach the program’s scouts; they came to her. “People were always trying to get me to do it, since Idol came to be,” she says. Elise was reluctant initially but, “Finally, I realized I’m 27 and it’s my last chance to do the show. I’m not really a reality show person but I’ve been working my ass off and I’ve reached a point in my career where I need to move to the next step.”
Her students—Elise had been giving vocal lessons—urged her on. I knew how much I affected their lives and that I actually made a difference for them, she says, and I also realized how much they inspired me. I then felt a responsibility to be selfless with my gift and sacrificing my privacy to move ahead.
As she does with every new endeavor, Testone gave the tryouts her all, fully confident that she could ride it out to the finals. “I wouldn’t have tried out if I didn’t visualize myself being in the top 10,” she says. “It’s all or nothing—I’m not really a Plan B kind of person.”
In the wake of her appearance on American Idol, Testone has toured extensively and has appeared on such popular TV programs as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Live with Kelly, Access Hollywood, The Today Show, Good Morning America and others. “To me, all the talk shows and late-night shows felt so natural and all of American Idol didn’t,” she says. “On the talk shows, they’re talking to you and it’s real.”
On Idol, of course, Testone was required to sing other artists’ songs. She made each her own, whether originally by Al Green or Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, a judge on the program, praised her, as did guest Stevie Nicks. But on In This Life, fans will experience a side of Elise that they could not get from Idol: her songwriting. Testone wrote or co-wrote most all of the 10 tunes on the album.
“Before I was on Idol,” she says, “I never gave myself the time to embellish the writing skills that I have. By doing covers, I felt that I showed only a third of myself and I was excited to show my whole self. I feel that a lot of people don’t really know that I can do these things. I’m not trying to prove a point; I’m doing it because that’s how I feel and I’m following my gut.”
With In This Life, Elise Testone begins the next stage of a career that has already seen so many remarkable moments. While she savors the experience the reality show gave her, “It was a steppingstone for me,” she says.
Now, Elise Testone is ready to take another giant step forward. “The more people I play in front of, the more comfortable I feel,” she says. “I’m grateful for everything that has happened to me. Because of those things I can relate to so many people. That’s where a lot of my music comes from. This is a whole new chapter.”