Ever since Kelly Clarkson was named the very first winner of the television contest on September 4, 2002, American Idol has brought millions of skilled vocalists out of their showers and onto the big screen. And, as Americans, it has since become our job to use all of the basic knowledge of vocalism we’ve gained from artists like Jessica Simpson and N*SYNC to decide the fate of these up-and-coming singers. And, as humans, we will continue to get excited about these new potential stars as long as they continue putting the fate of their careers in the thumbs of our texting hands.
That being said, my thumbs are already sold on one of the phenomenal singers this year who received a golden ticket at the Detroit auditions on January 15th. Her name is Keri Lynn Roche, and her achievements as a local artist so far have already encouraged Detroiters to tune into this season of the show unceasingly.
The very first to audition in Detroit for this season of American Idol, Roche proceeded to 1. admit she was nervous (displaying her knack for honesty on all occasions), 2. offered her adorable laugh at least thrice, and 3. tell J-Lo she was “so pretty”. So, the audience immediately fell in love with her in this little-orphan-Annie way, which is great because that’s legitimately exactly how she is in real life. But then, just to force everyones’ hands, she also sang outrageously well and had all three judges saying “absolutely yes” within seconds. She chose to combine her interest in current musical trends (though a lot of current music is what she describes as “not something I would spend 99 cents on”) with her devotion to tradition and vocal power, by singing Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Her song choices revealed something imperative to her nature: she is not entirely ready to forget the past, but she is always prepared for the unpredictable future. The judges promptly complimented her on this decision, and then continued to praise her unique style, her confidence, and her artistry. Keri Lynn Roche was officially in the game.
But for Roche, the game had begun long ago. “I tried last year for American Idol on Season Twelve, and I was turned down,” Roche tells. “But,” she continues, “I knew that I sang my ass off and I knew that I gave what I could.” Instead of feeling discouraged by the negative feedback she received, Roche says, “I took the challenge and I went back.” She explains that this persistence for taking the challenge is what makes her different from the other singers in the running right now. “I just don’t want to settle. My motivation is not ‘I want to be a millionaire.’ I want to inspire people and I want to feel good by making music. And if I can do that on a larger scale, then why not? Why stay in a dive bar when there are many other people who might want to hear what I have to say?”
So, while Roche has been served “no’s” on several occasions, she hardly even seems to notice them. And this attitude started at a very young age. Roche often attended performances of her older brother’s band, a group which always inspired her own musical fortitude. Furthermore, she explains, “I went to Liz Phair, Jewel, and James Taylor really young and I would just start crying at the shows. It wasn’t because I was upset, but because I wanted to be where they were.” She was encouraged to explore her own musical side after asking “how in the hell can I possibly get up on that stage and do what that person is doing right now?” “I was just so determined by it,” Roche says. Others showed her what was possible at a very young age, and she was not going to give up on that possibility for herself.
Growing up in Detroit has made an even greater musical impact on her. “Ever since I started singing, I always loved older singers. One of the first CDs my mom got me was a Motown CD, so from a young age it was always powerhouse singing.” As she grew up, she began to fall in love with the women of the era, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. “I was a pop princess.” But, with both passions in mind, Detroit made a great home for her. “This area is music city: so many people that are interested in hearing new music and that has been a really vital part of being an artist in this city.” And as soon as she got her own guitar, she was thankful for that open-mindedness. “A lot of people want to hear local talent and know what’s happening here. It’s a great place to develop a fanbase.”
Playing her first show at the Blind Pig (a Johnny Cash tribute) when she was a mere sixteen, Roche was just beginning to gain a following.. She would later play at places like AJ’s Cafe (at that time, Xhedos), The Black Lotus, the Magic Stick, and the Crofoot. People almost immediately fell in love with her sound. “I started very folk-rock-acoustic,” she explains. But, she admits, “the sound has changed as I’ve grown.” Over the past few years, the singer and musician has switched from guitar to piano, which has been what she calls “a drastic change as far as intimacy goes,” and she has begun experimenting with electronic music by working with different musicians. But what else happened between the café shows and the big screen?
“A lot of change in my personal life,” the singer explains. “What has mostly inspired me is life struggle and the change that’s come in music has been made by that.” Though she by no means wants it to be a focal point for her fans, Roche wants to be honest with the world about her struggles, especially since she feels that if she hadn’t overcome them, she definitely wouldn’t be where she is now. “Being sober and writing has been a huge transformation for me,” she declares. “In regards to alcohol and drugs, they went hand-in-hand with music for me for a long time. It completely changed my entire perspective and artistry and I was super bummed thinking I didn’t make it anywhere. I had been in a bad place. I had no idea I was slowly drinking poison; it was really holding me back but I didn’t even know that. As opposed to the young destructive [person I was], I’m now cultivating a completely different side of myself.” Roche reveals that there is “a lot of heartache and things that happen along the way, and you don’t understand why its happening at the time. But then you have a beautiful song and you say ‘oh, that makes sense!’” Indeed, she explains that all of the hardships she has experienced over her eight years of performing have made her who she is. “I started to really transform over the last couple of years,” she says. “Music was the only thing I had left to hold onto. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t talk about my struggle because without the music I never would have come out of that.”
So, Roche’s attitude as a musician was built upon a combination of the good and the bad, with a firm trust in her own capabilities all the while. Her music was her foundation and everything else followed. But the singer and songwriter will admit that there is an enormous difference between devotion to music and devotion to the music industry. “There are definitely parts of me that have felt tainted by the business: not about creating but about the motive behind it. There are a lot of days where you think ‘I don’t think I can survive in this industry.’” And since she is in the very heart of the industry right now, she is experiencing a great deal of apprehension. “I definitely felt nervous, but I tried to be as authentic as I could possibly be and try to disregard cameras. I tried to be myself and its very intimidating when you’re sitting with three of the biggest names in the industry and wondering if they’re going to validate you.”
The nerves were definitely a struggle, but America hardly noticed them. Her strength on the screen was enormous and continues to be because she doesn’t allow the thoughts of others to cloud her own. It’s what Harry Connick Jr. would later describe to his wife at dinner as “that grit.” And boy, did he and the other judges “dig that.” Roche knows she has the confidence to make it as a singer/songwriter today, but she also knows she has something else far more important and far less common: “remaining humble and grateful. That’s the key to who I am. That has helped me survive in this industry.”
Now, as one of the singers on her way to Hollywood, Roche is loving every second of it. “I have been enjoying the experience. I see that everyone involved has something spectacular and really incredible.” Beyond just living it up, Roche is fulfilling her goal of creating a bigger audience in which to share her message, and she says she is very honored to be able to do so. “You don’t really realize how a three minute clip of you on TV can affect someone’s life.” And being on the big screen, while trying in many ways, has encouraged her in her musical life at home as well. “TV is like an anabolic steroid for a local musician,” she explains. “Last year I didn’t really get any airtime and it still had a huge effect for me as far as exposure goes. People are coming to me more than I am usually going to them,” she says. And rightly so.
Roche is thus moving up in every way possible at once, and Detroiters are undyingly supportive of her. I encourage everyone to tune into American Idol this season, because this girl deserves your attention. Watch this Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm to see her perform on Hollywood Week. she will also be playing a show at the Ark in Ann Arbor this Wednesday, which promises greatness. Finally, check her out on 1071’s Acoustic Brunch on February 9th. Oh, and like her on Facebook and go buy her incredible new single, called “Scar on My Heart” ASAP because it’s beauty incarnate. Guys, I love this girl. I can’t wait for the days when I drive downtown Detroit and see her face more often than Joumana Kayrouz’s.