'American Idol' Vet Kimberley Locke on New EP, Running Her Own Label, and Taking Control
'American Idol' Vet Kimberley Locke on New EP, Running Her Own Label, and Taking Control

With eight Billboard No. 1s under her belt - ranging from Hot 100 Singles Sales to Hot Dance Club Play to the Adult Contemporary chart - "American Idol" veteran Kimberley Locke is going for the top rung again with a new single and EP, but she's doing it differently this time, taking direct control of her career in a very DIY way.

As the single "Finally Free" and the EP "Four for the Floor" go on sale today (July 19), the "American Idol" finalist from season two is heading up her own company, I AM Entertainment. It's a decision made after a long stint with Curb Records and last summer's top five dance club play hit "Strobelight," released on Randy Jackson's Dream Merchant 21 imprint.

"I enjoy doing business just as much as I enjoy singing," says Locke, who was about to enter law school when she auditioned for "American Idol" in 2002 and found her life taking a new direction after finishing third behind Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.

"This is the right time for me to do what I always wanted to do - have an entertainment company. I thought it was going to be a long, drawn-out process but it came to fruition very quickly." Locke says it all happened rapidly because she was able to put the right team together, including executive assistant Kathy Manabat, web master Scott Lawrence and promotion veteran Bob Catania. "Bob was with me at Curb and it was a pleasure to hire him because he taught me so much."

Once she had her budget and business plan in place, Locke had to make a decision about financing. "I considered getting a private investor but that would be like signing with a record label: [I'd be] no longer in control; [I'd be] splitting my profits and my intellectual property. So I am doing this on my own with my own financing. When you're paying for it, you pay attention to every cent and make sure you're spending it the right way. You don't cut corners to sacrifice quality but you do maintain the budget."

Locke says she also learned a lot from "American Idol" judge Jackson while recording with him last year. "Randy hipped me to releasing singles, like 'Strobelight.' Why release 10 songs when you can release one and see how it does?" The work on her new EP flowed naturally after releasing the single on Jackson's label. "After 'Strobelight' I didn't stop writing. By the time I was ready to start my own company, I had eight or nine songs done. So we picked four for the EP."

"Four for the Floor" is, as the title suggests, a dance EP. "In the past, my songs went to Adult Contemporary and were remixed for clubs and airplay. I had a lot of success at AC," says Locke, who topped the Adult Contemporary chart three times. "So it was a hard decision and a little scary, but I also had success at dance radio. I think you have to grow with every project and this is me growing as an artist."

50 Years of Adult Contemporary: From Johnny Mathis to Elton John, From Celine Dion to Bruno Mars

Part of Locke's business strategy with I AM Entertainment is to make full use of social media. She asked her fans to choose which track from "Four on the Floor" should be the first single.

"We did a Facebook campaign last month," she explains. Three songs - "Finally Free," "I Can't Get Enough" and "Sirens" - were previewed so fans could vote for their favorite. "The feedback was priceless," says Locke. "The fans are going to tell you the truth. For me it was more about the comments than the vote. I wanted their opinions because if they didn't like what I was doing, I needed to go back and do something else." That wasn't necessary, as the fans let Locke know they loved the direction she was taking, and her new songs. "I thought it was going to be a clear landslide for the single and it wasn't, so my fans had just as difficult a time picking the single as I did, which is why I put it to a vote."

The winner, "Finally Free," written with another "Idol" alumnus, Ace Young, has a lot of meaning for Locke. "It says a lot about me and my life, finally being free of my own personal limitations and believing in my gift and my abilities. I'm holding nothing back this time."

Next up for Locke: working with an artist she has signed to her company, Sev Sanders, and a new Christmas single - no surprise, as her three AC No. 1s were all holiday songs ("Up on the Housetop," "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman"). "It's a standard," Locke says of her 2011 Christmas selection. "I'm not telling what it is yet. Then we'll do a big Christmas project for 2012. We'll take the time to do something with quality instead of rushing just to get something out."

Singer/songwriter Sanders is the son of Steve Sanders, the late lead singer for the Oak Ridge Boys. "Sev had a fire burning within him for years to carry the torch his dad left behind, from his own individual success as well as the success he acquired with the Oak Ridge Boys," says Locke. "I want to be the wind that helps carry that flame. Not only for Sev but for other talented artists like us around the world."