Published on February 11th, 2014 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Charleston’s Elise Testone Blossoms on ‘In This Life’
Elise Testone has a busy week ahead of her. The longtime Charleston singer/songwriter and bandleader has several days of dress rehearsals, soundchecks, interviews, and stage production sessions scheduled as she and her local ensemble prepare to return to the Charleston Music Hall on Thurs. Feb. 13. Their early-evening concert will be presented in celebration of the official release of their new, 10-song studio album In This Life. A late-night after party show is set for 11 p.m. at the Pour House as well.
“I want to get the album out there,” Testone stated in a recent press release. “I feel there’s a timelessness about the songs, and I want people to know about them. I want to share them with people.”
Metronome Charleston met up with Testone last week during a brief break from her rehearsals with her bandmates — guitarist Wallace Mullinax, bassist Matthew Thompson, pianist Gerald Gregory, cellist Lonnie Root, and drummers Daniel Crider and Stuart White. In an exuberant mood, she spoke about the optimistic and empowering themes of the new album, the lessons she learned when she arranged the songs and conducted the studio sessions, and her high hopes for the big show at the Music Hall.
“I’m really excited to for people to hear this thing,” Testone says. “Every song came together differently. Some were older, and some are very new.”
There’s a clangy, Tom Waits-ian stomp in In This Life‘s opening title track before the music saunters through the brassy, slow-swingin’ blues ‘n’ soul accents of “Never Gave Me Butterflies” and “Lucky Day” and the smooth-jazz and modern R&B stylings of “Save Me.” It’s a dynamic trip from front to back, from the light-touch acoustic balladry of “Ease My Mind” and “I Will Not Break” to the heavy-rockin’ wail of the brass-peppered, guitar-driven anthem “I’m Runnin'” — one of three originals co-written by a bandmate or colleague (in this case, Mullinax).
Testone already had plenty of singing and performance experience before putting song ideas together for this debut. She grew up in New Jersey before moving to South Carolina to attend Coastal Carolina University to study music, and she spent much of the mid and late 2000s gigging around the Lowcountry with an eclectic variety of musicians and rock/funk/jazz bands. In 2011, Testone auditioned to become a contestant on American Idol‘s 11th season. She got the gig and spent a good part of 2012 singing her way through rounds, ultimately taking sixth place after an elimination on April 26, 2012.
At this point, she believes her songwriting skills have developed greatly, and her techniques as a songwriter, arranger, and studio producer have sharpened too.
“Back in the day, I had the deep-down feeling that I would sing. I’ve been able to take the time to hone my craft and learn more about the different side of it, like the recording and production sides. I think my maturity as a musician has blossomed in an unexpected way. I felt very confident as we made this album.
“I’ve also learned the lesson that sometimes less is more,” she adds. “For example, on the song ‘What I Need,’ I felt like I was over-singing and it didn’t sound good. I realized that the arrangements were so strong that I didn’t need to sing like that; I just needed to lay it down and add a few inflections on stuff.”
Lyrically, In This Life is a sort of a dynamic musical declaration of independence — from Testone’s youthful experiences in general and from her recent experiences with American Idol and its glitzy side of the music biz.
“The theme is about being strong and feeling that you can get through the hurtful life experiences,” she says. “It’s about the realization that shit happens all the time in all sorts of relationships. That’s what life is, so getting through that in a positive way. I think that’s relatable.”
“Not to sound cheesy, but this show is going to be awesome because there is so much love going on,” she adds. “All of the people I’ve grown with, the people whom I’ve watched grow, my family, and friends — they’ll all be there.”
Consistently, Testone’s rich production style brushes each track. “I produced the album, so I was always there,” she says. “Working with the band, I’d make suggestions to trim this or that and just guided the process. Wallace might be wailing on a solo take, and I’d suggest highlighted a certain part. Everyone had input, but for the most part, the lyrics and feel of the songs were well developed before the construction of the songs.”
The sessions started last winter at Truphonic Recording Studios in West Ashley with local engineers Majeed Fick and Larry Ford alongside. Testone and the band carried on downtown at Hello Telescope studio and in Mt. Pleasant at Charleston Sound with local engineer Joey Cox assisting.
“We had a blast doing all of our core band instrumentation at Truphonic,” Testone says. “Majeed gave us extra time and let us spread our wings. I hired Joey Cox, who I love, to go into Hello Telescope. Josh Kaler and Jay Clifford [the two owners of the studio] prefer to personally have a hand in the production of what they record there, so they stood back let me and Joey work together there. Joey and I enjoyed mixing the songs over at Charleston Sound. We spent like 13 hours a day mixing everything.”
Last week, Testone released a handsome music video on YouTube for the strings-heavy ballad “I Will Not Break” (see clip below). It was directed by Charleston-based videographer David Keller, an avid music fan who’s made a handful of high-quality clips for various local songwriters and bands.
On Thursday, Feb. 13, Testone and her band will pull double-duty, performing the main CD release show at the Music Hall at 7:30 p.m. before heading across town to the Pour House for the late-night jam session and after-party.
This week’s set lists will likely include some choice covers and renditions of Testone’s favorite classics. “The songs will reflect a lot of the music that really influenced the songs on the new album — artists like Led Zeppelin, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Eddie Vedder,” she says.
Plenty of special local and visiting guests will hit the stage with the band as well. Trumpeter Cameron Handel, saxophonist Simon Harding, vocalist Zandrina Dunning, and others will be on hand. Testone says a couple of her friendly American Idol colleagues — Erica Van Pelt, DeAndre Brackensick, and Phillip Phillips — may make appearances, too.
Tickets for both events are on sale now. Advance ticket prices for the Music Hall include a $20 seat and a $40 VIP spot (they’re $25 and $45, day of show). Admission to the Pour House that night is $17. A “Two-Show Bundle” offer is available for $30 in advance.
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