Jam Sessions: Women of the Scene. Elise Testone Talks Idol, Influences, and The Industry
Published June 30, 2016
For the second installment of our series, we chatted it up with Elise Testone, a powerfully soulful singer who enthralls audiences with her captivating vocals. Well known for appearing on the American Idol television series, she continues to grow her fanbase while collaborating with musicians and artists nationwide.
ShowTheShow: Who are some of your earliest influences?
Elise Testone: I have a huge range of influences. My dad collected juke boxes. He was always repairing them and playing records. I had an early introduction to Motown when I was young. Also, Michael Jackson and Queen. When I really started singing, I’d been influenced from people like Joni Mitchell to Erykah Badu to Lauryn Hill. Tori Amos influences me a lot. I loved music like Jimi Hendrix. I did listen to some Phish and Pink Floyd when I was in high school, but I was more into the strong female singers, and also male singers, like Led Zeppelin.
STS: When did you reach a point where you told yourself, this is what I really want to do for the rest of my life? Was there a moment in time that you decided this is what you were going to do?
ET: I didn’t go to school right away for singing. A lot of people told me, “you can’t make a living doing that.” I went to college undecided my first semester. As soon as I started school I thought, “what the hell am I doing?” There was nothing else I wanted to do, so I changed my major my second semester of freshman year to music. I just did everything I possibly could at Coastal Carolina University. To having a concert in the auditorium with tons of musicians, to producing a show, singing in the courtyard between classes, playing in clubs, I just did as much as possible. The music department, at the time, was not very big, so I had a lot of opportunity to do the things I would have imagined.
STS: One of the biggest things that’s happened to you is that you were on American Idol. What was your take away from that experience, and what did you learn?
ET: My take away is that no matter what you do, keep a balance in your life and enjoy every moment of it. My feelings on Idol are that I’m really happy that I did it, but sometimes I don’t know if it would have changed anything. Who you are and what you do is never going to change. Idol, to me, was like a test. It was a good test. A test of how well you can do under pressure; how far can you go; how well you work together as a team. I feel I learned so much about working with other people, taking constructive criticism and figuring out what I truly believe. With all that being thrown at me, staying grounded. Also, meeting Stevie Nicks was amazing. I got to sing with her. It was really cool.
STS: Would you say that’s probably one of the most unforgettable moments of your life?
ET: Yes, like ever. That and then on stage, we played with Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen. That was really cool. Me singing with Stevie Nicks was not a plan. When I met her, we felt like kindred spirits. We were just having fun and we sang “Dreams” together. That was awesome.
In my life, in school, and after school, I’ve always done everything that I could with live performance opportunities. I’ve been in a gospel choir, top 40 band, big band, jazz band, sang opera and all that stuff. That’s why I’m saying that when I did Idol, I felt like it was a test. I did like most of it, but sometimes I wonder if things would be different if I didn’t do it. Things may be just the same. I’m not sure. To me, it was a stepping stone. It gave me some exposure and it toughened me up. It also showed me the industry and helped to figure out if I like it.
With jam bands, it’s so much fun. It’s so free, and there’s no pressure. People are just wonderful spirits and very positive. That’s what I love because we’re just playing music together. There’s a lot of controlled jamming going on. Not completely controlled, but there’s a structure, which I respect as a studied musician. My free and wild side opens up to improvise. It’s fun and are respecting the song, but we do our own thing to it with improv and we make it our own.
Also, I went to New Orleans and played at Jazz Fest. Leo Nocentelli, of The Meters, invited me out. He played on the main stage. We did The Meters, and P-Funk. Bernie Worrell from P-Funk played keys, Stanton Moore, of Galactic, played drums. It was an awesome band. I did that show with them, then I did two of my own. One was an Amy Winehouse tribute and the other was a James Brown show. I worked my ass off. It was the best time ever and there was so much great stuff going on.
STS: What would you say is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced as a woman in the industry?
ET: When I’m talking to musicians, and getting to know them, I just get excited about the music. I think I’m just like one of the guys and all of a sudden I realize they think I’m hitting on them. It’s really annoying. That’s an obstacle because I want to be taken seriously. To me, it’s like breathing. I want to do as much as possible. Sometimes, as a woman, it’s a little more challenging to get involved until people realize I really do sing. At first, when I’m trying to network, sometimes it’s taken the wrong way until they’ve heard me perform.
STS: What are you most looking forward to this year?
I’m singing at the Catskill Chill with my Zeppelin tribute. It’s made of an all-star group. We’ve got Michelangelo Carubba on drums, Eric Gould on bass, Todd Stoops on keys, Danny Mayer and Matthew Chase on guitar. I’m also really excited about the show on July 6th. Hayley Jane and I are on the bill at Brooklyn Bowl. Some of the proceeds will go towards the Sanctuary for Families, which is an organization about domestic violence, trafficking and things like that. I have a few friends going through abuse, so me and Hayley are coming together to show a strong, independent woman kind of night.
STS: What would you say to young girls who are interested in music but don’t really know what to do? What piece of advice would you say to them?
ET: Follow your heart. I think that’s so important. I think it’s so easy to get distracted by what everyone else’s idea of what you should be doing are, whether they be family, or friends, or lovers. One thing I learned on Idol was just stick to your guns. Sometimes as a woman, people think they can push you around a little bit more or manipulate you, like you’re naive, so you have to keep your eyes open in the meantime.
Definitely stick to your guns, follow your heart and do your best and you’ll find what you need. Earning respect as a woman by other musicians in the industry is sometimes very tough. You will have to work hard. I think people forget that once something great happens to you, then that’s it and you don’t have to try any more. When, in reality, you have to maintain and keep that level.
For more information on Elise Testone, along with tour dates, please head over to her official website.