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Jena Irene talks about life during and after 'American Idol'

Jena Irene came in second place in Season 13 of "American Idol." The winner was Caleb Johnson. Unlike many "American Idol" runners-up, Jena actually became a close friend to the person who ended up winning. She has been saying in several interviews that Johnson is her best friend.

Jena Irene
Jena Irene
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Previous second-place finalists on "American Idol" automatically got record deals, but the future is less certain for Irene. In 2013, when Universal Music ("American Idol's" record-label partner) declined to sign Kree Harrison, who came in second place on "American Idol" that year. Only time will tell if Universal Music will also pass on signing Irene or if she will get another record deal. Here is what Irene said in a telephone conference call interview with journalists the day after the "American Idol" Season 13 finale.

What are the musical traditions around Detroit, or influences that just affected you?

Well, to be honest, I actually listen to all different types of music, and Motown is one of my favorites. But I was in a band, starting out, when I was 12 years old, and that played a huge impact on me. I mean, that’s how I got into it. I never played sports when I was a little kid, I always just was into music.

So, I played all around the metro Detroit area with my band, and we played with other bands, and kind of got a different music scene depending on which venue we would play at. But that definitely influenced me, to be in Detroit and to be around all of these amazing local artists, it was fun to kind of see what made them unique, and what made them individual, and it definitely made me want to pursue music.

Were you joking when you said that Caleb Johnson is going to your prom with you?

No. Actually it’s May 28, so me and Caleb are flying in for that.

Are you looking forward to it? Is it going to be fun?

I am. It’s going to be really interesting. It’ll be fun, though, I’m excited.

Why did you decide to take Caleb to your prom?

Well, it actually just started out as a joke a couple months ago, when we were still in Top 8, Top 7, and as we got closer to the finale, I was like, “Wait, I actually don’t have a date, and I’m planning on going.”

He’s like, “Well, we’re going, right?” And he was serious the whole time. And so, I was like, “All right, let’s just go.” And so our schedules were able to kind of accommodate with the date, and I’m really excited.

What’s the theme to the prom?

I have no idea. I’ll have to ask, because I still don’t have a dress, and I’m freaking out.

Some of the most successful contestants on “Idol” didn’t win. Does that give you hope for the future?

Oh, for sure. the fact that I got this far, and I’m so young, and I am a wild card, it gives me hope, just because I am a unique artist, and I’m still trying to figure out who I am, and my music has been evolving for the past three years. I can’t wait to see what happens. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what my album is going to sound like, but that’s the fun part. It’ll be awesome to see how people take it, and I’ve had so much fun.

You won the coin toss, and you decided to perform first in the season finale. Your fans were kind of surprised by that. Why did you decide to go first, instead of last?

To be completely honest with you, for that coin toss, I wasn’t really listening when they were explaining it. I thought it was just for going first for the performance for the Academy members, because we did perform after the top two were announced that night, just for Emmy voters. So I went first for that, and I just thought it was for that, and then later on in the week I figured out I was opening the show for the finale.

But I actually wasn’t upset about it, just because to open the show and to start strong, it really didn’t matter to me. There are two people left, and I don’t think it hurt my chances. I think that people were going to vote who they were going to vote for, regardless of how me and Caleb did throughout the competition. He has his fans, and I have my fans, and I’m so grateful that I got to this point.

Will you be singing any of your original songs on the “American Idol” tour?

I definitely want to ask, because “Unbreakable Me” was definitely a big part of my journey on “Idol,” and they definitely showed that song more than once on the show. So I’m hoping that I can sing it on tour. It’s one of my favorite songs that I have written, and I think a lot of other people like it, too. So hopefully, they’ll let me.

How does it feel knowing that you were the only wild card since Clay Aiken to ever make it to the “American Idol” finale?

It’s an honor. Just being as young as I am, it’s crazy, and finishing my high school senior year doing this, and still having to go to school and stuff, just reminding myself that I am a kid, it’s a lot all at once. But I took it a day at a time, and to come that far, it just feels so amazing.

And what was running through your mind when you performed with your idol Hayley Williams of Paramore?

Oh, my gosh, I was freaking out the whole time. It was such an honor to share the stage with her, she is such an inspiration to me. I’ve been listening to that band since I was 12 years old, so to share the stage, it was definitely a dream come true.

Was there a moment on the show where you were able to just pause for a second and take it all in? And if there was, what was that moment?

I think after I made Top 5, that’s when it all started to sink in, that this was the real deal. Throughout the whole competition it was awesome, but Top 5 was really when the works begun, throughout the whole competition. That was when it was getting close to the wire, and I was competing with such amazing artists, and we were all so different at the time, it could’ve gone either way.

So I just remember laying in bed one night, just thinking, “How am I here?” Like, I just remember sitting in a stadium full of people, and there’s five people left, and I was just so excited, and no matter what the outcome was, I was just really proud that I got to that point.

So, what was the bigger thrill for you, performing your original song on stage, or being on stage with Paramore?

Probably being onstage with Paramore. I loved performing my original music on the show, but sharing the stage with Paramore was something that I have literally dreamed about my whole life, and to even rehearse with them and talk to Hayley she’s just such a down-to-earth person. So it was just such a dream come true.

You had mentioned your original songs. How many songs have you written, and do you have enough for a full album already?

I do have enough for the full album, but I don’t know if all of them are going to make it onto an album. Throughout my whole life I’ve probably written 75 songs — and they’re not all good, don’t get me wrong — but I’m excited, even if one or two of them gets on the album, that’s all I’m hoping for. And if I get input in the other songs on my album, that’s amazing, too. Since I am still evolving as an artist, and I’m so young still, I have a lot to learn, and a long ways to go. So, if I can just get a couple songs on my first album, I’d be extremely happy.

Many people are calling your performance of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” the best performance of the season, not just by you, but by anyone this year. Why did you choose that song initially, and did you have an idea that it would be so well -received?

Well, I had been playing that song for two years, even before, and I remember playing it for the first time in my basement to my mom, and she cried for the first time in a while. I think that’s how I knew it was powerful, but I didn’t know if it was just because she was my mom. So when I heard that the theme was love songs, that song was on the list, so, I’m like, “You know what? Why don’t I just do it?” The band actually wanted to play it with me, and I actually said, “No, I just want to do it on piano.” So it was definitely a risk, but I’m glad it was taken positively.

You’re so young, but you already have such a clear style in your performance. How did you develop that?

I don’t know. The thing is, me watching all of my inspirations on YouTube, and seeing them in concert and stuff, I kind of took snippets from each person that inspires me and put them all together, and still made it me, just because the tone of my voice is definitely very different and unique. That came naturally, and I kind of just stuck with it. Some people like it, and some people don’t, but for now I’m just glad that it sounds different, and it’s a voice that people know. It’s been a process, but I’m still developing.

When you were performing with Paramore, you had very good chemistry, because you moved very similarly. Did you develop your kind of movement style onstage by watching artists that you like, as well?

Yes, I have. It’s hard to come up with your own signature stuff when you’re on stage, but I think throughout time and doing shows and just doing what comes natural, it’s going to be so much easier. That’s why I’m really looking forward to tour, because we’re going to be doing shows every day, and I can kind of learn what works and what doesn’t.

You’re probably thinking about after the tour, and I know you’ve mentioned Western Michigan as possible college. Why did you pick Western Michigan? They have a great musical program, right?

Yes, they’ve got an amazing music program, and I was actually planning on going there before all of “American Idol” happened. Since I made it this far, and I do want to pursue music, hopefully, if I’m successful enough, continue to tour, and hopefully open for big names. But I do want to continue to take online classes with Western because they’re so supportive, and I’m so grateful for that.

Have you had some interesting opportunity turn up that you’re also exploring?

No, I actually haven’t, just because I’ve been doing press for the last 10 hours. But I’m sure after everything starts winding down, I’ll probably get some offers, and I’m extremely happy. I want to work with as many people as I can.

During your hometown visit you were able to surprise your singing coach Dr. Jaffers with tickets to the finale, and then last night, to give her a car. How cool was that? And did you get to talk with her after the show?

I didn’t actually get to see her after the show, which I’m really sad about, and I miss her so much. But it was so cool that she even could come, and she deserves everything in the world. She’s been such an inspiration to me, and she challenged me and pushed me to pursue music, and for that I give her the world, because I’m having such a blast, and I’m glad she’s having a blast, too.

The Ford Mustangs that they showed you guys running to in the clip, is that actually the one you’re going to keep, the silver one? And have you had a chance to drive it yet?

I haven’t had a chance to drive it, and they’re actually going to get me a new one, because I can’t drive stick [shift]. But, yes, I think it’s going to be shipped to Detroit where I live, and I’m extremely excited to drive it. I saw the Ford people driving it, and I was just so excited, just to sit in it. It’s such a beautiful car.

So, you’ll get a silver one then, right?

Right, yes. I love it.

You said that you wrote your first song after a breakup. How does writing help you deal with heartache?

Since I’m only 17, I really haven’t had that much experience with heartache. But my parents are divorced, and that was a hard time in my life, and getting through that. Rather than going to therapy and coping with it, my coping was writing. And I actually wrote some pretty good songs out of it.

I think it was kind of a blessing in disguise, even though there is heartache and there are separations and bad time and low points in your life, you can write some really amazing stuff about it, and get really inspired. And with that, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write a song in months because I’ve been so focused on the competition, but I can’t wait to write a song about this experience. It’s going to be so epic.

And people expect there to be drama between competitors, but you and Caleb actually became super-close. How did being so close with your competitor affect your experience on the show?

It was a positive effect, I think. Even talking to some people on the production team that have been doing this for the past 12 years, they haven’t seen as good of a connection as me and Caleb have, and for that I’m so grateful, just because the stress was definitely taken down a couple notches. Even though this week was busy and very stressful, the fact that I was performing with — I would call him my best friend — you don’t get to experience something like this with everyone in the world. It’s definitely a blessing that I got to share the stage with him.

Can you talk about your transformation as an artist from when you walked the red carpet as a Top 13 “American Idol” contestant to a Top 2 “American Idol” contestant?

When I made top 13, I was very unsure of myself, and my confidence level wasn’t that high, just because I was a wildcard, and I was freaking out just because America didn’t vote me in. But I think that kind of lit a fire under my butt, because I was really determined to show America that I do belong in the competition, I do belong in the business.

With that being said, my confidence level did boost, and I really took in consideration every advice point that was given to me — whether it be the judges, or people behind stage, or behind the scenes with my staging coach and vocal coaches and whatnot, and I just took everything in to the best of my ability. I think it did me well. I had such a blast on the show, and I’m glad I made it that far.

How did you deal with the stress of your “American Idol” experience?

It was stressful, especially because I had to go through school, and maintaining a good GPA is something my parents definitely want from me, and I’ve grown to think that as well. School always comes first. But since I did maintain really good grades and stuff, and my teachers were very lenient towards me, because they knew how stressful it was.

It was easy having my mom there. Having a family member there is such a different experience than when you’re alone. And having my mom give me positive reinforcement all the time, it was so awesome. It was stressful, but the whole process is stressful and this whole career that I’m going into is going to be stressful, so it’s good practice.

What are going to take from this “American Idol” experience that’s going to last you a lifetime?

I think the best advice that I’ve gotten throughout this whole experience is that it’s OK to be yourself. Caleb has taught me that, the judges have taught me that, production, everything. If you’re yourself, you’re just going to have so much more fun.

With that being said, you’re just going to write so much better music, and just have a better time onstage, and it’s just going to come across way more natural. Don’t ever be intimidated by anyone in the business, because you’re equally as talented, or you can do great things. We’re all a team in the business, and that’s, I think, what I’ve taken away.

And how have you changed since the kid you were when you went on a wing and a prayer into your “American Idol” audition in Detroit?

I’ve taken it a lot more seriously, and my maturity level has definitely been raised. Working around all of these people that are so much older than me, you have to kind of live up to them, and take it seriously, because they’re not going to invest in you if you’re not taking it seriously. So with that being said, I’m extremely excited to see what happens next.

When you auditioned for “American Idol,” did you ever imagine that this would be your senior year of high school?

No. I remember dreaming about me being in high school and having to go away to L.A. because I was living my dream, and it actually came true. It was such an awesome process, and as stressful as it was, I’m glad it happened now instead of later.

It was the perfect time, to be honest with you, and all the support from all of my friends. I’m actually really surprised at how much people have been supportive, and all of the love that I’ve gotten. It’s just been such an awesome time.

Do you think you’re going to be able to make it home to attend your high school graduation?

Yes, I actually am walking with the rest of my class on June 8 [in 2014], and then I’ll have to leave two days later to start tour rehearsals.

Have you ever seen the “American Idol” summer tour in person?

I actually haven’t, to be honest, and I’m excited to see how it all goes down. I know we each get to sing a couple songs, and there’s group numbers. It’s going to be awesome, and I think my sister’s actually going to get to come on tour until I turn 18, so that’s going to be a blast.

About midway through the competition you dropped your last name. Why did you do that, and are you glad you did?

To be honest, production started calling me by Jena Irene on accident, and I kept correcting them, and saying it’s actually Asciutto. But it kind of just stuck, and they kept saying Irene. And Irene, I was named after my grandma that actually passed away, even before I was born, so I never got to meet her, but everyone says that she was the coolest lady known to man. So I kept it, and I think she’s definitely looking down on me right now. I hope she’s proud, because I definitely owe it to my family for supporting me.

Could tell us just something you learned about yourself through this “American Idol” experience?

but I think how much I’ve grown throughout this whole thing. It doesn’t really matter how old you are in this business, if you can take it and if you can be professional, and if you can still have a good time, then I think anyone can be successful. I’m glad that American Idol’s taught me that, to be a well-rounded person — not just with performance, but with press, with talking to you guys.

I was not the best interviewer, or person to be interviewed, because I had no idea what to say. So that, along with a couple different things, “American Idol” has definitely made me a well-rounded person, and I thank them for that. I’ve learned a lot of things.

For more info: "American Idol" website

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