After singing the first of her two songs on American Idol last night, Elise Testone told Ryan Seacrest that she wanted to just be herself and really own her songs this week, precisely the sentiment she expressed to me by phone from Hollywood on Tuesday, saying, “The songs I’m singing tomorrow, I’m owning those songs. And I think that’s very important to own what you’re singing, because people can tell, and even if they can’t point to a specific thing, anytime they’ve given me negative feedback, I haven’t owned it as much.”
The only difference was that on stage next to Seacrest, after definitely owning Queen’s “I Want It All,” she was interrupted by an adoring fan screaming, “We love you!” While the judges unanimously loved her performance, they were split about the choice of her second song, the Jimi Hendrix classic “Bold as Love,” the coolest moment of the show for anyone familiar with the Charleston music scene because she was joined by her bandmate with the Freeloaders, Wallace Mullinax — a.k.a. the best guitarist in Charleston — who effortlessly channeled Hendrix on a red Fender Strat.
On Tuesday, Testone let slip to me that she would be having a guest musician from Charleston playing with her this week, immediately stopping herself and asking the Idol publicist who remained on the line with us for the entire 10-minute interview, “Was I allowed to say that?” The publicist, who took her babysitting job very seriously, said firmly, “Yes, but that’s all we’re going to say.”
After Testone screamed and cooed her way through “Bold as Love,” Seacrest pulled Mullinax over, saying, “I met Wallace over here. She called to ask him, ‘What key do we usually sing that in?’ and he said, how about I come out there and do it with you.” A beaming Mullinax replied with his refreshingly laid back, extremely-not-LA drawl, “How y’all doin, great to see y’all.” As a fan of real working musicians and down-to-earth people — who in this case happen to be incredibly talented — it was great to see the controlled sterility of the show momentarily broken with a real smile.
The judges were split on the song choice, however, with Jennifer Lopez in strong favor, Steven Tyler mixed, and Randy Jackson proving himself to be a complete hypocrite. “I love the Janis Joplin about you and I always have, and I love the Jimi because I’m a child of the ‘70s,” said Tyler. “But you’ve got to do songs that people know, you can’t pick the cherries with your back to the tree, you’ve got to sing a familiar song,” to which a somewhat hurt-looking but always plucky Testone responded, “I thought everyone knew that song!”
Lopez positively fawned over her, saying, “I know what Steven’s saying, but I just feel like you slay that song so hard, it doesn’t even matter” to roars from the fans. She also mentioned that Testone seemed to be learning from the judges’ comments and adapting more effectively than earlier in the competition, something Testone had told me she’d been focusing on.
While Tyler and Lopez differed, at least they were fair, which was not the case with Randy Jackson, who said, “I’m a huge Hendrix fan, I’m a huge Elise fan,” before saying she had oversung a simple song which he also called obscure. However, when the next performer, Dave Matthews clone Phillip Phillips, sang the definition-of-obscure “The Stone” from Dave’s 1998 Before These Crowded Streets album, Jackson praised him for being “Phillip Phillips.” It was enough to make me wonder if he even listens to the songs or if he’s too focused on breaking the record for the number of times one can say “dude” in a two-hour show.
Thankfully, Jackson doesn’t decide. That’s up to 12-year-old girls of America, who probably don’t know “Bold as Love,” but definitely don’t know “The Stone.” All five other performers had solid nights, especially Joshua Ledet and Skylar Laine, so the voting will be tight. But regardless of the outcome, Testone is quite chipper about her musical future.
“No matter what happens,” she told me, “I’m always gonna be myself and I’m going to use what I’ve gained, the stature I’ve gained, for good. There are so many things I want to do. I want to make an album, a great album with musicians who’ve inspired me. And I really want to play some festivals and maybe at one point organize a festival in Charleston with people who are so amazing to play with.”
Those plans will have to wait, because for at least the next half-year, she’ll be tied up with the Idol touring bonanza. But while her name is everywhere now, Hollywood has not changed her unique “Eliseness,” which she exemplified perfectly on Tuesday, saying, “I just want to bring a positive influence to the world through my music. When I was teaching [voice lessons], I started to feel this responsibility to help steer the youth or something, to be a role model for them, the younger generation, and what they’re going through. And maybe I could be that person that they can look to for guidance or to make them feel better. But also I connect so well with the older crowd that I just feel this responsibility to get myself out there.”
And, oh yeah, meeting Stevie Nicks was the highlight of her Idol journey so far. “I definitely felt like her and I were old friends and clicked right away,” she recalled of their meeting a few weeks ago, when they joined together for an impromptu duet and Nicks said, “If I needed a singer, I’d hire her in an instant.” “She was so passionate and sincere with her advice when she spoke to me,” said Testone. “That was the most incredible mentor for me we’ve had so far. And I hope she calls me to be her backup singer!”