July 27, 2014

Two roads to ‘American Idol’ and then to tour

Caleb Johnson, winner of the 13th season of “American Idol,” and Jena Irene, the runner up, couldn’t have had much different approaches to getting onto the popular television show.

Caleb Johnson, winner of the 13th season of “American Idol,” and Jena Irene, the runner up, couldn’t have had much different approaches to getting onto the popular television show.

Several years ago, Johnson had set his sights on being on “American Idol,” whose tour stops at the Kansas Star Arena on Saturday. He had auditioned for both season 10 and season 11, getting through the cattle call stage, only to be eliminated before the field of singers was chosen for the show.

Falling short prompted Johnson to take a long look at his efforts. Feeling he needed to raise his game as a performer and singer, Johnson took off what would have been season 12 to raise his musical game. The Asheville, N.C., native worked with a band called Elijah Hooker as its lead vocalist. He wrote songs, played shows around the Asheville area and took a central role as the group recorded its 2013 self-titled debut album.

Johnson feels that year of dues paying and working on his craft paid big dividends when he auditioned for season 13 of “American Idol” and was chosen to compete for the title.

“When you’ve done a lot of shows, and you’ve written stuff and you’ve made a record, and you’ve been out (performing), you’ve experienced the highs and the lows of being a musician and playing out and dealing with the struggles of that,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview.

“When you go into something like that (“American Idol”), it’s no sweat off your back. If you’ve really experienced it, then you know exactly what you’re getting into and you go and do it. You know exactly how to handle it when those experiences come. But if you’re kind of green and you don’t know, yeah, you’re going to be freaking out.”

Irene’s path onto “American Idol” was far less calculated. Literally a week before she auditioned for season 13 in her home town of Detroit, “American Idol” wasn’t even remotely in her thoughts.

“I had watched the show awhile back,” Irene said in a recent phone interview. “So I knew what it was about and everything. But I had never thought about auditioning for it. I mean, I was always in a band.”

Then a friend texted her to let her know Detroit was going to host auditions.

“(She said) ‘Why don’t you just go try it? You have nothing to lose,’ ” Irene recalled. Irene, like Johnson, aced her audition. And if her decision to chase a place on “Idol” was somewhat spur of the moment, she was no stranger to performing, either.

Irene (whose last name is Asciutto; Irene is her middle name) joined her first band when she was 12. She spent five years with a group called Infinity Hour that made a good deal of progress despite its youth. Irene, who turned 18 this month, left the group about seven months before auditioning for “Idol.”

“We were under a management contract with a local manager, and we did a music video and put out a couple of CDs,” she said. “So we were really trying to get our name out there...But it got to a point where it was just very tedious and nothing was happening and we were kind of at a plateau. I just wasn’t ready to give up, so I kindly stepped away from the band.”

Johnson and Irene are now featured performers the “American Idol Live!” tour, the annual outing in which the 10 top finalists from the just-completed season perform at venues across the country.

Johnson, as this past season’s winner, closes the shows, while Irene performs three songs. They also do a duet on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which they also sang together during season 13.

After the “American Idol Live” tour wraps up in late August, the two will likely see their paths diverge.

Irene said she is in negotiations with 19 Recordings/Interscope Records for a record deal and wants to explore a sound that merges electronic pop with organic elements such as piano and her vocals. Johnson, meanwhile, is already signed to 19 Recordings/Interscope Records and will release his debut album, tentatively titled “Testify,” on Aug. 12.

“I’m so proud of it,” Johnson said. “It’s very soulful, it’s very visceral, it’s very raw. My roots come from rock and roll, from soul, from blues, from something like Stax, that (1960s Memphis soul) sound, and just, it’s just a very raw sounding record.”

For now Johnson is relishing the chance to close out the “American Idol Live” shows. His rocked up sound should work well in raising the energy level at the end of the show, and Johnson said the early shows on the tour were nothing short of thrilling, with crowds at one of the concerts rushing toward the stage as he performed.

“They’ve been amazing,” Johnson said of the shows. “They’ve really been exciting, electric, a life-changing experience. It’s been nuts.”

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