"I have a lot of stuff coming up," Alexis Grace says.
She's not kidding. This month, Grace will release Kiddo, her first EP of original music since her run at American Idol in 2009, when she was the 11th finalist in the competitive-singing television juggernaut. If she seems like she has been fired from a cannon, it would make sense. In the past year, she got married and made the switch from mass-market entertainment phenomenon to the hectic world of an indie music artist. Grace was set on this trajectory since birth.
"I've been singing since I came out of my mother's womb," Grace says. "I've been loud ever since. It all really started when I was in elementary school. I went to a private Christian school, so I wasn't doing Guys & Dolls and stuff. There were the Christian musicals, which were hilarious. I don't even know who writes them. But I got into them anyway, because they had music and you could sing. That's what I wanted to do. That got the bug in me. I told my mom I wanted to go to Overton because I knew it was the music school. When I did that, it was one of the best choices ever. Seriously."
Grace credits her time at Overton High School's Creative and Performing Arts program for her ability to succeed in music.
"I had an amazing teacher," Grace says. "He was smart in so many ways. He taught us theory and the fundamentals of music in a smart way. Even if you aren't a good singer, it's very good knowledge to have. He was very encouraging and realistic. You should take this seriously and do it well. Don't half do it. If you're passionate about it, don't fake it. It definitely inspired me. I was like, 'Well, hell yeah, this is what I've been wanting to do for years."
Then Grace set her sights on the University of Memphis. The birth of a daughter at that time found her back in the fold of her family, especially her father, Randy Middleton, a bassist who had played for Ann Peebles, among others. The logical thing to do was keep playing music.
"[I'm] a total Memphis girl," Grace says. "I was always surrounded by music in my family. My father was a professional musician. He never stopped me from doing what I want to do. You'd think a musician would be like, 'Don't go into music. It's a terrible thing to go into.' He told me it was, but he was like, 'You can still do it.' It was such a great experience. First you get to hang out with your dad and talk about music. You get to hear all of the crazy hippie stories from days of old. But it was my first time being in a band: practicing, rehearsing, playing in clubs.
Grace credits her Aunt Lala for the idea that set her on her road to notoriety.
"It really wasn't my decision either. It was my aunt's decision. She called me up and said, 'They are auditioning.'"
What came next was the adventure of a lifetime. American Idol winners have met a range of fates. Some, like Kelly Clarkson, have turned the opportunity into stardom. Others, like Taylor Hicks, have found themselves in contractual limbo after they did not see eye-to-eye with the show's producers and entertainment-industry attorneys.
"If you make it into the top 10, you have a different deal," says Grace, who finished 11th in the shows eighth season. "But I was 11. If you win, you better be a megastar, because it's going to be hard for you to be marketed as a Top-40 act. That's what they want. They're not there to market indie artists. So, once I got off the show, the only thing I had to worry about was the exclusivity thing until the show ended, which would have been in May. I couldn't really do a lot until the show ended. I was a free agent."
But Grace will always marvel at the home-town response to her success.
"It was so amazing, Grace says. "That's just how Memphis is. You see it with everything that happens here. It's a small town, but it's a city too. When we get something like that, like with the Grizzlies, people get so crazy, and they connect. Memphis loves to have a reason to connect with one another. They do it so well, when they have a reason. It is wild. I don't know how big it was. To me it was a big deal because people in your town are talking about you ... like the news stations, because that had never happened before."
Grace spent time touring, which is where she met her husband, Thomas Bergstig, of the Swedish band Jeerk. They met at a show in Branson and were married in March of last year. Bergstig and bandmate Nikke Karlsson produced Kiddo, Grace's new five-song EP. They recorded tracks in Memphis and in Gothenburg, Sweden. In Memphis, Heather Trussell played violin.
The new songs occupy an interesting space. There are commercial aspects to the sound, and the arrangements do all of the smart stuff: stop-times, instruments entering and exiting, crescendo. However slickly produced the songs may be, this record manages to avoid the cliché that haunts our state's capital. You are not alone if you assumed this record would reflect the overproduced groupthink of a contemporary Nashville record. It does not. It's interesting to think of Sweden and Branson, Missouri, in the same thought. But Kiddo combines the tightness of serious, contemporary musical professionalism with the more traditionally aesthetic sounds of European instrumental music. "Will You Miss Me" opens with an ethereal set of harmonies that materialize like an aurora borealis before a taut acoustic band introduces an earthy dimension. Grace wrote the song for her father, who passed away last summer.
"I wasn't intending on writing this song for the EP at all," Grace says. "It just kind of happened. I just felt like it was so appropriate. Knowing that we had such a musical past. He was such a cool person, too. I felt like he had such a cool life. That definitely inspired me, and it's one of my favorite songs on the album. I wrote it with my dad inspiring me, but really it's a song a lot of people could relate to. Not to be deep or anything, but it's more about how are you going to make your mark on the world after you're gone."
The video for her first single, "I'm So Done," will debut on January 12th. On January 17th, Grace will perform at Playhouse on the Square. Her band includes drummer James Sexton and Playhouse actresses Claire D. Kolheim and Carla McDonald singing background vocals. Kiddo will be available on iTunes and Spotify on January 20th.
After a rollercoaster 2014, Grace looks back on a year for the books and on the challenges of the year ahead.
"It's been a lot of work, but I'm really excited," Grace says. "It's obvious that this is what we should be doing."