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'American Idol' alum Janelle Arthur talks faith, chocolate gravy and Vince Gill

Rising country songstress Janelle Arthur first made a name for herself on the national stage when she finished fifth during the 12th season of the FOX reality staple "American Idol." Although she's been largely absent from the spotlight since then, the Oliver Springs, Tenn. native has continued toiling to hone her craft, and the July 2014 release of her self-penned debut single "What You Asked For" solidified her status as a true --albeit unsigned-- up-and-coming star of country music.

Janelle Arthur finished fifth during the 2013 cycle of 'American Idol,' and recently released her debut single.
Photo by Rick Diamond

Examiner caught up with the talented performer for an exclusive Aug. 7 interview. The sweet-natured and easygoing Arthur laughed often as she chatted freely on a variety of topics, including her thoughts on Nicki Minaj's creative nicknames to country music legend Vince Gill's continuing role in the development of her career.

Viewers were really bombarded with what was probably too much news about how Mariah [Carey] and Nicki didn't like each other during your season of "American Idol." But putting all of that aside, across the entire season, which of the judges do you think gave you the best collection of useful feedback for your career?

Janelle: I definitely think Mariah, surprisingly. I always loved her music. I really did grow up listening to her but I didn't really know if we'd connect on a personal level but we really did. I felt like Mariah made the time to talk to me a little bit more off camera --and the judges don't really do that much-- so the fact that she at least would make comments to me off camera and give me encouragement. Also, she'd sort of give me these looks during results shows... I felt like we were really just connected.

There's probably an obvious answer here, but going into the show, who did you think you'd feel most connected to?

Janelle: I really thought it was going to be Keith [Urban], because I was such a big fan of his. I was probably one of the only contestants if not the only contestant that had his CD in her car. I'd been a fan since I was really young, and my whole family were big Keith Urban fans when he was in The Ranch [before he went solo]. We did connect, especially in the beginning, but throughout the season, I felt more support and more of a connection from Mariah.

The first time I heard Nicki call you her "little marshmallow" I went "what?!" What did you think about all of her crazy nicknames for you and the other contestants?

Janelle: Oh goodness, I think that was just her thing. She just sort of gave everyone nicknames. I feel like that was naturally what she did, but at the same time, [the producers] probably kind of encouraged her to throw out any nicknames that she wanted to because it made for great television.

It was definitely interesting from the viewers' perspective.

Janelle: Yeah. At the end it was kind of funny because she didn't call me her little marshmallow for a long time but then after the finale she came up on stage and was calling me her little marshmallow [laughs] again.

So "American Idol" is over. What have you been up to since then and since the ["Idol"] tour?

Janelle: I'm loving Nashville. I've been here for... about four and a half years. After I got off the tour, I really, really was hitting the studio and the writing as hard as I could. Mainly I was recording anything I was writing, I was demo'ing all this stuff, making sure that I got together a lot of things to listen back to to figure out what I wanted to put on the project. At the same time, I've been performing at the Grand Ole Opry. I got to perform with Vince Gill on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium and that was the best moment of my career. It was absolutely, hands down the best moment ever for me.

Vince Gill is an absolute legend so that's amazing.

Janelle: He is, and not only is he a legend to a lot of people, he's just such a big deal to me. It wouldn't matter if other people loved him or not. It's just mainly the fact that he was number one from the time I was a baby. My mom started playing his music for me, and I just loved Vince. She took me to one of his concerts when I wasn't even probably a year old and I knew exactly who he was and he held me. He was just starting out and so we had that picture, and I showed it to him before I sang with him.

But it was his idea to ask me to sing "When I Call Your Name" to close the show. It was just... not only was that an incredible moment, but Vince is an incredible person. You can be kind of disappointed with people that you meet in the business; sometimes the more you know about people, the less you like them. With Vince, it's just the opposite. The more that I've gotten to know him, the more I've just loved who he is as a person. He's treated me like a friend, not just some random person who thinks he's great and likes to sing.

I definitely enjoy his music; it's just so unique and soulful. I was a big Amy Grant fan when I was growing up, so there was that connection. When they got together, I started listening to more Vince and he's definitely super unique and talented.

Janelle: Definitely. And everyone loves him around Nashville.

I bet they do. So what else is going on?

So I've continued to play the Grand Ole Opry. I'm actually playing [Aug. 9]. It'll be my ninth performance for the Opry.

And actually, I'm making a project right now. At first, I was going to start out with an EP, but then I decided I needed to get some stuff together to pitch to labels and just have something that represents exactly who I am as an artist. And then we'll see what happens. I could very easily put together a full album and just release it, but that's going to be decided later on.

Right now, I just released the single and I'm going to release another single probably within a month or so, and then we'll see how everything goes as far as labels, and who knows! All I know is I'm very excited and I feel like I still have momentum. I feel like it's really just the beginning.... My fans are really engaged and really excited about what's to come. So I'm very, very happy.

That new single of yours: I've listened to it a couple of times and it's such an emotional song, so I know there has to be a back story to it. Can you tell me what inspired it?

Janelle: Yeah! I actually started writing it before I did the season of "Idol." I started writing it, and I took it to my friend Dana Jorgensen afterward, and we decided there were some things that we could tweak to make it... be the best that it could be. I started writing it because of course there was just an instance... you know when you're in a relationship and you feel like nothing that you can do is good enough and you start getting to that point where I'm thinking in my head 'if I leave this situation, I might be doing that person a favor?' You eventually get to the point where if you can't be good enough, then you either need to make it work or you need to get out. And I think it's that sort of thing, like 'don't ask me to stay when this is what you asked for. You've pretty much given me all the signs that you don't want to be with me so there's no need for me to stick around.'

Now I'm wondering about the mysterious second single that you mentioned working on a few minutes ago. Is that in the same vein as the first or is it totally different?

Janelle: I don't even know which song it's gonna be yet, to be honest. I just have a bunch of different songs that I love and that I'm excited about. It'll definitely sound different from "What You Asked For," but I'm still gonna be country, and you'll know it's me, that's for sure.

I love country music so that sounds perfect. Now I know you're super familiar with Dolly Parton, but if you look back through that amazing history of ladies in country music, who else are your bigger influences?

Janelle: You know, I've really been inspired --especially when I was younger-- by people like Shania Twain and Faith Hill and Martina McBride. I was listening to country music in the '90s, and that's when I was developing most into what I wanted to be as an artist; because that's when you're really influenced, when you're a kid. I love Shania Twain because I feel like she's just an all-around entertainer. I went to her concert and I watched her and the way that she interacted with her band is what really impressed me. I love the fact that she had her band entertaining the crowd, too. It wasn't just all about her. She didn't make it where she wanted everyone to look at her; she involved everyone and made it just a great show. I think about those things. Of course, it's about the music for me, but at the end of the day, I want to be an artist who plays arenas and I want to draw a crowd, so I want to put stuff out there visually that people want to see.

Right! And I think you certainly showed that on the show, especially with The Band Perry. You certainly do have a talent for performing.

Janelle: Thank you. That was my favorite part!

Yeah, I read that you loved hanging out with them in Texas and getting to know them. Speaking of The Band Perry and other acts, looking down the line a bit, if you could go on tour with anyone at all, who would you pick?

Janelle: Oh man, it's so hard to choose because there are so many different people and some of my favorites are really not on the road right now. If I could choose, I'd love to go on the road with somebody like Shania Twain or Faith Hill or somebody like that. I [also] love Little Big Town, I just think they're great, and whenever I think about George Strait, I'm like 'wow, wouldn't it be great to go on the road with somebody like him?' Such a legend.

Of course I also think about Dolly Parton and where I came from and how I started portraying her as a child [in a production at the Dollywood theme park]. I've always thought it would be a really cool thing if I went on the road with somebody like her. We probably have a very similar audience, too, I feel. We're both from east Tennessee, we both like to cut up, and we both like to entertain a crowd.

I know that your faith is important to you and that you're always going to be country, but would you ever consider crossing over into a Christian or Gospel genre just to dip your toes in the pool a little bit?

Janelle: Believe it or not, I think that singing about my faith has always been a big deal to me. So I've thought about doing a gospel album just for fun for my fans because it means a lot to me. I haven't put too much thought into really, really crossing over because I'm a country singer. So I think for me, it's not about crossing over into a genre, it's making sure that I do talk about my faith in country music.

Right. You have your Vince Gill and you have your Randy Travis who will cross over into gospel a little bit, and I think you could totally pull off something similar if you wanted to do so.

Janelle: Oh yeah.

That's really what I might look for from you. You know, maybe a song or two, not a full-scale switch-over.

Janelle: Definitely.

I think it would be great if you did a gospel album. I know I'd be interested.

Janelle. Yeah. I grew up performing in Pigeon Force, Tenn. [in the Smoky Mountains] and every year they always gave me the gospel song, the big gospel ballad. Whichever one it was, it was always my song. And it was --from what I was told-- given to me because it was believable. Whenever I sing about my faith, I think that people believe it and they feel it. At least that's what I hope. I'm not trying to say 'oh yeah, people believe me!' I'm just saying that I hope that they do. I've done that at the Grand Ole Opry quite a bit. I've ended with a gospel song quite a few times. I love to leave my audience with something that gives a little hope.

What is your favorite gospel song?

Janelle: Ooh, that's hard. [Long pause] "It Is Well with My Soul."

That's a good one. I like it, too.

Janelle: Especially when The Isaacs sing it.

Okay, I'm going to switch gears a little bit. It seems like along with faith, family is also important to you. What do you think are three words your parents would use to describe you?

Janelle: Oh man! I would say funny; I hope they would think caring; and unselfish slash giving, probably.

Same question for yourself. What are three words you'd use to describe yourself?

Janelle: Weird [laughs]. I'm weird. I am passionate or dramatic, I think passionate. And real. I just try to be real.

If you could craft a perfect day for yourself, what would it entail?

Janelle: If I could be on a very secluded island on a beach with my Bible, my guitar, and everyone I love, that would be the perfect day.

Nice! When I have these conversations with folks, I like to close them out with some random questions.

Name two strange things you keep in your purse.

Janelle: Gosh, what's random that I keep in my purse, dad-gum? Tooth floss and a crochet hook. I crochet, so there's typically a crochet hook in there somewhere.

What's your hidden talent?

Janelle: I like to do impersonations of people. I like to do funny voices, and I like to do impersonations of people like Shakira and Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears.

Oh gosh, you have to do one for me!

Janelle: Right now?!

Yes, right now!

Janelle: Okay, so here's Shakira. [Fires off a completely believable impression of the Colombian singing sensation.]

That was good! Even if you hadn't told me, I would've known that was Shakira. Congratulations, you really do have a good hidden talent.

Janelle: Well thank you. When I'm in a large group of people who know I do it, I usually have to do it to entertain them.

[Laughs]. Well thank you.

Janelle: You're welcome!

Okay. What's the greatest movie ever made?

Janelle: Hmm. Probably, aw man, either "Grease" or "The Notebook."

They're very different films! You can have both of them. What's your favorite breakfast food?

Janelle: It's kind of strange. It's homemade biscuits and chocolate gravy. But it's not really gravy. It's just like this thick chocolate mixture. It's delicious. It's like my favorite thing ever for breakfast.

Okay. So last one. My nine-year old daughter wanted me to ask you if you paint your toenails.

Janelle: Yes.

And she also wanted to know what is the best kind of nail polish and what color.

Janelle: [Laughs] I'm telling you, the best kind of nail polish if you're going to paint your nails on your own --because if you do it on your own sometimes it's hard to make it look as good as the people at the salon do-- it's Revlon Top Speed. For some reason, it looks smooth on your nail. It doesn't take much for it to look really good. And the color I have here is called Candy. It's pink.

Okay, I'll tell her what you said, because she told me she wanted to know the answer.

Janelle: [Laughs]

I was going to stop right there, but I'm looking a picture of you on Twitter and I have to ask one extra question. So for the style mavens out there, your hair always looks amazing. What do you use on it? How do you get it to look amazing all the time?

Janelle: Aw! Gosh, well, number one, it does not look amazing all the time, I promise. I have really good genes apparently because my hair is naturally just really thick and I have some natural wave so that's what helps the curl to stay whenever I curl my hair, but at the same time it's not too wavy to where I can't wear it fully straight. So I'm blessed with that.

But I use a curling wand to curl my hair and, believe it or not, the best hair spray I've ever found is Freeze It. It's so cheap. If you have really heavy hair, it works to hold your curl and style. I use really good deep conditioner and I typically will go to the salon and have them do a conditioning treatment and that helps my hair to stay looking healthy. And I'm sure to get it trimmed frequently.

To keep up with Janelle Arthur, follow her official Twitter account. Her single "What You Asked For" is available for purchase via iTunes.

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