"American Idol" alum Elise Testone makes her home in Charleston, South Carolina, but last week, she returned to her New Jersey roots to celebrate a special occasion: her 30th birthday.
The season 11 finalist ushered in the milestone with friends, family and fans who packed into Asbury Park venue The Saint (capacity: 150). Testone treated the audience to a sampling of fresh material from her debut album, In This Life, which she will independently release on her label, Red Tambo Records.
Testone also sprinkled in an assortment of covers, including a rocking version of "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin and two Led Zeppelin songs, "Heartbreaker" and a slowed down, bluesier version of her signature cover of “Whole Lotta Love,” which she performed on her season's Idol summer tour. The singer capped off the evening by handing out slices of birthday cake on appropriately themed plates decorated with musical notes.
Testone grew up in Kinnelon, which is only 57 miles from the shore community that was the famed musical home of Bruce Springsteen, but the soulful singer has never performed there until this summer.
“I never played here but I used to come out and see functions when I was little,” Testone tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I came to see Less Than Jake and ska and punk groups. I also saw Bush and Veruca Salt at the Stone Pony. It was a long time ago.”
It hasn't been all that long since Testone toured the United States playing arenas. “Idol spoils you,” she quips. As for the current crop of Idols, Testone said she caught up with the show watching alongside her friend, Holly Harrison, who encouraged her to audition for Idol in the first place. Harrison suffered a brain aneurysm this winter, and as she recovered, Testone stayed by her side as the two viewed the show together.
“I was rooting for Candice [Glover],” she reveals.
Testone also gives a thumb’s up to returning judge Keith Urban. “He did a good job,” she said.
Since her own return to civilian life, Testone has had quite the ride, sharing the stage with B.B. King in Charleston, having her own float at the Columbus Day Parade in New York City, singing at a Major League Soccer game in Los Angeles, and performing with Hootie and the Blowfish.
Still, she seems at home hanging out backstage in The Saint’s tiny dressing room surrounded by her band and musicians getting ready to take the stage as her warm up act. She is most excited about the next chapter in her career, and thinks an album will be ready for a September release.
“It's 12 songs, all original with three co-writes," she says. "I wrote most of the cello and horn parts as well as the songs, and the backup harmonies,” she said. Recorded in three separate studios in Charleston, In This Life is a work that, Testone says, combines “all my walks of life put together."
Testone is perhaps most proud that her extended family of Charleston musicians is on the journey with her. Among them: Aaron Levy of White Rhino and her guitarist, Wallace Mullinax, who recorded the tracks with her band; Ben Wells on bass and Daniel Crider on drums along with pianist Gerald Gregory, cellist Lonnie Root, trumpeter Cameron Harder Handel, and Hootie and the Blowfish star Darius Rucker for a duet on the song, “Better Than.” The Charleston star recorded his vocals separately, and Testone EQ’d the song herself.
“It’s exciting that I kept it within Charleston and kept my people in there that had a huge hand in developing who I am musically,” she said. “That was one of the highlights to me and the strengths. I didn’t call in any professional musicians from L.A. or New York. I used all musicians from Charleston. It was more like a family vibe, which works well together to create its own sound.”
In addition to her South Carolina family, it was important to Testone to bring in a member of the Idol family to the party: season 11’s Erika Van Pelt. Says Testone: “She’s definitely my girl. We became really close, and she is one of my best friends."
As she was writing songs, one track in particular kept tugging at Testone that had Van Pelt's name all over it.
“For three songs I brought Erika into Charleston to sing backup, but the one song that really reminded me of her is called 'Save Me,'" she elaborates. “I told her to just cut loose and she sings her ass off. I didn’t want her to just blend in, I wanted her to stand out.”
That day in the studio, Testone says, was one of her most fulfilling moments as a producer.
"Save Me" has a distinct R&B and jazz feel, while another song, “Still We Try,” goes off in a country direction with the catchy refrain of trying to “work it on out.” This is music for grown-ups, and the material fits Testone’s big vocals, but the singer is careful not to categorize any of it into one specific type of music.
“It covers every genre: Americana, pop, country, soul , blues, funk , jazz and rock, but I feel like it’s cohesive and it flows," she says. "I’m glad that I did it this way."