At age 29 and 26, respectively, Elise Testone and Erika Van Pelt are the senior members of the American Idol season 11 finalists. While they brought a great deal of performing experience to the Idol stage, both of them had a difficult time establishing a loyal enough fan base to carry them into the final weeks of the competition.
Testone wowed the judges with impassioned versions of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” However, performances of Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” were met with far less enthusiasm. She eventually fought her way to sixth place. Her interpretations of classics like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” established her as a blues-belter to be reckoned with.
Van Pelt had a rockier road, but her powerful, throaty vocals on songs such as Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” pushed her to a tenth-place finish. She has been frank about her frustrations with the nature of the Idol competition and the often conflicting feedback offered by the panel of judges. The voting public is notoriously fickle, and some even attributed her lack of support to the simple fact that she dyed her blonde hair black prior to what became her final performance on the show.
I had a chance to meet these ladies in Seattle during the
July 18 stop of the American Idol LIVE!
tour, and they were gracious enough to chat about their experiences.
Elise, you’ve been working hard as a performer and vocal coach for years. Were you a fan of American Idol over the years?
No, I’ve never been a big TV person. I haven’t even had cable for the last six or seven years, except for one house I lived in. So I really don’t watch TV a lot. I worked my ass off throughout the last six years. Once I was in Charleston [South Carolina], I would gig out like every single day pretty much, sometimes having between seven and ten gigs in one week. And I’m not really a reality show type person. But I understand how powerful the show is, and I understand the exposure that it creates. I also know that there are more things I can learn than what I’ve been doing in bars and local clubs. So I don’t take anything away from the show. I just never was a huge fan of it.
Given your experience fronting a band, was it odd of get so much negative feedback regarding your ability to connect with the audience?
That’s the one thing that was challenging for me, having so much experience. If you think of a project or a band, I’ve probably done it. I’ve done so many things, most people don’t even know. And that’s the thing that was challenging for me being on Idol, like the judges or Jimmy Iovine would kind of discredit things that I’ve done and act like I was just kind of thrown into things, or that I don’t know about technique or whatever. I always feel that when I’m singing on stage, I’m in the moment and showing my emotions and trying to communicate with people.
So when they would say things like that to me, I felt like that was weird. I don’t know, maybe I was doing something that I don’t normally do, maybe I was distracted. But I always feel like I’m true when I’m singing. I don’t know, what do you think?
Based on what I saw not only on Idol, but all the pre-Idol things I saw of yours on YouTube, you’re an incredible vocalist who has no trouble connecting with an audience.
When I look back on it, even though “Whole Lotta Love” was awesome, I feel like that’s stuff I would normally do on a weekend in Charleston. So everyone was like, “Oh this is the best thing ever, why aren’t you doing this the whole time?” I’m like, “Well, this is what I do.” And we had to do these categories, and people get in your head, and maybe it was holding me back a little, like overthinking. Overthinking is never good.
For Whitney Houston week they had you do “I’m You’re Baby Tonight,” instead of your own choice. That kind of thing couldn’t have helped.
So badly I wanted to sing “The Greatest Love of All.” The lyrics are why I was there. It would’ve been the perfect song for me to sing. The kids I teach as a vocal coach are who inspire me the most. So that’s why I wanted to do it. And they had me change it to a song that’s basically about having a one night stand. I can’t really connect with that as much as I could’ve with the other song. That was my first learning point, you can stand up for what you want. You can fight harder to get what you want.
What songs do you sing in the concert?
“Whole Lotta Love” and “Rumour Has It,” by Adele, some group songs, and a duet with Phillip [Phillips], Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” I also sing backup for Hollie [Cavanagh] on “Rolling in the Deep” and Josh [Ledet] for “Runaway Baby.”
Have you been getting a good audience response?
I love when I come out of the door, because they can’t see me yet, all they hear is [sings opening riff of “Whole Lotta Love”]. And everybody stands up and screams, so that’s awesome. And every single time I perform, I always do something a little different than how I did it the night before, so it’s always fresh—for me and the listener. If you go to more than one show, you can always expect something different. That’s just me, I don’t feel the same every day and my music is my feeling.
What are your short-term plans for after the tour?
I’ll be singing forever, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve been constructing plans to get an album out and the best way to do it. I’m not going to say yet, because I haven’t decided which route I’m going to go.
What kind of album do you see yourself recording?
I think I want my first one to be kind of like, rock and soul. Bluesy and rocking, but with jazz influences. Maybe a combination of The Black Crowes, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Led Zeppelin. The songs I tend to write come out more on the sadder side, so I want to try to get away from that and mix it up.
How long have you been writing songs?
I guess the first song I wrote was when I was like 15 or something. My songwriting was inconsistent. I got more consistent over the last couple years, because I booked some gigs where I had to play guitar and didn’t have anyone else to play with me. So once I could easily play some chords well enough for it to not be distracting and to support my voice, I started writing more songs. I probably only have like 25 or something.
What instruments do you play?
I play guitar, piano, I play all sorts of drums. I can play cajón. I’m really good at the tambourine. [laughs]
What about your teaching? Do you plan to return to that at some point?
It’s going to be really hard because my schedule’s been so inconsistent, but I’ve got students that are really serious about what they’re doing. So I like to see them whenever I can to help guide them so they don’t stray. I really believe in them, and they believe in me, too.
It was a pleasure
speaking with you, Elise, I hope the rest of the tour goes very well.
Nice to meet you, Erika, how has the tour experience been for you?
The tour is going great. It’s been significantly better for me than the show was, just on a personal level. Especially with my early elimination, people didn’t really get to feel my vibe. They didn’t really get to see me. What’s happening now is the fans are getting to see how I am outside the competition. I’ve never done well with competitions, I feel like it’s hard to judge art. Music is an art form and I feel comparing all of us to each other, when we’re so different, is very difficult. Now the fans just get to see us doing our own thing and as a group. It’s really cool.
What do you sing in the concert?
My one solo is “Glitter in the Air,” by Pink. And again, on the TV show, because of theme weeks I never got to really do a song that was totally my own choosing. This is. Lyrically the song means a lot to me and I took kind of a risk, there’s no other song in the whole show like it. It’s a very vulnerable thing for me. It’s me, an electric guitar, and a piano and that’s it. It’s a different kind of feel for the show.
I know you had years of experience, including owning your own mobile DJ business [VP Entertainment], was it a compromise for you to compete on American Idol?
Yeah, 100 percent. Obviously I’m one of the older ones on this tour. I’ve owned a business for years, I was a bandleader for a wedding band, always super busy, always involved in music. I’d done every job, I flipped burgers, I was a janitor, cleaned hotels and all this other stuff. When I started my business, I got myself to a point that I was making a really good, solid living involved in music, and yeah, I had to sacrifice that stuff to come and do this. I actually left my younger brother and my business partner in charge, and they have not let it go under, which I’m super happy about. But yeah, I had to sacrifice. My family, who doesn’t have any money, had to somehow come up with the money to sort of keep me afloat.
Would you say it has been worth it so far?
Oh yeah. And when I say sacrifice, I’m using that term sort of loosely. It’s like, there are sacrifices obviously, but I couldn’t have gotten this kind of experience anywhere else. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I tried out [for Idol] seven times before and never gotten past the cattle call. And for whatever reason, the stars were aligned and it happened for me.
To see Elise and Erika, along with the rest of the top ten, on the American Idol LIVE! tour, visit the official tour page for the complete itinerary.